A beautiful day in the Irish Hills
By Mike Mulhern
Jack Roush made it to victory lane again, two weeks in a row now, and Greg Biffle's win in Sunday's Michigan 400 may have been a turning point in this season's fortunes -- both for Roush title challengers Biffle and Matt Kenseth, and for the arch-rival Chevy men in the Rick Hendrick camp.
And maybe for title contenders Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch.
Certainly for Jeff Gordon, the only Hendrick driver who didn't really get in high gear here. At one point Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne were running 1-2-3 for Hendrick.
Gordon -- who got so angry with Earnhardt at one point he told his crew on the radio he probably should have wrecked him -- blew a motor, which could doom his playoff hopes.
Johnson, Hendrick's ace in the hole in this year's Sprint Cup title chase, which opens Sept. 16 in Chicago, did dominate much of the 400-mile, as he and the rest of the Hendrick men have done since starting on a rampage in mid-May at Darlington.
But unexpected engine trouble not only hit Johnson -- a blown motor while leading with only 12 miles to go -- but also teammates Gordon and 'satellite' teammate Tony Stewart. Johnson's problem appeared to be a cracked cylinder wall; both Gordon and Stewart appeared stymied by broken valve springs.
Ford's Jack Roush: finally back on level playing field with Chevy's Rick Hendrick? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
So is the tide finally turning in Roush's favor, after a long, dry summer?
Biffle was the tour's early-season leader and he's been near the top of the standings all season. Winner at Texas in April, Biffle however has played in the media shadows most of the year, while Johnson and the Hendrick charge have dominated headlines.
And Sunday afternoon here -- a gorgeous day in the Irish Hills -- Biffle was almost angry and defiant in victory.
"I know in my heart what our team is capable of and what I am capable of as a driver on the track, and I focus on that," Biffle said after his second win of the year.
"I don't really put a lot into what people talk about, and the drivers they talk about, and what the stories are. I will go home kicking rocks like I did last week.
"I was disappointed with myself (at Watkins Glen), and I left that track without the point lead and it was totally my fault. I gave up two positions on the last lap and handed the point lead to Jimmie.
"That went under the radar. Nobody said a word about it, nobody mentioned it or knew about it, except me."
Of course 'winning' the regular season title is meaningless as far as the championship goes, since the points are reracked after Richmond for the chase.
Still, this sport is a lot about momentum.
Well, maybe not for Biffle, who just seems to want a little more respect in this title chase.
"I pay attention to what we need to do as a team and not make mistakes and do what it is going to take to win this championship," he says. "If it is not a story and they don't cover it, then that is fine. But they will be forced to after Homestead."
That's the season finale in November.
Actually in some quarters the championship race clearly includes Biffle as one of the three men with the best shot of beating Johnson for the crown, along with teammate Matt Kenseth and Earnhardt.
Where Brad Keselowski really fits in here is unclear. He certainly looks like a powerhouse title contender. However he'll be changing from Dodges to Fords for 2013 and that could be a distraction.
And Keselowski says his team is still not comfortable with the new technology trick that the Hendrick and Roush camps are both now using to such great advantage.
Biffle tried to explain some aspects of 'the trick.'
"We have a little skew in the axle housing, with what NASCAR allows us," Biffle said. "(But) with that (side) skirt cut up high, it allows a lot of air under the car in the back of the car and it takes down force away.
"We try to get our cars down on the track (for better aerodynamics in the corners), but it takes a whole different package. It takes different sway bars and different springs and angels on all the stuff.
"It took a tremendous amount (to work out the new package).
"Some guys (rivals) were racing like that already... and we weren't as an organization. We tried a little and hit on it a little.
"I ran a car like that at Kansas in the second chase race a few years ago and ran third. But we weren't able to really perfect it."
Now, however, the Hendrick camp has been kicking butt with it, so Biffle said his team "had to go work and figure it out.
"Some guys just got it figured out faster than us."
So is it working?
Biffle led 26 of the 201 laps; Johnson led 23....and Toyota's Mark Martin, apparently using the trick too, led 54 laps, until he crashed.
Could Biffle have beaten Johnson heads up?
"I was closing in on him," Biffle said. "I don't know if I would have got him in those eight laps or not but it would have been a hell of a run to the end.
"I was coming on him. I don't know if I would have gotten there, but we will take them any way we can get them."
Matt Puccia, Biffle's crew chief, said that even before Johnson's engine broke he felt Biffle had a good shot to catch him: "I told him we weren't out of this, and I knew we had a fast car, and we were capable, if we could just get to him and get around him. We had a good enough car to catch him and pass him."
Earnhardt came into the 400 after two of his worst finishes of the season, and he wound up fourth, challenging.
"I was under pressure to not make any more mistakes," Earnhardt said. "I spun out twice in the last two weeks on my own, and that's something I try not to have happen, try not to have that kind of reputation.
"I felt real bad about wrecking the (primary) car (in Saturday practice) and all the work the guys had to do to get this car ready.
"We may not have quite enough to win, but a good finish position."
Hamlin, who typically runs well here, was never even close, and that could be telling in the playoffs too.
"We didn't run very well," Hamlin said. "We were a 15th or 20th-place car most of the day... and through attrition we got a good finish (11th).
"We definitely have a lot of work to do on all aspects of our car right now."
Teammate Kyle Busch might agree. Busch, also never a challenger. He desperately needs a victory in one of the tour's next three races -- at Bristol, Atlanta and Richmond -- to make the playoffs. For the second straight week Busch left the track without comment.
His crew chief Dave Rogers is feeling heat: "It was a long day. Kyle did a great job; I just didn't put the right shocks and springs and bars in it. Didn't have enough speed in it.
"Kyle did a great job of staying focused and looking at the big picture. Unfortunately I didn't bring a fast enough race car. My fault."
Not a great day for Regan Smith (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)