Kevin Harvick can clinch Playoff spot by extending Michigan streak
Time is running out for drivers outside the cut line who are hoping to qualify for the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs.
Sunday’s FireKeepers Casino 400 at Michigan International Speedway (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) is the penultimate race in the regular season, and it’s an excellent opportunity for Kevin Harvick to solidify his position in the Playoff grid.
With five victories at the two-mile track, Harvick leads all active drivers. More than that, he has won the last three Cup races there and four of the last five. Harvick’s current winning streak includes a sweep of last year’s races on consecutive days in August during a schedule re-engineered because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The driver of the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford heads a list of no fewer than 16 drivers who could clinch one of the two remaining Playoff berths with a victory at Michigan. That list also includes Tyler Reddick (currently occupying the final Playoff spot on points), Austin Dillon (the first driver below the cut line), Matt DiBenedetto, Chris Buescher, Ross Chastain, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Bubba Wallace, Chase Briscoe, Daniel Suarez, Erik Jones, Ryan Newman, Ryan Preece, Cole Custer, Corey LaJoie and Anthony Alfredo.
In addition, Harvick can clinch a Playoff berth if any of the following three circumstances occurs: 1) there’s a repeat winner at Michigan; 2) there’s a victory by a driver who can’t advance to the Playoff; 3) Denny Hamlin wins the race.
There’s also an outside chance Kyle Larson will clinch the regular-season championship and lock up the 15-point bonus that goes with it. A five-time winner this year, Larson leads second-place Hamlin, who is winless, by 22 points.
If Larson leaves Michigan with at least a 61-point edge over Hamlin, he’ll become the fourth Cup driver to win the regular-season title, which was first contested in 2017.
Before Harvick began dominating Michigan, Larson was the pre-eminent driver there. Larson won three straight races at the two-mile track, a string that included a sweep of the 2017 events.
However, the competition package for Cup cars has changed substantially since Larson last won there.
“It’s a totally different package—aero, engine, all that—compared to when I used to win there, but Hendrick Motorsports has been strong there, and we have been good on all the bigger ovals this year,” says Larson, whose three victories at the track are tied for second most among active drivers with Joey Logano and Kurt Busch.
“The draft plays a big role there, so you have to be really patient when you’re making moves. As long as we keep executing and being smart like we’ve been doing all year long, we should have ourselves in position to challenge for another win.”
NASCAR Xfinity Series Playoff scenarios are wide open heading to Michigan
With five races left in the NASCAR Xfinity Series regular season, only five of 12 Playoff berths have been secured.
Reigning champion and series leader Austin Cindric, AJ Allmendinger, Justin Allgaier, Jeb Burton and Myatt Snider already are set to battle for the title on the strengths of victories in the series this season.
That leaves seven Playoff spots open, and any one of nine drivers could clinch on the basis of a win alone in Saturday’s New Holland 250 at Michigan International Speedway (3:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). The nine drivers are Daniel Hemric, Harrison Burton, Justin Haley, Noah Gragson, Brandon Jones, Jeremy Clements, Riley Herbst, Brandon Brown and Ryan Sieg.
The good news for that group is that Michigan is a track that has a history of producing different winners. In the last 10 races at the track, no driver has won more than once.
History also shows that full-time NASCAR Cup Series drivers have dominated the last 10 races at the two-mile track. The most recent exception is Tyler Reddick, who took the checkered flag in 2019 on the way to his second straight Xfinity Series championship. There was no Xfinity race at Michigan in 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Now driving full-time in the Cup Series for Richard Childress Racing, Reddick is the only former Michigan winner in the field for Saturday’s race, making him the most likely spoiler. Bubba Wallace is the only other Cup Series regular entered in the event.
At the bottom end of the Playoff grid, the effects of surgery to repair a stress fracture in his right femur continued to plague JR Motorsports driver Michael Annett, who had to withdraw from last Saturday’s race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course after attempting to practice there.
Josh Berry will replace Annett in the No. 1 Chevrolet this weekend, after being announced earlier in the week as a full-time driver for JRM next year. In a part-time role this season, Berry already has a win at Martinsville, but he has never raced at MIS.
“I wish Michael the best as he continues his recovery from surgery, and I’ll do everything I can to get a good finish for him, (sponsors) Pilot Flying J, Trucking Moves America Forward and everyone on this No. 1 team,” Berry says. “Michigan is a place I’ve never raced at before, and I am anxious to see it in person. It’s wide and has many grooves, so it ought to be exciting.”
