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

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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.

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Hunter and Jett Lawrence walk a delicate balance between winning races and favoring the fans

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ANAHEIM, California – Hunter and Jett Lawrence are two of the most popular riders on the Monster Energy Supercross circuit, with fan bases that established and grew immediately when they came to America to ride for HRC Honda. Connecting with those fans came naturally for the charming Australian brothers, but it has not come without cost.

“It’s cool they’re there and it’s one of the things we try to do is give the fan that interaction,” Hunter told NBC Sports during Supercross Media Sessions ahead of the 2023 season. “It’s why we do ride days, meet-and-greets, press conferences  – all that stuff, because it’s exciting for them. We are trying to bridge the gap so they get personal interaction. Because that’s all they’re after. It’s all about getting that fan to think, ‘I know that guy. I didn’t meet him, but I get him. I get his humor.’ ”

There is no artifice in either brother. Their fan appeal is directly attributable to who they are at their core. And it’s that very genuineness that has throngs of fans standing outside their hauler, waiting for just a moment of their time.

“It’s about being yourself – talking to people,” Hunter said. “It’s not like I turn it on or turn it off; it’s just about being yourself. This is who we are, this is who you get and this is how it will be. You can’t portray something you’re not. If you keep saying you’re an orange, but apples keep popping out, it’s only a matter of time [until they figure it out].”

The key word is ‘throngs’, however. One person wanting just a few moments of time is incidental. Dozens are an entirely different matter.

“It’s tough in Supercross because it’s such a long day,” Hunter said. “The recovery side of it’s tough to do everything. We get stuck outside the grid; we can’t be there for like 10 minutes. We’re stuck there for like an hour. It gets overwhelming at times.

“You feel bad because you want to sign everything, but you’re still here for a job. Every race day is like that. We do the best we can, but there are so many people who wait out front. They’re screaming for you. Even when we’re coming off the sessions, they’re already yelling before you put your bike on the stands. You don’t even get time to take you helmet off.”

It can be a double-edged sword. Personality is only one part of the equation. A much bigger part of the brothers’ fan appeal comes because of their success. Hunter finished second in the last two Supercross 250 West title battles and third in the past two Lucas Oil Pro Motocross Championships.

Jett won the last three titles he competed for, including last year’s 250 East Supercross Championship and the last two Motocross contests.

“I think they expect me to have nothing else to do on a Saturday and that I have unlimited energy,” Jett said. “But, I’m trying to recover for the next race.”

It’s a matter of timing. Jett has gained a reputation last year for handing out hundreds of donuts before the races during Red Bull fan appreciation sessions. And after the race, once the business at hand has been settled, Jett is equally available to the fans.

“After the race it’s fine; I’ll stay behind.” Jett said. “My job is done on the racing side of things, but until that last moto is done, my main thing is dirt bikes. The fans come along with it. The fans are part of the job, but main job at hand is the racing side of things. After the race, I’ll stay there for an hour or so. It’s a lot calmer.”