NASCAR Race Weekend Central
(Photo: Nigel Kinrade Photography)

Thinkin’ Out Loud: NASCAR Michigan Doubleheader Weekend

What happened?

Kevin Harvick swept the FireKeepers Casino 400 on Saturday (Aug. 8) and the Consumers Energy 400 on Sunday (Aug. 9) at Michigan International Speedway. He’s now won four out of the last six NASCAR Cup Series races held at the two-mile oval.

Harvick was the dominant car in both events, leading the most laps in each despite fighting off late challenges. Brad Keselowski, Martin Truex Jr., Ryan Blaney and Kyle Busch rounded out the top five on Saturday. Harvick’s main rival for the championship, Denny Hamlin, was runner-up on Sunday followed by Truex, Busch and Joey Logano.

How did it happen?

Saturday’s race cruised along through the first two stages. There were no cautions outside of the competition caution and the stage breaks. Harvick won both stages, with Blaney and Hamlin each leading laps but clearly not looking as fast as Harvick.

In the final stage – as we’ve seen plenty of times this season – chaos ensued. There were six accidents in the final 67 laps. A flurry of late yellows, combined with the choose rule, created a thrilling final few restarts.

Chase Elliott used the choose rule to his advantage with 18 laps to go and briefly snagged the lead from Harvick. He was doing all he could to keep the No. 4 behind him before another yellow with 12 to go.

Later, it was Kyle Busch who took the lead from the inside lane against Harvick. That’s when the move of the race happened. Harvick got oh-so-close to Busch’s left rear bumper. It seemed like he didn’t hit him, but the air definitely got Busch loose and sent him out of the groove. In just one corner, Busch’s bid to end his 2020 winless streak went bust and Harvick retook control of the race.

On the final restart, Harvick held off Keselowski for his fifth win of the season. Keselowski wound up just short at his home track, where he remains winless in Cup.

Sunday’s race felt a lot like Saturday’s through the first two stages. There were no cautions besides the two stage breaks, and Harvick again looked like the fastest car. His Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Clint Bowyer won the first stage after starting on the front row, but Harvick took over and dominated stage two.

Once again, the final stage led to madness. Blaney and Keselowski were battling for the lead early in it when the No. 2 got loose and ended each of their days. Both drivers seemed to understand it was accidental, but those two were perhaps Harvick’s best competitors.

With Blaney and Keselowski gone, Harvick led 44 of the final 53 laps to clinch the weekend sweep. Hamlin put up a great fight in the final laps, but the Busch Apple Ford was just too fast. Harvick wound up winning both races and three additional stages at Michigan.

Who stood out?

Harvick is in a league of his own right now. What else needs to be said? On Saturday, he led the most laps, won both stages and survived multiple late restarts to win. On Sunday, he started 20th after the qualifying invert, but still came up and finished eighth in the first stage, won the second stage and won the race.

He now leads the series with six wins this season and has an absurd average finish of 5.9 in 22 races. Hamlin has had flashes of brilliance, but he hasn’t been nearly as consistent as the No. 4. I’m running out of ways to describe how good Harvick has been each week, and he’s doing it all at the spry age of 44. The driver is truly a remarkable talent and a surefire future Hall of Famer.

After a tough weekend at New Hampshire, Kyle Busch showed some much-needed speed at Michigan. He had a chance to win on Saturday before Harvick finessed him out of the way. The No. 18 wasn’t in position to win on Sunday, but he still ended up fourth with his second top five in as many races.

Big picture, Busch is now all but assured a playoff spot. He had a less than 100-point cushion going into the weekend; now, he exits with a 140-point lead over 17th and only four races left. More importantly, he has an 83-point lead over Matt DiBenedetto in 15th. That means if there are two new winners at the two Daytona races, he still has a hefty lead over the bubble. Expect the reigning champion to have a shot to defend in 2020.

Truex is sneakily having one of the best seasons of any Cup driver. He’s finished third in four straight races and has an average finish of 10.4 since NASCAR’s COVID-19 return. Since losing crew chief Cole Pearn, the No. 19 clearly hasn’t had the same dominating speed it had over the past few seasons. But this team is still lurking as a championship threat.

Truex won’t win seven races like last season. However, I can easily see this team going on a run in the next few weeks and putting itself in a great spot heading into the playoffs. Heading to the Daytona road course, Truex could work his way back into victory lane. He finished in the top five in all three road course races last season and won at Sonoma in 2018 and 2019.

