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.

Red Bull rising into the form expected when the season began

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AUSTIN, Texas (AP) Young “Mad Max” Verstappen had plenty to be angry about for the first half of the Formula One season. After his breakout season in 2016, this year had been little more than a rash of retirements, crashes and clashes with other drivers.

But a late burst over the last two races delivered his second career victory and a second-place. Those results have Red Bull rising and looking more like the fast and muscular team it was expected to be.

Verstappen and teammate Daniel Ricciardo now look primed to keep pushing for the front over the final four races of 2017, starting this week at the U.S. Grand Prix. Do that and the prospects for a 2018 title fight grow brighter.

“We’re definitely going the way we need to be going,” Ricciardo said. “If we start on the front foot, I genuinely believe we can fight for the title if we start closer. That’s what we’re aiming for.”

Verstappen’s win in Malaysia demonstrated a perfect marriage of the young Dutchman’s driving skill and his improving car when he beat Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton with a head-to-head pass early. He was on the podium again a week later in Japan. The champagne spray at both races was a tasty but dry reminder that Red Bull wanted – and expected – so much more this season.

While Ricciardo has been a workhorse with nine podiums and one victory, Verstappen’s season was crippled by reliability issues with his car or crashes.

“There were so many races this year when he was in a fantastic position to achieve big results,” team principal Christian Horner said this week. “Credit to him that at such a young age he hasn’t let frustration boil over … when it comes right for him, it’s going to come right in a big way. And that’s exactly what happened in Malaysia. He drove a great race there, with no issues.”

Some of the “issues” created internal tension.

The first lap of the Hungarian Grand Prix was a disaster for Red Bull. Verstappen tried to overtake Ricciardo and hit him, knocking Ricciardo out of the race while Verstappen finished fifth. Ricciardo lashed out at Verstappen as “immature” and criticized the “amateur” maneuver.

Verstappen said he can’t think about what happened early in the season.

“That frustration I put behind me,” Verstappen said. “It happened. You can’t change it anymore. You’re just happy that it’s going well again and we had some good results.”

Ricciardo has carried Red Bull to the podium time and again but his broad smile hasn’t beamed from the top spot since Azerbaijan in June. Despite his run of strong finishes, he’s stuck at fourth in the driver’s standings and needs a boost to overtake Mercedes’ Valtteri Bottas for third.

The Circuit of the Americas has been good for both Red Bull drivers in the past. Ricciardo finished third here in 2014 and 2016. Verstappen had an attention-getting drive in 2015 when he finished fourth in his Toro Rosso after sloshing his way through the field on a wet track.

Verstappen had a wild race in 2016 when he challenged for the lead early, came in for a pit stop when the crew wasn’t ready and yelled to his garage: “I’m not here to finish fourth!” He didn’t finish at all when his car was knocked out with a gearbox problem on lap 32.

Verstappen was 17 when he joined the F1 grid as the youngest driver in series history and he still jokes about his age. Austin is known for its live music and nightlife, but he’s limited as to how much he can party away from the track.

“I’m only 20. I can’t drink,” Verstappen said. “If I’m on the podium (Sunday) I won’t care.”