Awash in tributes to the memory of Jason Leffler and to all the dads for Father’s Day, here is what was surprising and not surprising in the Quicken Loans 400 at Michigan International Speedway.
Surprising: For the first time since June of 2005 at Sonoma, every Hendrick Motorsports car finished outside the top 25.
Five-time champ Jimmie Johnson finished 28th after hitting the wall in the remaining laps of the race, while Dale Earnhardt, Jr. blew an engine to finish 37th. The next HMS driver to finish was Kasey Kahne in the 38th position after blowing a tire and hitting the wall, followed by Jeff Gordon, who was caught up in an early wreck with Bobby Labonte to finish 39th.
Four-time champion Jeff Gordon, who himself experienced his second DNF in a row at MIS, summed up the disappointing finishes of all of Hendrick Motorsports teams best.
“It’s testing my frustration level,” Gordon said. “I don’t want to see the team get down.”
“I have a lot of fight and so does the team,” Gordon continued. “I’m looking forward to going to Sonoma.”
Not Surprising: Since it was Michigan, a track that has been known as a Ford playground and where Roush Fenway Racing has such deep roots, it was no surprise that the race winner was Greg Biffle, the driver of the No. 16 3M/Give Kids a Smile Ford.
It was also not surprising that Biffle scored the 1,000th win for the Ford Motor Company as well as giving the Ford Motor Company a happy 110th birthday. And for the Biff, he was also able to celebrate his very first win of the 2013 season.
But what was not surprising in the least was the emotion of the driver in Victory Lane as he held his daughter Emma tight, celebrated Father’s Day, and honored the memory of a fellow competitor who was lost too soon, leaving his beloved five year old son behind.
“It is Emma’s first victory lane on Father’s Day,” Biffle said as the confetti rained down upon them. “I am thinking about my dad that couldn’t be here who is hopefully watching.”
“We are also thinking about little Charlie Leffler that doesn’t have a father today.”
Surprising: In spite of an engine failure on Lap 132 and the resulting poor finish, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. was surprisingly upbeat when all was said and done. In fact, he actually took on the role of team leader and chief cheerleader, especially when it came to the performance of his car.
“We just had something come apart in the motor,” the driver of the No. 88 National Guard/Man of Steel Chevrolet said. “Really happy though with the engine.”
“Happy with the way the car performed,” Junior continued. “We had an awesome car.”
“We had a first or second place car there.”
Not Surprising: He may not have closed the deal, but Kevin Harvick was indeed happy with his second place finish in his No. 29 Budweiser Chevrolet. And he even managed that great finish in spite of having an ill-handling car to start off with and a vibration at the end of the race.
“I didn’t wake up thinking that we were going to even run in the top ten,” Harvick said. “I was pretty nervous about our car.”
“But everybody on this whole Budweiser team did a great job,” Harvick continued. “We just kept our head in there and kept digging.”
This was Harvick’s fifth top-10 in a row and his fifth top-five finish of the season. His good run also moved him up one spot in the point standings to the fourth position.
Surprising: The rest of Richard Childress Racing had a surprisingly good day at the race track, with all of their other drivers in the top 15 at Michigan International Speedway. Jeff Burton finished 10th, Austin Dillon finished 11th and Paul Menard finished 14th for team RCR.
“The No. 31 Caterpillar team fought hard all day to bring home another solid finish,” Burton said. “We continue to make progress with our mile-and-a –half and two-mile track programs.”
“Overall it was a good points day,” Burton said, moving four spots up to 17th in the standings.
Not Surprising: Smoke, who has been on fire as of late, continued to rip off good finishes now that the summer has arrived. In spite of a crash on Friday, the driver of the No. 14 Bass Pro Shops/Mobil 1 Chevrolet finished top-five and moved up into the top ten in the point standings.
“We had some breaks go our way,” Stewart said. “I’m proud of these guys.”
“We weren’t very good all weekend so this team had to work hard to get us where we were today.”
