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(Photo: Matthew T. Thacker/NKP)

4 Burning Questions: Will Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott Square Off Again in Michigan?

Will Larson & Elliott Square Off Again at Michigan International Speedway?

Kevin Harvick has Phoenix International Raceway. Jimmie Johnson has Dover International Speedway. Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott have Michigan.

Every driver seems to have his or her track where success comes a little easier than others. And as of late, this weekend is highly expected to be a happy place for these two young drivers. And based off their recent finishes, it’s a good time to race at Michigan.

For Larson, the early Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series points leader has floundered in the months of July and August. Despite back-to-back runner-up finishes at Kentucky Speedway and New Hampshire Motor Speedway, those are sandwiched between five finishes of 23rd or worse, leading only 10 laps in that run. And even though making the playoffs is in no doubt with his two 2017 victories, his ability — or luck — to survive in the playoffs may be questioned.

On the other hand, Elliott is well within the lines of concern when it comes to making the playoffs. With no wins this year, the 21-year-old is only 39 points to the good, with the gap struggling to lengthen after only one top-five finish in the last seven races.

Let’s say it again: what a good time to return to Michigan.

Having a knack for the 2-mile tracks, Larson has won the last two Michigan races to match his Auto Club Speedway win this March. After leading nearly half the race in June, Larson is a popular pick in the Irish Hills.

Elliott may not have a win there, but he sure does have everything else, finishing second in all three Cup starts at the track. With another runner-up on Sunday, Elliott would tie Harvick for the most consecutive second-place finishes at one track.

Though he’s aiming for that first win over a fairly unfortunate record tie, a top-two result would be a win in the larger picture.

Will Darrell Wallace Jr. Perform Again?

Bubba is back, this time on Saturday instead of Sunday.

After sitting out of NASCAR competition for a few weeks following his stint in Aric Almirola’s Ford in Cup, Darrell Wallace Jr. has a new opportunity with MDM Motorsports and its No. 99 Chevrolet.

Returning to the Camping World Truck Series for the first time since 2014, Wallace is in his usual 2017 position: having to perform with no timetable.

A one-race deal that will cover this weekend’s LTi Printing 200 from Michigan International Speedway, his future beyond the 2-mile track is unknown. However, let us focus on the now instead of the later: what will Bubba make of Saturday?

Despite sponsor woes, 2017 has actually been a standout year for the 23-year-old. He started the year with his streak of five straight finishes of sixth in the XFINITY Series, eventually scoring only two less top 10s than all 33 races of 2016.

Jumping to his first Cup races with Richard Petty Motorsports, he showed marked improvement, finishing higher in each event with a best result of 11th at Kentucky.

Additionally, Wallace scored big at Bristol Motor Speedway in May, winning the Short Track U.S. Nationals in a late model for the first time.

Though 2017 may just be a what-could’ve-been year for the driver, it’s not over just yet. Wallace dominated in his last start at Michigan in Trucks, leading nearly half the race before running out of fuel late. And the truck he’s driving is far from side scraps, as it was good enough to recently finish second at Kentucky with Brandon Jones.

Oh, what another win could do for Wallace’s career.

What Road Course Ringers Should We Watch in Mid-Ohio?

Following a relatively weak road course lineup last week at Watkins Glen International in the XFINITY Series, this time around seems to have a little more power. For Saturday’s Mid-Ohio Challenge at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, there are a number of legitimate contenders who will be in and out of this series in a matter of days.

Starting with experience, Andy Lally is back in the XFINITY Series for the first time in a year, leading three laps and finishing seventh in one of the year’s best underdog performances with Mario Gosselin’s No. 90. With hundreds of sports car starts and a full season of Cup Series racing in 2011, Lally will hope to bring similar pace with SS-Greenlight Racing — even if it doesn’t rain.

Sam Hornish Jr. is back on a road circuit this weekend. (Photo: Brett Moist/NKP)

Another guy racing Saturday with overseas racing experience is Anthony Kumpen, the Belgian Euro Series champion who makes his first XFINITY start since Daytona in February. Saturday will surprisingly be his first on a road course in the series. The No. 46 Precision Performance Motorsports entry has been quick in 2017, likely to give Kumpen a shot at the top 10, if not more.

The ringers are even on the high end of the grid this time, starting with the return of Justin Marks to Chip Ganassi Racing. Running 17 races in 2016, his performance was highlighted by a brilliant drive in the rain at Mid-Ohio, leading 43 laps and winning by 3.7 seconds. Marks is sure to be a fast cat from first practice to the last race lap.

Two more big-team talents are Sam Hornish Jr. and Regan Smith. Hornish, who finished second to Marks last year, will make his third start for Team Penske this weekend after two disappointing wrecks in both Iowa Speedway races. Oddly, that Mid-Ohio race last year is his only road course start in his last 10 races back to 2014.

Smith won the race in 2015 and makes his first series start of 2017 with Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 18. Similar to Wallace, Smith is without a full-time ride in any series and could use a trip to Victory Lane in the midst of doubt.

Will James Davison Make His Name Known in NASCAR?

Oh, and there is one more road course expert in a big team, but he may not get as much attention as the prior few.

James Davison had the racing world on its feet for a period of time in this year’s 101st Indianapolis 500. Subbing for the injured Sebastien Bourdais, Davison started from the rear of 33 cars and drove to the race lead late, staying in the top three for a segment of the race before a mistake on a restart with 16 laps to go ended his day too early in Turn 1.

For the first time since the surprise run at Indy, Davison, who has five total starts in the Verizon IndyCar Series, will return to a American racing series with a start in the XFINITY Series at Mid-Ohio. Racing for Joe Gibbs Racing and its No. 20, it is the first of a two-race deal that will also cover Road America in two weeks.

With such a unique driver slowing making a progression into NASCAR, attracting big teams along the way, why isn’t he getting more attention for this move? Perhaps most of it will come this weekend when he hits the track, but it’s not his first time in a NASCAR race. Last year, he made his debut at Road America driving (like Lally) for Gosselin, running 13th on the final lap before crashing in the final corner, bumping him to a 19th-place finish.

But with an old-school desire of those all-around racers nowadays, this Australian could fit the mold perfectly if he can perform well in this No. 20.

Could he be the next Juan Pablo Montoya, Dario Franchitti or Danica Patrick to move from Indy cars to stock cars? This could be the weekend it gets rolling.

About Zach Catanzareti

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