NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2021 FireKeepers Casino 400 at Michigan

What happened?

Ryan Blaney won the FireKeepers Casino 400 at Michigan on Sunday (Aug. 22) after leading the final eight laps, holding off William Byron in the closest finish ever at Michigan.

Byron, Kyle Larson, Kurt Busch and Denny Hamlin rounded out the top-five finishers. 

How did it happen?

Pole sitter Larson pulled ahead on the start, briefly surrendering the lead to Matt DiBenedetto before gaining it back and leading until the competition caution at lap 20. Early on, Martin Truex Jr. dropped way back following contact with Kyle Busch.

Strategy was shuffled on the competition caution pit stops, with Hamlin taking fuel only, most leaders taking two tires and some deeper in the field taking four. Hamlin led the first lap after the restart, but Chase Elliott got around him one lap later. Joey Gase wrecked just a few laps later, bringing out the second caution.

Elliott held the lead on the restart as Austin Dillon — who took four tires on the first stop — moved into fourth behind Hamlin and Larson with 15 to go in the stage. Dillon got to second with 10 to go, passing the Nos. 11 and 5 three-wide on the inside. Elliott stayed out front for the rest of the stage, securing his second stage victory of 2021.

Larson won the race off pit road over Elliott. Dillon and Larson battled for the lead after the restart with Elliott just behind. Eventually, Elliott got around both drivers in front of him to regain the lead at lap 80.

Green flag stops came late in the stage two, with Elliott and Larson taking four tires as Kyle Busch, Christopher Bell and Hamlin took two. Busch won the stage due to strategy, his fifth stage win of the season.

Dillon’s day ended just after crossing the start-finish line in sixth, as he side-drafted Brad Keselowski for the position down on the apron. He came back up on the track before Keselowski moved out of the way, resulting in a nasty wreck for the No. 3.

Larson assumed the lead on the restart ahead of Byron, Kurt Busch and Blaney. The No. 5 stayed out front until green flag stops began with Byron pitted from second with 45 to go. Larson ran out of fuel in turn 4 with 41 to go, quickly coming to pit road but losing valuable time.

Byron, already up to speed, raced by Larson when they cycled back onto the track. Bryon got the lead once pit stops concluded with 26 to go. Five laps later, some rain hit the track and the caution was thrown.

The next restart with 14 to go was a good one for Byron, who pulled away from Hamlin and Larson before a quick caution one lap later as Tyler Reddick forced the issue in turn 4 and nearly collected the whole field. Joey Logano, Ryan Newman, Josh Berry and Bell were involved.

Using a shove from Kyle Busch, Blaney rocketed to the lead from the inside on the final restart with eight to go. The final seven laps were absolute chaos behind Blaney, with Byron, Larson, Hamlin and Kurt Busch all giving it a shot. Byron and Larson tried to work together to get past Blaney but were unsuccessful as Blaney nipped Byron at the line by just 0.077 seconds — closest in Michigan history.

The win was Blaney’s first at Michigan, second of the season and sixth of his career.

Who stood out?

Blaney won at Michigan by capitalizing late, as he’s become accustomed to doing in races he wins. This is the first time Blaney’s won multiple races in a season, and he’s done so by leading 33 of 525 total laps at Atlanta and Michigan. In his four career wins before 2021, Blaney led over 35 laps just once (63 at Talladega in 2020). He has a flair for the dramatic and is becoming known for coming through in the clutch, which could be a good sign ahead of the playoffs.

Winning at Michigan isn’t really a surprise for Blaney, given that the track acted like a superspeedway with drafting and momentum so important. He has two wins at Talladega and is always in the mix there and at Daytona. The No. 12 has as good a shot as anyone to make it back-to-back wins at Daytona next week.

Byron nearly won his second race of the season, and Michigan was a good sign for his playoff prospects. It’s been a rough summer for the No. 24 after a scorching hot start to the season, with just one top 10 in six races before Michigan. Getting back to a more traditional track proved beneficial to Bryon, as he showed race-winning speed and likely would’ve won without the late cautions.

