One year ago at Michigan International Speedway, the Hendrick Motorsports stable suffered through a rough afternoon across the board.
Jeff Gordon was taken out in an early wreck. Kasey Kahne was leading when a tire blew and sent him hard in the wall. Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s chances of victory ended with a blown engine, and Jimmie Johnson crashed while running second with three laps to go thanks to a flat.
All four Hendrick drivers finished outside of the Top 25 that day; it was the first time such an instance had occurred in a Sprint Cup race since 2005.
But today at MIS, HMS thrived. In addition to Jimmie Johnson finally winning there for the first time, Kahne, Gordon and Earnhardt also ran and finished toward the front.
Kahne is still seeking to join his HMS teammates on the Chase Grid with a regular season win, but showed lots of determination with his fifth-place performance.
Off of a restart on Lap 7, Kahne was unable to avoid a spinning Kyle Larson in Turn 2 and also skidded out of control. Luckily, he was able to come away with just minor damage and take the subsequent restart in 36th place.
From there, Kahne moved through the field somewhat and then took advantage of a “lucky dog” free pass around halfway to get back on the lead lap.
In hindsight, that appeared to be a critical boost as he drove himself all the way to the lead with 18 laps remaining. Kahne still had to pit two laps later, but was able to hang on for the Top-5.
“We struggled for a while, but we got it and then we were on a good strategy there at the end – I thought we were pretty competitive with the guys in front of us,” Kahne said.
“…We’ve just ran way too bad for the first 14, 15 races, and hopefully, this will get us going and we can get strong from here, make some points up, get a win, and get in the Chase. That’s all we can really shoot for at this point.”
Gordon led 36 laps before earning a sixth-place finish that allowed him to retain the Sprint Cup points lead.
“We lost some track position and when we lost track position, we knew it wasn’t going to handle as good,” he said about his day. “But we were just super loose even when we got clean air, so that probably hurt us more than anything.
“We just never could move forward, and then at the end, we came in and took two tires and boom, the thing was gone and flying again. Sixth – not really indicative of the race car or what I felt we were capable of, but we’ll certainly take it.”
As for Earnhardt, who had won the most recent race at Pocono, he and crew chief Steve Letarte tried various pit strategies. During a caution at Lap 121, Earnhardt actually made two stops – one for right side tires and then another for left sides.
That knocked him all the way to 20th, but it allowed Earnhardt stay on track and rise up to fourth while many leaders pitted during a later yellow at Lap 147. He ultimately faded to his final result after making his last stop (two tires, fuel) at Lap 167.
Today was also a good day all-around for Hendrick engines as well.
In addition to the aforementioned HMS drivers, second-place Kevin Harvick (Stewart Haas Racing) and eighth-place Kyle Larson (Chip Ganassi Racing) made for six Hendrick-powered competitors among the Top 8.