Jimmie Johnson’s engine failure with five laps remaining in the Pure Michigan 400 opened the door for the field to battle for the NASCAR Sprint Cup win — and further speculation concerning a 2012 advantage for the Hendrick Motorsports cars.
On Lap 190, Brad Keselowski held a 0.123 second advantage over Johnson. The No. 48 blew by Keselowski to take the lead on the next lap. While Johnson’s reign at the point lasted just four laps, the dominance was not lost on Keselowski. He thought Johnson was sandbagging. He just wasn’t sure how much.
“When he pushed the trigger when he passed me, it was clear he was holding back a lot,” Keselowski said. “You never know how hard a driver is pushing. 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.”
While none of the drivers called out the details of the rear suspension setup in the Hendrick cars, Keselowski and race-winner Greg Biffle felt handicapped not to have the same capabilities on their own cars.
“There’s parts and pieces on the car that are moving after inspection that make the car more competitive,” Keselowski said. “Some guys have it, some don’t. There’s a question to the interpretation of the rule. Penske Racing errs on the safe side because we don’t want to be the guys that get the big penalty.
“Obviously, there’s a question to the interpretation that as of right now it’s legal. But I’m sure that (team owner) Roger (Penske) doesn’t want to be the one caught red-handed. As a group at Penske Racing, we have not felt comfortable enough to risk that name and reputation that Roger has over those parts and pieces. Others have, which is their prerogative. I’m not going to slam them for it.
“But it’s living in a gray area. Roger doesn’t do that. There’s certainly some performance there that we’ve lost. I shouldn’t say lost, but haven’t gained, because we choose not to do that. That’s something that we have to continue to evaluate every week that goes by, that those components are permitted to be run. We have to make a reevaluation of that internally to decide if that’s the right way to go.”
Jack Roush, whose teams had not won a race since Biffle’s victory at Texas Motor Speedway on April 14 prior to Biffle’s win Sunday at Michigan, was tired of not competing on an even playing field. He first noticed how twisted the rear ends of the Hendrick Motorsports cars appeared last spring, particularly while traveling through the corners of the racetrack. Throughout the first 23 races of this year, Hendrick chassis have won 11 events.
“The 24 car (of Jeff Gordon) put a left rear tire through a battery at Darlington (in May),” Roush said. “That was a wake-up call. We’ve been working at it, got assurance from NASCAR that it’s OK, it’s within the rules.
“It’s not the reason we were able to win (on Sunday), but it certainly is hard to win if you don’t have a competitive aero package and chassis, mechanical grip package.”
Biffle added that teams have had to compensate with the rear suspension to make up for NASCAR’s rule on shortening the right side skirt by one-and-a-half inches. Even though his teammate Matt Kenseth and he finished third and fourth, respectively, in the June Michigan race, the Roush drivers were surrounded by Hendrick cars then, including that of winner Dale Earnhardt Jr.
“That threw us all through a loop right in the middle of this thing,” Biffle said. “So we took our notebook, even what we raced here last time, we threw it away. It completely changed the way we race these cars compared to the way we used to race these cars. It’s all rear-suspension related. There’s a lot more to it than this thing that these guys think is going on with the rear end.
“Getting the car down, sealing the right side off. Every team is doing it. So there’s a lot more to it, I think. I’ve been reading some stuff about it. It’s not any one thing that we’ve figured out as a team to get our cars down out of the air and sealed up on the right side to get it going around the corner better.”
And to think that Johnson and his crew chief Chad Knaus were spun out because Keselowski beat the No. 48 team out of the pits and not by technology. When Keselowski was made aware of the effect his performance had on the five-time champions, that was the happiest the driver was throughout his postrace duty.
“The 48 has the most speed and the best history as far as the Chase is concerned,” Keselowski said. “But it’s my job to not roll over and give it to them. We’re doing everything we can do and we nailed it on that last green-flag sequence. I’m proud as hell of my guys for doing that.
“Although they might have the most speed, we’re not giving up. We’re going to keep ’em honest through this Chase. That’s our goal. I think it’s good to know that, that they’re frustrated, ’cause they should be. We nailed it.”
The No. 2 Penske Racing pit crew posted the fewest seconds on pit road — 186.873 seconds – and one less pit stop than the No. 48 team.
“Hopefully while, you know, they keep working on the other things, we’ll find that little bit of speed to go with the execution we have and be in even better condition to close the deal out,” Keselowski said. “We just got to keep pushing in that sense. We caught a lucky break that was unfortunate for Jimmie with him not getting those bonus points for a win, but he definitely deserved to win the race. Just didn’t play out that way.
“The 48 (team) might be the favorite for the championship, but we’re not going to roll over and just let them have it.”