Surprising: After all the talk of engine woes and failures and the ratcheting up and down of horsepower, Toyota had a surprisingly good day, scoring a third place finish with Martin Truex, Jr., a fourth place with Kyle Busch, a sixth place with Matt Kenseth and a seventh place finish with Clint Bowyer.
“The power in the engine was definitely better than last week,” Truex, Jr., driver of the No. 56 NAPA Auto Parts Toyota said. “They’re working on that.”
“We were very competitive horsepower-wise and all that was good.”
“That was a crazy day,” Bowyer, driver of the No. 15 5-Hour Energy Toyota said. “We got off to a rough start but we worked on it all day long and made the absolute best of the situation.”
“Not the way we would have drawn it up, but I’ll take it.”
Not Surprising: There was indeed some drama between teammates, from a restart issue with Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt, Jr., as well as a disagreement about trash between Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards.
“Yeah, he spun his tires and almost ran into the side of me trying to control his car,” Johnson said of teammate Junior on a restart. “I wasn’t going to get burned on that again so I jumped off the gas and got drilled from behind.”
“There is a game to be played there and you can cause a heck of a pile up if you are trying to give it back.”
Biffle and Edwards, on the other hand, had a major disagreement about of all things trash on the grille.
“It’s his job to help me,” Edwards said of Biffle, who he felt should have backed up to help him dislodge trash that was causing significant overheating.
“I didn’t know when I passed him he had something on his grille or I’d let him get it off then,” Biffle said. “But when I looked up and he was 25 car lengths back, I said ‘I can’t help him, not right now.’ This is my chance to win today.”
“I didn’t feel like I could take that risk.”
Surprising: After starting 37th, Danica Patrick scored her first top-15 finish in a Cup Series race at the big track in the rolling hills of Michigan.
“At the end of the race, the last run was the best run I felt,” the driver of the No. 10 GoDaddy Chevrolet said. “It’s so nice to get a decent finish for the team.”
“This will hopefully get everyone’s head up a little bit and we will go on,” Patrick said. “I think we have been strong lately.”
“We just needed to have days like today where we finished it off.”
Not Surprising: Bobby Labonte, booted temporarily from his No. 47 Charter Toyota for JTG Daugherty Racing, struggled even after picking up a new ride in the No. 51 Phoenix Construction Services Chevrolet for James Finch and Phoenix Racing.
Although Labonte was able to keep his consecutive race streak alive at 702, unfortunately his race results were not what he wanted or needed as he wrecked out early, finishing dead last.
AJ Allmendinger, who JTG Daugherty had hired to shake down Labonte’s ride, did a little better in that car, scoring a top-20 finish.
Allmendinger could drive a few more times for JTG, while Labonte is scheduled to return for the remainder of the schedule. Labonte’s best finish so far in the No. 47 car has been 15th in the Daytona 500.
Surprising: Kasey Kahne showed off a surprisingly new talent, that of firefighting. The driver of the No. 5 Farmer’s Insurance Chevrolet was leading the race when the car took off, hit the wall and burst into flames.
“Something broke,” Kahne said. “I would say it was a tire that went down but I don’t know for sure.”
“I was just going into the corner and then it went ‘boom’ and turned right straight into the wall.”
Kahne’s car burst into flames and he was able to exit quickly. He then, however, reached back into the car and initiated the fire extinguishing equipment, putting out the fire well before any of the safety professionals arrived at the scene.
Kahne later tweeted, “First time I have ever pulled the fire extinguisher. That was cool.”
Not Surprising: As with every driver, team and owner, hearts were heavy for the loss of Jason Leffler, who died in a sprint car from blunt neck trauma at a dirt track in New Jersey. Team owner Jack Roush put it best with his hope that Leffler would live on through new and improved safety at those local race tracks.
“Every time somebody gets hurt in racing, we need to look behind it and see what we can learn about the tragedy and see what we can do to establish some safety thing that would make it survivable for somebody else in the future,” Roush said. “If there was something to be learned from this, Jason will have an impact, as Dale Earnhardt’s death did, on the generation of drivers that follow him.”