The Top Five: Breaking down the Michigan race

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

1. Lesson learned

Remember two weeks ago at Dover, when FOX foreshadowed Kyle Larson screwing up his chance to win on a late-race restart before losing to Jimmie Johnson? Larson’s lack of closing ability was starting to dog him to the point where his failures were becoming predictable late in the race. And that’s the sort of thing that really messes with some drivers.

“You always kind of have in the back of your mind all the races you lost on restarts,” Larson said Sunday.

Fortunately for Larson, he was able to close out a race when he needed to — and that shouldn’t be underestimated in terms of his confidence. If Larson has learned from those situations and has now adapted to the point where the can convert those opportunities to wins, then the rest of the field should be pretty nervous.

Larson is a title contender, no doubt. However, there remains plenty of room for him to improve before the fall. He’s won three races in a row on the 2-mile ovals — August Michigan 2016, Fontana 2017 and Sunday at Michigan again — but those are his only three career wins.

Given his talent level, Larson can and should expect more. The next item on the agenda is to win on a smaller oval to start building momentum for the playoffs.

2. Fountain of Youth

NASCAR now has had young drivers win three of the last four races, with Austin Dillon and Ryan Blaney winning for the first time and Larson winning for the third. In addition, Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s first win was only five weeks ago.

It’s been an exciting time for NASCAR to have such a surge of energy and enthusiasm from its victory lane winners, and now the sport just needs these fresh faces to keep winning. Victories by Chase Elliott, Erik Jones and perhaps Daniel Suarez all seem possible in the next couple months.

And that’s the best thing NASCAR can hope for right now. No matter who the driver is, the same face in victory lane always seems to get old quickly. It’s the whole sense of, “Ugh, that guy again.”

It’s not that fans don’t like greatness, but any form of racing is the most fun when you have no idea who is going to win. That’s been the case lately, and it’s helped build a relatively positive vibe as the midseason lull in the schedule approaches.

3. Delete debris

Debris cautions remain one of NASCAR’s great frustrations for both fans and drivers. Officials would do themselves a favor by really making this a priority before the playoffs begin in a few months.

Late-race cautions of any kind can dramatically alter the race, as was the case at Michigan when a caution came out with 20 laps to go. The official reason was “Debris Frontstretch,” although it was never shown to viewers (at least that I saw).

After the debris caution, there were two more cautions for crashes involving a total of six cars — three of them under the Stewart-Haas Racing banner. So it’s no wonder team owner Tony Stewart was frustrated by the initial caution.

“It’s a shame that so many drivers and teams day (sic) was ruined by the results of another ‘debris’ caution towards the end of the race today,” he tweeted.

“Debris” was in quotes, which isn’t much of a hidden message. But is he wrong? If NASCAR isn’t more transparent about why it calls debris cautions, these questions will persist.

Officials have said in the past they can’t always show the debris because sometimes a driver has either hit it or it moved after it was initially spotted. With all the technology available today, though, you’d think it would be in NASCAR’s best interest to make sure it works with FOX or NBC to show what its officials are apparently seeing — or at least tell the viewers what the debris was. And if the TV cameras are unable to find it, was the debris really worth a caution?

That leads to another point: NASCAR continues to need to get more consistent on why it calls for these yellows. There was a debris caution for a plastic bag on the track on lap 7 — but not one for a cowboy hat on the track later in the race. And was the final debris caution worth it? We don’t know.

Until this is resolved, fans and drivers will continue to take a cynical view of how NASCAR calls a race — which is most likely a disservice to the officials who really are trying to be fair.

4. Joe Gibbs Racing is going to be OK

Through 15 races, the dominant team of the last two seasons has yet to reach victory lane. That seemed crazy after five races, let alone 10 and now 15. Heck, there are only 11 races left until the playoffs start.

But the Joe Gibbs Racing cars are clearly improved from their early-season struggles, so we shouldn’t wait until one wins to declare the team is “back.”

Just look at Kyle Busch. The increasingly frustrated driver has led at least 19 laps in each of the last six races (and 40 or more in five of those), where he only reached double digits in laps led during three of the first nine events.

Similarly, Denny Hamlin has finished 12th or better in seven of the last eight races — but did that in only two of the first seven events.

So the JGR cars are qualifying better, running closer to the front and generally showing up with better performances. Yeah, the team might still have some gains to make, but let’s not pretend it’s as far off as it was a few months ago.

5. Apps are amazing

I watched the Michigan race with a group of NASCAR fans in the Portland area, and three people were using NASCAR RaceView on their phones to follow the race. Two were listening to Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s audio and watching his progress and another was doing the same for Kasey Kahne.

