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.

Cooper solidifies PWC GT presence with Callaway Corvette

Callaway, Cooper, Gill. Photo: PWC
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Pirelli World Challenge could use a “face” of the series from a driving standpoint, and American Michael Cooper is a good candidate to fill that role for 2018.

Cooper, 27, has won PWC Touring Car, GTS and, most recently the SprintX GT titles within the series and has quickly blossomed into one of the series’ top GT stars.

It’s been a rapid rise for the Syosset, N.Y. native, entering into a world filled with series stars and champions such as Johnny O’Connell, Patrick Long, Alvaro Parente and a host of others.

But under O’Connell’s tutelage, Cooper admirably filled the rather gaping shoes vacated by Andy Pilgrim at Cadillac Racing, steering the Cadillac ATS-V.R to multiple race wins in the last two years – including a sweep of this year’s season finale weekend at Sonoma.

Cooper and Jordan Taylor were the model of consistency in SprintX this year, winning once at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park and surviving contact at Circuit of The Americas to take that title.

With Cadillac withdrawing its ATS-V.R program at the end of the year though, Cooper was left a free agent for 2018. Fortunately with one door closed another opened, in the form of the GM-blessed but full Callaway Competition USA effort with its Callaway Corvette C7 GT3-R that will come Stateside next year. Cooper and Daniel Keilwitz will be in the team’s two cars for the full season; the car was fully unveiled last week at the PRI Show in Indianapolis.

The Callaway is a proven commodity in Europe but couldn’t run in the U.S. unless the path was cleared by one of GM’s factory programs to end a direct, potential head-to-head competition.

Moving from the Cadillac to the Callaway Corvette should be a natural transition, Cooper said last week.

“It worked out incredibly well that GM decided to allow Calloway to run the car in the United States and it created an opportunity for me that wouldn’t have been there otherwise,” he told NBC Sports. “I talked to a lot of other GT teams and at the end of the day, I felt like this was the best direction for me to be competitive next year and to also continue furthering my career with General Motors.”

Indeed Cooper has graduated from the Blackdog Speed Shop Chevrolet Camaro Z/28.R in GTS to the Cadillac and now to the Callaway Corvette. Cooper hailed the Cadillac team for what they did for his career growth.

“Working with Cadillac Racing has been instrumental in developing my abilities both on and off the track,” he said. “So I’m definitely a much more well-rounded driver now and have a lot of experience in the World Challenge GT field, so I kind of know what to expect going into that first race and going into that first corner in St. Pete.”

As noted, the car’s success in Europe means it’s a well-oiled machine by the time Reeves Callaway has worked with PWC to bring it Stateside next year. And as Cooper explained, discussions had been underway for a bit of time to ensure his presence in this car and team.

“I think the car is going to be extremely capable. It’s already won championships and races in Europe. I think, in bringing it over here, we’re going to hit the ground running straight away,” he said.

“Calloway had wanted me to come drive for them in July or August. We always kept in touch since then, and there was a lot of work trying to put together a program before they decided that they were going to do a fully fledged factory program. So once they made that decision, I think the pieces were kind of in place already, and the conversations had been had to be able to say ‘You’re going to be our guy.’”

December is late for IMSA programs to get finalized, but it’s relatively early for PWC, with the season not starting until mid-March in St. Petersburg. An extensive testing program should follow, as Callaway establishes its U.S. base and infrastructure.

“It’s definitely early for a Pirelli World Challenge program to be announced in December when we start racing in March. So that’s very good,” he said. “But, the team has a lot of work ahead of them in terms of getting infrastructure set up here in the United States, because a lot of their racing program has been in Europe. So, there will be a testing program, but they have to get the infrastructure in place first. But, we’ll be well prepared for St. Pete, I’m certain of it.

“Last year was the first year when I could sit back, kick my feet up, and know what I was doing next year. So, to be able to have everything done and be able to announce it this early on makes my life less stressful and now I can just focus on preparing myself and my team for next year.”