Photo Credit: CIA Stock Photography

Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2015 Pure Michigan 400 at Michigan

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 happyMartin 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.

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What is it that Mike Neff doesn’t do? The writer, radio contributor and racetrack announcer coordinates the site’s local short track coverage, hitting up Saturday Night Specials across the country while tracking the sport’s future racing stars. The writer for our signature Cup post-race column, Thinkin’ Out Loud (Mondays) also sits down with Cup crew chiefs to talk shop every Friday with Tech Talk. Mike announces several shows each year for the Good Guys Rod and Custom Association. He also pops up everywhere from PRN Pit Reporters and the Press Box with Alan Smothers to SIRIUS XM Radio. He has announced at tracks all over the Southeast, starting at Millbridge Speedway. He's also announced at East Lincoln Speedway, Concord Speedway, Tri-County Speedway, Caraway Speedway, and Charlotte Motor Speedway.

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22 comments

  1. Avatar

    glad the aero package worked so well……managed to lull most fans into a coma by halfway. same song different day….leader takes off and no one can catch him til a caution comes out.

    was really surprised that there wasn’t any pre-race piece about Buddy Baker. they could have re-aired the piece that racehub had the day Buddy passed. THANKS TO RYAN NEWMAN for talking about Buddy. i realyze buddy baker is a dinosaur to newer fans, but us folder folks remember seeing him race and then take over the broadcast booth.

    and while i didn’t watch much of the race, kept flipping back and forth between movie and that, i wonder why much wasn’t said about the upcoming bristol race. will it be on nbc or nbcsc?

    oh well…….wonder which gibbs driver will have pole next weekend? i did enjoy the part when kyle busch had to start at the end of the field and he fellout of the chase til he passed a certain number of cars.

  2. Avatar

    Didn’t watch it all, but from what I did see, I think that the race was a snoozer. But I’m not 100% sure that we can lay it all at the doorstep of this package…anyone who has watched racing at Michigan for any length of time has seen a dominant car just run away and hide. Both of these tracks where the mega-spoiler was deployed often produce clunkers, so there was certainly no harm in trying something new here.

    At least it looked like a pretty good crowd on hand yesterday…first time in a while in Michigan.

  3. Avatar

    The Xfinity race at Mid-Ohio, while not a barn-burner, was at least worth watching, and the final lap was pretty exciting. The Cup race was anything but exciting, however it was somewhat salvaged for me by watching Jimmie Johnson struggle. That said, I don’t think for one minute that the #48 team won’t be ready to compete for the title once the chase starts.

    Ricky Stenhouse was a pretty decent driver in whatever the Xfinity series was called back when he ran in it. Obviously the transition to the Cup series has been difficult for him, but with all the drivers at RFR doing so poorly, I don’t place all the blame on Stenhouse. While wouldn’t be surprised to see Stenhouse out at RFR after this season, that’s not going to solve the problems there.

    All of the “who’s in; who’s out” talk about the chase on NBC-letter-letter yesterday was getting tiresome. When you consider that not one driver currently between 12th and 16th in points has a snowball’s chance in hell of winning the championship, the talk is as pointless as it is annoying.

    If MWR ceases to exist after the season, I will feel bad for the employees left without a job but otherwise I won’t care one bit.

  4. Avatar

    Not much to say about the race. Typical Michigan race. While I can’t blame it all on the new package, I must conclude that NASCAR should abandon that approach to improving the racing. It did not work. I don’t agree with Douchebag’s vision for pack racing being the ideal anyway.

    I must give NBC it’s first “F” of the year;
    It wasn’t until very late in the race that they gave us intervals and lap down information in the running order. Instead the gave us information that should be interspersed occasionally with the timing intervals (last pitted lap, fastest lap, current speed). Was that intentional at NASCAR’s request so that we wouldn’t be able to see how much of a parade the race was? The most important stat they can give the viewer is the intervals and lap down information. Without it we can’t tell what the hell is going on except for what the camera decides to show us (which isn’t much). Last
    I noticed early on that Kahne went from the top 20 back to the 30s after the first pit stop. But never heard any update from the broadcast crew. Did I miss it, or did they not cover it? I also noticed several drivers outside the top 20 would drop 5 to 8 positions very quickly sometimes but nothing was ever said. Something had to be happening back there that was more interesting than what was happening up front.
    Once again crappy coverage of who was taking the wave around and who was in the lucky dog position (except for the time the big name stars were fighting for it – 5, 14 and 48).
    F this week for NBC.

