In Michigan, Hendrick quartet has a day to forget

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It’s not very often that the Hendrick Motorsports juggernaut collectively suffers like it did on Sunday at Michigan International Speedway.

Want proof? All four Hendrick drivers – championship leader Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kasey Kahne and Jeff Gordon – ran into trouble in the Quicken Loans 400 and all finished outside the Top 25 as a result; Johnson in 28th, Earnhardt in 37th, Kahne in 38th, and Gordon in 39th.

The last time that happened: The 2005 Toyota Save Mart 350 at the Sonoma Raceway road course. In that race, Gordon was 33rd, Brian Vickers was 34th, Johnson was 36th, and Kyle Busch was 40th.

On Sunday, Gordon was the first of the Hendrick camp to have a problem. On just the fourth lap of the race, he was collected by a spinning Bobby Labonte in Turn 2 and was then funneled into the wall.

“He just did one of those slow spins where I couldn’t tell which direction he was going to go, so I had to guess and I guessed the wrong way,” said Gordon. “I didn’t really have anywhere to go.”

That left Kahne, Earnhardt and Johnson, and all three of them showed strong pace this afternoon. Kahne took the lead from Earnhardt on Lap 90 and promptly checked out until Lap 104, when his right front tire suddenly blew and sent him careening into the wall. He had been leading by 3.6 seconds prior to the accident.

“I just was going into the corner and then it [went] ‘boom’ and turned right went straight into the wall,” said Kahne, who fell out of the Top 10 in the Sprint Cup standings (although, with his win earlier this year at Bristol, he is currently in a wild-card slot). “It was a hard hit.”

Earnhardt took over the lead after that incident, pacing the field for 23 laps until he suddenly fell off the pace. Then on Lap 131, his engine let go in a cloud of smoke – shattering the hopes of Junior Nation, which hasn’t see their man win since his triumph last June at MIS.

“There was no warning at all, even after I think we lost a cylinder,” said Earnhardt. “The gauges all looked really good. [I] flipped all the switches I could flip and nothing was really making a difference. We just had something come apart in the motor.”

Finally, HMS’ rotten afternoon ended with Johnson clouting the wall with three laps remaining while trying to mount one last attack on eventual winner Greg Biffle. Like Kahne, he was victimized by a flat tire, and he was forced to go to pit road for service.

Johnson’s lead in the championship also took a hit, as a Top-10 result from Carl Edwards (eighth) enabled him to pull within 31 points of “Five-Time” as the series heads back to Sonoma this coming weekend.

It’s a likely assumption that the Hendrick camp doesn’t want a repeat of the dark day they had there in 2005 – or of what happened to them Sunday in the Irish Hills.

Neuville wins Rally Australia; Ogier takes FIA WRC title

Sebastien Ogier. Photo: Getty Images
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COFFS HARBOUR, Australia (AP) Belgium’s Thierry Neuville won Rally Australia by 22.5 seconds on Sunday as torrential rain added drama to the last day of the last race of the World Rally Championship season.

Neuville entered the final day with an almost 20 second advantage after inheriting the rally lead Saturday when his Hyundai teammate, defending champion Andreas Mikkelsen crashed and was forced to retire for the day.

His lead was halved by Jari-Matti Latvala early Sunday as monsoon-like rain made conditions treacherous on muddy forest stages on the New South Wales coast. The rain stopped on the short Wedding Bells stage where Neuville was almost 5 seconds quicker than his rivals, stretching his lead to 14.7 seconds entering the last stage.

COFFS HARBOUR, AUSTRALIA – NOVEMBER 17: Thierry Neuville of Belgium and Nicolas Gilsoul of Belgium compete in their Hyundai Motorsport WRT Hyundai i20 coupe WRC during Day One of the WRC Australia on November 17, 2017 in COFFS HARBOUR, Australia. (Photo by Massimo Bettiol/Getty Images)

That stage was full of incident. The driver’s door on Neuville’s Hyundai i20 coupe swung open in the middle of the stage and Neuville had to slam it closed as he approached a corner.

Latvala’s Toyota then crashed seconds from the end of the stage, allowing Estonia’s Ott Tanak, in a Ford, to take second place overall and New Zealalnd’s Haydon Paddon, in a Hyundai, to sneak into third.

Sebastian Ogier was fourth after winning the final, power stage but the Frenchman had already clinched his fifth world title before Rally Australia began. Neuville’s win was his fourth of the season, two more than Ogier, and was enough to give him second place in world drivers’ standings for the third time in five years.

Ogier owed his drivers’ title to his consistency: he retired only once and finished no worse than fifth all season.

Neuville admitted the last day was touch and go as the rain made some stages perilous, forcing the cancellation of the second to last stage.

“That was a hell of a ride,” Neuville said. “Really, really tricky conditions.

“I kept the car on the road but it was close sometimes. I knew I could make a difference but I had to be clever. You lose grip, you lose control and the car doesn’t respond to your input.”