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NASCAR Barometer: Johnson Finally Conquers Michigan

C.J. Radune

C.J. Radune

Radune covers NASCAR, Formula 1 and soccer for RotoWire. He was named the 2012 Racing Writer of the Year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association.

Jimmie Johnson scored his third victory of the 2014 season by playing pit strategy to perfection in Sunday's Quicken Loans 400. The six-time Sprint Cup champion did not necessarily have the fastest car in Sunday's race, but he was able to stay out front as other competitors dipped to pit road one after another in the closing laps. The win gives him three victories in the last four races, and further advances his quest for another championship.

Michigan International Speedway is a track whose history is dominated by Ford runners, but Chevrolet was able to seize the advantage last weekend. Chevy drivers dominated practice and qualifying, and took hold of the race as well. The weekend's high speeds didn't cause too many issues despite early concerns from some of the teams about the effect the blistering pace would have on equipment. The race turned into a strategic battle as a result.

Kevin Harvick led the field to the green flag with his record speed in qualifying, and led the most laps in the race. He was chasing down the No. 48 in the closing segment, but didn't have enough distance to close the gap. He settled for second place in what was Chevy's fifth consecutive victory in the 2014 season.


Jimmie Johnson -
After 24 Michigan starts without victory Johnson finally cracked the code on Sunday. The champion took his third win of the season when he played pit strategy perfectly to be well out front after the other competitors were through making late stops for fuel. With about 15 laps remaining in Sunday's race Johnson was outside of the top 20, but cycled through the cars ahead as each pulled down pit road. It was a perfect afternoon for the No. 48 team that seems to be hitting their stride and converting any kind of speed into a top finish. Johnson has one win and seven top-10 finishes from 12 career starts at Sonoma, and his current form suggests he will have something to say in next week's finish.

Kevin Harvick -
Harvick had the field's fastest car in Michigan on Sunday, but simply ran out of laps to complete his dominance with the win. The No. 4 was the class of the field, leading 63 of the race's 200 laps. When the miles wound down, though, it was Johnson who was out front. Just like he was in qualifying, Harvick was the fastest car at that time too. Harvick has three top-5s and five top-10s from his 13-race career at Sonoma Raceway, and his average finish at the California track is 15.6. He has become a better road racer in recent years, finishing in the top 10 three of his last four races there, which makes him a solid fantasy option this week.

Kasey Kahne -
One of the competitors that encountered problems early Sunday was Kahne. When Kyle Larson spun in front of him, Kahne checked up and lost control, spinning to the inside, allowing the rest of the field to race past. The No. 5 car wasn't able to recover quickly, and ran outside of the top 20 afterward. With some diligence the team continued working and gave Kahne one of the fastest cars in the closing segments. He was able to use that to his advantage and worked his way into a top-5 finishing position, reversing a terrible start to the day. Though Kahne did win the 2010 Sonoma race, he only claims three top-10 finishes at the track in 10 tries, with an average result of 20.4.

Kyle Larson -
Sunday's race didn't start well for the No. 42 team. In the first lap back to green after Brian Vickers' first-lap crash, Larson lost control out of the second turn and caused the cars behind him to scatter. He took damage to the rear of his car but continued, racing his way back into the top 20 runners mere laps later. The team removed his bumper, but that didn't hinder Larson's progress. He dropped outside of the top 30 runners before clawing his way forward again, and was ultimately able to race his way into the top 10, scoring an incredible eighth-place finish. This rookie continues to show that he has what it takes to be in Sprint Cup, and is knocking on the door of victory.


Brian Vickers -
Vickers hadn't even completed one lap before he found himself against the wall. As he tried to save his spinning car he was collected by Travis Kvapil, which eliminated any chance of a quick fix. The No. 55 didn't even have the opportunity to try to live up to expectations at Michigan. The team soldiered onward, repairing the damage and getting Vickers back out onto the track but there weren't many positions for them to pick up. The day finished with the No. 55 being recorded 90 laps behind the leaders, in 42nd position. Vickers has one Sonoma top-5, with an average finish of 19.1. Vickers has been racing well this season, and could return from this setback soon.

Kyle Busch -
At about the halfway mark of Sunday's race Busch reported smoke entering the cockpit of his No. 18. It wasn't too much longer after that initial report that the driver took his car into the garage, and out of contention for a top finish. It was a broken rear hub that effectively ended the driver's afternoon. Throughout much of the weekend in Michigan Busch was quiet, and it was somewhat unsurprising that he wasn't a factor in the race, which is unusual for him. However, this trend has become the norm for Busch recently in 2014. Busch won at Sonoma back in 2008, but only finished in the top 10 one other time in his nine career starts. His average finish at the track is 20.4.

Austin Dillon -
After strong qualifying and practice showings, Dillon was bitten by bad luck at the end of Sunday's Quicken Loans 400. The rookie was running well all afternoon, but was forced to pit twice after what should have been his final pit stop. Cut tires from debris on the track forced him down pit road to change tires on both sides of the car on consecutive laps, completely eliminating him from contention. His top run quickly evaporated and all of the trouble relegated him to a 30th-place result. It was an incredibly disappointing finish for the work he and the team put in, but Dillon will continue to work forward and focus on Sonoma Raceway this week.

Aric Almirola -
After qualifying very well for Sunday's race Almirola backed up the performance with a strong drive before being taken out of contention. The Richard Petty Motorsports driver was hanging well inside the top 10 for most of the race distance until Denny Hamlin spun and collected the rear corner of Almirola's No. 43 Ford. The spin, and damage from the infield, pushed the No. 43 car down the running order and outside of the top 30 runners. Almirola has only raced in the Sprint Cup three times at Sonoma, and his average finish is 25.3. He has no top finishes there, and his average start is 34th. It takes time to get a handle on road course racing, and Almirola is still climbing that learning curve.

Carl Edwards -
Fans were left asking what happened to Roush Fenway Racing in Michigan. The track used to be dominated by the team, and Edwards was one of the better performers. Despite his history at the track Edwards only managed to finish 23rd last week. The teammates all seemed to be off of their game, and the Chevrolet-powered squads simply ran away from them. Sunday's poor run makes it three consecutive finishes outside of the top 10 for the No. 99 team, which must now figure out where things are going wrong. Edwards could bounce back this weekend, though. His nine Sonoma starts have granted him four top-10s and an average finish of 15.6. He only failed to finish on the lead lap there once.


Justin Allgaier -
Allgaier is a name we don't get to talk about very often, but a solid performance from him and the team on Sunday certainly warrant a mention. The team was running inside the top five cars in the closing laps of Sunday's race in Michigan, and despite being one of the teams needing to make that late stop for fuel, Allgaier tallied a 16th-place finish. That result is the team's best finish in 2014, and their first top-20 run since Bristol. While fantasy players shouldn't expect Sunday's performance to be repeated this week in California, the race was a top performance for one of the sport's underdogs. On the back of this finish the team should now start the hunt for a top-15.