The Top Five: Breaking down the Michigan race

Five thoughts following Sunday’s race at Michigan International Speedway…

1. Oh, that restart

Kyle Larson’s brilliance behind the wheel of a race car — it doesn’t matter what kind — is the sort of raw ability that every race fan can appreciate. And that was on display for all to see on Sunday.

Larson’s fourth-to-first move on the overtime restart — first slicing his way up the middle, then getting right to the bottom before anyone had time to really counter — was perhaps the best moment of his NASCAR career so far.

Today’s NASCAR is so much about the car and less about the driver, but Larson has shown several times how much the driver still matters. He is willing to try things others do not or cannot, and it provides for quite a show whether the attempt succeeds or fails.

This time, it worked — and Larson completed a week where he forced those who scoffed at his “last true racer” comment several months ago to wonder if maybe he was right.

2. Truex vs. Kyle

In the majority of races this season, the fastest cars have been either Truex or Kyle.

It’s just that the “Kyle” role has switched between Larson and Busch.

Larson was leading the points until he dropped off a cliff recently and tumbled to third with five finishes outside the top 20 in a seven-race stretch. It looked like he lost all his momentum as the Toyotas took over, but questions remained whether that was a product of losing his crew chief to a suspension.

That meant Michigan was going to be a huge test: Would Larson run well on a 2-mile track (a layout which has now generated all four of his career victories)? If not, that would seem to confirm his summer slump.

Apparently, things are just fine. Even though Larson didn’t have a dominant day, he was there at the end and figured out a way to win.

We’re back on the bandwagon now. Pencil him back in for the Final Four at Homestead, along with Truex, Busch and Jimmie Johnson.

3. Kenseth’s nightmare scenario

Matt Kenseth was in a lose-lose situation on the final restart that ended up with the lesser of two evils.

Going into overtime, Kenseth lined up third — on the inside of the second row — behind Erik Jones. His best shot would have been to push Jones on the restart and hope he could make it three-wide, but that could have resulted in a Jones victory.

And that was not going to be good for Kenseth. A new winner from below Kenseth’s spot in the points could have knocked him out of the playoffs (he’s currently holding on to the last spot). Plus, it would have meant helping Jones, the driver who is replacing Kenseth, get his first career win. That probably wouldn’t feel great.

I am not sure what happened and didn’t see any quotes from Kenseth after the race. But on the restart, Kenseth appeared to lay back and try to get a push from Chase Elliott (either that, or he spun his tires).

Ultimately, Kenseth ended up with a flat tire in the ensuing mess and finished 24th. He’s now 31 points ahead of Clint Bowyer for the final spot (see standings below) with three races to go.

The overtime finish cost Kenseth roughly 20 points, which is pretty painful in the battle for a playoff spot. But actually, that wasn’t the worst-case scenario. Because if Jones had won, Kenseth might not have had any points race to worry about at all.

4. Did you notice?

Chris Buescher is having a much better season this year than 2016, when he made the playoffs thanks to his rain-shortened Pocono win.

Buescher finished sixth at Michigan — his best finish of the year — and was right in the mix for a top five on the overtime restart. That was really impressive for a car that doesn’t typically contend there.

Overall, Buescher has improved his average finish from 26.1 to 20.7, already has as many lead-lap finishes as all of last year (11) and picked up his third top-10 of the season.

He’s not going to make the playoffs this season, but he’s trending in the right direction regardless.

5.  Uncertain futures

Bubba Wallace’s victory in the Truck Series race on Saturday was both a feel-good story and a frustrating reminder of the state of NASCAR.

Wallace has been sitting at home for a month, got into a truck for a one-off deal — and won. That’s great on the surface, because everyone watching probably went, “Yes! This will help his chances of getting a ride — and he deserves it.”

But will he get one? Despite being both talented and marketable, there’s no good news yet.

It’s the all-too-familiar problem of today’s NASCAR: Unless a driver personally has money — whether through family or a loyal sponsor — he can only hope the exact right opportunity at the exact right time magically comes his way.

I got another reminder of this on Sunday while watching the race with Gracin Raz (we recorded the post-race podcast, which you can find here). Raz finished fourth in K&N West Series points as an 18-year-old and then was fifth last year. Now 20, Raz has been forced to cut to a part-time schedule running a Late Model he and his dad work on in their garage.

We were chatting during the race and I was asking what the next steps are. The answers aren’t clear, but the solution is: Money. There’s not really much — if anything — Raz can do to jump in a car and prove himself, because that’s not what matters. It’s what money he can bring somewhere to get an opportunity.

