NASCAR – 3M Performance 400, Michigan International Speedway – August 17

This week’s race was all about who – if anyone – could take the race to Carl Edwards and possibly stop him from winning? Despite only qualifying 27th, there was an inevitability that he would be the one to win, with his Nationwide Cup victory here last night confirming that he still had the feel for the track that had also made him the Sprint Cup winner here in Michigan in June 2007.

It was Brian Vickers and Jimmie Johnson who led the field away at the green, but Johnson was the first credited leader after getting a push down the straight from Dale Earnhardt Jr., and indeed it was Junior who took the lead for himself on lap 8. Behind them, Kyle Busch was an early mover (up from 11th to 7th by lap 5) as well as – inevitably – Edwards, up to 19th by lap 10. But the word of the day from all sides was “loose”: instead of the track tightening up on them as it usually did, today it started loose and stayed that way.

The first yellow came out on lap 19 when Marcus Ambrose – star of last week at Watkins Glen – went up in smoke. The large puddle the car left in the pits as it was pushed away to its final resting place in the garage spoke volumes.

After the pit stops, Johnson was back in the lead at the restart but Earnhardt soon took back the lead, with Busch also creeping into second and looking ominous. But all eyes were on the leader, as Dale reported dramatically rising temperatures from debris lodged in the front diffuser. The tense moments for Dale continued until Brian Vickers showed up and took the lead – allowing Earnhardt to slip stream behind him and use the vortex to help dislodge the troublesome debris.

Crisis averted for Dale, then – until after the second pit stops of the day, this time under green. Within a few laps of his stop, Dale was on the radio to report problems with handling on his new tyres. Unwilling to go a lap down to change tyres, he ended up haemorrhaging places instead. And guess who that left the lead to? Carl Edwards had arrived!

The second yellow came out on lap 85, when Paul Menard tapped Ryan Newman (who had started form the back of the grid as a penalty for an engine change) who in turn was spun into Dave Blaney. Blaney’s car was flipped around and would have rolled if it hadn’t already been pinned against the wall at that point; but the damage was substantial and Blaney was the first retirement of the day.

Jimmie Johnson had been one of the early pretenders to keep Edwards off the win, but that chance came to an end on lap 91 when Johnson started belching smoke from fender damage sustained in a three-wide contact with Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon. Six laps later and it was Gordon’s turn: his front tyre blew (quite possibly from that same three-wide) and he hit the wall hard, bringing out the third yellow and putting him in the garage for a lengthy stay.

At halfway point, then, Edwards was looking mighty comfortable in the lead ahead of Greg Biffle, Kyle Busch, Brian Vickers and David Ragan. The next round of pit stops occurred around lap 139 under green, and when they were done it was Busch who emerged in the lead for the first time all day – but with Edwards right behind.

Jeff Gordon rejoined from his pit stay as the leaders reached lap 164, but it was not an auspicious return: bits fell off his car, requiring a yellow for debris on the track, and Gordon soon decided to call it quits for the day.

In the ensuing pit stops, Brian Vickers put his pole grid position to good use to grab the lead, but Kyle quickly grabbed it right back, while behind him his brother Kurt spun around and onto the grass coming off turn 4. Fortunately no yellow was required as Kurt took immediately to the pits.

Everyone had enough fuel now to go to the end, but Kyle was reporting that his latest set of tyres were handling very badly and he was struggling to hold off Edwards. He would dearly love the opportunity to replace the tyres, and that chance came when a yellow flew on lap 179 for debris. The question was, could Kyle risk coming in? What if everyone else stayed out – was there enough time to battle back up the running order if he gave up the lead?

No, it had to be done: Kyle was in for tyres. And to his great relief, so did almost everyone else. The one exception was David Ragan, who inherited the lead as a result, but the team subsequently admitted that this was a mistake and he had been meant to pit as well. But the hand was dealt and they would just have to play it as it stood.

At the restart, Edwards put his fresh rubber to good use and quickly dispatched Ragan; but behind them, Dale Earnhardt Jr drifted wide and hit the wall at an awkward spot where safety barrier met concrete wall, the transition causing a lot of damage. He headed for pit road and a couple of laps later the yellow flew once more, again for debris, quite possibly from Earnhardt’s car.

The green flew with ten laps to go. Edwards led Ragan, Busch, Biffle and Vickers – the usual suspects, all ready to try and stop Edwards. Were any of them up to it? It didn’t look like it, and the pack’s chance to take the fight to Edwards was further handicapped by yet another yellow – the seventh of the night – on lap 194 as Denny Hamlin’s engine let go in a big way. The restart took place with just three laps to run, and no one was able to match Edwards this time. He took the chequered flag, with Kyle almost a full second back, followed by Ragan, Biffle and Matt Kenseth.

Jimmie Johnson finished the race with an unusual approach to the finish, spinning onto the infield grass after contact with Travis Kvapil and losing a bunch of places as a result.

But all eyes were on Edwards as he performed his trademark backwards somersault off his car to celebrate a Michigan clean sweep. It consolidates his second place in the NASCAR points standings and means he is the biggest threat to Kyle Busch as we get close to the start of the chase.

