BROOKLYN, Mich. – Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne survived a green-white-checkered flag finish in a caution-filled race on Sunday at Michigan to score top-five results in the 200-lap NASCAR Sprint Cup event. Their Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon were scored 27th and 28th, respectively, after engine issues affected their runs.
When the green flag first dropped for Sunday’s 200-lap event, Johnson and Earnhardt reported to the rear of the field for different reasons. Johnson, who qualified third, started in the back after replacing the engine in his No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet. Earnhardt was forced to go to his backup No. 88 Chevrolet after being involved in an incident on Saturday.
The race began relatively event-free, but on Lap 64, a bizarre and scary incident unfolded that collected both Kahne’s No. 5 Farmers Insurance Chevrolet and his pit box. Kahne was running second behind then-leader Mark Martin, when Martin was spun by lapped traffic. Martin’s car slid across the track and slammed to a stop in front of Kahne’s pit box. Once the debris was cleaned up from the No. 5 pit stall, Kahne made two trips down pit road during the yellow-flag period for tires, fuel and so the team could address any trouble spots.
On the restart, Johnson lined up fourth, Gordon 11th and Earnhardt in 13th. Kahne, told by his crew that his car appeared fine, restarted 26th. Green-flag racing lasted long enough for Earnhardt to crack the top 10 on Lap 75, but two laps later, the caution flag waved again.
The next 123 laps played out in similar fashion. Green-flag runs were broken up by frequent caution flags, and the Hendrick Motorsports teammates kept pit strategy in mind as the race unfolded.
After the second caution period, roughly 10 laps later, the teammates were preparing for the restart on Lap 93. Once the green flag dropped, Gordon reported to crew chief Alan Gustafson that he was experiencing an engine issue and suspected he had lost a cylinder. Gordon, who entered the race with two previous top-10s at Michigan, reported to the garage five laps later
“It’s a valve spring,” Gordon said while his team repaired the damage. “When you come to Michigan, you turn these kind of sustained rpms on this fast of a track; it’s always a concern and that bit us. We’ve been having a rough weekend. We’re not handling the way we were hoping, but rack position is so important that all we had to do was get track position to come out of here with a good finish and maybe even win the race.”
His teammates focused on that plan, continuing their climb through traffic at the two-mile racetrack. Earnhardt was running 10th, while Johnson was 11th and Kahne in 14th by the halfway point – Lap 100 – at Michigan. Fifteen laps later, Earnhardt inherited the lead during green-flag stops and ultimately posted his 7,000th career lap led.
When Earnhardt hit pit road on Lap 124, Johnson took over the leader spot. Earnhardt, happy with his No. 88 Chevrolet, stopped for four tires and fuel only. Johnson stopped three laps later for four tires and fuel stop. Kahne followed his teammates during the green-flag sequence for tires and fuel – crew chief Kenny Francis and Kahne agreed the No. 5 Chevy appeared to be improving.
Gordon, running on seven cylinders, returned to the track on Lap 127 in the 30th position. After green-flag stops cycled through, Earnhardt was running eighth, Johnson in ninth and Kahne in 15th.
The Hendrick Motorsports drivers opted to stay on the track when the caution flag was waved nine laps later for another spin on the track.
Earnhardt and Johnson lined up on the front row for the Lap 141 restart. The driver of the No. 88 National Guard/Diet Mountain Dew Chevrolet stormed into the lead, bringing the fans to their feet. Johnson maintained second, and Kahne held fourth, but green-flag racing was halted when the caution flag was waved three laps later for debris in Turn 3.
The restart for Lap 148 featured Earnhardt and Johnson on the front row, with Kahne on the second row in fourth. Earnhardt, who restarted on the outside, slipped by Johnson once again, and the driver of the No. 48 Chevy held steady in second. Kahne battled for third until settling into fourth.
On Lap 153, Johnson slipped by Earnhardt for the lead. The driver of the No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet started to stretch out his lead.
Earnhardt was the first Hendrick Motorsports driver to make a green-flag pit stop, which he did with 37 laps left in Sunday’s race when he gave up his second-place running position. Earnhardt stopped for right-side tires and fuel. Kahne hit pit road for his final stop one lap later for tires and fuel for his dash to the finish line.
Johnson opted to pit on Lap 166 for a slight air-pressure adjustment, right-side tires and fuel before returning to the two-mile oval.
With 30 laps left, Johnson was running 11th, Earnhardt in 12th and Kahne in 13th. Gordon managed to stay on the track in the 28th position. The Hendrick trio continually improved positions during another caution period – Lap 182 – and as the top cars were forced to make their own pit stops. Gearing up for the Lap 186 restart, Johnson was running second, Kahne third and Earnhardt in fourth.
When the green flag dropped, Johnson battled leader Brad Keselowski, but couldn’t get past him. Johnson slipped into second, while Earnhardt fell to fifth and Kahne settled into seventh after a tough restart.
Johnson tracked Keselowski and moved to the inside with 10 laps to go to take the lead. Keselowski radioed to his team, “I did everything I could. The (No. 48) is that stupid fast.''
Johnson stretched out his lead and appeared to be heading for his first victory at the Michigan oval, when an engine issue arose. The smoke and subsequent lack of power prompted a heartbroken Johnson to take his No. 48 Chevrolet to the garage. Johnson led 23 laps and was scored with a 27th-place finish.
But the issue also set up the field for a green-white-checkered flag finish, where Earnhardt would line up fourth and Kahne in fifth. The green flag dropped, and Kahne drove immediately to the bottom, while Earnhardt moved to the outside. The Hendrick Motorsports teammates aggressive attempts were rewarded with two top-five finishes – Kahne in third and Earnhardt, who led 25 laps, in fourth.