Joey Logano (lower left), winner at Michigan on Sunday, Chad Knaus (lower right), crew chief for Jimmie Johnson, and Kurt Busch (top), shown in this composite photo, helped dial up the tension for this weekend's race at Bristol Motor Speedway. (AP Photos)
As the Chase approaches, the drama is building, and nearly everything that happened Sunday at Michigan International Speedway added to the tension.
Joey Logano won, another wrinkle in an already compelling wild-card race. Jimmie Johnson flopped at a track where his superior Hendrick horsepower was supposed to put him up front contending for yet another win while Austin Dillon, a future star in the sport, salvaged a 14th-place finish, showing the kind of poise that impresses team owners and sponsors alike.
Kurt Busch continued his manic march toward the Chase by finishing third, propelling his single-car Furniture Row Racing team into the top 10 in points. Then, after the race, it came to light that Busch has an offer on the table to drive a fourth car for Stewart-Haas Racing next season and Mark Martin will be making his return to Bristol Motor Speedway this weekend behind the wheel of Tony Stewart’s No. 14 machine.
So where do we start?
Logano’s finish seems to be the logical place. By holding off Kevin Harvick over the final laps, Logano put himself squarely in a crowded wild-card race, joining four drivers between 10th and 15th in the points standings with at least one win.
With two wild-card spots up for grabs, there could be a handful of desperate people willing to do some desperate things for a win this Saturday night at BMS. That sounds like a recipe for excitement to me.
The other interesting aspect of Logano’s win was that a Ford engine landed in Victory Lane at a track where horsepower is such a deciding factor. All season long, engines built by Rick Hendrick and Toyota Racing Development have been jockeying for supremacy.
After some dependability issues early in the season, the folks at TRD throttled down the horsepower in their engines while they worked to find a solution. So at Indianapolis and Pocono, Hendrick’s horsepower was dominant. The top four finishers at the Brickyard had Hendrick engines, as did four of the top five finishers at Pocono.
Sunday was the day TRD was supposed to take off the gloves and go full throttle, making Michigan the venue for a horsepower showdown between TRD and Hendrick. But as it turned out, a Ford engine won the race and a Hendrick engine didn’t crack the top five. Clint Bowyer, who finished fifth, was TRDs top performer, but he wasn’t fast enough to lead a single lap all day.
To make matters worse for Hendrick, Johnson blew an engine early in the race and finished 40th. He has already locked up a spot in the Chase, but this past weekend was one to forget for the five-time series champ. A wreck in practice put Johnson in a backup car, forcing him to start at the back of the pack.
The fact that his backup ride was actually the car Johnson is planning to run in the first race of the Chase provided a potential silver lining to the situation. Johnson could have had a whole race to get a feel for the vehicle before running it in Chicago next month, but the engine trouble ended his day almost before it started, robbing the team of a valuable test session.
Lost in the shuffle on Sunday was Dillon’s 14th-place result. After being caught up in a wreck early, Dillon kept his composure and salvaged a decent day at the track. The ability to make the most of a bad situation is a rare skill, and Dillon’s run at MIS will move him a step closer to a full-time Cup ride down the road.
For now, Martin will take over in Stewart’s No. 14 machine for at least this week’s race at BMS. Martin hasn’t raced in Bristol since 2011, so his last-minute inclusion in the IRWIN Tools Night Race will be a pleasant consolation prize for ticket holders who are disappointed about not seeing Stewart race under the lights.
That brings us to the continuing saga of Kurt Busch, quite possibly the most interesting man in NASCAR. Following Busch’s progress in a Cup race is like watching Happy Gilmore play a round of golf. One minute he’s hitting a 400-yard drive onto the green, the next minute he’s choking his caddy in a fit of rage.
Busch dominated the early portion of the race before a series of miscues in the pits left him mired too far back to win. He eventually finished third, but not before browbeating his pit crew over the radio in much the same way Vince Lombardi used to verbally abuse the ’67 Packers.
By the time the dust cleared, Busch had somehow managed to score another top-five finish, propelling him to ninth in points and in position to make the Chase. Busch’s exploits have not gone unnoticed, and now he has an offer on the table to drive a fourth car for SHR next season.
When Jim Utter of the Charlotte Observer broke this story Sunday night, my thought process went something like this: First, does Tony Stewart know about this? He’s sitting at home, hopped up on painkillers, and somebody is fixing to sign one of his most hated rivals to his race team.
Second, what must Ryan Newman be thinking right now? Stewart, one of Newman’s best friends, told him a couple weeks ago that he didn’t have room for him in SHR’s three-car lineup. Now he’s ready to start a fourth team for a guy even Roger Penske can’t put up with?
And finally, the million-dollar idea hit me. Danica Patrick, Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch star in a season-long "Hard Knocks: NASCAR" on HBO.
Talk about must-see TV.
Dave Ongie covers motorsports for the Times-News. On Twitter, he is @KTNSportsOngie. Reach him via email at email@example.com. You can hear him Monday mornings at 9:05 on “Good Morning Tri-Cities” with Tom Taylor on 870 AM and 100.7 FM.