Who … should you be talking about after the race?
When Ryan Blaney shot to the lead on the final restart, it was easy to think it wouldn’t stick. The final eight laps were the only ones he’d led all day, and he had the dominant Hendrick cars of William Byron and Kyle Larson behind him. Byron and Larson combined with Chase Elliott to lead 156 of 200 laps on the day. But they needed one thing to pass Blaney for the win: teamwork. Had Byron and Larson worked together in the final green-flag run, they might have run down Blaney and then duked it out for the win. Instead they chose to do the duking out for second, and as a result, never got the runs they needed to pass for the win.
For Blaney, it’s the first time in his career that he has grabbed more than one win in a season. Team Penske has been somewhat lackluster this summer, running well but without a win since Talladega in the spring. Blaney’s win could give the team momentum entering the playoffs.
And don’t forget Kurt Busch. Busch only led one lap, but the race was more important than that single circuit. For one thing, he has been rock solid this summer; in the last 10 races, Busch has a low finish of 20th, but has eight finishes of 15th or better and seven top 10s, including his win at Atlanta. He needs to heat up a little more to be a title contender, but he’s running well enough to go deep in the playoffs.
Busch didn’t quite have the car to contend on Sunday, though if he had gotten to the lead late, he probably could have made it stick. But he positioned himself perfectly to capitalize through the entire race and came away with a top five. That’s a veteran’s experience and it’s tried and true for racking up points.
What … is the buzz about?
While Silly Season is more or less cooling down, it’s not quite over. The two biggest names without rides for 2022 so far are Kurt Busch and Matt DiBenedetto, but there are a handful of others without a contract for next year, including Daytona 500 champion Michael McDowell.
But are there still open rides? Maybe. Kaulig Racing hasn’t announced a driver for its second chartered car yet. It’s likely that McDowell will stay at Front Row Motorsports, but will the team keep Anthony Alfredo around or replace him with someone more reliable on track? There’s also the possibility of a second team at 23XI Racing and the possibility of GMS Racing joining the Cup Series (the team stated that intent but has been radio silent about it since).
So, it ain’t over yet. It’s close; the best teams have selected their drivers and the best drivers, with the exception of Kurt Busch, have been snapped up. The biggest unknown for 2022 is now the schedule itself, which may be affected by COVID-19 for the third year. Even if it isn’t, it could see some changes from this year. Let’s hope those don’t include returning to the cookie-cutters they left behind in 2021. Keep an eye on things; there are still stories to be written here.
Where … did the other key players wind up?
Polesitter Larson probably should have won the race. What sealed his fate was pit strategy. He waited a lap too long on the last green-flag cycle and ran out of fuel, losing enough time that he cycled out too far behind to get back to the lead. When he had a hand from a late restart, he couldn’t quite get around Blaney and couldn’t keep teammate Byron behind him either.
Playoff bubble drivers Tyler Reddick and Austin Dillon both started the day well enough, running within sniffing distance of the leaders. Dillon’s day ended at the close of stage two when he suffered a hard crash and wound up 36th. Reddick looked to capitalize on his teammate’s misfortune and was gunning for a top finish when he touched off a multicar incident on a restart. Reddick escaped the initial chaos but spun out on the subsequent restart, finishing his day in 29th, two laps down. He could have all but eliminated Dillon but didn’t capitalize.
When … was the moment of truth?
Think back a few years: it’s 2017 and something is flat wrong with Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 team. Johnson won the 2016 title and followed that up with three quick wins in 2017, and while on the surface, nothing really changed, Johnson would never win another race. When the series went to tracks like Dover, where Johnson shone throughout his career, it had the feeling if now or never. If Johnson couldn’t find something there, just a little glimmer of magic, he wasn’t going to find it anywhere.
Fast forward back to 2021 and Michigan was that track for Kevin Harvick. He has struggled in 2021 with just a handful of top fives to his name. He won nine times in 2020, and the last three races at MIS. If Harvick could find the magic anywhere, it should have been Sunday.
And there was no magic to be had. Harvick finished 14th, never scoring a stage point, never leading a lap.
While it would be easy to point to Stewart-Haas Racing overall, the team has been on a summer uptick. Aric Almirola won at Loudon and rookie Chase Briscoe has been getting better and better. Harvick carried the organization for the last few years; even when it struggled, he was winning.
It’s hard to say what’s changed. It’s hard to think that Harvick, or Johnson before him, lost the desire to win or the ability to do so. Drivers don’t hit 40-something and forget how to wheel a car. For Harvick, the rules package hasn’t changed much over last year, so he shouldn’t be struggling to figure out the car.
Has SHR (and Hendrick before them) started to turn their attention to the next generation of racers? That seems both plausible and far-fetched. Whatever the reason, though, every driver has his last win sometime. Has Harvick’s come and gone?
Why … should you be paying attention this week?
Simple: because Daytona. Not only does it promise the chaos of a crapshoot that only a superspeedway can deliver, but it’s the final race of the regular season and the final chance for drivers to make the playoffs with a win.
The restricted air to the engines means the cars are fairly equal. There are almost always drivers who struggle at most tracks in the mix on the speedways and some of them are very good at this brand of racing. Drivers without wins who are very good speedway racers include Ryan Preece and Bubba Wallace. McDowell would make that list, too, but he has a win in the Daytona 500. That gives hope to the other smaller teams, and they’ll gun all the harder for that elusive W. History suggests that underdog wins like McDowell’s are the exception and not the rule, but there will be plenty of contenders and plenty on the line this weekend. If you like mayhem, it’s a must-see event.
How … well will Tyler Reddick and Austin Dillon sleep this week?
Probably not very well. Dillon is currently 25 points below the cut line, so he will need a great race to get in on points, stage points and bad luck for Reddick all day. A win would also do it for either driver, of course, but Dillon’s chances without the win hinge on a bad day for Reddick and that’s not something he can control.
Reddick should be in full control of his destiny. At most tracks, maintaining a lead the size he holds is just a matter of racing smart and not making mistakes.
But not at Daytona. Luck has as much to do with a good finish as skill, and points racing is a gamble at best.
So, that last playoff spot is definitely up for grabs this week.
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