Who’s in the headline – Joe Gibbs Racing established their dominance early in the weekend and threw down the gauntlet in qualifying by putting their cars first through third, and all four in the top six. When the race started, Matt Kenseth took advantage of his 16th career pole and a very strong car to race off into the lead. From there the No. 20 dominated as Kenseth led 146 out of 200 laps to score his third win of the season. Kenseth is establishing himself as a serious title contender, and as he heads back to the scene of his first win of the season, he’s on the verge of taking the top seed for the 10 race Chase.
What happened – NASCAR rolled out an aerodynamic package designed to enable cars behind to have the ability to gain on the car in front and hopefully slingshot past them. The package was poorly accepted at Indianapolis but people were optimistic that multiple lines in the corners would allow the drivers to take advantage of the runs they had on leading cars and complete passes. What transpired was a subpar race, even by Michigan standards. As the 43 cars went into turn 1, no one knew what would happen because they had not tried it with this package. The field made it halfway through turn 1 before the first caution of the day flew as David Ragan spun. In the end there were eight cautions and 16 lead changes over the 200 laps. Other than a couple passes that took place on restarts, there were ZERO on track passes for the lead. The rules package failed miserably in generating more passing on the track.
Why you should care – The Chase implications of Michigan were minimal. The only real ramification was that Clint Bowyer established himself as the driver who is in danger of falling out of the Chase if another driver scores a win in the next three races. The bigger concern is the fact that the high drag package came across as a colossal failure. What NASCAR decides to do going forward on the bigger tracks could bring racing back to its roots or it could be the final nail in the coffin to kill the sport. The low downforce package, that showed so well at Kentucky, will be tested again at Darlington on Labor Day weekend. If the results are as good as anticipated, it could be a fantastic package. Unfortunately, it appears as though NASCAR is hesitant to go in that direction and there are rumblings that they may look at trying restrictor plates at Auto Club Speedway and Michigan. A band-aid that was supposed to be a temporary fix in 1987 is still around and looking like it might become more prevalent throughout the sport. If NASCAR goes that route in 2016, it could be the final nail in the coffin for a sport that is treading water at this point in time.
What your friends are talking about – The rules for the 2015 Chase will not be changed from the current package. The nine races, besides the plate race at Talladega, will use the package the teams ran for the first half of the season, though the rules for Talladega are still yet to be determined after the major wreck at the end of Daytona. The low-downforce package that was used at Kentucky was a hit with the drivers but NASCAR did not want to put a burden on the teams to redo their cars that they have already prepared based on the current package.
Silly Season is beginning to ramp up and the rumors are flying about what the driver lineup for 2016 will look like. With Michael Waltrip Racing possibly disappearing in 2016, the drivers in their cars are probably going to be behind new wheels next year. Bowyer is most likely going to be in a third car for Chip Ganassi Racing, but Ragan is open. The word around the garage is that Sam Hornish Jr. could possibly be on the way out at Richard Petty Motorsports and Ragan will be on the short list for that ride, along with Regan Smith. While it is all rumor at this point, with the probable addition of a second car for Furniture Row, the movement announcements are probably going to be happening in the next month.
Speaking of the Silly Season announcements, Roger Penske is said to want Ryan Blaney to run in the Cup series in 2016. It is still an idea at this point in time, but Penske appears to be anticipating a combined effort between the Wood Brothers and Penske Racing to put the youngster in all 36 races next year.
Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 team team have looked like anything but a championship team over the last six races. They have not led a lap since Daytona and they have not scored a top-five finish. The rumblings in the garage are numerous and varied. While no one believes Johnson is going anywhere, this is a contract year for him – and also a contract year for Chad Knaus. Knaus continues to play down the rumors that he might be somewhere else next season, but the possibility is there. We’ve seen this story before and the odds are that Johnson and Knaus will be in contention for the title at least through Phoenix.
It was a rough week in the racing community. Not only did Buddy Baker pass away on Monday, James Campbell was killed at Williams Grove Speedway, and Kevin Swindell was seriously injured at Knoxville. Thoughts and prayers are with all of their families and friends in their time of grief and their time of uncertainty toward the future.
Who is mad – Last week, Bowyer took advantage of poor runs for the people around him in the race to sit ready to make the Chase on points. He put himself 50 points ahead of Aric Almirola and within 10 points of Ryan Newman, Jeff Gordon and Paul Menard. Bowyer felt like he had a shot at a strong run at Michigan but contact in the middle of the pack on a restart sent him into the inside wall on the back straight, damaging his car and ultimately putting him into a 41st-place finish. He’s still ahead of Almirola for the last spot but he’s now significantly behind the other drivers that he was close to. He has to worry now about another winner emerging because that will knock him out of the Chase.
