With the conclusion of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Michigan International Speedway, we’re now exactly two thirds through the longest season in all of professional sports. Just a pair of races remain (Darlington Raceway and Richmond International Raceway) before the circuit gets down to the serious business of the playoffs. And of course, depending on your point of view, the moment the season truly turns a little farcical.
But whatever your point of view, the series is getting down to the stage of the season where the prizes are handed out, and as it stands, the Joe Gibbs Racing family quintet (I’m including Martin Truex, Jr. here) looks to be the wheelmen to beat.
Now, there’s no doubt the Team Penske duo of Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano will make some playoff noise, as will Kevin Harvick, who is returning to his old form. But outside of those eight, I’m not sure anyone else can make a serious run. How about Jimmie Johnson, some say, but I’m not sure his Hendrick Motorsports team has enough power to make a truly sustained run.
The one X-factor is Tony Stewart. He’s become a little more like himself this second half of the season, and let’s not forget he didn’t even think he merited a playoff berth the last time he won it all in 2011.
Darlington, Sweet Darlington:
It is one of my great NASCAR regrets that I’ve never been to the jewel that is Darlington. It’s definitely on my bucket list, and maybe if I say this in writing here I’ll make it there in 2017, God willing. This will be Cup race No. 113 there, and it’s a streak that extends back 66 years (almost to the day), with the inaugural race won by Johnny Mantz back on Sept. 4, 1950, the only Cup race victory for Mantz in 12 attempts across a four-year, top-echelon career.
One driver to watch is Denny Hamlin, who has the best average finish (three starts of more) of any of the field at a paltry 6.5. The Lady in Black has always been a race at which you race the track just as much as the competition, and with that in mind, expect to see plenty of Darlington stripes the length and breadth of the garage.
One of the true treats this weekend is the second (presumably annual) throwback theme — or the “Tradition Continues,” to use the track’s marketing speak. This time around, it’s the 1975-1984 era.
“We had tremendous response from the industry last season, which included the race teams, NASCAR, NBC, Goodyear and the NASCAR Hall of Fame, to name a few,” noted track president Chip Wile when announcing the event. “This is a fun and unique way to honor the history and heritage of NASCAR racing at one of the sport’s most iconic tracks on Labor Day weekend.”
Amen to that.
At the 99th Attempt:
In a nice act of numerical symmetry, Kyle Larson won his first ever Cup race in his 99th start, snapping a winless streak for Chip Ganassi Racing that stretched back — yes, you guessed it — 99 races, all the way back to Jamie McMurray’s 2013 win at Talladega Superspeedway.
And what a celebration it was, one of pure unadulterated exuberance. When a usual driver, say a Harvick or a Johnson, wins, there’s a celebration in Victory Lane, sponsors are placated with thanks and then we move on. But there’s something about a first-time winner that stays with you for a while after.
This was definitely the case with Larson, who finally broke through and got it done. With Chase Elliott leading into the last restart, I couldn’t help but thinking it was something of a crucial moment for Larson. Had the younger Elliott broken through and picked up the first win, Larson would have headed into his next race at 0-for-99. Now, it’s not to say one win shifts everything, but it would have felt very different had Elliott got it done first.
That’s a moot point now, and for the next few days at least, Larson can bask in the glory of getting his big win.
Bowyer Struggles On:
With about 70 laps to go at Michigan, NBC cut to an in-garage interview with the irrepressible Clint Bowyer. His car was undergoing repairs – repairs in which Bowyer was heavily involved. The team got Bowyer back out on the track, but he finished up dead last, 40 laps down, which succinctly defines what has been a tough season for the veteran driver.
Next year can’t come quick enough for Bowyer, who has an average finish of 24th, two DNFs, just three top 10s (Daytona, Talladega and Bristol) and one lap led all year. Next year will look very different, as he takes over driving duties for the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing car once team principal Tony Stewart hangs up his driving gloves this November.
He’ll take some valuable lessons from his 2016 season and at the same time be glad to be back in top-of-the-line equipment. Here’s hoping, though, that maybe there’s a victory at Talladega later this season to round things out for the amiable wheelman.
Texas IndyCar Finish:
I don’t know I’ve seen a finish to a race quite like the conclusion to the IndyCar race at Texas Motor Speedway last weekend.
The race was originally rained out two months ago, and this was, to put it mildly, quite the make-up date. In the end, it was Graham Rahal of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing who just beat Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ James Hinchcliffe to the line by 0.0080th of a second – the fifth-closest finish in IndyCar series history.
The nine-lap sprint to the finish after a late caution saw perhaps some of the best racing in the IndyCar Series; talk about edge of your seat stuff.
With just two races remaining, the series faces trips to the two NASCAR road course circuits – Watkins Glen International and Sonoma Raceway — to close out the season. It looks like a straight fight between Simon Pagenaud and Will Power (28 markers behind), the latter of whom has come on strong this second half of the season. If you’ve not checked out the series much (or at all), tune in for the final two – they should be pretty compelling races.
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