Here’s a talented young driver who was just starting his career (and won a K&N West race in 2015), but there’s no pathway forward. The ladder to the top has broken rungs. The same can be said for Wallace, who waits in the same situation — just at a higher level.

It’s a sobering reminder: How many young drivers are there out there, scattered across the country, who could excel if they got the right opportunity?

Sadly, only a lucky few will ever find out — and that’s not healthy for a sport that should be built on the best talents.



By patron request, I’m going to start including the playoff picture at the bottom of the Top Five each week. Here’s how it looks now:

IN (13): Truex, Larson, Harvick, Ky. Busch, Keselowski, Hamlin, Johnson, Blaney, Ku. Busch, Newman, Stenhouse, Kahne, A. Dillon.

Points Bubble with four races to go:

14. Chase Elliott +62

15. Jamie McMurray +52

16. Matt Kenseth +31


17. Clint Bowyer -31

18. Joey Logano -98

(Everyone else more than 100 points or one win behind)

8 Replies to “The Top Five: Breaking down the Michigan race”

  1. This situation with younger drivers having to buy a seat is frustrating to realize as a fan. It isn’t a very appealing thing to think about, and when you have a Bubba Wallace sitting there not getting a ride, it seems downright unfair.

    Dale Jr. and Bubba were having some banter on Twitter (separately) that makes it sound as though Dale Jr. would be amenable to putting Bubba in the #9 next year if the sponsorship came through.

    Come on, Dominoes! What are ya waitin’ for! He could be the fastest pizza delivery guy ever!

    1. Guitar Ted it would seem you follow Dale Jr. and Bubba. Or at least you saw some of Bubba’s periscope, he was talking up Domino’s .

      On that note, it is a shame that talent doesn’t win out anymore. Sponsorship is the reason that JRM has said they can’t put Josh Berry in an Xfinity ride.

  2. I guess a few owners work to find sponsorship but perhaps it’s just easier to lay it on the drivers. IndyCar led the way, and its worked it’s way to the local level. Wish it didn’t take so much money to race.

  3. Great piece about Buescher! Would love to see him join SHR and see what he can do for a better team!

  4. I didn’t think Kenseth laid back on the restart. He was right there with the pack, running three-wide for third into turn one, and Larson just about cut down across his nose getting into the lead.

    Matt had made a defensive/offensive move that his tires couldn’t keep up with, and he had to back out. Chase Elliott had the momentum behind him, and tried to back out, but ultimately he had to give Matt a little shove up the banking to get the #20 out of the way. Matt drifted up high, nailed the wall, and (fortunately for the field, maybe not so much for him) managed to only wreck himself.

    Before that yellow, he was well ahead of McMurray and ahead of Chase, putting him 15th in the standings by just a few markers. But McMurray, Chase and Matt are all still stuck in the same conundrum: they’re so close in points in the race for 14th (assuming we’ll get a new winner, but not three) that they can’t afford to take a gamble that will cost them. And by the time they know they have to gamble (i.e. 20 to go at Richmond with Logano leading), it’ll likely be too late.

    But I’ll be bitter and blame that late-race yellow flag. The last few years, it feels like late-race restarts and battles have done nothing but cost Matt and the #20 team. Kansas 2 and Talladega 2 in 2015, Daytona, Martinsville 1, NHMS2 and Phoenix 2 in 2016, ACS, Indy and now Michigan 2 this year. Maybe Matt’s more an offensive racer than a defensive racer, but the late-race restarts seem to force the #20 team into defensive mode, and at that point, it’s like fortune is just asking a question: “How would you prefer to lose this one today?”

  5. Jeff, you might have includes in your observations the obvious rebuttal to Keselowski that the Toyota’s were not sandbagging.

  6. Had a chance to shake hands with Chip at RIR back in the spring. Found him to be a really down-to-earth guy who pours his heart into racing — and therefore also his drivers. Wasn’t surprised to see him hovering around Kyle and the 42 guys more than some owners would after the race. He knows he hit the jackpot with Larson as an elite talent and I think he genuinely cares about him the way Rick Hendrick looked after Jeff Gordon early in his career. There’s no denying when somebody special comes along. As for the “last true racer” comment from Kyle, hey — if he keeps manhandling a Cup car like that on restarts and beating the fastest teams in the sport, he’s walking the walk, period.

  7. Given how much it is to run a Cup team and how difficult even the great drivers are having finding sponsorship $’s, is it time to cut down the number of races to make it more affordable. Only go to tracks once a year. Make it a two day show. There doesn’t seem to be the money out there to sponsor top drivers. The unemployment line is going to grow. If you can’t get the $’s the big names will be retiring quicker than ever before. Do you think Kenseth, KuBusch, Patrick and the rest will settle for less.

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