Very late in Sunday’s Pure Michigan 400, it seemed that Jimmie Johnson was on the road to gold.
He held a relatively comfortable lead in the closing laps of the season’s second race at Michigan International Speedway, and it appeared that there wasn’t enough time left in the event for serious challenges from Greg Biffle or Brad Keselowski or any other drivers in the front group.
The win would be Johnson’s fourth of the season, giving him more than any other driver, earning him a probable seat atop the standings for the start of the Chase and launching him toward a possible sixth national championship.
Then came the telltale puff of smoke from Johnson’s Chevrolet. And everything went up in it.
Johnson’s engine gave up with five laps to go, and he suddenly turned from Cinderella into the pumpkin. He finished 27th, gave up the series point lead to race winner Biffle and marched out of the track without talking to news media representatives, a very unusual move for the normally cooperative Johnson.
If Johnson wasn’t talking, Biffle certainly was. He all but guaranteed that the No. 16 team will bring home the championship after scoring his second win of the season and returning to the point lead he had held for 11 straight weeks earlier in the year.
“We will be a factor when it comes down to Homestead,” Biffle said of the season finale. “I promise you that.”
Both Biffle and Johnson are likely to roll into Bristol, TN for Saturday’s annual night race ready to kick into gear – Biffle because he sees stars in his eyes, Johnson because he’ll be ready to make a correction on a race the Hendrick Motorsports team let slip away Sunday.
Three Hendrick engines sputtered and failed Sunday, while a typically powerful and durable Roush Yates engine carried Biffle to the win. On a very fast track that punishes engines, the Roush effort was consistent and strong.
“I am always nervous about breaking a part because I assume the responsibility when something breaks,” team owner Jack Roush said of his team’s engines. “I wasn’t figuring that there was anything that was particularly similar with the Hendrick engines. We have our own valve spring package and connection rod package and don’t share any parts with them. There was no reason why I would be more nervous than I would normally be, but I had my fingers crossed until we were within cruising distance of the start-finish line.”
Biffle made that cruise look easy over the final laps.
Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 30 years. He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.