Nemechek or Hill—which driver has the edge as NASCAR Truck Series Playoff begins?
John Hunter Nemechek may have a sizable advantage in Playoff points, but Austin Hill certainly carries the momentum from two recent victories into the Round of 10 of the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Playoffs, which opens with Friday’s Toyota 200 presented by CK Power at World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway (9 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.)
After stepping down from the NASCAR Cup Series and taking a Truck Series ride with Kyle Busch Motorsports, Nemechek won five of the first 13 races this season, at Las Vegas, Richmond, Charlotte, Texas and Pocono.
But Hill has won the last two events, on dirt at Knoxville Raceway and in a weather-shortened road course race at Watkins Glen.
So who has the edge as the Playoff begins at 1.25-mile World Wide Technology Raceway? To Hill, that’s a difficult question to answer.
“Honestly, when you get to these Playoffs, the wins that you had in the regular season don’t really matter,” he said. “Obviously, you get those bonus points, and that helps you start the Playoffs, but the wins that you had prior to the Playoffs don’t matter a lot.
“You need to go win races in the Playoffs now, and the races that we are going to, a lot of them are a lot different than where we ran in the regular season… I personally feel like we have the upper hand on everybody. I feel like we can compete with the 4 team (Nemechek), and I feel like we are the team that they need to be worried about the most.”
After the reset to start the Playoffs, Nemechek enters the Round of 10 with 2,049 points to 2,021 for Hill and 2,019 for third-place Ben Rhodes. The 28-point advantage Nemechek holds in Playoff points certainly gives him a leg up on the championship.
“It’s definitely nice to be called the favorite, but at the same time, just because we are called the favorite doesn’t mean that we stop working,” Nemechek said. “There’s a lot of work, a lot of detailed work, a lot of execution, a lot of optimizations from week-in and week-out, studying, a lot of things that go in to making you the favorite.
“For us, we are humble. We want to continue to win races and for myself, I’ve been the underdog. I’ve had that mind-set, and now we are kind of the favorite going into it. We have to go perform. We can’t beat ourselves. We’ve had the championship mind-set from the first race of the year, and now we are going to continue to do so.”
KYLE LARSON, NO. 5 CINCINNATI CAMARO ZL1 1LE – 1st IN STANDINGS
LARSON ON HIS STRATEGY AT MICHIGAN:
“It’s a totally different package; aero, engine, all that compared to when I used to win there but Hendrick Motorsports has been strong there and we have been good on all the bigger ovals this year. The draft plays a big role there, so you have to be really patient when you are making moves. As long as we keep executing and being smart like we have been doing all year long, we should have ourselves in position to challenge for another win.”
CLIFF DANIELS, CREW CHIEF, NO. 5 CINCINNATI CAMARO ZL1 1LE
DANIELS ON CHALLENGES OF MICHIGAN BEING THE ONLY RACE ON A 2-MILE TRACK THIS SEASON:
“Massive challenges. Michigan is a tough place to know where to set the trim of your car for drag and downforce. A lot of the mile-and-a-half’s are more similar in that regard. At Michigan, you really have to have speed in your car. Of course, you have to have the right amount of handling to get through the corners, but the straightaways are long and the track is smooth. If you have handling on your side – which hopefully we do – then you must be able to go fast in a straight line.”
WILLIAM BYRON, NO. 24 AXALTA CAMARO ZL1 1LE – 4th IN STANDINGS
BYRON ON THE HIGH SPEEDS AT MICHIGAN:
“I think with the 550 horsepower package we run, the mid-corner section of the track feels more high speed than anything. Even though we’re going slower down the straightaways than we were a couple years ago, I feel like the mid-corner now feels almost sketchy. It’s fully on edge and you’re close to always chattering the tires. It’s a fast track that makes you feel like you’re always running on a fine line. It’s just a different sensation of speed with this package.”
BYRON ON THE IMPORTANCE OF WINNING AT MICHIGAN:
“Michigan is such an important racetrack, not only for teams but for manufacturers – Chevrolet, most importantly. It’s a fun race that’s all about bragging rights for them on who had the most power, the most downforce, and things like that. I feel like we are heading into this race with a really good shot to get it done for Chevy. We have really fast cars on the 1.5-mile and 2-mile tracks. So, I’m excited to see how things play out for us and hopefully we can be the ones to give the bragging rights to Chevy at the end of the day.”
