Two weeks after declaring that his Roush Fenway Racing team had a “systemic problem,” Greg Biffle has delivered Ford its 1,000th victory in NASCAR with a win in the Quicken Loans 400 at Michigan International Speedway.
Biffle had pitted just before the final caution of the day came out on Lap 167 for Jamie McMurray blowing a right front tire and hitting the tri-oval wall. With no need to pit under yellow, Biffle was out in front on the restart with 27 laps to go and used the clean air to his advantage.
Jimmie Johnson started 10th on that restart and quickly cut through the lead pack, rising to second with nine laps to go. He had gotten the gap to Biffle down to less than a second when a tire went flat on his car with three laps to go, causing him to hit the wall and limp back to the pits.
With Johnson out of the picture and the race staying green, Biffle’s historic win for the Blue Oval was safe.
“I was really worried about that 48 [Johnson] – he’d been pretty fast,” Biffle admitted on TNT in Victory Lane. “But when this thing got in clean air, it was all over.
“Everybody’s working really hard. We’ve still got a little bit to do on our cars when we’re back in traffic, but once we get out front like Pocono last week, we’re pretty good. We just need to work on our cars a little bit. It’s not for a lack of effort.”
Meanwhile, Johnson’s late troubles ended a horrible day for Hendrick Motorsports, which saw Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne involved in crashes – Kahne’s incident coming while he had a 3.6-second lead at Lap 104 – and Dale Earnhardt Jr. losing an engine on Lap 131 after leading 34 laps.
Johnson wound up 28th at the checkers, causing all four HMS cars to finish outside of the Top 25 for the first time in a race since Sonoma in 2005.
“I hate having that problem at the end,” Johnson told TNT. “I had to run the car really hard through all those guys and I must have worn through the right-front tire and with two or three [laps] to go, it went down through Turn 1.”
Kevin Harvick collected the runner-up result thanks to Johnson’s flat tire, while Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch and Tony Stewart rounded out the Top 5. Michigan native Brad Keselowski ran out of gas on the final lap, tumbling to 12th at the finish ahead of Danica Patrick, who turned in a decent run to 13th place.
Schmidt Peterson aiming high with Hinchcliffe, Wickens
“We’re hoping to give Toronto and Ontario and Canadian sports fans in general something to cheer about over the next season,” Hinchcliffe quipped during a teleconference on Wednesday.
Granted, there are likely to be several challenges to overcome, notably for Wickens, who returns to single-seater competition for the first time since 2011, when he was a champion of the Formula Renault 3.5 series and served as test driver for the now defunct Manor Racing (then known as Marussia Virgin Racing).
Having spent every year since then in DTM, where he won a total of six races and finished as high as fourth in the championship (2016), Wickens knows returning to open wheel competition will be an adjustment. However, he explained that the history of Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, specifically its Indy Lights history, speaks to their ability to help a driver adapt, and he rates the program they’re putting together very highly.
“I think Schmidt Peterson Motorsports have a fantastic driver development program. They showed that in their multiple Indy Lights championships along the way. I think we will have a strong program in place. I have a feeling that the simulator will be my new best friend,” Wickens said when asked about getting reacquainted with an open-wheel car.
Of course, having an experienced teammate like Hinchcliffe to lean on will undoubtedly help the transition, something Wickens readily admitted.
“I’m very fortunate that I have James as my teammate because he’s so experienced, I can learn off him. Because we already have such a good off-track relationship, I feel like you can just take his word, trust him, kind of move forward with it,” he revealed.
They’ve been teammates before, both in karting where they first met in 2001, and then in the now-defunct A1 Grand Prix series in 2007-2008, a series that pitted nations against each other in spec open-wheel cars. Funnily, that A1GP type of vibe returns as Schmidt Peterson Motorsports now has that with its “Team Canada” mantra while all four of Andretti Autosport’s full-season drivers are American.
For Hinchcliffe, Wickens’ background, even if it hasn’t been in the single-seater realm since 2011, was a big selling point in adding him to the team.
“In Robby, we have a proven winner at a very high level. The level of technical expertise that he comes with from his time in DTM is very impressive,” he said of Wickens’ technical background.
Hinchcliffe revealed that Wickens’ feedback to the team and his ability to quickly adapt to the chassis took everyone somewhat by surprise.
“We did our ride swap. He had two hours in the car, hardly anything even resembling a test day, and his performance was pretty impressive. No doubt the time in Road America helped because that really gave us a better sense of his technical feedback, integrated with the team a little bit more. Everybody was happy to work with him on that day,” said Hinchcliffe.
Further still, Hinchcliffe is firm in his belief that the 2018 aero kit and its reduction in aerodynamic downforce will fall right into Wickens’ wheelhouse, based on Hinchcliffe’s own take after sampling Wickens’ DTM Mercedes earlier this year.
“In all honesty, I was saying earlier today, the 2018 car is probably better suited for him than the 2017 car because of the experience he’s had the last handful of series,” Hinchcliffe asserted.
“The (aero kit) was such high downforce, it would be a big change coming out of DTM. But with the loss of downforce that we’ve seen, the car is moving around a little bit more, brake zones, things like that, it won’t be as big a transition I think. Just based on the experience that I got in our ride swap, I think he’s going to adapt very quickly, be comfortable very quickly, and as a result be competitive very quickly. So it’s going to be exciting.”
As for expectations heading into next year, team co-owner Schmidt did not mince words and expects the team’s performance to resemble what they did in 2012, 2013, and 2014, when they won a total of four races (with driver Simon Pagenaud) and finished in the top five in the championship each year.
“We had a stint in ’12, ’13, ’14 where we finished fifth in the points (or better. I think we want to get back to that level of competition,” Schmidt added. “We felt like we were missing things in having two cars with equal funding and equal drivers and equal capabilities. We think this gets back there.”