Race Capsule: Kenseth dominant, drivers and fans irritable after Michigan race
Flag to flag: Matt Kenseth started on the pole of Sunday's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Pure Michigan 400 at Michigan International Speedway and pretty much stayed there, leading all but 54 of the 200 laps, and winning his third race of the season. The only times the lead changed hands were during pit stops sequences or briefly during restarts.
The only teams that seemed to have anything on Kenseth were Austin Dillon (4th in the race) and maybe Kevin Harvick (2nd). Dillon led 19 laps, leading for only the second time this season (eight laps in July Daytona race), and leading more laps in this race than he did all season. Dillon led laps 23 to 40 and the once more on lap 125, during a restart. His finish was a career-best.
Harvick took the lead while trying to stretch fuel, but ran out of gas and lost a bunch of time. A caution flag erased that mistake and Harvick drove to his ninth runner-up finish of the season and 16th top 5 of 2015.
The biggest talk before, during, and after the race was the high drag, high downforce aero package that NASCAR mandated teams to run a second time. They also ran it at Indianapolis a few weeks ago. The package made for some drafting, but made cars handle horribly very close to each other, causing drivers to almost spin their cars out when they try to pass. This helped keep Kenseth in the lead and made for a long day for the rest of the field.
One post-race controversy centered around the side skirt’s flaring on the right side of Kenseth’s Toyota. NBC Sports did an excellent job covering how it happened. Kenseth’s jackman missed the jack post as he tried to jack up the car for the lap 100 green flag pit stop. That pulled the body work and flared it a bit. NASCAR teams started flaring the body work near the rear tires last season to create downforce. NASCAR banned it before this season and did not tell Kenseth’s team to fix the body during the race. The No. 20 was dominant before the seemingly accidental body-tampering and stayed just as much so after. Besides - the part that got flared was further forward than teams would have done it to get that advantage.
While everyone had a long day, some teams had a flat bad one. Jimmie Johnson (39th) struggled with the handling of his No. 48 Chevy, then missed his pit stall on a green flag pit stop mid-race, then spun late in the race. Clint Bowyer’s (41st) chances at making the Chase took a hit, when he made contact with Ryan Newman (8th). Bowyer spun, hit the wall, and went to the garage.
Speaking of the Chase standings, Bowyer now holds a 23-point lead over 16th-in-points Aric Almirola (14th in the race). Kyle Busch (11th) is now 29th in the points, 23 points ahead of 31st, meaning he very likely will qualify for the Chase with three races before the cutoff.
After going winless last season, Kenseth is riding the wave that is Joe Gibbs Racing’s resurgence. His team may be peaking at just the right time. But the big talk after this race will be how the aero package hurt the racing.
The top 10 at MIS were Kenseth (34th-career win), Harvick, Martin Truex Jr. (strongest he has looked in a while), Dillon, Denny Hamlin, Carl Edwards, Joey Logano, Newman, Brad Keselowski, and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
RaceTweet: Kenseth dominates to win MIS race from pole. Rest of the field couldn’t pass.
Handsome Boy Modeling School Stud of the Race: Matt Kenseth - Well, duh. By far led the most laps and sealed the deal. His 34th win in his career moved him past Fireball Roberts and - none other than teammate Kyle Busch for 20th on the all-time list. Busch passed Kenseth’s win total the last time NASCAR ran this aero package at Indianapolis.
North Korean Missile Dud: Tony Stewart - Stewart started 5th and looked to continue his momentum of recent weeks. Despite a lack of good finishes (including 43rd at Watkins Glen last week), Stewart’s No. 14 team has been fast lately. But Stewart instead fell back in the pack, spun out on lap 137, and finished 21st.
Never Fear, Underdog is Here: Austin Dillon - He doesn’t drive for an underdog team at all, but Dillon had a career day. And would have predicted that coming in? Dillon has struggled more in his sophomore campaign than even his quiet rookie season. But Dillon piloted the iconic No. 3 Chevy to a great 4th-place run and led a resurgent RCR team that saw Newman finish 8th and Paul Menard 12th. With Newman likely inside the Chase, could the speed RCR has shown prime Newman for another sneak attack in the playoffs? Maybe. But it definitely could also mean that Dillon’s extra time behind the wheel in the Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series races this season is paying dividends at the Cup level and prompting the No. 3 team to the next step.
Ghost Driver: Jeff Gordon - Wake up, Jeff, it’s your final season! Gordon was a non-factor all day at Michigan, a track where he has won, finishing 17th. He’ll more than likely squeak into the Chase playoffs and then squeak right out of them if that No. 24 team (and, frankly, all of Hendrick Motorsports) doesn’t get in gear and find some speed. Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske are the toast of the field right now.
