SMOKE SIGNALS — No, three-time and defending NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart didn’t win Sunday’s Quicken Loans 400 at Michigan International Speedway. But after struggling mightily with a substitute tire that was mandated by NASCAR on Saturday, Stewart, crew chief Steve Addington and the rest of the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing team rallied strongly. The end result was a second-place finish behind Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Stewart’s third finish of third or better in the last five races.
“You know, we did the Bristol test on Tuesday and Wednesday, so we have been in a track 11 out of 12 days in a row,” said Stewart. “So I've got a bunch of tired crew guys and a tired crew chief and I'm a tired driver but I'm really proud of the effort they put forth in the last week and a half. They did an awesome job at Pocono (last week, where Stewart finished third). We had a fast car all week until the Happy Hour session last night, and you know, we just couldn't get a hold of the racetrack.”
Still, it was a good day for Stewart, thanks to the sweat his team put into correcting the chassis setup on his car.
“I'm really proud of Steve Addington and our engineers,” Stewart said. “They did a great job overnight and we started the day pretty much toward the front and never really lost that track position all day. We had a pretty good car that we could pass with. It was hard to pass, but it wasn't impossible. But like I say, I was really, really proud of our guys.”
DECENT DAY FOR POINTS LEADER — Like the other 42 drivers in the Quicken Loans 400 at Michigan International Speedway, Matt Kenseth and his No. 17 Roush Fenway Racing team had to adjust on the fly when NASCAR changed race tires Saturday afternoon due to fears of excess tire wear and blistering.
All things considered, Kenseth and crew made the best of it, racing to a third-place finish behind Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Tony Stewart. That allowed Kenseth to leave Michigan with the NASCAR Sprint Cup points lead, 4 points ahead of Earnhardt and 13 up on Kenseth’s teammate, Greg Biffle, who finished fourth.
“It was an up-and-down day for us,” said Kenseth. “We were fortunate to qualify good and the first couple restarts were not great but finally got our way to the front and had a good fuel-only stop ... and led a few laps,” said Kenseth. “ Got behind in the pits ... but we got the car pretty good at the end and we were able to make a pretty good charge and salvage a pretty good day out of it.”
FEDEX IN FLAMES — The scariest moment of the day belonged to Denny Hamlin, who made contact with Ryan Newman in Turn 4 on Lap 133. As Hamlin pulled down pit road in his No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, it suddenly burst into flames. Hamlin made it to his pit stall and beat a hasty retreat, aided by crewmen from Kyle Busch and Ryan Newman, who helped him out of his car.
Asked afterwards if he was OK, Hamlin said, “Yeah, definitely. There's a lot of good safety stuff, and I've got to thank all of the crew guys that hauled ass over there and got me out. It was just a tough day.”
Officially, Hamlin finished 34th, two spots behind teammate Kyle Busch, who had engine problems for the third week in a row, and one spot ahead of the third JGR driver Joey Logano, who had wrecked right before Hamlin did.
“I've never actually been in that position before,” said Hamlin. “I'd seen it with other guys, but I've never known what it's actually like but it gets hot. I thought for a second there I was okay. It was just in the back and then something exploded in the front and it caught on fire. Thankfully we got everything that we have safety-wise. I messed up the 16's (Greg Biffle) pit box. Just one of those days. I'll be glad to get out of Michigan.”
Tom Jensen is the Editor in Chief of SPEED.com, Senior NASCAR Editor at RACER and a contributing Editor for TruckSeries.com. You can follow him online at twitter.com/tomjensen100.