RUDY FUGLE, CREW CHIEF, NO. 24 AXALTA CAMARO ZL1 1LE
FUGLE ON THE FINAL RACES BEFORE THE PLAYOFFS:
“Since the two-week break, we wanted to make sure we came back with high intensity. We obviously bring it every week, but we wanted to ensure that everyone understands that we want to treat this like a 14-week playoff. With the last two races we ran and the next two coming up, we want to make sure that we are executing at the highest level possible. It’s about the cars you bring to the track, the execution level and going through every detail. That is what we’re trying to hit on to make sure we are ready to go for the playoffs. We don’t want to wait until the playoffs start to be like, ‘Okay, it’s time to step it up.’ It’s a fight every week, so we’re trying to make sure that we’re bringing it at all times.”
CHASE ELLIOTT, NO. 9 NAPA AUTO PARTS CAMARO ZL1 1LE – 5th IN STANDINGS
ELLIOTT ON MAKING A PLAYOFF RUN THIS SEASON:
“We just have to peak at the right time. That was really what we did best last year. We just really peaked at the right time and kind of got hot for a stretch of races. It was perfect timing. Unfortunately, you can’t always draw that up. That’s not just something you can snap your fingers and make happen. It’s a lot of hard work, it’s a lot of effort and it comes from everyone at Hendrick Motorsports, everyone on the road, myself, our off-track help. Everything has to really be clicking at the right time. Our playoffs are 10 weeks, which is a long time. Just that stretch of races, it’s tough to be at your peak for 10 weeks. We just hope we can peak at the right time again, that’s key. We want to perform when it matters most.”
ELLIOTT ON THIS YEAR’S ‘DESI9N TO DRIVE’ PROGRAM:
“With September being Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, the Chase Elliott Foundation, NAPA AUTO PARTS and Hendrick Motorsports have decided to give the No. 9 Chevrolet an entirely new look for the Darlington race. To me, the main player is obviously NAPA and how they are allowing Children’s to be a part of it. To take ‘DESI9N TO DRIVE’, an event that was just shoe designs, and turn it into being on the car, on the suit, on the helmet. I think all of that is extremely special, so I am grateful for NAPA being open, willing and excited about it enough to partner up and make it happen.”
TYLER REDDICK, NO. 8 CHEVROLET ACCESSORIES CAMARO ZL1 1LE – 11th IN STANDINGS
THE NASCAR PLAYOFFS BATTLE IS REALLY HEATING UP. WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS FOLLOWING INDIANAPOLIS MOTOR SPEEDWAY WITH TWO MORE RACES REMAINING IN THE REGULAR SEASON?
“It’s an interesting place to be, with myself and my teammate, Austin Dillon, fighting for points and in that cutline situation. Looking back on it, I think Indy was tough. If we could have both just agreed not to go after stage points, I think we both could have had really strong chances at top-10s and good finishes, and maybe even going for the win. With the way the race played out and seeing all of the carnage that took place, I think we would have had a different strategy going in if we would have known. It was nice to get the stage points. Those Playoff points will be good to have if we can survive the next two weeks.”
FAST, TWO-MILE TRACK AT MICHIGAN. YOUR THOUGHTS HEADING INTO THE RACE?
“I don’t know, honestly. I’ve been really focused on these road course races. Trying to get up to speed on what we’re going to have for a racing surface. The last time the sport did anything surface-wise to a track was at Nashville Superspeedway when we put the resin down, so I am curious to see if the track is getting left alone or if anything is going to be applied. The resin seemed to work really well when we raced at Nashville Superspeedway on that concrete oval.”
YOU’RE A FORMER WINNER AT MICHIGAN INTERNATIONAL SPEEDWAY…
“Yeah, it was really fun the last time we ran a NASCAR Xfinity Series car there. We were able to find Victory Lane with RCR, so I’m excited to be heading back to Michigan. I’ll be in both the NASCAR Cup Series car and I’m racing a Xfinity Series car for Our Motorsports. I’m excited to get back to Michigan and get some laps in both cars. Running the Xfinity Series race will hopefully be an advantage for Sunday and provide a way for me to get some insight into the characteristics of this tire with whatever application they decide to put on the track. I’m just excited to get back to Michigan. I forget that I haven’t run a Xfinity Series car there since I won in 2019. It’s just a neat place. A lot of power, and fighting dirty air is wild. It should be a fun trip.”
