NASCAR Pre-Race Media: 5 burning questions for Sunday’s FireKeepers Casino 400 (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN, MRN)

Can Penske/Harvick Top Hendrick/JGR Sunday?

Sunday’s race at the Michigan International Speedway should be a battle of Joe Gibbs Racing vs. Hendrick Motorsports. JGR has seen Denny Hamlin finish runner-up in two of his last three Michigan starts with four top eights in his last five there overall. Kyle Busch has six straight top sixes in the Irish Hills while Martin Truex Jr. has four straight top five results including six top sixes in his last eight overall.

But, HMS may have something to say about it.

Kyle Larson is in the HMS camp now and has three Michigan wins overall. Chase Elliott has nine top 10 finishes in 10 Michigan tries including three runner-ups. William Byron and Alex Bowman should be vastly improved now too.

But, you also can’t sleep on Kevin Harvick. He swept Michigan last year and won the August race the year prior. Harvick, has four wins in his last five Michigan tries including five top twos in his last six in the Irish Hills overall.

The winner should come from these nine drivers. That’s if Team Penske doesn’t have something to say about it too.

Joey Logano won the spring race in 2019 and has five top 10 finishes in his last six Michigan starts including 14 in his last 16 there overall.

Brad Keselowski has never won on his homestate track before but he’s been close. Keselowski, has four top six finishes in his last six tries.

Ryan Blaney has four top 10’s in his last six Michigan starts too.

See where this is going to be interesting. That’s eight drivers between the JGR and HMS camps but throw in the Penske trio and Harvick and you get 12 total drivers there.

The key is though, Hendrick Motorsports hasn’t won a race at Michigan since 2014 while Ford has won six. Toyota hasn’t won at Michigan since 2015 as that’s their lone MIS win in their last 16 tries.

Can Harvick Win 4 In-A-Row?

Kevin Harvick swept the race weekend last year in Michigan. He also won the August race on the 2-mile oval in 2019 too. That’s three straight victories in the Irish Hills for the Stewart-Haas Racing driver. He became the fourth overall driver to ever win three straight races in Michigan. David Pearson swept both races in 1972, won the June race in 1973 but finished third from the pole in his quest for a fourth straight win that in 1974 (no 2nd race in 1973). He would win the next two after though for five wins in six Michigan tries during that span.

Kyle Larson won in Aug. 2016 and then swept both races in 2017. He’d finish 28th in June of 2018.

Bill Elliott actually swept both races in 1985 and again in 1986 as the only driver to win four straight races. He won the August race in 1987 for five wins in six tries himself.

Can Harvick join Elliott in elite company on Sunday?

Harvick has won four of his last five Michigan starts, so a win would be like Elliott and Pearson in the sense that he’d have five in six tries. He was also runner-up in the June 2018 race to give him five top two’s in his last six tries.

The odds are good for him to win again, but will he?

Harvick hasn’t finished better than fourth since May 2 at the Kansas Speedway. In fact, the runner-up that day is his only finish better than fourth all year (24 races). He only has six top five results on the season. Is he ready to win?

Is This Larson’s Time To Shine Again?

Kyle Larson has been the best driver all around this season. He enters this weekend with four trips to victory lane in his No. 5 Chevrolet and with how things are expected to go for Sunday’s race, for him to not come out of Michigan with another win in the victory column may be surprising.

See, Larson has been great on 2-mile ovals in the past. These realistically were his best tracks.

At one point, Larson had won three straight races in Michigan. He won the second of two stops in 2016 and swept the year in 2017. In three NXS starts at Michigan (2013, 2014, 2015) he finished second, eighth and third respectively.

What about Fontana?

Larson, had five top two finishes in his first seven Cup starts there. In NXS competition at Fontana, Larson finished sixth, first, seventh, eighth and first respectively.

Between Michigan and Fontana, that’s eight top eight finishes in as many tries. For Cup, he had four wins and two runner-ups.

He’s not been as great since though. In 2018 at Michigan, he was 28th and 17th respectively. In 2019, he was 14th and third. He obviously didn’t race at Michigan last year. He was 12th in Fontana in 2019 too.

Now though, he’s with Hendrick Motorsports. He’ll have better equipment. If he had great success on 2-mile tracks before, wouldn’t he be better now?

He needs to do so anyways. After a hot streak between May and June races that saw him finish in the top two in six straight races including eight of nine if you include the All-Star race at Texas, he’s since finished 16th in Road America, 18th in Atlanta, 7th in Loudon, won at Watkins Glen and third last week in Indy.

