For the second time in as many races at the two-mile track that is Michigan International Speedway, a familiar face ended the day in victory lane as Kyle Larson won Sunday’s FireKeepers Casino 400 to notch a second victory in 2017. In addition to Larson’s triumph, here are five of the top storylines leaving Michigan.
Larson’s Win Keeps NASCAR’s Youth Movement Going
For the fifth time in 2017 and fourth time in the last six races, a driver with less than five years in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series was on top of the leaderboard when the checkered flag flew and keeps showing that we are truly in the midst of the changing of the guard in the sport.
In addition to Larson ending the day in victory lane with his second win of the season, Chase Elliott, who is set to win his first race sooner rather than later came home second. Wins by rookies Daniel Suarez and Erik Jones seem like good possibilities this season as well, with both running well in their inaugural campaign in NASCAR’s top division.
At this point, Larson, who is now back on top of the point standings heading to Sonoma, is making a big case for his chances of walking away with the title at the end of the season. Some of his fellow younger drivers are liable to be in that conversation down the stretch as well.
Truex Keeps Racking Up Stage Wins
Though Martin Truex, Jr. wasn’t able to win Sunday’s race despite leading the most laps, he added another two stage wins to his total of 10 for the season, giving him the current playoff points lead if the playoffs were to start today with 20 playoff points.
Truex’s stage win total is more than double that of his next closest competitor, Kyle Busch, and he holds a five point lead in playoff points over Jimmie Johnson.
Even with the lead in stage wins and playoff points, Truex was still disappointed with not being able to seal the deal down the stretch at Michigan.
“We had the best car out there without a doubt – just inside lane restarts at the end killed us, so just stinks when you have to race like that, you know,” said Truex. “You get just in a bad spot and there’s nothing you can do about it. We seen it the last couple restarts, so just wrong place. Probably should have took two tires that last time we pitted – we took four. That killed us. Just wrong lane on the restart every single time all day long and couldn’t use the best car to win.”
If Truex and his No. 78 team continue to rack up the stage wins, that advantage in the playoffs will serve the well as the season crawls toward crowning a champion in November.
The Infamous Debris Caution Rears Its Ugly Head Again
With the advent of the stages for 2017, the frequency of debris cautions has gone down dramatically this season, but at Michigan, a debris caution at lap 181 for seemingly no reason at all, would change the entire complexion of the race.
Kyle Busch held a sizable lead when the caution flag flew, but on the ensuing restart, not only would Busch lose the lead for good to eventual race winner Kyle Larson, but the yellow would also cause calamity further back in the field.
On the lap 187 restart, Clint Bowyer would wash up the track and slapped the outside wall in Turn 2, ending the top-10 run that Bowyer had going at that point.
When the race went back green at lap 191, more trouble would be in store for the Stewart-Haas Racing stable as Ryan Blaney got extremely loose off of Turn 2 and slid up in front of Kevin Harvick. Harvick would pull to the inside of Blaney, along with Daniel Suarez, sandwiching Harvick in the middle. Darrell Wallace, Jr. would make contact with Suarez, sending his Toyota shooting off to the left, where Danica Patrick had nowhere to go. The ensuing contact sent Patrick for a spin, resulting in an impact with the inside backstretch wall.
She would climb from the car and was OK, but Sunday’s hit was another in a long line of hits that she has taken this season.
Tony Stewart, car owner for three of the cars involved in the late race cautions, was not happy about the debris caution that caused all of the misfortune for his drivers and said as much with a Tweet after the race clearly geared toward NASCAR.
It’s a shame that so many drivers and teams day was ruined by the results of another “debris” caution towards the end of the race today.
— Tony Stewart (@TonyStewart) June 18, 2017
In addition to Stewart tweeting about the caution, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. also had some things to say about it during his post-race Periscope session.
“With the stages, I don’t know why they need to throw so many damn debris yellows,” Earnhardt said. “I mean, the purpose of having stages was really because the networks want more cautions, more restarts, because people tune in when we have a caution. They tune in for the restart. So, that’s the whole reason why we have the stages, is to try to create a little more drama. I don’t know why we keep throwing the damn debris yellows and stuff.”
On Monday morning, the backlash prompted NASCAR to comment on the debris caution.
“We use all the resources that we have to try to identity what it is that is out there – that being cameras, turn spotters and the communication that we’ve got around the race track to different people that may be able to see it,” said Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition.
“If we actually are able to identify what it is and feel like it’s something that is OK to leave out there, then we’ll do so. But if we can’t identify what it is exactly, and it could pose something dangerous, then we’ll usually, or almost always, err on the side of caution and safety and put the caution out in those circumstances. Sometimes it’s untimely and a little bit unfortunate, but we do have to do our job and make sure that everybody is safe.”
Logano Bounces Back at Michigan, Makes Special Announcement
Since winning* at Richmond in April and having his win declared as encumbered, Joey Logano and his No. 22 team have struggled to recapture their early season performance, finishing no better than 21st in the five races that followed, but at Michigan, Logano looked to be back to 100%, bringing home a third place finish on the day.
The finish wasn’t as easy as it seemed as he finished Stage 1 in ninth place and Stage 2 outside of the top-10. However, their saving grace came as a result of the lap 181 debris caution when Logano came down pit road for four tires, which would serve him well in the closing laps.
Slotting into third place after the final restart, Logano held his ground in front of Denny Hamlin, scoring his best finish since his Richmond win.
“You have no idea how good this feels,” said Logano. “It’s been a struggle the last month-and-a-half and it’s nice to come here to Michigan, maybe our best race track and be able to overcome a lot. I’m not sure we had a third-place car today but the team executed like they needed to get the Shell-Pennzoil Ford into the top-three. Proud of the effort. I wish I could have the last restart back. I think I could have gotten to second. I wasn’t able to stay attached to the 42. I had a good start but the whole bottom lane was able to stack up really good and push ahead and then Denny (Hamlin) slid up in front of us; just racing there. Turning the momentum a bit and bringing home a solid top-five and change things.”
In addition to his best finish since April, Logano made a special Father’s Day announcement after the race that he and his wife Brittany would be expecting their first child early in 2018.
Wanted to announce this in Victory lane. Thrilled to say Brittany and I are expecting a Little Logano on 1/11/18 pic.twitter.com/Nu3neBjqov
— Joey Logano (@joeylogano) June 18, 2017
Joe Gibbs Racing Improves, but Still Winless in 2017
Since the start of the season, Joe Gibbs Racing as a whole has been off their game, with the organization’s winless streak dating back to Carl Edwards win at Texas in November of last season. Through the first 15 races of the season, the team has had chances to win races, but for one reason or another has yet to find their way to victory lane.
Sunday’s race at Michigan was possibly their best of the season, with three of their four cars in the top-11 when the checkered flag flew.
Denny Hamlin led the way for the team with his third top-five of the season, while Kyle Busch led three times for 40 laps before finishing seventh, seeing his chances to win disappear when the lap 181 debris caution flew.
“Really good car,” said Hamlin. “You know, everything we needed to do we did. Had one little hiccup on pit road, but for the most part we ran really well all day, had good speed in our Camry and pretty happy.”
“I mean, you keep battling in the top-five and eventually you’ll have your chance. Cautions will fall just perfectly for you and pit stops – we know we can gain spots on pit road. We didn’t do that really today, but good effort nonetheless.”
While Hamlin was happy with his run, Busch was not after finding himself in position to win again, but falling short and elected not to talk to the media after the race.
If JGR is able to continue their upward trajectory, it’s only a matter of time before one of their drivers wins a race. However, they are running out of time with just 11 races remaining in the regular season.