Posted: 11:34 am Monday, August 29th, 2016
By Doug "Fireball" Turnbull
Kyle Larson had his day Sunday – finally. His berth in the 2016 Chase for the Sprint Cup came at the expense of a Chase…Chase Elliott, that is. The two battled over the last half of the race and Larson, in his third full Sprint Cup season, got that coveted first Cup win in his 99th-career start. Sunday’s Pure Michigan 400.
Flag to Flag: Larson’s flight to the front was not an easy endeavor and almost did not come to be. The 200-lap race did not have a single dominator. Joey Logano (finished 10th) started on the pole and led 24 laps, but the handle on the No. 22 went away and Logano could not get it back. He ceded the top spot to Kevin Harvick (5th), whose 33 laps led were the day’s third-most. Harvick stayed in the hunt all day, but a blistered front tire after spinning it leaving the pits caused him to lose spots after his second-to-last pit stop.
One driver that looked prime to turn his season around was Jimmie Johnson (6th), who led 37 laps at the race’s midpoint. Johnson gave up the lead just after halfway when he pitted with what he thought was a flat tire on a caution just after a pit stop. Johnson hasn’t won in months and this chance slipped away.
Johnson’s misfortune brought teammate Chase Elliott (2nd) to the point, but Larson passed Elliott on a lap 125 restart. Elliott struggled on restarts, buzing his rear tires twice on the day. Larson had the race locked up, but the final green flag pit stops around lap 155 looked to doom Larson’s day.
Larson’s crew had a bit of a slow change on the right front and his two second lead evaporated as Elliott barely beat him off the end of pit road. Larson lined up in traffic behind both Harvick and Brad Keselowski (3rd). His time spent trying to pass those two champions handed the race to Elliott, who carried a two second lead when Michael Annett’s (33rd) flat tire with 13 laps to go brought out a yellow.
Elliott, Larson, Keselowski,and Ryan Blaney (4th) did not pit for tires, but the rest of the leaders did. Elliott again chose the outside lane with 10 laps to go with Larson to the inside, just as he had on the lap 125 restart. Just like on lap 125, Elliott lined up in front of his friend and fellow rookie Blaney, and wanted a push. And much like before, the plan went awry.
On the older tires, Elliott and Larson both spun their tires and couldn’t get traction as they were pushed by Blaney and Keselowski. Larson did shoot into the lead with Keselowski in tow and Elliott 3rd. Elliott spent a few laps tracking down and passing Keselowski, but could never get within a second of the determined Larson.
With tears in his eyes, Larson took the checkered flag and proceeded to do a tremendous burnout with his steering wheel out of the window. Many drivers came to Victory Lane to congratulate the 24-year-old California native, who dedicated the win to his fallen friend Bryan Clauson. After losing over 50 points the last two races and falling out of the Chase, Larson both got into the playoffs and got his first-career win. This makes for three first-time winners in all three NASCAR national series: Larson, Michael McDowell in the Xfinity Series, and Brett Moffitt in the Camping World Truck Series. That’s special.
NASCAR’s low downforce package that ran again at Michigan International Speedway as it did at Kentucky Speedway was at least a mild success. There were green flag passes for the lead and good cars seemed to work their way forward, though there could have been more passing. Still, the race was quality and rain was not an issue for the Cup Series, at least (the NCWTS race was delayed Saturday). This was a good race weekend.
Top 10: Larson; Elliott; Keselowski (used fuel strategy to lead some laps and get in the top 5); Blaney (ran in the top 10 all day); Harvick; Johnson (gained some of the lost spots back in the last runs); Carl Edwards (surprisingly the best Joe Gibbs Racing car of the day); Jamie McMurray (third-straight 8th place finish, 5th top 10 last seven races); Denny Hamlin (had some time near the front, but faded in the second half); Logano.
The Chase Bubble: Larson’s win gets him in the 16-driver Chase field. This knocks Ryan Newman (-15) out and puts McMurray on the bubble spot. Elliott (+27) is less safe than he was, since there is a big gap between Newman and the drivers behind him and Austin Dillon (+21) needs to have two clean races to make his first Chase. This also leaves Kasey Kahne, Trevor Bayne, Ryan Blaney, and A.J. Allmendinger all in dire need of a win the next two weeks, since they are all at least a full race’s worth of points behind McMurray. Chris Buescher had engine trouble and finished 35th, but stayed in the top 30 in the standings, since David Ragan was only 29th in the race. He has a seven point cushion to make the Chase.
NSCS RaceTweet: Larson and Elliott duke it out to get first win and Larson does it at Michigan. Finally! And welcome to the Chase!
Handsome Boy Modeling School Stud of the Race: Kyle Larson – He barely led the most laps and redeemed his pit road loss of the lead by gaining it on the money restart at the end. Larson is starting to consistently run well and only needs to some luck to really run for a title now.
