NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Who’s Hot & Who’s Not in NASCAR: Speed . . . I Am Speed Edition

Michigan International Speedway is one of the fastest on the NASCAR circuit (and that includes the restrictor plate tracks of Daytona and Talladega). So maybe we shouldn’t be surprised the driver running a design for a racing movie won on Sunday.

Kyle Larson isn’t a superstar just yet, but with a few more days like Michigan, he may well be on his way. He’s now got career highs in victories (two), poles (two), and laps led (712) only 15 races through this season.

HOT

If there was a survey on if NASCAR Cup races should all be at two-mile tracks, you know what Larson’s vote or opinion would be. Larson’s win Sunday at Michigan was his third career victory and they have all been at two-mile ovals, one at California and the other two at Michigan.

A big moment for Larson, who has struggled on restarts at times, was taking the lead for good on a restart by using the lower (or make that slower) lane when he started second late in the race. That kept him from yet another runner-up finish (of which he has five already), gave him breathing room on rival Martin Truex Jr. and provided the smooth sailing of clean air.

It seems Larson is learning how to close the deal now that he’s been in that situation enough times. Once drivers do that, typically the Victory Lane floodgates open up.

NOT

Danica Patrick has had an uphill climb ever since she came to NASCAR from IndyCar. Just the fact she is a woman intruding on a traditionally male-dominated sport was one factor. Also, Patrick was not well-known for accolades in NASCAR’s lower series. She struggled in any vehicle she hopped in: Trucks, XFINITY, or even in ARCA (which is not officially affiliated with NASCAR, but you get the picture here).

Patrick’s off-track demeanor as of late indicates she seems to be feeling the pressure. I think, too, she’s getting very discouraged after a deluge of on-track bad luck. She was the innocent bystander in another late-race accident Sunday, which put her from fighting for a top-15 finish to running dead last.

It seems she’s been through that heartbreak just too many times, not only in this season but in others. And now, with sponsorship for 2018 in question, it wouldn’t be surprising at all if Patrick steps away from the sport. Like all the other drivers, she is a competitor and you have to wonder if consistently not having a chance to win week after week and year after year has finally taken its toll.

HOT

Chase Elliott has 56 career Cup Series starts and has yet to get a win. But he’s still been pretty good and Sunday was no exception. Elliott finished second, the third time he’s done so at Michigan. Even though he does not have that playoff-clinching victory, he now sits fifth in the point standings.

Barring a catastrophic summer or 16 drivers (not including him) finishing with wins during the regular season, Elliott will be in the playoffs. Meanwhile, Elliott has finished second or third on eight occasions now. Other “young guns” may have hit Victory Lane first but for Elliott, it’s clearly just a matter of time before he follows suit.

NOT

Sometimes, one-groove racetracks are a good thing. At Bristol or Martinsville, short ovals where everyone can bump each other around produce a great deal of excitement on the track. But for the big, fast places like Michigan, one groove is not a good thing at all.

Basically on Sunday, if a driver got a good run in the high (or outside) lane, well, that was pretty much where most of the passing was done. Every now and then, like in Larson’s pass for the lead, we would see a pass on the inside line. But for the most part, there was a lot of follow the leader or the car in front of you by staying on the outside line. This trend held especially true on a lap or two after the restarts; all cars dropped into single-file formation.

So, yes, Michigan is a fast place. Drivers love that and fans love to see the cars go fast. But no matter how fast they go, they like to see a lot of passing, too.

klar
Kyle Larson’s loving relationship with his toddler son, Owen, was on full display Sunday in Michigan Victory Lane. (Photo: Zach Catanzareti)

HOT

One thing NASCAR has done right for years and years is celebrating the holidays that come about during the season. Whether it’s honoring Mother’s Day, Memorial Day, Father’s Day and eventually Labor Day, the sport finds a special way to honor the occasion.

Father’s Day was no exception. Part of the great scene of Larson winning was watching his toddler son put the victory sticker on the car and give a big thumbs up.

Hard to beat that.

NOT

It doesn’t seem like the end of the world in NASCAR terms, but the car count for the Cup Series this weekend was 37. That’s the smallest field for any event in this division for over 20 years. The field always used to look good when it was 43 cars every week, and there was a time back in the day where even five or six more cars showed up and missed the race because they couldn’t qualify.

For a long time, the official NASCAR stat sheet would list the reasons for some drivers going out as something like vibration, which was a bit comical at times when everyone knew what those teams were start-and-parkers. But the bigger question as we’ve seen fields shrink from 43, to 40 and now 37, is if the lower car count is a symptom of economic issues for the sport?

That’s a problem because teams will need sponsorship to survive. Major sports leagues have been supplied financially in a big way at times by large TV contracts, but NASCAR’s large financial deal in that arena won’t last forever. So with shrinking fields, shrinking crowds and a shrinking TV audience, the giant elephant in NASCAR’s rear-view mirror is indeed getting larger and larger in the room.

Predictions

The Cup Series heads to the first of its two road course races this week when it visits Sonoma. One driver who waits for these races and also likely has the most pressure on him to win is AJ Allmendinger.

Since the ‘Dinger sits 26th in points, he is in a win or no playoffs scenario. I’m saying the former IndyCar driver gets his first victory of the season and throws the point standings and playoff picture into chaos.

The deep sleeper underdog who you might not think about pick is Michael McDowell. Sure, he’s driving an underfunded, single-car effort in the No. 95 Leavine Family Racing Ford. But remember, he picked up his first NASCAR win on a road course in the XFINITY Series last year. Sure, he’s a long shot, but crazier things have happened and a lot of people would go crazy if McDowell got a Cup win.

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Ken Block

“Like all the other drivers, she [Patrick] is a competitor and you have to wonder if consistently not having a chance to win week after week and year after year has finally taken its toll.”

Chance to win? How about “talent” to win?

paltex

You failed to mention that Larson won a World of Outlaws sprint car race the week before his Michigan win. Winning a WOO race is no small feat as those guys race 90 times a year and for an outsider to come in and win does not happen very often. Larson is a true racer!!

Bill B

I would like someone, anyone, to explain why since coming to the Cup series, Danica hasn’t been running Xfinity races to increase her stock car skills. If there was ever anyone that needed the additional track time it is definitely her.
Maybe with additional practice she wouldn’t suck so bad. One of the reasons she has gotten such little respect from fans is because she came into the series acting like she was a star and her stats have proven that she’s inadequate yet she is unwilling to put in additional work to get better.

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