Who… should you be talking about after the race?
Once again, Kevin Harvick showed why he’s called The Closer, getting it done when it counted to win the Consumers Energy 400 at Michigan International Speedway for the second year in a row in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.
This time, Harvick had enough speed to make the winning pass and plenty of fuel in the tank to make it stick, even while others ran out of fuel while crossing the finish line.
Harvick was in the right position to pounce on the win, passing Joey Logano with 17 laps to go. While he had a lackluster start to 2019 compared to a career year a season ago, Harvick has heated up in the last month, winning twice in the last four races and finishing no worse than seventh in that span. He becomes the only repeat winner in the last 10 races. With just four weeks to go until the playoffs begin, Harvick is positioning himself to be a threat yet again.
Meanwhile, Chris Buescher hasn’t seen victory lane yet this year, but he has shown consistent improvement over a year ago. After a 14th-place finish Sunday at MIS, Buescher sits 20th in the driver standings, ahead of those with bigger, better-funded teams, including Roush Fenway Racing and Richard Childress Racing, plus a couple of satellite teams for big organizations as well. While Buescher hasn’t set the racing world on fire, he’s proven to be a steady, consistent top-20 driver who can often get more out of his cars. That’s a step forward for Buescher, who’s now the senior driver and leader at JTG Daugherty Racing, a role that he’s fitting into well.
What… is the takeaway from this race?
While it’s not the ending most would write to the ideal race, fuel mileage gets a worse rap than it deserves in the racing world.
Sunday’s race didn’t come down to that at the end, though, right?
Well, maybe. If Logano had had all the fuel he needed, would he have run the same leading up to Harvick’s pass? Hard to say. If he hadn’t been in conservation mode, Logano may have been able to open up a bigger lead once he got past Ryan Blaney on that late restart. If he hadn’t had to pit, he might have been able to make a run.
Regardless, fuel mileage races aren’t a bad thing. They allow teams to play the strategy game for a better finish, and they certainly aren’t predictable. For fans of drivers on the edge, they’re white-knuckle experiences. For fans of drivers with enough fuel, it’s a waiting game. It’s not boring. And it’s a part of the game; fast means burning through the tank faster, but the risk is greater that you won’t be there at the end.
There used to be a lot more risk in the sport. Let’s savor what’s left.
Where… were the other key players at the end?
Pole sitter Brad Keselowski might have regretted sharing his setup with teammate Logano, because Logano used it to beat Keselowski on a couple of late restarts. Keselowski was in the mix despite an early mishap (and an impressive save), running third with 15 laps to go, but he knew he didn’t have enough fuel to make it to the end and was forced to pit with 11 laps left. Keselowski finished 19th, definitely not indicative of the day he had overall.
What a save by Brad @keselowski!
— NASCAR on NBC (@NASCARonNBC) August 11, 2019
Three-time MIS winners Logano, Kurt Busch and Kyle Larson all looked strong in the second half of the race, but in the end, only Larson was able to turn that into a (much-needed) top finish, coming home in third. Both Logano and Busch fell victim to fuel mileage woes, finishing 17th and 23rd, respectively. And while they still jointly hold the most wins among active drivers, they’re now joined at the top of the list by Harvick, who claimed his third MIS victory Sunday.
Last week’s winner Chase Elliott didn’t show the same form this week. He wasn’t alone; the Hendrick Motorsports stable as a whole lacked speed and/or luck to contend for a win Sunday — though they weren’t terrible, with three cars in the top 10, including Elliott’s ninth-place result. Still, Elliott and teammates Alex Bowman and William Byron should be wary eyeing the playoffs because while they’ll all get in, how deep they can go is another matter.
When… was the moment of truth?
For a pair of drivers hoping to hang onto playoff spots, Michigan wasn’t kind. Jimmie Johnson smacked the wall early, causing enough damage that he wound up seven laps down in 34th. While Clint Bowyer hung on longer, he got the brunt of a chain reaction on track on lap 137, getting turned off the bumper of Paul Menard.
Thanks in part to Johnson’s earlier bad luck, Bowyer still holds the final spot. Six points, though, is hardly a comfortable margin for a driver whose luck has been nonexistent this summer.
Daniel Suarez moves around Johnson into 17th by another six points, as Johnson’s luck has been no better than Bowyer’s. It can be argued that Johnson has a little more to lose with a 16-year playoff streak on the line, but it’s going to be a battle to the wire at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and one worth keeping an eye on.
Why… should you be paying attention this week?
Bristol Motor Speedway is on the horizon, and it could represent the best chance (though a slim one) for a driver outside the top 16 in points to make a statement with a win.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has an average finish at Bristol that’s second only to Elliott among all active drivers, though he doesn’t have a win. Daniel Suarez has less experience at Bristol than many in the field, but his average finish is better than his closest playoff rivals, Bowyer and Johnson, giving him a solid chance of racing his way in even without a win.
Another darkhorse is Matt DiBenedetto, whose sixth-place finish there a few years ago was hard-earned in lesser equipment than he’s driving now. And given the improvement he’s seen this summer, keep an eye on him in the night race.
How… much harder is it this year to pick a title favorite as the playoffs loom?
A lot, actually. At this point last year, Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. had 17 wins among them. It was a safe bet that they’d all be in it at Homestead-Miami Speedway, and they were, though Logano stole the show and the title.
This year, while all three are prudent picks if you had to set a bracket right now, there are others who are much harder to overlook: Logano, Keselowski and Denny Hamlin at the top of the list with multiple wins. Hamlin in particular looks the best he has in a while. Team Penske is a venerable threat. Kurt Busch could very well go deep into the 10-race run. The path to the title still runs through the same guys, but it looks a little less formidable than a year ago.