Jeff Gordon and his No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports team were not to be denied in Sunday's Pure Michigan 400, scoring their third victory of the season. Gordon put together a record lap to claim pole in qualifying, and was fast in every practice session, carrying his dominance all the way into Sunday's race. Despite Gordon's speed it was no cakewalk for the former champion as Joey Logano gave him a run for his money, leading long portions of the miles throughout the afternoon.
Sunday's race marked the first time in a number of weeks that the drivers could stretch their legs on a fast super speedway, and speeds were high as a result. Gordon set a track record with his qualifying effort, and many laps during the race were confidently above a 200 mph average. Equipment was pushed to its limits, and a few right-front tires fell victim to the strains of the day, but unlike June's race Sunday's event was a contest of speed instead of strategy.
Jeff Gordon - Gordon streaked away to his third victory of the season in Michigan on Sunday. His car was the class of the field despite not leading the majority of the early laps. The day was a seesaw battle between the veteran and the No. 22 of Joey Logano. Logano's Penske car did everything in its power to hold off a charging Gordon, but the final restart of the race saw the former champion drive his car deep into the turn to make his pass for the lead finally stick. Gordon could be the favorite for the championship with Sunday's win, and the rising tide could go even higher at Bristol Motor Speedway, where he has five victories in his 43-race career at the track.
Joey Logano - Logano had one of the cars to beat at Michigan on Sunday, but the No. 22 simply came up short. The young driver did well to hold off Gordon and the rest of the field through much of the race distance, but he simply wasn't fast enough to hang onto the point on the final restart. Logano can take a lot of confidence from Sunday's performance, though. The finish was Logano's fourth-consecutive top-10 finish since he notched a 40th-place finish at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Logano has struggled a bit at Bristol, though, only taking two top-10 finishes at the track from 11 career efforts. Logano and Gordon could be the two drivers with the most momentum in the series right now, though.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. - Another week produced another top-10 finish for Earnhardt. The driver of the No. 88 has only failed to finish inside the top 10 twice in the last 11 races, which is inspiring as he gears up for the season-ending Chase where he will battle to land his first Sprint Cup championship. Earnhardt drove solidly all afternoon in Michigan, and his performances this season continue to impress. He has a 12th-place average finish at Bristol through his career, and scored the win at the track in 2004. He struggled to a 24th-place finish there earlier this season, but his season is on track and he looks like he could be a serious title contender these days.
Jimmie Johnson - Despite winning June's Michigan outing, Johnson's practice and qualifying efforts did not endear him to the odds makers. The champion racer started deep in the field on Sunday, and far from the favorite on the books. The No. 48 team displayed the perseverance that has made them extremely successful, though. Johnson pitted a number of times under caution to fix a broken gearshift lever, and once the repair was complete he marched forward. By the end of the race he was back on the lead lap and racing for a top-10 finish. He ended up battling back to a ninth-place finish, which could end the No. 48's summer slump. Johnson's win and 13 top-10 finishes at Bristol bode well for another solid outing this week, too.
Kyle Busch - Busch's bad luck rolled right into Michigan on Sunday. The No. 18 car didn't show much speed throughout practice and qualifying, and was hoping to race his way forward on Sunday. Very early in the race he found himself in the wall, and then into the garage to make repairs. It was the first caution of the event, but it made three consecutive races where Busch was relegated to a dismal finish. The only piece of good news is that Busch is headed to one of his best tracks next week in Bristol. He has five wins and an average finish of 10.9 at the short track from 19 starts, and will be desperate to get momentum back on his side before the Chase.
Matt Kenseth - The strongest contender caught in Danica Patrick's spin early in Sunday's race was Kenseth. The No. 20 paid the price for a slow qualifying effort with an inability to climb through the field quickly. Kenseth suffered right-side damage to his car as a result, pushing him into the garage for repairs. Though Kenseth is the highest contender in points without a win, the team admitted they would not feel comfortable about making the Chase until they've clinched a spot. Sunday's result won't do too much to inspire more confidence. The team can look forward to Bristol, though. Kenseth has three wins and 18 top-10s from his 29-race career there.
Kyle Larson - Larson was involved in contact on pit road that put him behind the competition, but a blown right-front tire was what ended his day. He lost the tire mid-turn, and belted the wall hard, cutting oil lines and setting his car alight. He was the first to test NASCAR's new rule that competitors must stay in their cars following an incident unless “extenuating circumstances” exist. Certainly, the fire on Larson's No. 42 machine counted as an extenuating circumstance. Like Michigan was, Bristol is a place where Larson and his team can be optimistic about having a good day. After starting 20th there earlier this season he finished 10th. Larson is on the cusp of earning a spot in the Chase, and a strong run at Bristol will help.
Carl Edwards - After a strong showing two weeks ago at Watkins Glen International, Edwards disappointed in Michigan. The driver of the No. 99 qualified well, but was unable to make his way through Sunday's 400 miles without issue. The No. 99 finished two laps down to the leaders, squandering an opportunity to turn around a floundering span of races with back-to-back top-10 finishes. Instead Edwards will now focus on regrouping at Bristol. Edwards has three wins at the Tennessee bullring, along with five top-5s, and eight top-10s. His average Bristol finish is 15.2 from his 20 career tries, and he needs to turn in a top performance next week to have a good run into the Chase.
Danica Patrick - Being caught in the middle of the pack after Sunday's competition caution period was not where Patrick wanted to be. She lost control as a result of the turbulence, and collected damage as some cars behind ran into her spinning machine. It wasn't a good start for the driver looking to consistently improve, and she was behind the leaders as a result. She managed to battle back from her adversity and score an 18th-place finish, but leaves fans wondering what could have been without the spin. Patrick's Bristol record has not etched its first top-10 finish, and in four total races her average finish is just 25.2 at the bullring.
Paul Menard - Menard's effort on Sunday certainly deserves the race's biggest surprise nod. The driver of the No. 27 car has had nothing go his way since the team's last top-5 at Sonoma Raceway. The season started so strongly for Menard as he carried his strong finishes deeper in to the season than ever before, but the summer has been a steady slide backward. On Sunday, however, Menard put up decent numbers in practice and qualifying, and raced hard to a top-5 finish among strong competition. While the finish doesn't put Menard into contention for a spot in the Chase, it helps the team take small steps forward, and steps forward to an excellent 2015 may be a good investment.