North Korean Missile Dud: Joey Logano – This really isn’t fair, since he did lead some laps and won the pole. But Logano won this race with the same rules package in June and should have been a contender. Instead, he faded quickly and stayed out of the conversation most of the day.
Never Fear, Underdog is Here: Greg Biffle – That’s how things are for Roush Fenway Racing these days. They truly are underdogs. But after the entire three-car team struggled the whole day, The Biff at least brought the No. 16 home 11th. Good work at Ford and Roush’s home track.
Ghost Driver: Matt Kenseth – For as good as JGR has run all year, most of their Toyota fleet was off Sunday and Kenseth, though decent, was invisible much of the race. He finished right about where he ran all day, in 13th.
You Can Comeback, But You Can’t Stay Here: Brad Keselowski – There weren’t really any good comeback stories Sunday, but Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe took a 14th-place car, a bad 18th-place starting spot, and used fuel strategy to get another podium finish. This resiliency will bode well in the Chase.
Wheel of Misfortune: Alex Bowman – Bowman’s second stint in the No. 88 as a Dale Earnhardt Jr substitute had higher highs and lower lows than that New Hampshire race a few months ago. Bowman started 6th, quickly drove to 4th, but had an issue with the EFI system in the car and had to go to the garage for a reset. He placed 30th, but should have gotten a top 10. He has shown what he can do in good equipment and is positioning himself for good teams’ notice in 2017.
Jimmie Johnson’s Golden Horseshoe: Chris Buescher – Buescher’s engine trouble could have meant a 40th-place finish and really hurt his Chase hopes. But since Ragan finished where he was supposed to, Buscher only lost a few points and is still in the playoffs.
Head-Scratcher Crown of Thorns: NASCAR may really be working on a plan to limit Cup driver-involvement in the NXS and NCWTS. In a recent “Door, Bumper, Clear” podcast (which is very much worth listening to for an inside racing look), Brett Griffin, who spots for Clint Bowyer in the NSCS and Elliott Sadler in the NXS, said that word around the garage is that NASCAR and the teams have been discussing this change that fans have longed for for years. That is total speculation, but often there is fire where there is smoke.
16 of 23 races have been won by full-time NSCS drivers in the NXS this season, including Kyle Busch astoundingly winning three races in a row twice. In a season where the Joe Gibbs Racing cars are running laps around the field, putting one of the sport’s best drivers behind the wheel is a lethal combination. Busch and Kyle Larson each have won a NCWTS race this year, but NSCS driver domination in that series is nothing like it is in the NXS, where drivers regularly step down and run, to get a feel for how the track and cars might react for Sunday’s race.
Totally eliminating Cup drivers from these series is impossible, because of the sponsorship they draw. But we have seen the NXS stand alone races this year be a lot more interesting with limited Cup driver involvement. Sure, Michael McDowell, who is primarily a Cup driver, won this weekend’s Road America NXS race. But he had never won in any NASCAR series before. If Busch, Joey Logano, Kevin Harvick, or Brad Keselowski had been in that great equipment, they likely would have beaten the less-experienced drivers in that series.
NASCAR announced another move last week, allowing kids under 12 to attend NXS and NCWTS races for free starting in 2017. Doing this and then limiting Cup drivers in these series to, say, five races a year will really help the product and make both more likely to attend and watch.
NXS RaceTweet: Michael McDowell finally gets that elusive NASCAR win, taking Road America and making the world forget he’s a Cup driver.
NCWTS RaceTweet: Brett Moffitt shows he’s deserving of a full-time ride at MIS, stealing his first-career win.
Georgia On My Mind: Chase Elliott’s story has been laid out in full already. He had it won, but will learn from his mistakes and just needs a couple of clean races to make the Chase in his rookie year.
David Ragan started 32nd and had an invisible day, placing 29th and helping Buescher stay inside the top 30 in points. Reed Sorenson had a similar day – clean and slow. He placed 36th.
Saturday’s NXS race at Road America saw two Georgia drivers overcome trouble. Ryan Sieg started in the back, after not completing a qualifying lap, and finishing 14th. He has a 15 point lead over Dakoda Armstrong for the 12th and final Chase spot.
Brandon Jones was outside the top 25 before the last caution, but rebounded to 16th at the finish.
Garrett Smithley was not so lucky, scoring a dead-last 40th-place finish, after wrecking on the second lap. Smithley normally has stayed out of trouble this season, but not at Road America.
The NCWTS Michigan race Saturday as decent for John Wes Townley, as he started from the pole. He ended the day 12th, which isn’t bad, considering all the drivers that wrecked.
Next: The NSCS and NXS teams tackle the Track Too Tough to Tame, Darlington Speedway, in South Carolina. The NXS cars run at 3 p.m. Saturday on NBC and the NSCS campaigns the Southern 500 Sunday at 6 p.m. on NBC. The NCWTS runs Sunday at 2:30 p.m. on FS1 at the Canadian Tire Motorsport Park. All races can be heard on MRN and Sirius/XM Channel 90. It’ll be a fun Labor Day weekend.