Pure Michigan 400: Jeff Gordon wins third race of 2014, back on top of points


BROOKLYN, Mich. – If Jimmie Johnson is to win a record-tying seventh Sprint Cup championship, he’s going to have to get past Jeff Gordon – and that’s not going to be easy.

Gordon earned his third win of the season Sunday – and the 91st of his Sprint Cup career – capturing the Pure Michigan 400 at Michigan International Speedway.

He also regained the points lead in the Sprint Cup standings, leading teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr., who assumed the points lead after last week’s race at Watkins Glen, by just three points.

The triumph ties Gordon with Hendrick Motorsports teammates Johnson and Earnhardt, as well as 2012 champ Brad Keselowski, for most wins during the 26-race regular season.

After Kurt Busch hit the wall to bring out the caution on Lap 178, Gordon remained patient. Joey Logano was the race leader when the green flag dropped on the restart on Lap 183, but Gordon outmuscled Logano going into Turn 1 of the D-shaped track and never looked back.

“We earned this one, baby, we earned it,” crew chief Alan Gustafson told Gordon on the team radio after he crossed the start-finish line.

After the race, Gordon was understandably ecstatic about his third career triumph at MIS.

“That last restart was it,” Gordon said. “We had the car to win. I got a good restart. Joey was out there by himself, was able to get to his quarter and then was able to get by. I just needed a couple laps for my tires to come in, we were out front, set sail and the checkered flag was waving. This is amazing, this is just fantastic.”

Gordon now has earned the most wins for him since also winning three in the 2011 season.

However, there’s one significant difference to that: he still has 13 more races to go to add to those three wins. The last time Gordon had more than three wins in a season was when he visited victory lane six times back in 2007, when he finished second in the Chase to Johnson.

“Our Chase has already started,” Gordon said. “This team is championship caliber, but it’s going to be tough. We don’t want anything to change when we get to Chicago, just charge for those wins.”

In a sense, the way Gordon won was a case of several elements of déjà vu:

* He won his second race of the season, at the Brickyard 400, with “the restart of my life,” also taking the lead with 17 laps left — just like Sunday. What’s more, the car he won at Indianapolis is also the same one he drove to victory on Sunday.

* Ironically, the last two times Gordon won the Sprint Cup championship – the third and fourth of his career in 1998 and 2001 – he also won at Indianapolis and Michigan in both of those seasons.

* It’s been 13 years since Gordon has won at MIS.

Gordon started the race on the pole, setting a track record during qualifying on Friday with a burst of 206.558 mph around the two-mile track, which has become the fastest track in NASCAR.

Gordon’s pole was also the fastest in NASCAR history since the sanctioning body implemented restrictor plates at both Daytona and Talladega in 1988.

Kevin Harvick finished second for the fourth consecutive race at MIS, tying a NASCAR record for most consecutive finishes at a track set by NASCAR Hall of Famer Dale Jarrett four times in a row at Rockingham.

“We had a solid day, it’s just the 24 (Gordon) had more speed than we did all day,” Harvick said. “I felt like when Joey was out front, he could get away at the short run, we’d kind of even out. But all in all, it was a good day.

“The main focus for our team has been consistency heading into the Chase to make sure we can scramble and do the things we’ve done over the last month. When you have a solid day, finish it off. Those are the things we’ve been able to do. Obviously you want to win, but all in all we had some different goals that are as important leading into the Chase.”

Logano, who led the most laps (86) of the 200-lap event, rallied back to finish third, followed by Paul Menard and Earnhardt.

“It was one too many restarts,” Logano said. “We were battling on these restarts pretty hard. I used every trick in the book I had. … I had the run and then I was clear. I should have pulled up in front of him and got the draft. … Gosh, it’s close. It’s what we need to do before the Chase. We’re doing everything we need to do. … I’m going to relieve that in my mind the next two weeks.”

Finishing sixth through 10th were Clint Bowyer, Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski, Johnson and Greg Biffle.