Each of them knew when a caution was out before it aired on TV and they were generally more informed about the progress of the race than anyone else — even those of us scrolling through Twitter.

Forgive my ignorance, but these apps must have apparently come a long way in the last couple years. I used to occasionally use Sprint Cup Mobile when I wasn’t at the track, but the radio chatter was so far behind the actual race that I gave up after while. Apparently I need to try again because these days, the apps seem to have made enough progress to really be relied upon as a second screen.

Of course, this gives people another reason to not watch the actual race on TV — they can go anywhere and use these apps if needed, just like Twitter — but as long as they’re still engaged in the sport, perhaps that’s what matters to NASCAR.

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

  1. In my opinion apps like race view are an absolute requirement for watching a race. When I can I watch use three TVs during a race. One for regular broadcast. One for in car camera. And one for race view. Also follow on twitter using a tablet. Following your favorite driver on an app like race view allows you to stay way more informed about the race. Also you don’t miss what happens during commercials. This is an area Nascar should do all it can to upgrade and taylor to the more experienced fan. I’m sure many fans would be willing to pay a nominal fee for this type of information. This would also be an increased revenue stream for Nascar. Would love to be able to listen to the officials AND my favorite driver at the same time. If more information is already provided to teams and the broadcast media why not fans if they are willing to pay for it??

  2. NASCAR has done a much better jobs over the past couple years on showing the reason for the cautions. But today was a significant step back. I feel sure there is no intent to “FIX” the race for or against driver “X” but it should not use trash bag cautions, competition cautions and unseen debris cautions to generate tighter racing and drama…..that is what the stages were designed. I am 100% about safety but today was a negative for the sport I love.

    1. Hmmmm, that “hat” yesterday..and not a word..but a hot dog wrapper..stop the presses. Good to see the usual team having a “problem” at the end of the race did not interfere with the outcome…Laughing my butt off. SARCASM. Money seemed to be earned yesterday!

  3. If there is a caution for debris, I am assuming that someone must go out on the track and pick it up, no? It should be easy for the TV cameras to follow the truck and show the debris. No excuse for not showing it.

  4. I still laugh at the “Fountain of Youth” narrative. Logano has been the “Fountain of Youth” by himself for some time, and doing it very well, better than the current PUSH of “Youth movement” that is going on now. HIS “YOUTH MOVEMENT STATS” (Logano) is almost 1 month into his 27th year on this wonderful planet earth. He has 18 official Cup wins…and his peers are not even close. And by the way the “Youth Movement” tag of having AUSTIN DILLON and others as a “YOUTH Movement” whatever is laughable.. Dillon is older than Logano..and the others ones that you are championing are in the age ballpark very close. SO what are we saying? Include Logano!!!!! He is your model or should be! 18 wins at his age! He is in Cup longer..but YOU talk “AGE”! Besides Yimmie, LOGANO has the most “Cup” wins in a “Playoff” type scenario..and other stats I am too lazy to look up. Let us put it all in perspective! Maybe you all might want to go on “races in Cup” and not “age”???

    1. Lucas here’s a few stats, Joey only won 3 races from 2009-2013. It wasn’t until his 7th year in Cup that he started winning multiple races. Maybe after Kyle L, Chase, Ryan, Austin and the other guys have been in the Cup level and haven’t won 18 races then you can start screaming unfair. Oh by the way, Austin is just 1 month older than Joey and he didn’t even start in the Truck Series until 2009 whereas Joey was starting his Cup career.

  5. A hot dog wrapper caution is ridiculous! Now the Cowboy Hat really could have caused some damage but no caution for it. Really makes no sense? I agree with Tony

  6. Jeff, my take away from Michigan is the huge banks of empty seats. This should be a track that draws a decent crowd(per nascar standards). While 50,000 is great for NFL teams, tracks will not be able to survive these types of crowds without an increase in their share of the tv pie. That race was totally unwatchable. Nascar did nothing with the on track product(minus a Vince Mcmahon caution) to convince anyone who vacated those seats in the last 5 yrs to come back, and quite possibly lost 3-5 thousand more asses in the seats in the future.

  7. NASCAR has to err on the side of safety where potential debris on the track is concerned. So I think they should make debris cautions their own class of caution. Keep them as short as possible 2-3 laps at most tracks

    Debris caution:

    * Pits do not open
    * No lucky dog
    * No free pass

  8. Agree on the apps. Race day in the Cave means the big screen on with the broadcast turned down to a dull roar, RaceView on the tablet, phone and laptop, plus following twitter on the laptop. Only way to follow a race because there’s so much going on. I’ve always said NASCAR is like all the NFL teams playing each other on the same field every week and moving from city to city. The only thing that comes close is the Tour De France.

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