Friday, 19 April 2024

I remember the first time I had a hint of what was to come from young Ryan Blaney, in the media center at Michigan International Speedway in 2013.

It was back when he was quite young, still a teenager in fact, and I had just watched him finish second in an ARCA race at the track.

He was very fresh in the sport at that point, having competed in some Xfinity and Truck series races as an 18-year-old in 2012.

When Blaney showed up in the media room to take questions, he was agitated, almost pissed off the entire time. Why, you ask? He hadn’t won the race (coincidentally, the race was won by Brennan Poole and Grant Enfinger finished 5th that day.)

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BROOKLYN, Mich. — It’s hard to imagine for fans who are new to the sport in recent years, but the team formerly known as Roush Racing (and later Roush Fenway Racing) was once among the most dominant teams in the sport.

Started by Jack Roush in the late 1980s, it rose to power with Mark Martin as its lead driver, then a stable of strong teammates were added that made it an annual championship contender — including Carl Edwards, Kurt Busch (2004 Champion), Matt Kenseth (2003 Champion), and Greg Biffle.

Michigan Speedway was unofficially known as the House of Roush, with the team almost always guaranteed to have the horsepower and driving talent to compete for the race win in Brooklyn. Heading into this weekend, they had a total of 13 wins at the two-mile oval.

And after watching Chris Buescher — driver of the No. 17 car for the newly renamed RFK Racing — win a thrilling battle against Martin Truex. Jr. Monday to claim his second straight Cup series victory (and the RFK camp’s 14th win at the track), it’s safe to say the team has definitely got its groove back and is reinvigorated by the arrival of Rochester Hills, Michigan, native Brad Keselowski as a co-owner last year.

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BROOKLYN, Mich. — Beyond RFK Racing stealing the show at Michigan Speedway on Monday, there were a lot of other story lines to talk about, including some that impacted the playoff battle.

Martin Truex Jr. continues hot streak

Truex was the fastest overall car at Michigan on Sunday/Monday, but in the end he fell one position short in second.

But he has no reason to hang his head. Truex has 3 wins, 9 top-5s, 13 top-10s, only 1 DNF and 5 stage wins this season. He has a dominating lead in the Cup series point standings, leading his closest competitor by 57 points. Unless he collapses or wrecks out at the upcoming road courses and Daytona, he should be our regular season Cup champion and get some extra bonus points for the playoffs.

“We are excited. Every week we feel like we have a shot to win, that is all I can ask for,” Truex said. “It’s exciting to come to the track every weekend knowing what these guys are going to bring me. Hopefully, we can keep it up.”

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BROOKLYN, Mich. — When this week’s race at MIS is run (could be Sunday, Monday or Tuesday, depending on how the weather cooperates), several drivers jump to the top of the list when we think about possible winners.

The Closer

First and foremost is Kevin Harvick, who has taken home 5 of the last 7 race wins at Michigan Speedway, a difficult feat to accomplish. He also has a 6th Michigan win earlier in his career, and has taken home one Xfinity Series checkered flag and a Truck Series win on top of the 6 Cup wins.

With this being Harvick’s final season before heading into the broadcast booth, it would be fitting it he continued to add to those records with a final win at Michigan. He’ll have to work for the win, as he’s starting from the 11th row, but if you’ve watched Harvick compete for the past 25 years or so, you know that showing up to take the glory at the end of a race is one of his specialties, so I wouldn’t be surprised one bit to see him fighting for the checkered flag.

Harvick talked a bit about his secrets for success at Michigan.

“I think Michigan is one of those places where car placement and just putting yourself in the right position lap after lap after lap, and not making the mistakes that cost you a half-a-second a lap, and just making a half-a-tenth-of-a-second mistake instead of making those big mistakes and losing track position, and just doing all the little things right, is what you need to do at Michigan,” he said.

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BROOKLYN, Mich. —John Hunter Nemechek took his fifth victory of the season on Saturday, but after Stage 1 you couldn’t have predicted the eventual ending of today’s Xfinity race at Michigan Speedway.

About a dozen laps into Stage 1, a skirmish involving three Joe Gibbs Racing cars (Sammy Smith in the 18, Ty Gibbs in the 19, and Nemechek in the 20) knocked Smith out of the race and sent Gibbs and Nemechek spinning.