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

F1 Preview: 2018 Australian Grand Prix

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Save for two occasions, in 2006, and 2010, the Australian Grand Prix has served as the season-opening event for the FIA Formula 1 World Championship since 1996, and this weekend’s event will be the 21st time that the city of Melbourne has kicked off the Formula 1 campaign.

The 2018 season is the fifth one of the current hybrid power unit era, the second season of the current aero regulations, and the second under Liberty Media’s guidance.

Last year saw titans Mercedes AMG Petronas and Scuderia Ferrari duel for supremacy for most of the season before Mercedes distanced Ferrari late in the season to take the constructor’s title and the driver’s title, with Lewis Hamilton, who is now tied with Sebastian Vettel on four world championships apiece.

Four drivers on the grid have Formula 1 world championships to their name: Hamilton, Vettel, Kimi Raikkonen, and Fernando Alonso. Scuderia Toro Rosso’s Brendon Hartley also has a world championship to his name as a two-time titlist in the FIA World Endurance Championship.

So, what can viewers expect from the 2018 curtain-raiser in Australia? A handful of things to watch are below?

2018 Australian Grand Prix – Talking Points

Does Anyone Have Anything for Mercedes?

Only on one day during pre-season testing did a Mercedes driver lead the way – Lewis Hamilton was fastest on the final day of Week 1 at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya.

However, all indications were that was by design, with the team focusing the majority of the second week, if not the entire second week, on long runs with their W09 EQ Power+ chassis.

Such a decision is an ominous one, in that it indicates the team is very comfortable with the amount of speed in the car and did not see a need, or desire, to show their hand during testing.

With that in mind, the Mercedes duo of Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas may yet again have the best and fastest cars, and the team looks poised to potentially make it five constructor’s and driver’s championships in a row.

Ferrari and Red Bull Look to End Mercedes Reign

The biggest threats to Mercedes are undoubtedly Ferrari and Red Bull, the only other teams to win in 2017.

And both teams displayed a lot of pace during testing, particularly in the “one-lap speed” category. Ricciardo set a lap record around the Catalunya circuit during the second week, only for Vettel to supplant that mark later in the week. Teammate Kimi Raikkonen led the way during the final day of testing.

It is unknown how that pace will translate over the course of a race distance. Mercedes appeared to have an edge on both Ferrari and Red Bull over long runs and race simulations, but there is also a theory that neither Ferrari nor Red Bull had their true long-run form on display.

Still, if a team is going to knock off Mercedes, it will likely be either Ferrari or Red Bull.

McLaren on the Rebound?

Put simply, the previous three seasons for McLaren F1 Team were a bit of a disaster. Their partnership with Honda yielded point totals of 27 (2015), 76 (2016), and 30 (2017) in a three-year venture that was defined by poor reliability and underwhelming power.

The relationship hit a boiling point last year and both entities parted ways ahead of the 2018 season, with McLaren signing a new power unit deal with Renault.

Testing went better than in previous years, though the team continued to battle reliability problems. However, all issues appeared to be minor, needling issues rather than more significant, foundational problems, as the other Renault teams (Red Bull and Renault Sport F1 Team) had solid runs with few reliability issues.

The car does appear to have speed in it, so if the reliability problems are behind them, McLaren could be in for a rebound season.

Stuck in the Midfield Again

Formula 1’s battle amongst the midfield is set to be as fierce as ever as a host of a several teams have a chance at being “best of the rest.”

Sahara Force India has been the frontrunner from the the midfield teams each of the last two years, finishing fourth in the constructor’s title in both 2016 and 2017, though if the steady conflict between drivers Esteban Ocon and Sergio Perez continues through 2018, it could hamper their efforts significantly.

Renault Sport F1 Team and Haas F1 Team look to improve on their 2017 form, while Toro Rosso is in a new partnership with Honda power units…and has experienced a surprisingly smooth pre-season as Honda’s 2018 platform looks significantly better, with the team enjoying a solid run of testing with few, if any, reliability problems.

Williams Martini Racing and Alfa Romeo Sauber appear to be at the back of the pack entering the season, but both could battle for points finishes if those ahead of them falter.