Who fell flat?

Blaney continues to have the worst luck of any driver this season. It seems like the No. 12 team should have three or four wins at this point. Instead, they only have a Talladega victory to show for a possible Championship 4-level effort.

Blaney finished fourth on Saturday and appeared poised to challenge for the win Sunday before his teammate took him out. He took the high road, but the young driver can’t help but notice how many playoff points he’s lost this season due to circumstances outside his control.

The No. 12 is a threat to win almost anywhere. However, the upcoming race at the Daytona oval has to be circled on Blaney and Paul Wolfe’s calendar after this weekend.

No team this season has completely changed course like Alex Bowman and the No. 88. Before the pandemic hit, Bowman looked like a title threat. He absolutely dominated at Auto Club and probably should’ve won at Las Vegas. It seemed like the team didn’t miss a beat in the return at Darlington, but they have struggled badly since.

In the last 17 races since the first Darlington, Bowman has four top 10s and six finishes worse than 25th. His season has been the exact definition of “peaking too early.” Now, they are limping toward the playoffs with nobody seriously worried about them challenging to get to Phoenix Raceway a title contender.

He might have a new ride for 2021. Unfortunately, Christopher Bell isn’t leaving Leavine Family Racing with a good parting gift (yet). It seems like Bell’s had some speed this season, but the finishes haven’t been there. He hasn’t finished in the top 10 since Kentucky last month and has found trouble while running well in multiple races.

Bell seems to be set to join Joe Gibbs Racing next season and he definitely wants to get a win before leaving LFR. Accomplishing that goal will be tough now with the team’s future uncertain under a new owner. Stealing a win from the big dogs is difficult enough, especially as the playoffs begin. With so much unknown at the Daytona races, Dover International Speedway might be Bell’s last best chance to get that first win this season. He won two of his four NASCAR Xfinity Series starts at the Monster Mile.

What did these races prove?

After a few weeks of surprise winners (Cole Custer, Austin Dillon), it’s going to be tough for an underdog to get back to victory lane in 2020. I know what you’re thinking, but hear me out.

The two races at Daytona are wild cards for sure… or are they? Realistically, the same great road course racers will likely run well next weekend. That means Truex, Elliott and Busch will all be up front. Justin Haley might have won the rain-shortened race last year, but guys like Hamlin, Keselowski and Blaney will all be the favorites if it goes the distance.

While it’s fun to imagine people like Michael McDowell and Bubba Wallace winning the two races at Daytona, it’s just not plausible. And no, I don’t count Almirola as a surprise winner; he will be among the favorites at the superspeedway.

Kyle Busch has had a tough season by his standards, and the upcoming doubleheader at Dover is Busch’s best chance to get that first win. I’m not saying he won’t win if it doesn’t happen at Dover, but I think it’ll be tough for him to do it anywhere else.

Busch isn’t traditionally a powerhouse at Dover with three wins in 30 starts. Good numbers, just not spectacular by Busch’s grading scale. However, at Michigan, the veteran showed what having two races in a row at the same track can do for the No. 18. Since returning from the pandemic break, Busch has claimed the lack of practice has hurt his team. With two races in a weekend, he essentially gets a practice session on a Saturday (Aug. 22) for the second race.

It’s crazy we’ve even gotten to this point in the season without him winning, but things could change in a few weeks.

The choose rule needs to become the norm next season and beyond. NASCAR announced last week that it would use the choose rule for the rest of this season outside of superspeedways and road courses. After watching it for one weekend at Michigan, it’s clear we need it forever.

In the first race, there were a bunch of quick cautions late in the race. Drivers that picked the inside lane were hurt on the start but gained if there was a quick yellow. It was an added element of strategy and took away the silly procedure of slowing down on pit road to “lose” spots to restart in the preferred lane. I can’t wait to see it in action at tracks like Martinsville Speedway.

Paint scheme of the weekend

Any time I see a green Mountain Dew car on the track, it’s probably going to be featured here. Mountain Dew has sponsored some great schemes over the years, all the way from Darrell Waltrip to Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Elliott’s look on Sunday didn’t disappoint.

Better than last year?

