Michigan has been good to Roush, not to Jimmie
August 17, 2013, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
BROOKLYN, Mich. -- It was the track's recent history, encapsulated in a single moment -- the team that's won more than any other here charging to another victory at Michigan International Speedway, and the driver who's won almost everything else ending up in the wall.
That was the scene here two months ago, when Greg Biffle gave team owner Jack Roush a record 13th victory at the 2-mile facility, and Jimmie Johnson again came up short on a layout that means so much to domestic car manufacturers. As much as the rolling green landscape or the ever-present aura of the Motor City 70 miles away, Michigan has often been defined by two things -- a certain five-time Sprint Cup Series champion leaving deflated, and the man in the hat shaking hands in Victory Lane.
No team in NASCAR has won at Michigan more then the entity now known as Roush Fenway Racing, which enters Sunday's event riding back-to-back triumphs by Biffle. And no driver has been more snake-bitten here than Johnson, for whom Michigan is one of five tracks where he's never won. And some of those losses have been painfully close calls -- like last August, when his engine blew up with five laps remaining.
While he was leading.
And don't forget 2009, when he ran out of gas in June after leading 133 laps, and then sputtered dry at the white flag in August after being out front for 146. The most recent heartbreak came in June, when Johnson was running second and trying to chase down Biffle in the final laps when he cut a tire and wound up in the wall.
“We've had varying issues here, and the only consistent one, I would say, has been fuel mileage,” said Johnson, also winless at Chicagoland, Homestead, Kentucky and Watkins Glen. “We've worked hard to improve the car. And then I've worked real hard on my driving style to get better fuel mileage here. It seems like we've covered that gap, but we've had a mechanical (issue) or two. We blew a tire this last spring when we were here. So, there have been a lot of reasons why. But I really look forward to the day I'm able to pull into Victory Lane over here.”
What a contrast that is to Roush, which has won at Michigan four times each with Biffle and Mark Martin, twice with Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth and once with Kurt Busch. Roush's fingerprints are all over the place, to the point you'd think he built the facility rather than Ford stablemate Roger Penske. Most wins, top-fives, and laps led here? Former Roush driver Martin, who compiled the vast majority of those statistics in his old No. 6 car. Top three drivers in average finish? That would be Edwards, former Roush driver Kenseth and Biffle. Best driver rating? The same trio, but reversed.
How fitting, then, that Biffle's victory here in June was the 1,000th for Ford at NASCAR's national level. It would be difficult to find another combination of track, team, and manufacturer that's enjoyed a more symbiotic relationship.
"This is a great race track for Roush Fenway as a whole," Biffle said. "Going back to Jeff Burton, Mark Martin and Matt Kenseth, all of us have had a lot of success here, and Carl has won here a few times. This has been a good track for us. I was worried about when they repaved it what would transpire, but we have been really good since the repave, and the track is really coming back in and racing a lot like it used to race. I really love this place. … You can run two- and three-wide through the corner in a downforce situation where you normally can't do that at most race tracks. That is always a strategy, and fuel mileage plays a factor. It is hard on the engines here, too. This is just a fun place for myself and our team to race."
And yet, statistics can be deceiving. Roush may have recaptured its form at Michigan with Biffle's back-to-back victories, but before that the organization had prevailed just once in the previous 10 events here. And Johnson's shortcomings belie just how solid he's often been in the Irish Hills -- among active drivers, only Martin and Jeff Gordon have led more laps.
Johnson has certainly shown the potential for a breakthrough this weekend, qualifying third and posting the fastest laps in both opening and final practice -- all this in a season where he's won four time and holds a commanding lead in the Sprint Cup standings. That long-awaited first Michigan victory would surely be a personal achievement as much as it would be a stepping stone toward a prospective sixth championship.
"A win here would be awesome," Johnson said. "It would be a huge victory to win here, especially with how close I've been. We've had at least five or six that could have happened."
The Roush camp seems equally as capable -- particularly Biffle, third-fastest in final practice. But the victory here by the No. 16 team in June was only the third of the year for Ford, which also saw Edwards prevail at Phoenix and David Ragan pull off a stunner at Talladega. The Penske Racing duo of Joey Logano and reigning Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski remains winless on the season, leading some inside and outside of the blue oval camp to wonder if Ford is playing catch-up to some degree on development of the Generation-6 car.
"When they changed the spoiler and splitter and those things, did our car get affected differently than the other cars? I think I have scratched the surface of understanding a little bit of what the talk might be between the cars," Biffle said. "One thing we do know is, our car has a tremendous amount of speed in it. But again, we have to be right on the setup. … That is something we are working hard on as a group."
Edwards believes the pieces are in place. "Greg is fast every week. We are fast every week," he said. "We just need to find that last little bit, that last little adjustment, so we can race with these guys. From where we are at, all we can do is build the best race cars and drive the hardest we can, and we are hoping that gets us a championship."
Surely, Johnson feels the same way. Of course, at this track, there's always something -- and Saturday it was a crash midway through final practice that required a switch to a backup car. The vehicle that was fastest for much of the weekend was towed into the garage area, and Johnson will start at the rear of the field Sunday rather than third. Even for a five-time champion, nothing comes easy at Michigan.