By Michael Finley & Tom Bowles
1. What will Happen to the Wood Brothers Going Forward?
If you’re a NASCAR fan, you have to be a fan of Wood Brothers Racing. The oldest team still in operation has won in six different decades in NASCAR competition, amassing 99 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series wins over the years with Hall of Famers like David Pearson and Cale Yarborough.
Ryan Blaney became the most recent race winner in the venerable No. 21 Ford on Sunday after defeating Kevin Harvick in a late-race duel for the win. The promising young driver had been fast at certain points all season, but Sunday was where it all came together.
How will the Woods harness the momentum from that victory? In this week of jubilation for the team, there are still some tough questions to answer fairly soon as the series heads to Michigan International Speedway.
Blaney is still contracted to Team Penske, which basically treats the Woods as a third team by providing chassis and engines. As good as the partnership seems to be working for both parties, there may be a change coming sooner than expected; Roger Penske said earlier this month that he wants to move Blaney to an official Penske car as soon as possible. Blaney winning his first race should only accelerate the move, which would probably hinge on sponsorship.
When the move is made, will Penske shift resources away from the Wood Brothers to the new team for Blaney? Who could really replace Blaney at this point? There’s a decent possibility that Penske would continue to support the Wood Brothers, but would it continue to provide the same amount of support if one of its own drivers isn’t in the car?
A lot of big changes could be coming to the oldest team in NASCAR after this season.
2. Can Chase Elliott Punch Back Against Blaney?
Chase Elliott, in his second season driving the No. 24 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports, was on the cusp of entering Victory Lane for much of last year. He charged into 2017, winning the Daytona 500 pole, and was second in the season standings through eight races. Victory seemed inevitable, perhaps in the same Coca-Cola 600 race in which the man he replaced, Jeff Gordon, earned his first Cup win back in 1994.
But suddenly, the man tasked as the leader of the sport’s new set of young guns stalled out. Instead, Elliott has sat and watched Blaney win his first at Pocono, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. pull a Talladega Superspeedway surprise and Austin Dillon get off the schneid at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Even Bubba Wallace, despite a 26th-place finish Sunday, has garnered far more attention than Elliott these days. And that’s a guy who doesn’t have a ride beyond the end of next month!
Clearly, the son of who once was the sport’s most popular driver, Bill Elliott, needs to get his mojo back. There’s no better time for Michigan International Speedway, a place near and dear to the Elliott family, to pop up on the series schedule. Not only was Elliott runner-up twice last year at MIS, his best track on the circuit, Awesome Bill also earned a career-best seven trips to Victory Lane there.
It’s a wide, sweeping oval that suits Elliott’s driving style well and has been home to a first-time Cup winner as of late in Kyle Larson. More importantly, in a playoff field where 17 winners is a distinct possibility, Elliott can’t sit around with a goose egg. For Blaney to be his rival, at some point the youngster has to punch back.
There’s no better time than now.
3. Who Else Will Be Competitive at Michigan?
A great theme in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series this year is parity. Keeping that in mind, this Sunday’s race at Michigan could fall into the hands of many drivers.
Clint Bowyer is having a renaissance season this year, currently sitting 10th in points, and has improved his average finish from 23.6 to 13.5 over last season. Michigan is one of Bowyer’s best racetracks, where he had a nine-race top-10 finish streak from 2011 to 2015. Bowyer will also be making his first start in a Ford at Michigan, which has traditionally been a strong track for the blue oval. Bowyer’s Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Harvick is also strong at Michigan, finishing out of the top five in just one race since joining SHR.
Penske will be in the spotlight this weekend. Brad Keselowski has had strong runs at Michigan in the past but has never won at his home track. Meanwhile, Joey Logano has won two races at Michigan but arrives to the 2-mile oval with a bit of pressure to win; with his win at Richmond International Raceway earlier this season being encumbered and the number of different winners this season becoming larger and larger, there’s a distinct possibility Logano will be on the bubble of the playoffs heading into fall.
Joe Gibbs Racing had a slow start to the season, but the four-car team seems to be creating a bit of momentum. Kyle Busch dominated most of Pocono and only lost due to a bad strategy call. The first win of the season for this organization could come at any time this month.
4. Will Fuel Mileage Play a Role?
Michigan has a history of fuel mileage finishes, and Sunday may be no exception. The sport’s new handling package on intermediates has made it difficult to pass, even with Michigan’s many grooves. The restarts will be exceptional, as always, but expect side-by-side action to wear off in a hurry.
So how do you get by someone with the dreaded aero push? Pit strategy, pit strategy, pit strategy, that’s how.
The race boils down to runs of 60, 60 and 80 laps. Put a caution in the right place in stage three and everyone will be short-pitting, just like Pocono, in order to make it to the end on fuel. Or maybe there’s a guy like Chris Buescher last July who’s willing to stretch their tank on the final run of the race to steal a victory. Michigan lends itself to green-flag finishes, going caution free as recently as 1999. That’s true even in this era of stage breaks and yellows for a hot dog wrapper on the racetrack.
Take the August race last year as an example. There were just four caution flags, and while one happened with nine laps left, none were for serious accidents. The cars spread out but the stage breaks will ensure a good number of them stay on the lead lap. So if there’s any hope of a middle-class team stealing it with the gas tank (I’m looking at you, Michael McDowell), it’s going to happen in Sunday’s race.
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