Final positions:

Pos St  Car Driver          Make        Pts/Bon Lap Status
1   27  99  Carl Edwards    Ford        195/10  200 Running
2   11  18  Kyle Busch      Toyota      175/5   200 Running
3   16  6   David Ragan     Ford        170/5   200 Running
4   9   16  Greg Biffle     Ford        165/5   200 Running
5   14  17  Matt Kenseth    Ford        155/0   200 Running
6   15  8   Mark Martin     Chevrolet   150/0   200 Running
7   1   83  Brian Vickers   Toyota      151/5   200 Running
8   38  29  Kevin Harvick   Chevrolet   142/0   200 Running
9   3   19  Elliott Sadler  Dodge       138/0   200 Running
10  18  26  Jamie McMurray  Ford        134/0   200 Running
11  28  31  Jeff Burton     Chevrolet   135/5   200 Running
12  21  20  Tony Stewart    Toyota      127/0   200 Running
13  26  28  Travis Kvapil   Ford        124/0   200 Running
14  7   44  David Reutimann Toyota      121/0   200 Running
15  10  66  Scott Riggs     Chevrolet   123/5   200 Running
16  25  1   Martin Truex Jr Chevrolet   115/0   200 Running
17  2   48  Jimmie Johnson  Chevrolet   117/5   200 Running
18  29  5   Casey Mears     Chevrolet   109/0   199 Running
19  42  55  Michael Waltrip Toyota      106/0   199 Running
20  41  07  Clint Bowyer    Chevrolet   103/0   199 Running
21  20  12  Ryan Newman     Dodge       100/0   199 Running
22  23  77  Sam Hornish Jr. Dodge       97/0    199 Running
23  4   88  D Earnhardt Jr. Chevrolet   99/5    199 Running
24  36  15  Paul Menard     Chevrolet   91/0    199 Running
25  19  42  Juan Montoya    Dodge       88/0    199 Running
26  40  38  David Gilliland Ford        85/0    199 Running
27  35  43  Bobby Labonte   Dodge       82/0    199 Running
28  33  84  AJ Allmendinger Toyota      79/0    199 Running
29  8   01  Regan Smith     Chevrolet   76/0    199 Running
30  6   10  P Carpentier    Dodge       73/0    199 Running
31  30  70  Tony Raines     Chevrolet   70/0    199 Running
32  17  45  Terry Labonte   Dodge       67/0    198 Running
33  31  41  Reed Sorenson   Dodge       64/0    198 Running
34  34  78  Joe Nemechek    Chevrolet   61/0    198 Running
35  22  00  Mike Skinner    Toyota      58/0    198 Running
36  13  2   Kurt Busch      Dodge       55/0    197 Running
37  12  7   Robby Gordon    Dodge       52/0    197 Running
38  43  96  Brad Coleman    Toyota      49/0    197 Running
39  37  11  Denny Hamlin    Toyota      46/0    194 Engine
40  32  9   Kasey Kahne     Dodge       43/0    162 Engine
41  24  22  Dave Blaney     Toyota      40/0    117 Accident
42  5   24  Jeff Gordon     Chevrolet   37/0    111 Accident
43  39  21  Marcos Ambrose  Ford        34/0    17  Engine

Now just three races left to the chase, and here’s how it stands:

Pos Cng Car Driver              Make        Points  Gap
1   --  #18 Kyle Busch          Toyota      3429         
2   --  #99 Carl Edwards        Ford        3207    -222
3   --  #48 Jimmie Johnson      Chevrolet   3127    -302
4   --  #88 Dale Earnhardt Jr.  Chevrolet   3084    -345
5   --  #31 Jeff Burton         Chevrolet   3080    -349
6   +1  #20 Tony Stewart        Toyota      2871    -558
7   +3  #16 Greg Biffle         Ford        2854    -575
8   +3  #29 Kevin Harvick       Chevrolet   2812    -617
9   -3  #24 Jeff Gordon         Chevrolet   2791    -638
10  +2  #17 Matt Kenseth        Ford        2783    -646
11  -3  #9  Kasey Kahne         Dodge       2756    -673
12  -3  #11 Denny Hamlin        Toyota      2735    -694
13  --  #07 Clint Bowyer        Chevrolet   2709    -720
14  --  #6  David Ragan         Ford        2709    -720
15  +2  #83 Brian Vickers       Toyota      2569    -860
16  --  #1  Martin Truex Jr.    Chevrolet   2534    -895
17  -2  #12 Ryan Newman         Dodge       2524    -905
18  +1  #26 Jamie McMurray      Ford        2365    -1064
19  -1  #2  Kurt Busch          Dodge       2324    -1105
20  --  #19 Elliott Sadler      Dodge       2297    -1132
21  +1  #42 Juan Montoya        Dodge       2205    -1224
22  -1  #43 Bobby Labonte       Dodge       2203    -1226
23  --  #28 Travis Kvapil       Ford        2195    -1234
24  --  #5  Casey Mears         Chevrolet   2179    -1250
25  +1  #8  Mark Martin         Chevrolet   2115    -1314
26  -1  #38 David Gilliland     Ford        2064    -1365
27  --  #44 David Reutimann     Toyota      2048    -1381
28  --  #15 Paul Menard         Chevrolet   1974    -1455
29  --  #7  Robby Gordon        Dodge       1822    -1607
30  --  #41 Reed Sorenson       Dodge       1800    -1629
31  +1  #55 Michael Waltrip     Toyota      1788    -1641
32  -1  #22 Dave Blaney         Toyota      1776    -1653
33  --  #77 Sam Hornish Jr.     Dodge       1771    -1658
34  +1  #66 Scott Riggs         Chevrolet   1672    -1757
35  -1  #01 Regan Smith         Chevrolet   1660    -1769
36  --  #10 Patrick Carpentier  Dodge       1406    -2023
37  --  #78 Joe Nemechek        Chevrolet   1333    -2096
38  +1  #84 A.J. Allmendinger   Toyota      1305    -2124
39  -1  #96 J.J. Yeley          Toyota      1263    -2166
40  --  #00 Michael McDowell    Toyota      1200    -2229
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