This run is part of a larger pattern for Byron’s team. The No. 24 has been stout on the 550 HP tracks all season, beginning with the win at Homestead and top 10s at Las Vegas, Atlanta, Kansas, Charlotte, Pocono and now Michigan. He’ll be in contention at those types of tracks in the playoffs.

Few drivers should be more excited than Kurt Busch exiting Michigan. Similar to Byron, Busch’s 550 HP speed is significant. He had an impressive win at Atlanta last month, then could’ve won at Michigan before settling for fourth. If he can get through the first round of the playoffs, the second and third rounds of the playoffs set up nicely for the No. 1 with races at Las Vegas, Kansas and Texas. Keep an eye on Busch in the early playoff races, and if he advances, he’ll be a sleeper pick to sneak into the championship race.

Who fell flat?

Dillon’s surest chance at a win was thrown away in an unnecessary accident. For the first time probably all season, the No. 3 had a car capable of winning on a non-superspeedway. Dillon stormed through the field after starting 26th, advancing to third at the end of stage one. Stage two wasn’t quite as kind, as he finished sixth when the incident with Keselowski happened after the start-finish line.

It was clearly a racing incident, as neither driver was upset with the other following the wreck. But Dillon is now almost in a must-win at Daytona — something you never want to hear as a driver, crew chief or fan. The 2018 Daytona 500 winner, Dillon has proven he can get it done there. It’s just a matter of keeping his car clean early and executing under the highest amount of pressure. 

On the other end, Reddick missed a golden opportunity to pad his lead before Daytona. All he had to do was finish solidly in the top 15 after Dillon wrecked. It looked good until Reddick sent it late and caused a big wreck, then spun on his own under green during the final run. He appeared to embellish the spin, hoping for a caution that never came. He left Michigan in 29th, scoring only 11 points — three less than Dillon. There’s still a decent cushion (25 points), but it could’ve been upwards of 40 if Reddick just kept it clean in the final laps.

The No. 9 team continues to throw away points in another poorly executed weekend. Elliott was right on pace with Larson at Michigan before inexplicably pitting just before the final stage. There was no explanation on the broadcast or social media, and it ruined any chance at victory. Alan Gustafson is now a championship-winning crew chief, but it’s fair to question this decision. If he was going to pit at the end of the stage, why wouldn’t he have called for two tires when he pitted just before the end of stage two? That’s what Kyle Busch did, and he won the stage.

Throwing away races and points has become a troubling trend for the defending champion. Just over the last few weeks you can point to plenty of missed opportunities. The team had a poor pit stop at Indy on the final stop. At Watkins Glen, the team started at the rear, was penalized 10 points, pitted an extra time due to Elliott locking up the tires and still finished second. The Nos. 9 and 48 were also docked 25 points following the race at New Hampshire. Elliott and Co. must tighten it up if they hope to repeat as champs in 2021.

What did this race prove?

The resin application worked for a second straight race, and it should replace PJ1. Resin has been used at two tracks this season — Michigan and Nashville. Both tracks are traditionally one groove, and the resin made both tracks multi-groove. The new substance has been a welcome surprise in limited usage this season. It’s worked better than PJ1 really ever did, as we’ve seen at Texas and Michigan in prior years. It’s time to make resin the new PJ1.

Why were laps run under caution while it was raining? Everyone knew the weather wouldn’t end the race, and the shower was just quickly passing by. Instead, NASCAR wasted a few laps under caution without opening pit road, waiting for the rain to pass. At that point, laps were just wasted. Imagine if there were two or three more laps on that final run. More laps for Blaney, Byron and Larson to battle it out? Sign me up for that over watching laps get burned for nothing.

Paint scheme of the race

DiBenedetto traded in his traditional red and white Motorcraft scheme for a special design honoring Ford 20 Year Master Techs. The result was a sharp black and red scheme, with the signature golden No. 21 on the side. Motorcraft has one of the better regular schemes in the field, and this one-off look was sweet, too.

Better than last time?

Last year, Michigan hosted a doubleheader weekend due to the COVID-19 pandemic. For our case, we’ll compare 2021’s race to the 2020 FireKeepers Casino 400, which was only 312 miles due to the doubleheader. There were no cautions in the first two stages (outside of competition and stage breaks), but four cautions in the final 30 laps set up a series of exciting late-race restarts. Elliott, Kyle Busch and Harvick all led late before Harvick — who led a race-high 92 laps — pulled away for his fifth win of 2020. There were plenty of dull moments early, though it was ultimately an OK product for Michigan.