Last year at Michigan, Fords ruled. Logano dominated the first race in 2019, leading 163 of 203 laps in the win. In the second race of 2019, Harvick came on late to win again.

I’m not sure if it was the shortened races or knocking out two races in one weekend, but this felt like some of the best competition at Michigan in a while. There was passing throughout the field and restarts were exciting. The choose rule definitely contributed to the product, as different guys took chances to move up closer to the front on the inside line. I would rate both of these two races better than last year at Michigan.

Playoff picture

Two more races at Michigan didn’t change the top 16 playoff drivers. Erik Jones got within 16 points of Byron for the final playoff spot after Saturday, while Tyler Reddick (-19) and Jimmie Johnson (-22) were close behind.

After Sunday, Byron extended his lead to 26 points over Jones and Johnson and 36 points over Reddick. The margin could shrink significantly next week at the Daytona road course, but for now, the bubble remains calm.

What’s next?

The race we’ve all been waiting for is finally here. Next Sunday, the Cup Series will visit Daytona International Speedway for its first road course race at the track. Will we see a surprise winner burst the playoff bubble? How many wrecks will the lack of practice cause? Tune in Sunday (Aug. 16) at 3 p.m. for the Go Bowling 235 to find out.

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About Logan Reardon

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15 comments

  1. Avatar

    I hope NA$CAR explains the figures they used to determine the starting lineup for Daytona using their new better for Reverend Gibbs and Mr.H method. This will be rocket science for the brain trust in Daytona.

  2. Avatar

    mayhem will be the winner at daytona.

  3. Avatar

    Thought both races were duds as far as action goes. I’d be fine if Harvick or Hamlin didn’t win another race this year. And as contradictory as it sounds (given the fact that I thought both races were duds), I did not like the shorter distance. Perhaps it would have been alright without the stages but I didn’t like that they could run stages 1 and 2 without having to pit.

    The best part, we got Michigan out of the way and don’t have to go back there until next year.

  4. Avatar

    I watched parts of both races, and both were almost unwatchable, so much in fact I never went back and watched any more of them or even the finish. Michigan is famous for mileage races and no passing. Just one more lost weekend for NOOSECAR. Will be anxious to see what the ratings were for both races. Bet both were in the sub-basement.

  5. Avatar

    When I think “double header weekend,” Michigan hasn’t been on that dream list of tracks since about 1993.

  6. Avatar

    ” Unfortunately, Christopher Bell is won’t be Leavine Family Racing with a good parting gift (yet). ”

    Huh? Editing didn’t catch this?

  7. Avatar
    Mike in Oro Valley

    Predictable snoozers. Three hours to see a green/white/checkers? I fell asleep during the DVR and woke up to a infomercial. Just hit delete and went to bed. Worse though? Next year, you’ll see chronically short fields. And more back markers than ever. When Spire is the buyer of LFR, the die is cast. And it just came up craps.

  8. Avatar

    What happened to the “Competition” caution. It was certainly sunny enough. I bet the network didn’t approve.

    • Avatar

      Do you not pay attention? They keep saying that they only have that competition caution due to not having any practices (or if it rains and the rubber gets washed off). There was an entire race on Saturday in lieu of practices and it didn’t rain, therefore there was no need for the competition caution on Sunday. And yes, I know, what THEY say is usually a load of crap.

      All season, every time I say I wish they would have the minimum amount of practice prior to the race just to get rid of the competition caution, you always chime and say something like “what makes you think they’d stop having the competition caution if they have a practice”. And I say, “because that’s what they keep saying at the start of every race”. Well it happened and they kept their word. Just admit it. You were wrong IN THIS CASE. Next week they could do the exact opposite, but this week they did what they said they would do.

      • Avatar

        Same track. Different day. Different temperature. Probably different setups pushing the limits. I’d want to check the tires.

        • Avatar

          How is it different than having a practice on Saturday and then racing on Sunday? or were you being sarcastic?

          I’m confused. Do you want the competition caution or not want it? It sounds like you want it.

  9. Avatar

    THE MOST EXCITING RACE OF THE WEEKEND WAS THE SPRINT CAR NOS SERIES at I=55 SPEEDWAY WITH KYLE LARSON WINNING FOR THE 19TH TIME THIS YEAR. MY FLORACING AND DIRTVISION SEASON PASSES HAVE BEEN THE BEST INVESTMENT OF 2020 !!