NASCAR heads to Michigan as playoffs near

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For the second and final time this season, the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series heads to the Irish Hills of Michigan for the Pure Michigan 400 at Michigan International Speedway this weekend. With four races remaining until the cutoff for the playoffs, tensions, along with speeds, will be higher than ever as drivers will be scratching and clawing for every point.

WHAT: Pure Michigan 400. 400 miles, 200 laps. Stages of 60, 60 and 80 laps, respectively

WHEN: Sunday, August 13, 2017. Green flag scheduled to fly at approximately 3:18 p.m. ET

WHERE: Michigan International Speedway, two-mile asphalt oval located in Brooklyn, Mich.

FAVORITES: Kyle Busch (13-4), Martin Truex Jr. (15-4) and Kyle Larson (11-2)


LAST YEAR’S WINNER

First win in his 99th career start for Chip Ganassi Racing in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. Larson lead 41 laps and pulled away from Chase Elliott on the final restart en route to Victory Lane. His win clinched a playoff spot for the No. 42.


THE FIELD

Brad Keselowski won the pole for the Pure Michigan 400, laying down a blazing fast lap of 200.865 mph (35.845 seconds) around the two-mile oval. The pole was his second of the season, 14th of his career and first at MIS, his home track. Keselowski grew up in Rochester Hills, about a 90-minute drive from Brooklyn. He has never won at his home track.

Photo: Sean Gardner/Getty Images

Joey Logano, Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth and Chase Elliott made up the top five when qualifying concluded on Friday evening. Kyle Busch, Jamie McMurray, Byron, Mich. native Erik Jones, Kyle Larson and Denny Hamlin rounded out the top 10.

Some other notable qualifiers include Ryan Blaney in 12th, Martin Truex Jr. in 13th and Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 19th. Jimmie Johnson originally qualified in 22nd, but will have to start at the rear of the field after crashing in practice on Saturday morning, forcing the No. 48 to go to a backup car. Johnson has one win, five top five’s and 13 top 10’s in his career at Michigan.


WHERE’S HENDRICK?

Jimmie Johnson has his wins, and he’s in the playoffs. Chase Elliott should be in the playoffs, barring a disaster. Kasey Kahne is also in the playoffs thanks to his win at Indianapolis, but has had a lackluster season and will be released from his contract at season’s end. AndDale Earnhardt Jr. can’t seem to catch any bit of good luck and retirement is fast approaching.

Earnhardt Jr. won’t make the playoffs unless he wins a race in the next month, Kahne will more than likely  be eliminated in the first round of the playoffs, Elliott’s lack of wins is starting to worry some and Johnson is amid the No. 48’s annual summer slump.

Photo: Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

But a win can change all that. Remember last season? The one where Johnson won his record-tying seventh championship? Yeah, well he had a summer slump then, too. Knowing the No. 48 team, they’ll win another title. Kahne “(doesn’t) want to be done yet,” Elliott’s win could be right around the corner and Earnhardt Jr.’s momentum has got to change soon.


“STUNTED” FAREWELL TOUR

Kevin Harvick made some pointed comments towards Dale Earnhardt Jr. earlier this week on his Sirius XM NASCAR Radio weekly show “Happy Hours,” saying the driver of the No. 88 has played a large part in hindering the growth of NASCAR since he’s been at the top level.

For me, I believe that Dale Jr. has had a big part in kind of stunting the growth of NASCAR because he’s got these legions of fans and this huge outreach of being able to reach different places that none of us have the possibility to reach,” Harvick said on SiriusXM. “But he’s won nine races in 10 years at Hendrick Motorsports and hasn’t been able to reach outside of that […] the growth in the sport has not reached the levels that it should have because our most popular driver has not been our most successful driver.”

Obviously, those comments didn’t sit too well with Junior Nation. After all, he’s the most popular driver for 14 years (and counting) for a reason. But Harvick’s comments do hold some truth. They’re not the most popular comments by any means, but he has every right to say what he thinks. Earnhardt Jr. said the comments were “hurtful” and that he’d like to talk with Harvick about them. He also stated he respects Harvick greatly and considers them friends.


#LETKYLERACE

Kyle Larson has always had a passion for sprint car/dirt car/any type of racing, and this weekend, the Knoxville Nationals happen to be taking place in conjunction with the NASCAR action at Michigan. This has caused a bit of controversy.

Photo: Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Larson was planning on running the dirt race, one of the biggest ones of the year. But the race is on Saturday night, and the Cup race is on Sunday afternoon. Team owner Chip Ganassi has historically had a loose leash on Larson and him racing other cars, but after winning a feature race Wednesday night, he said he’d need to convince Ganassi into letting him race in the main.

Consider the deed done, as he persuaded the boss man to #LetKyleRace. Ganassi posted a message on Twitter earlier this week, supporting Larson and allowing him to compete. Larson has won the last two MENCS events at Michigan and will look to make it three on Sunday.


CAN ANYONE STOP TOYOTA?

Coming off Martin Truex Jr.’s victory last weekend at Watkins Glen, along with a 1-2-3-4 sweep from the manufacturer, Toyota seems leaps and bounds ahead of Chevrolet and Ford.

Brad Keselowski has been one of, if not the driver, who’s been the most vocal in terms of Toyota being a couple tenths better, previously saying he was “racing for first in class” due to Toyota’s advantage. And after qualifying on Friday afternoon, Keselowski raised eyebrows.

Photo: Jonathan Ferrey/NASCAR via Getty Images

“About this time every year, NASCAR takes all the cars to kind of check to make sure that the competitive balance is where they want it to be, and I think we’ve seen the last two or three weeks that the Toyota cars are pretty dominant,” Keselowski said in the media center following his pole run from Michigan International Speedway. “We had a strong suspicion that those guys would kind of tune it down this weekend, so not to post a pretty big number in inspection that maybe balanced back out the competition, and potentially that’s right because our team hasn’t done much differently and those guys are just not as fast as they’ve been the last few weeks.”

Toyota drivers of Truex Jr. (along with his crew chief Cole Pearn) and Denny Hamlin weighed in on Twitter after the comments surfaced. Safe to say NASCAR Twitter had a field day with it.

Time will tell whether or not Toyota is in fact doing something different and/or “against the rules.” But for now, anybody beating a Toyota can be considered an accomplishment of the highest proportions. Keselowski, Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson all seem fast this weekend.


PREDICTION

As stated on this week’s episode of Victory Lane (with an interview from Landon Cassill, check it out), I think this is the week for Chase Elliott to get the monkey off his back and finally get his first MENCS victory. He was third on the speed charts in 10-lap averages in practice two and was 15th in the first. Being his best track statistically, my gut tells me this is the No. 24’s week.

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