(Photo: Russell LaBounty/NKP)

The Big 6: Questions Answered After the 2018 Consumers Energy 400

Who… gets my shoutout of the race?

Sometimes a driver needs a good finish to turn things around, and this week that happened for Brad Keselowski. Since finishing third at Kentucky last month, Keselowski has had finishes of 32nd, 38th and 17th.  While teammates Joey Logano and Ryan Blaney have been competitive this season, Keselowski has struggled at times to get the type of finish he’s capable of.  Finishing second at his home track in Michigan stopped the three-race skid and gives the No. 2 team some forward momentum in the homestretch of the regular season.  He’ll make the playoffs either way, but Keselowski needs to pick things up if he wants to still be there come Homestead.  He took a step in that direction Sunday.

What… is the takeaway from this race?

If we have learned anything for the racing at Michigan International Speedway in recent seasons, it’s that fastest isn’t necessarily best.  Sure, the track has produced some jaw-dropping speeds since repaving the surface, but what it has not really produced is better racing.  Since the repave prior to the 2012 season, speeds heading into Turn 1 have been the fastest in NASCAR, but that hasn’t exactly produced great finishes. Just two times have fans been treated to a margin of victory under 0.8 seconds, and just four times in those 14 races has it been less than one second. Two races finished under caution, but that still leaves eight races with a margin of over a second, including one of over five seconds.

Meanwhile, sister track Auto Club Speedway, once the most reviled track on the schedule and a virtual MIS clone, has produced some of the Cup Series’ best intermediate-track racing, despite much slower speeds (pole speed this weekend was nearly 18 mph faster than the pole speed at ACS this spring). Worn pavement and lack of grip simply give fans a better show than a fast, grippy racetrack, and that’s something that NASCAR and its track owners need to keep in mind as the sport explores how to keep the racing competitive moving forward.

Where… did Kevin Harvick come from?

Harvick’s seventh win of 2018 wasn’t exactly a surprise.  He qualified third and only got better from there.  Harvick led 108 of 200 laps, 83 laps more than the next driver, Martin Truex Jr., who led 25.  It really wasn’t much of a contest.

Harvick has shown over the last few seasons just how important it is to have every part and piece fall into place. He was good with Richard Childress Racing, but he’s been great at Stewart-Haas. Ford is clearly putting a lot into its racing program, and Harvick and crew chief Rodney Childers have been a force to be reckoned with since teaming up at SHR. The driver is just one piece of a very complex puzzle, and the No. 4 team has been an example of what happens when all those pieces are put together perfectly.

When… was the moment of truth?

For most of the day, it was same old, same old: nobody could run with Harvick and Kyle Busch, and Denny Hamlin couldn’t keep up with his teammate. Truex went for a wild ride on lap 16.  He didn’t hit anything, but he’d been going backward and the spin didn’t help matters. He recovered and ended up leading by the halfway point, where he, Harvick and Busch ran 1-2-3.  Nothing to see here.

While a driver dominating a race is part of the game, is it becoming a foregone conclusion that at intermediate tracks at least, the Big Three are going to dominate in some fashion?  It might be one of them, it might be two or all three fighting for the top spot, but the story is very much the same. Sunday, they combined to lead 155 of 200 laps. It’s a little reminiscent of the XFINITY Series before the Cup drivers were limited. It was almost a given that most weeks, one of them would win handily, leaving little to the imagination. And fans didn’t like that.

The difference is that at least in the Cup Series, they’re running against their true peers, but coupled with the exodus of top drivers in recent years, is it a problem that fans can so often predict the ending before the final chapter is written? It certainly makes a different driver winning more exciting, as evidenced by the popularity of Chase Elliott’s victory last weekend. It’s unfair to pin the continuing freefall in ratings on three drivers, but nobody likes to know the ending (or think they do) before the opening credits have rolled.

Why… wasn’t there a caution for that big whatever-it-was?

When Ty Dillon ran over a piece of debris on the backstretch, it ended the day for the No. 13 team after just 131 laps.  It was a terrible day for Dillon in the midst of a terrible season, but it could have turned out a lot worse as whatever the debris was cut an oil line, sending Dillon hard into the wall as he slid in his own oil.  He hit the wall at the kind of angle that nobody wants to see, and while he was fine, someone really dropped the ball in the tower.

Speculation is that it was a battery from another car, but whatever that piece of debris was, it was easily visible on track as the entire field passed it. Dillon had been running toward the back at the time, so there was enough time for someone to have seen it and thrown a caution.

While nobody likes to see debris cautions for a hot dog wrapper or less, a large chunk of unknown equipment certainly warrants one.  At first, it was postulated that the debris was a tungsten weight, something which has the potential to cause a lot of damage to a car.  Whatever Dillon ran over disintegrated, which likely saved his car from even more damage, but it still caused enough to send him into the wall.  Perhaps NASCAR saw it and hoped to wait until the field had safely passed it before throwing the yellow before they had to pass it again or maybe nobody saw it, which is a bit far-fetched.  Whatever the reason, it was a missed call on NASCAR’s part, and it was only good luck and good safety equipment that kept Dillon, or someone else, from injury.

How… much of a hot seat are Jimmie Johnson and Alex Bowman really on?

With just three races to go before the playoff field is cemented, Johnson and Bowman sit 14th and 15th in points, respectively. With Austin Dillon having a win and sitting 20th in points, 15th is currently the final spot to make the cut. Bowman is currently 62 points ahead of 16th-place Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Johnson is another 30 ahead of Bowman.

With three races to go at three completely different tracks (Bristol, Darlington and Indianapolis), that should mean that Bowman simply has to avoid major problems in more than one race.

Even with a gap of more than a race worth of points, Bowman can’t really breathe easy, though. While it’s more likely that a win would come for a nonwinning driver ahead of Bowman in points, a few behind him have solid records at the remaining tracks.  Paul Menard’s lone Cup win came at Indy.  Stenhouse lacks a win at Bristol but his best-in-show average finish there suggests he could get one if the stars align. Daniel Suarez has had some strong runs this year and could take one of these last three races. Ryan Newman and Jamie McMurray both have won at Indy.

So while Bowman can secure his fate by running consistently, he can’t cement it.  Johnson is somewhat more secure in that two drivers behind 15th getting wins in three races is unlikely, but it’s not impossible and finishes like he had Sunday don’t help the cause any. Bottom line: Johnson’s team can probably focus on getting competitive for the playoffs.  Bowman’s still needs to focus on the here and now, because the only way he can write his own future is with a win.

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Amy is a 15-year veteran writer and a five-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. Amy pens The Big 6 (Mondays) Frontstretch 5 (Wednesdays) and Holding A Pretty Wheel (monthly - Fridays). A New Hampshire native living in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits extend everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports.

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