By David Morgan, NASCAR Editor
EDITOR’S NOTE: Each week NASCAR Editor David Morgan will break down the top storylines from the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. This week, we break down the Pure Michigan 400 from Michigan International Speedway.
The Two-Mile King
There’s something about two-mile tracks that just fits Kyle Larson’s driving style. Since breaking though for his first Cup Series win at Michigan last August, Larson is undefeated on two-mile tracks, winning at Auto Club Speedway earlier this season, followed up by a sweep of both Michigan races to give him three straight Michigan wins.
This go around it didn’t look like Larson would be in the running for the win, but in the closing laps, the No. 42 Chevrolet came out of nowhere to be in position when it mattered most, capitalizing on a late race restart in overtime to get past Martin Truex, Jr. and score the victory.
Larson was so confident he could hold off Truex that he started celebrating over the radio down the backstretch on the final lap, only to be told to finish the race first by his crew.
With the win, Larson joins Bill Elliott and David Pearson as the only drivers to win at least three straight races at Michigan.
“That’s some awesome company for sure,” said Larson. “No, it was an awesome finish for us. Kind of a struggle all day, honestly. I felt like we were ‑‑ I was good and I could find clean air on my car, but any time I’d get any bit of dirty air or any bit of the wake from the car in front of me, I’d get extremely loose, even when I wasn’t close to anybody. We definitely didn’t have the car that we had here the last two times we won, but we kept fighting, probably even harder than we did in those other two wins.”
“Caught a caution at the right time there to line up eighth on fresh tires, got to fifth, and then edged in front of Chase for fourth as the caution was coming out, and that allowed me to line up behind Martin and get a good restart.”
“I was running a few different options through my head under that red flag of what to do, and that one was one of them, and it played out exactly how I had hoped.”
“Yeah, so this win feels amazing to steal one in a way, and my other three wins I felt like we had the first or second-best car, but today at times I didn’t think we were a top 10 car. But to get the win that way is awesome.”
Truex Keeps Racking Up Stage Points
Tell me if this sounds familiar, Martin Truex, Jr. racks up yet another stage victory, giving him more playoff points.
After winning the second stage of Sunday’s race, his 15th of the season, Truex looked to be in prime position to score his fifth win of the year before getting passed late by Larson.
Even without the win, Truex pads his playoff points lead even more, now with 35 playoff points at his disposal, nearly doubling the next closest driver, Larson, who has 18 playoff points, giving him a clear advantage when the playoffs start, especially if he can hold onto the points lead through the end of the regular season.
Heading to Bristol, Truex has a massive 129-point lead over Larson with three races remaining before the playoffs start.
“I think it’s really neat,” said Truex. “You know, I mean, I’ve been — this is my fourth year with Furniture Row Racing and I feel like we’ve come a long way since where we started. We’ve made good decisions on partnerships, and we’ve been fortunate to get in some good situations. You know, we’re a small team, but we’re by no means underfunded or an underdog because of the alliance we have and the partnership with Toyota and those type of things.”
“It’s neat for our guys to be in Denver, kind of do things different, especially for Barney, our owner. People 10 years, 11 years ago told him it couldn’t be done out of Denver. I think that’s a sense of pride that our guys in particular carry around with them.”
“But aside from that, I think that the last couple years we’ve shown that we belong and we’re not going anywhere. We don’t connect like it’s such a big deal anymore.”
Mixed Bag for Michigan Natives
Anytime a driver can win a race at their home track, it’s a big deal. In Sunday’s race at Michigan, two drivers who are from the state looked to have a chance at the win, but both had vastly different outcomes when the checkered flag flew.
Rookie Erik Jones (Byron, Michigan), finished just outside the top-10 in his first Cup Series race at the track earlier this season, but this go around he would have two more months of experience under his belt and the advantage of Toyota being on the upswing.
After starting eighth, Jones would lead five laps on two different occasions and found himself behind his Furniture Row Racing teammate Martin Truex, Jr. in the closing laps. When the red flag flew just prior to overtime, Jones was in a prime position to get past Truex and score the win, but both were surpassed by eventual winner Kyle Larson.
Even though he wasn’t able to win the race, Jones still finished third, tying his best career finish.
“We got that red flag, and it gives you a lot of time to at least play through different scenarios on the restart and how you want it to work out,” said Jones. “It’s very rare it actually works out the way you picture in your head, but yeah, you definitely ponder what that would be like. You know, seemed like right off the bat on the restart Martin and I would kind of match lap times for a few laps, and Martin would start to inch away after a couple laps. I knew we had a shot right on the restart. We were just as quick I felt like right off the bat, and it would have been nice to be able to seal the deal for sure.”
Early on, it looked like Keselowski, who hails from Rochester Hills, Michigan might finally be able to score his first win at Michigan after starting the race on pole. Keselowski would lead five times for 105 laps in the race, but handling issues caused him to fade late, ultimately finishing 17th, his worst finish since Kentucky.
“It just didn’t come together there at the end, but it was nice to lead a bunch of laps,” said Keselowski. “That was good and something I was really proud of, but I just didn’t have enough to really run with the 77 and the 78. We tried a little strategy to kind of get something out of it, but the way it all played out I ended up getting the bottom lane on the restarts and getting absolutely swallowed. We tried. We put in as much effort as we could. We knew we didn’t have as much as those two, but we gave it 100 percent effort and I was really proud of my team for that.”
“I feel like we left it all out on the race track. There isn’t much more you can do than that. I feel like this is probably the best race I’ve run as a driver here and it just wasn’t enough.”
Chevrolet Comes Out on Top in Manufacturer Battle
Heading into Sunday’s race, the big storyline was the back and forth between Brad Keselowski, a Ford driver, and the Toyota camp after Keselowski made some comments about them possibly sandbagging.
Throughout the race, all three manufacturers had their turn up front with Keselowski and Ford leading early, followed by Toyota taking over, and Chevrolet ultimately taking the win with Kyle Larson, their third straight.
Coming out on top of the other manufacturers in the race is just the icing on the top of a big week for Chevrolet after they unveiled their new car for 2018, the Camaro ZL1, which will replace the outgoing Chevrolet SS model at season’s end.
“There’s a lot of pride,” said Jim Campbell, Vice President, Performance Vehicles and Motorsports for Chevrolet. “It really is a lot of pride. What we’ll do is we’ll take this back to our headquarters tomorrow and have a chance to celebrate the race win, having the trophy here for the rest of this year. This is our third time in a row, sixth time overall. When it’s not at our headquarters, it feels like something is missing, so this is always an important win for us, and obviously taking this back to celebrate ‑‑ it’s a point of pride more than anything.”
The playoff picture looked to be in for a big shakeup after both Joey Logano and Clint Bowyer ran into trouble late in the going at Michigan while Matt Kenseth, who remains as the 16th and final driver currently in on points was running up front. Kenseth would wind up falling all the way back to 24th after cutting a tire in the closing laps, finishing behind Bowyer in the running order.
With three races remaining in the regular season, three drivers (Chase Elliott, Jamie McMurray, and Kenseth) can currently make it in on points, while Bowyer remains within striking distance to be able to make it in on points as well. Everyone else will need a win to be able to make it into the 16-driver playoff field.
After Michigan, the points bubble looks like this: Elliott (+62 over 17th), McMurray (+52), Kenseth (+31), Bowyer (-31 behind 16th), Logano (-102).
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