Granted, three of those five races were on road courses, but Loudon has always been a precursor for the Phoenix race and Larson was otherwise nonexistent that day. Same for Atlanta. After dominating the spring race to where he nearly led the whole way and finished second, he didn’t lead a single lap and finished outside the top 10 too.

He’s finding speed again but they weren’t on ovals. Michigan is a good barometer to see where Larson’s team stands.

Pit Strategy?

Michigan this weekend is key for a lot of drivers because it’s honestly the final chance to make your own success. What I mean by that is, Daytona is a wildcard. Want to control your own destiny? You better do so in Michigan on Sunday.

Heading into this weekend, 13 drivers know that they’re into the postseason via race wins. That leaves three wildcard spots for realistically four drivers right now who can points their way in.

For everyone else, Sunday’s race is all about just going for the win. That includes the 13 guys who’ve already won this year and anyone 18th on back in points who’ve not yet either.

We know Stage points are going to be key for Kevin Harvick, Tyler Reddick and Austin Dillon as these two are vying for those few bubble spots. Same for Kyle Larson and Denny Hamlin who are going for those 15 playoff points for being the regular season champion. They need the points and trends say if they do so, they could come out a winner on Sunday too.

See, since the stage era began in 2017, all six Michigan races were won by a driver getting stage points in the first stage. Four of the six opening stages saw the eventual race winner come home in the top three. In 2019, the last year of a normal race distance here, the drivers that won the race ended up giving up Stage points in the second stage and positioning themselves for the win in the end.

With just a few guys on the playoff bubble needing points, they may elect for stage points instead of the race win which would set up nicely for some favorites to pit at the end of the second stage and be up front for the final push at a win.

Here’s the kicker, those that may be in position to points their way in can not have to worry about Daytona next Saturday night if they’d just win this Sunday. A win guarantees you into the postseason. So, how do you play it out?

The guys that heave already won a race this year can go aggressive and swing for the fences. So can the guys that are facing must wins that aren’t into the playoffs yet. The bubble drivers fighting for the wildcard spots needs points, but they’d sure like a win too.

Do you play it conservative and just get max stage points on Sunday? Do you throw away points and go for a win? What if you do that and don’t win?

That’s why strategy is going to be the name of the game this weekend.

Is Road Course Fatigue Settling In/Was This A Rough Season For New Events?

The new events on the 2021 Cup Series season are now over. The final 12 weeks will be back to normal as it would have been with Michigan and Daytona closing out the regular season followed by the same 10 playoff tracks as a year ago. With that said, how did the new events look for this year?

We had a record seven road courses with six of them already in the books. We also had a dirt race at Bristol in Cup and a dirt race in Knoxville for the Truck Series. Did road course fatigue set in now?

It kind of sounds like that. The drivers warned us of that heading into the season with them saying it’s good to add some road courses to the mix but we have to be careful what we wish for in the sense that there’s a thing as “too much of a good thing” in this aspect. 

I think most thought the road courses would be like wildcard events but instead, they were wildly predictable. Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing were the class of the field in every one of them again with the only race that they didn’t win this season being last Sunday in Indianapolis. Still, they should have won that race too. 

A week after HMS/JGR went 1-2-3-4-5-6-7, prior to the late caution with 10 to go, they ran 1-2-3-4-5-6. They’ve won 12 of the last 14 road courses and should be 6-for-6 this season as well as going 2-for-2 last year. 

They went 1-3 in Daytona, 1-2 in COTA, 1-2-3-5 in Sonoma, 1-2-3-5 in Road America and 1-2-3-4-5-6-7 in Watkins Glen at that. 

Were they good races? Daytona wasn’t terrible but the caution for weather that should have never flown wasn’t a good look. Mother nature ruined COTA, Sonoma and Watkins Glen were pretty straightforward races while Road America and Indy had their moments of very good racing, it’s safe to say that they didn’t bring the wildness that I think most were expecting for road course racing. Was it an improvement over the ovals we lost for them? I can’t say with 100% certainty that they were. 

We’ll see what happens with the new car next year. 

What about the new events? Bristol started rough with all the rain and delaying the inaugural event to Monday. Not a great first impression unfortunately. COTA too was hampered by rain and ended early due to that fact. Indy had their problems with the Turn 6 curbing and a crash fest at the end. Knoxville was a farce and embarrassing. Nashville had good racing but also had to delay the race due to parking issues.

It’s safe to say Road America was the only one that was a hit. Granted, it’s hard to land it right the first time. There’s going to be some growing pains and learning/adapting as the years go on. But, with the first time around at these new races, only one of the five was a considered a success.  

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s