You Can Comeback, But You Can’t Stay Here: Ryan Newman - No. 31 was fast and got damaged after contact with Bowyer. But Newman drove up to 8th, his best finish since Daytona in July. Kyle Busch gets honorable mention for starting in the back of the field after a practice crash, easily avoiding a mid-pack lap 1 crash, leading briefly during pit stops, and finishing 11th. That helps him stay where he needs to be in the points.
Jimmie Johnson Lucky Horseshoe: NASCAR - That anyone even bothered to watch Sunday’s race could be a miracle. Okay, that’s very harsh. But fans came into the race knowing that the aero package would probably produce lackluster racing. Then many of them couldn’t actually watch the race, because it was on NBC Sports Network, which is in far less homes than, say, NBC. The trend of races being on lesser cable networks is bad. But the willingness to try once-failed experiments may be even worse
Wheel of Misfortune: Anyone that worked for Phil Parsons Racing and now works for Premium Motorsports - Since Jay Robinson bought PPR earlier this summer, the quality of that already small-time team has taken a dive. Yes, there was the great resilience the team showed after Timmy Hill wrecked the primary car and they had to rebuild a backup at the track in Indy. But the disorganization that Jay Robinson-run teams have shown over the years is one of the lesser-talked-about stories in the sport. PPR with Josh Wise as driver was no perfect team, but they tried to compete at their highest level possible. Premium Motorsports has pieced together a team, laying off better drivers for lesser ones, and just seemingly doing things the wrong way. The struggles of under-funded teams are real, but the feeling about this one is that some of the struggles are self-induced and certainly
Head-Scratcher Crown of Thorns: NASCAR’s decision to race the high-drag, high-downforce package had a cold reception all weekend and especially after the race. ESPN’s Bob Pockrass summed up the driver’s thoughts on this very well. Pretty much, drivers stayed mum on how they thought the cars raced, likely because they didn’t want to be fined by NASCAR for slamming the sport. The drivers want low-downforce cars with tire fall off. NASCAR wants to create drafting and slingshot passing at more tracks. The drivers’ package - run successfully at Kentucky in July - will run again at Darlington in a couple of weeks. NASCAR’s package ran poorly at Indy and Michigan. The normal 2015 rules package - which hasn’t been as bad as the Michigan one, but still has tepid results - will run in the Chase races. The Talladega rules in October will likely be different, after Dillon’s scary Daytona crash in July.
After Sunday’s race, NASCAR executive Steve O’Donnel tweeted "Lots to take away from today-be willing to try things-accept the results-learn from it & improve." Very true. And NASCAR wanted to give it one more shot before scrapping the plans. But they did so, almost certainly knowing that it wouldn’t work, which is a big problem. With ratings way down (partly because races are often on smaller networks now), this may not be the best time to try experimenting with things known to hurt the racing.
Georgia on My Mind: David Ragan had a promising weekend almost end on the first turn of lap 1 Sunday, when he spun the ill-handling No. 55 Toyota and almost collected a wad of cars. He rebounded to finish 18th, getting the free pass on the final caution. Reed Sorenson failed to qualify the Premium Motorsports No. 62 entry for the race.
The Xfinity Series raced at Mid-Ohio with mixed results for the Georgia Gang. Chase Elliott ran near and finished 5th in most of Saturday’s Nationwide Children’s Hospital 200 won by his teammate Regan Smith. Elliott raced all day near his points foes Chris Buescher (4th) and Ty Dillon (3rd). Dillon passed Elliott for 2nd in the standings and Elliott is 25 markers behind Buescher for 1st. Ryan Sieg was a solid 14th, impressive for a small team and a non-road racer driver. Brandon Jones was running in the top 15 late in the RCR No. 33, when he became the latest to get collected in a Kenny Habul crash and finished 29th.
Next: All three series make a much-needed trip to Bristol for night racing. The Camping World Truck Series runs Wednesday night, with an 8:45 green flag on Fox Sports 1 and MRN. Xfinity Series cars race Friday night at 7:45 on NBCSN and PRN. And the weekend caps off with the Sprint Cup Series just before 7:45 p.m. Saturday on NBCSN and PRN. There’s nothing like a little short track racing to wash out the bad taste of the racing this past weekend.
NXS RaceTweet: Regan Smith snaps winless drought with last corner bump and run on race-dominator Alex Tagliani at Mid-Ohio.