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Hendrick engines have mixed results at Michigan

August 19, 2012, Seth Livingstone, Special to NASCAR.COM,

BROOKLYN, Mich. -- Four of shop's motors experience problems, but two of them land in top four

Instead of gathering for a Victory Lane celebration on Sunday, members of the Hendrick Motorsports engine shop will huddle in North Carolina on Monday to figure out what happened at Michigan International Speedway.

The Pure Michigan 400 was the culmination of a difficult and frustrating weekend, with at least four Hendrick engines having gone sour.

"This is a tough place on engines. We rarely have these issues."


Two belonged to Jimmie Johnson, who seemed destined to overcome adversity.

Despite starting at the back of the field after changing engines prior to Saturday's practice, Johnson had a fast car and appeared to have the race in hand. Brad Keselowski was impressed when Johnson roared by him to take the lead on Lap 191 of the scheduled 200.

"When Jimmie pushed the trigger, when he passed me, it was clear he had been holding back a lot," Keselowski said. "Obviously, he wasn't going 100 percent. When he did, he was clearly the class of the field. That was quite a sight to see."

But with six laps to go, Johnson, who had taken his first lead by Lap 39, began struggling. A small puff of white smoke was the telltale sign.

Then Johnson's engine blew.

Video: Heartbreak for Johnson with five laps left

Gone were Johnson's chances of recording his fourth win of the season and, with it, the becoming the first driver to clinch a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

The concern at Hendrick is that Johnson's engine trouble was not an isolated incident.

Jeff Gordon, desperately needing a win to have a shot at making the Chase, completed 167 of 200 laps because of engine issues. Tony Stewart, racing a Hendrick-prepared engine, got only 109 laps out of his motor and finished 28th, one place behind Johnson.

Video: Stewart has engine woes | Issues plague Chase hopefuls

"We've got some issues to straighten out," said Alan Gustafson, Gordon's crew chief. "Everything [in NASCAR] runs on the edge, and sometimes we step over it."

With three races left until the Chase, this is no time to doubt the power train.

Gordon said he thinks a faulty valve spring was the issue for both his and Stewart's cars. His problem appeared out of the blue.

"[I was] just running along there and, all of a sudden, dropped a cylinder," Gordon said. "The No. 14 [Stewart] had that same issue. This is a tough place on engines. We rarely have these issues. ... When you come to Michigan and you turn these kinds of sustained RPMs on this fast of a track, it's always of concern here."

Gustafson was unwilling to disclose specifics about the failures but had an inkling that Gordon and Stewart suffered similar problems. Johnson's in-race issue occurred too late for him to have a read on it on Sunday.

"The information relayed to me was that [Stewart's problem] was pretty similar," he said. "We have some signs and a good idea of what we have todo to fix it. Nothing's ever easy, but I'm confident we can do it."

Stewart, who slipped to ninth in the standings, 34 points ahead of 11th-place Kasey Kahne, remains in great shape to make the Chase because his three victories would trump other wild-card contenders. He said he's not concerned going forward.

Follow your favorite driver's chance of winning this week's race and making the Chase.

"It's just a bad day, not the norm, for sure," said Stewart, who radioed that it felt like his car was running on seven cylinders early in the race. "We have the best engine department in the world, in my opinion. We had three engine tuners down there [in the garage] trying to get it fixed for us. [Sunday's result] wasn't for lack of effort."

Dale Earnhardt Jr. turned in a solid fourth-place run after also starting at the back of the field in a backup car. But Earnhardt's crew chief, Steve Letarte, wasn't breathing easy.

"Without a doubt [I was worried]," Letarte said. "One [failure] doesn't bother you. That's part of racing. But when the 24 [of Gordon] had their issue, the concern went up.

"I'm disappointed for the motor guys. I know they work tremendously hard. This is one of those places where, as fast as we're running, it's just hard on equipment. We'll get back to the shop, look into them all, and I'm sure we'll have good direction coming to the Chase."

Making the Chase remains Gordon's immediate concern. He is 77 points out of 10th place and likely will need a win in the next three races to earn a wild-card spot.

"We're professionals. We've got to shrug it off and go fight next weekend [at Bristol]," Gustafson said. "There's still a lot to fight for. We still have a chance to win some races and get in, whether we're frustrated or not."

While Team Hendrick couldn't solve its engine problems, it could take pride in getting Kasey Kahne's car back in competitive shape after he went spinning, along with Mark Martin, on Lap 65 and suffered damage to his right front.

"They patched it up pretty nicely," said Kahne, who finished third to solidify his hold on a wild-card berth. "It didn't drive perfect after that, but it did drive pretty closely to how it was, which was really nice. To get back to third was a pretty good day after all of that."