This year was largely similar to 2020, with a bit more passing thanks to the resin. The leader never got away due to the 550 HP package. That doesn’t necessarily mean good racing, though. The 2021 event will be remembered, however, for the intense battle on the final run of the race. Restarts are the highlight of Michigan, and that final one delivered one of the best in recent memory. It wasn’t much better than 2020, but 2021 had a much more exciting finish and ultimately puts it ahead of 2020.

Playoff picture

Blaney’s second win of the season moves him up the seedings, as he’s up to 14 playoff points before adding his regular season standings bonus (currently four points). Fifteen of the 16 spots are locked in entering Daytona, with Harvick joining Hamlin in securing spots on points. Larson gained six points on Hamlin in the overall standings, pushing his lead to 28 points. The regular season champion will receive 15 playoff points, while second receives 10, third receives eight, fourth receives seven and so on.

On the bubble, it’s down to Reddick and Dillon for the final playoff spot if there’s a repeat winner. Dillon (-25) gained three points on Reddick (+25) despite his wreck, but it was obviously still a massive opportunity missed considering how good the car was. No driver outside Reddick and Dillon can qualify for the playoffs on points — winning is the only way.

Here’s a look at the full standings entering Daytona:

And here’s a look at the clinch scenarios for Reddick to make the playoffs and Larson to win the regular season title:

What’s next?

The 26th and final race of the 2021 regular season is here, and it’s at the World Center of Racing. Anything can happen at Daytona, as we saw last year with William Byron winning his first career race to clinch a playoff berth. The Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona will go green on Saturday (Aug. 28) at 7 p.m. ET on NBC.

Share this article

Sign up for the Frontstretch Newsletter

A daily email update (Monday through Friday) providing racing news, commentary, features, and information from Frontstretch.com
We hate spam. Your email address will not be sold or shared with anyone else.

9 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Echo

Dillon falls behind Reddick for the last spot. Then Dillon has the fastest car in the race all of a sudden, after not much all year. Fishy ! Yeah right, Dillon has won once at Daytona, after he knocked Aric out. Richard was fighting mad, he missed his chance with loaded dice and he knew it.

Echo

Reddicks car will probably blow up next week, early.

Ricky

Alan G has been a reliable crew chief for many years he has been particularly good with young drivers. That being said he has made some questionable calls in the past two years probably costing Chase a few more wins and this year many points with inspection issues. He does finally have a championship and maybe it is time for him to be moved up the management ladder at Hendrick, he is deserving of that.

cj

Chase’s crew chief brings fast cars to the track. Alan’s strategy calls have hurt the 9 car on more than one occasion. It may help to have someone else call the race strategy for the 9 team. Chase had a car that was more than capable of winning that race if his crew chief would have made pit calls to keep his car toward the front. I too was befuddled by the strategy.

Bill B

Not a fan of the type of racing the 550 HP package produces. Too much like restrictor plates. Artificially keeping the cars close by limiting their speed. I did not find the race all that interesting.
I like Blaney and am glad to see him win. Two weeks in a row with late cautions that changed the complexion of the race. Not a big fan of that.

Kevin in SoCal

They explained the rain issues during the broadcast. NASCAR wasn’t taking any chances after what happened at New Hampshire.

Jeremy

And it was Hendricks cars out front at the time. They never take any chances when there is potential to negatively impact the Hendricks organization. You forgot that part. ;-)

Bill B

Really? If what you said was true they would have resisted throwing a caution at all costs. Without that caution a Hendrick car would have won. By throwing a caution they opened the door for a crapshoot ending instead of and HMS guaranteed win.

Jeremy

Stop it with your logic! You’re taking all the fun out of the NASCAR loves Hendricks and is out to get Gibbs conspiracy theories!! lol :-)

Sign up for the Frontstretch Newsletter

A daily email update (Monday through Friday) providing racing news, commentary, features, and information from Frontstretch.com

Frontstretch