The entire Roush Fenway Racing organization has got to be getting close to the boiling point over their lack of performance this season. Sunday marked two years since a driver in their current lineup has scored a win. They have five wins in their last 284 combined starts. They went into Michigan with some feelings of confidence, or at least that was what they were portraying, and they were disappointing once again. Greg Biffle had a new spotter after internal fighting boiled over at Watkins Glen. There are rumors of mass crew chief swaps. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is in a contract year and hasn’t been able to do much of anything to elicit a new offer. Sunday they finished 22nd, 23rd and 26th. For an organization that was the impetus for the four-team owner rule due to their perceived dominance, it continues to be very hard times indeed.
The feel good story of the season was going to be Gordon making a final run at his fifth title of his career as he hangs up his helmet after Homestead. The story took a turn sideways after the first 11 races of the season. Gordon wasn’t dominating during the beginning of the season but he had a pole and led laps. Since that point in time he has led six laps and notched one top-five finish. The entire Hendrick Motorsports organization looks like they are struggling and is behind at this point, the Nos. 24 and 5 appear to be the furthest behind. While Gordon is well above the cut line for now, he’s far from safe and he doesn’t look like he’s much of a threat to win his way in over the final three races.
Who is happy – Martin Truex Jr. started the season like a house on fire with 14 top-10 finishes in the first 15 races. Since then he’d only had one finish better than 12th, a fourth-place run at Indianapolis. The team had fast cars but they had struggled to secure this finishes. With the Chase just over the horizon it has to be a boost of confidence for the team to get back to their front-running ways.
The general history for Menard in the Cup series is he starts the season strong and then stumbles as the season approaches the Chase. Menard is solidly in the running to make the Chase on points with only Jamie McMurray ahead of him and Newman, Gordon and Bowyer behind him. While the odds are Menard won’t lock himself into the Chase at Bristol, it is not mathematically impossible. Thanks to his 12th-place run on Sunday, Menard is in the driver’s seat to make the Chase for the first time in his career.
Austin Dillon has returned the No. 3 to the Cup series with little fanfare after the first couple of races in 2014. He didn’t shy away from all of the questions and comparisons at Daytona, even after he won the pole. He hasn’t set the world on fire but he hasn’t embarrassed the number either. Since Slugger Labbe has replaced Gil Martin on the box, the results have ratcheted up a notch. They still aren’t consistent but the highs are a little higher. A fourth-place run Sunday was the second top five of Dillon’s 72 starts.
When the checkered flag flew:
Kenseth scored his 34th career Cup victory in his 567th start. That puts him alone in 20th on the all-time career wins list. The victory is Kenseth’s third win of the season. That is third behind Kyle Busch and Johnson. The triumph was the third of his career at Michigan in 33 career starts.
Kevin Harvick finished second for the ninth time in 2015. Harvick’s runner-up is his seventh career top-two at MIS. It was the 40th time in his career that Harvick has crossed the line as the runner-up. He is 16th on the all-time list of first losers.
Rounding out the podium was Truex. It was his fourth top-three run of 2015. Truex has come home in the top-three five times in his career at Michigan. This is the 22nd career top-three run for Truex, which ties him for 74th with Alan Kulwicki.
Matt DiBenedetto came home in 30th to claim Rookie of the Race honors.
Harvick, Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski, Johnson, Denny Hamlin, Kenseth, Kurt Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Carl Edwards, Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch all have wins in 2015. With three races left before the Chase, all of the race winners are locked into the Chase assuming they attempt the rest of the races or receive an exemption should they miss any events.
The drivers who are currently eligible for the Chase after 21 races without wins and their standing in points:
10) Jamie McMurray
11) Paul Menard
12) Ryan Newman
13) Jeff Gordon
15) Clint Bowyer
Takin’ it to the Bank:
Cup winners this year have pocketed $7,951,013 in 23 races, while the last-place finisher has taken home $1,856,091
In the Xfinity Series it has been $1,592,244 for the winners and $288,718 for last place in 21 races.
After 13 Truck races the winner has $677,592 in his coffers and the last loser has banked $127,480.
What is in the cooler
Michigan International Speedway is an acquired taste. There are fans who hate it and fans who love it. Sunday, thanks to the high drag aero package, more people joined the hating ranks. A 200-lap race on a track with 3-4 racing grooves that produced zero legitimate on-track passes for the lead is horrible. There was some passing by quality cars that restarted deep in the field, but among the cars at the front of the pack the passing was all but non-existent. While it wasn’t a true single-beer snoozer, it was a two-can bomb. We’ll give it two lukewarm cans of Kid Rock’s Bad Ass Beer from Brew Detroit Brewery.
Where do you point your DVR for next week – The Last Great Coliseum, Bristol Motor Speedway, is the destination for NASCAR fans next week. Not only are all three national touring series in action at the concrete half-mile but the Whelen Modified and Whelen Southern Modified tours have a combined race on Wednesday August 19th. The Cup series will be racing the Night Race at Bristol on Saturday August 22nd. The green flag will fly at 7:30 p.m. ET. The race can be seen on NBC Sports Network. If you would rather listen to the race, or like the radio call over the TV commentary, the race will be broadcast on your local PRN affiliate and SiriusXM NASCAR Channel 90.