ALEX BOWMAN, NO. 48 ALLY CAMARO ZL1 1LE – 12th IN STANDINGS
“Definitely excited to go to Michigan. Last year we were fast, so this year I think we know our program for that style racetrack is really strong and think we could be really good. Excited to go there and hopefully contend for a win. It’s really cool to go to Ally’s backyard, Chevrolet’s backyard and really everyone’s backyards. Everyone has a little bit of added pressure to try to win there and hopefully we can get it done.”
GREG IVES, CREW CHIEF, NO. 48 ALLY CAMARO ZL1 1LE
“I am really looking forward to getting to Michigan. Obviously, it’s my home state and one of the first tracks that I went to as a fan in the stands. That gave me the passion for wanting to do this every day. We are looking to continue our great runs on 550 tracks this weekend. Ally’s presence there and Chevrolet’s, having success at Michigan is super important for us on Sunday.”
“There is never a bad time to have three wins in the hopper. The big thing is that you want to cap off these races at Michigan and Daytona with momentum. After Watkins Glen we were down a little bit, but I think we are getting back to where we need to be. We need that momentum to go into the start of the playoffs. That is our focus right now. We don’t want to plan to far ahead of us, because you have to take each race and keep building on it.”
AUSTIN DILLON, NO. 3 BREZTRI CAMARO ZL1 1LE – 13th IN STANDINGS
WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS ON MICHIGAN INTERNATIONAL SPEEDWAY?
“We had a strong Chevy at Michigan International Speedway last year, and I expect the same this year. I’m really looking forward to the race. Michigan is a place we’ve run well at in the past, and it’s a place we’ve circled to try and win and lock ourselves into the NASCAR Playoffs.”
FANS HAVEN’T BEEN ABLE TO SEE A RACE AT MICHIGAN IN PERSON IN TWO YEARS. TALK ABOUT THE EXPERIENCE OF RACING THERE AND WHAT YOU ARE LOOKING FORWARD TO?
“Michigan has been a fun race for us on the No. 3 team the last couple of years, so we always circle it. We are really focused on this one and the points situation we’re in, we like going to places where we’ve had success in the past. Everybody at RCR has put a lot of focus on our car for that weekend, knowing it’s a good place for us. We’d like to go there and show out for our partners at Dow and Chevrolet since they are based in Michigan. Chevrolet is in Detroit and Dow is based out of Midland, so it’s always good to put on a show for everyone that helps us get to the track each and every weekend. We’re also looking forward to spending time with our friends at AstraZeneca since this is a big race for BREZTRI AEROSPHERE® (budesonide, glycopyrrolate, and formoterol fumarate) Inhalation Aerosol.
YOU’VE BEEN HITTING THE GYM PRETTY HARD. WHAT DOES THAT DO FOR YOUR MENTALITY IN A HIGH-PRESSURE SITUATION?
“Hopefully, in any situation in the car, you feel good. You don’t want to have a point where you don’t feel strong enough to be the same driver every lap. Anytime you can put yourself in a better situation with your heart rate and everything, health-wise, I think it’s better. You are more clear, mentally. I’ve been back at the gym with our trainer and it’s a little more based on what I do in the car and staying more mobile and keeping my body right, so I’m stretched out and feel good when I get in the race car. Healthy is a good thing.”
NASCAR Cup Series
Next Race: FireKeepers Casino 400
The Place: Michigan International Speedway
The Date: Sunday, August 22
The Time: 3 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN, 2 p.m. ET
Radio: MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR (Channel 90)
Distance: 400 miles (200 Laps); Stage 1 (Ends on Lap 60),
Stage 2 (Ends on Lap 120), Final Stage (Ends on Lap 200)
NASCAR Xfinity Series
Next Race: New Holland 250
The Place: Michigan International Speedway
The Date: Saturday, August 21
The Time: 3:30 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN, 3 p.m. ET
Radio: MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR (Channel 90)
Distance: 250 miles (125 Laps); Stage 1 (Ends on Lap 30),
Stage 2 (Ends on Lap 60), Final Stage (Ends on Lap 125)
NASCAR Camping World Truck Series
Next Race: Toyota 200 presented by CK Power
The Place: World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway
The Date: Friday, August 20
The Time: 9 p.m. ET
TV: FS1, 8 p.m. ET
Radio: MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR (Channel 90)
Distance: 200 miles (160 Laps); Stage 1 (Ends on Lap 55),
Stage 2 (Ends on Lap 110), Final Stage (Ends on Lap 160)