    • Avatar

      Meant to add that I read today that Kahne had a speeding penalty but that I don’t recall any mention of it by the NBC crew.,

      • Avatar

        I agree that the coverage has backslid quite a bit from the opening weeks. Yesterday they showed the 41 slowing and making a pit stop out of sequence and there was no mention of the issue that I heard or saw….learned on Twitter later that Busch thought he had a tire going down.

        I like the “lap last pitted” feature on the crawl, but they need to limit that and put more interval info up, as you mention.

        • Avatar

          Yep, when the entire field is 20+ laps away from having to pit, “last pitted” information isn’t really as helpful as intervals and laps down.

        • Avatar

          Bill B, I agree, I found the race pretty boring and I also like seeing the information on intervals and lap times. Usually I’ll use raceview to keep an eye on that but it didn’t seem to want to work yesterday — so glad I paid for that, but I’ll end that when this season ends, too.

          Parade was right and the coverage on TV was pretty mediocre. If it hadn’t been just silly hot outdoors, I’d have done something more energetic. Instead I read, half watched the race and did chores inside.

          This package is a failure.

  5. Avatar

    I was surprised when Harvick wasn’t interviewed after the “race.”

    “The (Sponsor Plug) Chev was really good all day and I’d like to thank my teammate Jimmie Johnson for the last caution to give me a chance at Kenseth.”

    Stewart spins out after checking to make sure Johnson won’t be involved and Kahne gets the free pass.

    For a driver who considers himself to be the best driver in NA$CAR history, Johnson sure spins out a lot by himself.

    • Avatar

      johnson will stop having problems, probably during the southern 500. race is broadcasted on nbc, so it will be nationwide coverage. hendrick cars can’t have poor showing on mainstream tv. whatever experimentation the hendrick teams are doing, they need to stop cause it ain’t working.

      by the way, didn’t johnson slide through his pit box yesterday as well as spin?

      • Avatar

        Janice, yes, Johnson was the spin-eroo guy all day yesterday. Then Chad yelled at him. LOL

        And I do believe they are sandbagging as they do every year once they have a couple of wins, they just test and do whatever until the chase starts. That whole shtick got old a while ago.

        • Avatar

          But the media still loves to drag out their tired old stories that we should be concerned about Chad/Jimmie and Co come Chase time. That is whats getting old. See Exhibit A about in this article.

  6. Avatar

    by the way…..how does kahne keep his ride? that team, wasn’t it the 25 team previously, have always been the the struggling one at hendrick.

  7. Avatar

    Jeff Burton said it was a success, so I guess that should be enough for the rest of us. We just didn’t know what we were looking at.

    • Avatar

      Tim, LOL, yeah I know you put as much faith in the words spoken by people paid by TV/NASCAR as I do.

      The race was a not interesting to watch at all – although anyone who is a fan of Kenseth’s was understandably pretty happy.

      • Avatar

        When I typed that, I thought about you and our comments regarding Pemberton, O’Donnell and the “happy with” phenomenon. From certain TV people, every NASCAR decision will be met with the highest praise, no matter what the result.

        • Avatar

          Tim, IMO the difference between them and us is that they get paid for their opinions to be supportive of NASCAR. For better or worse, as a fan, I judge it by whether or not I liked it or not.

          I do find it interesting that NASCAR decided to actually try out something different during the actual racing season, rather than stand pat on the existing and in my view, failing, 2015 package. Of course they will revert to that boring/failed package for the Chase races. It would almost be more fun to see the crapshoot run with different rules packages for each race. Probably not practical but certainly more interesting.

  8. Avatar

    The “high drag” package failed again. I hope this is the final nail in its coffin, and NASCAR gives up on trying to create “pack racing” at the big intermediates. Low downforce appears to be the way to go. I don’t think it will turn Indy or Michigan into Bristol, but it will allow good cars to pass if the tires allow. Too bad we won’t get to see the low downforce package during the Chase, but I understand why. I’m interested to see it at a recently paved d-shaped oval (Kansas, Charlotte).

    • Avatar

      Nah, Brian will insist on them trying so that there is always the random big wreck opportunity.

    • Avatar

      Here’s a solution. Instead of watching single file parades at these mile and a half tracks every week, put them on the 1/4 milers that reside on the front stetch of each of these tracks. Or better yet, return the racing to its roots and go back to short track racing. Then you won’t have to worry about aero, air, wind tunnels etc. The racing will be better, the stands will look full and it might actually save some teams some money. And then I woke up.