Luckily for Nemechek, no significant damage was incurred, and by Stage 2 he had found his way to the lead, and sailed away with a Stage 2 victory and eventually a race win at the end of 125 laps. Gibbs also recovered well and finished in 4th.

Of note, it was the 200th Xfinity race for Joe Gibbs Racing. Nemechek ended up leading 65 of the 125 laps in the race to earn his first victory in Brooklyn and the 7th of his Xfinity Series career.

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BROOKLYN, Mich. — To say that Noah Gragson’s debut season for Legacy Motor Club in the No. 42 Cup car has been a struggle would be the understatement of the year.

In 21 races this season, he has only achieved two top-20 finishes (a 12th at Atlanta, and a 20th place at COTA), and he missed one race with concussion symptoms.

But things just got a whole lot worse for Noah, as he has been indefinitely suspended by both Legacy Motor Club and NASCAR for liking a social media post featuring a meme that belittled and made fun of the death of George Floyd at the hands of police. (NOTE: I won’t repeat what it says or share it out of decency, but I’ll say the meme is of the same despicable type that got NASCAR’s Mike Wallace suspended a few years back)

Gragson will be replaced in the 42 car at Michigan by Chevy’s super-sub Josh Berry, who got word of his new assignment for the weekend less then two hours before practice.

"We have made the decision to suspend Noah Gragson effective immediately regarding his actions that do not represent the values of our team," Legacy Motor Club said.

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BROOKLYN, Mich. — They say every lap counts in racing, but most importantly the last lap counts.

Team Penske’s Ryan Blaney proved that to be the case on Sunday at Michigan International Speedway, when he led the final 8 laps to take the victory in his Ford after the race was dominated by Chevy drivers Kyle Larson and William Byron.

A strong push by Kyle Busch on the last restart, reminiscent of the type of push needed to win at superspeedway tracks, helped Blaney’s cause as he battled for the win.

“Yeah, got a great push by the 18 on the restart, was able to get clear there. Michigan is a matter of pretty much running wide open and trying to play the air game. I hate you have to race that way. That's how you have to run. Worked out for us,” Blaney said.

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BROOKLYN, Mich. — In a sport like NASCAR, where it generally takes many years to establish yourself as a competitive team, it’s rare to see a new team break through as a serious contender for race wins and championships. That’s especially true at the Cup level, but also at the Xfinity level, where a few teams have dominated wins for years (Joe Gibbs Racing, Jr. Motorsports, Team Penske, etc.).

That’s what makes the rise of Kaulig Racing over the past few years a truly inspiring story that fans should embrace. It reminds me of how Furniture Row Racing grew from a small, upstart team based in Denver to winning a title with Martin Truex Jr., before eventually shutting down.

Hopefully, Kaulig doesn’t follow the last part of that blueprint, as they’re a team on the rise (entering Cup full-time in 2022, in addition to maintaining its Xfinity teams) that would be a strong addition to the garage for decades to come.

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BROOKLYN, Mich. — A hometrack race just means more.

And for Brad Keselowski and Erik Jones, who both cut their teeth at local Michigan tracks including Waterford Hills, that home track in the Cup series is Michigan International Speedway.

Neither has won a Cup race at MIS (in fact, no Michigan-born driver has won a Cup race at MIS), but this might be the weekend that changes. Both are very fast so far this weekend. 

Keselowski’s speed came through in qualifying Friday, when he went out last in qualifying and beat everyone with a speed of 190.471 MPH. He previously won the pole at MIS in August 2017.

 “I think the track was in really good shape,. I don't know if there was anything that really favored us, mostly it was just the team doing a great job with the preparation and executing a flawless lap driving the car. Most of the credit goes to my team for sure.”

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BROOKLYN, Mich. — I’ll start with a proclamation: The Truck Series is the best and most competitive of the three top-tier series in NASCAR, so when Saturday’s race at MIS kicked off, I had high expectations.

In the end, as per usual, I was not disappointed.

With the exception of the opening 20-lap segment, which was dominated by Ross Chastain before he had some bad luck and incurred damage on pit road, the race was one of the best all season.

Ben Rhodes, in a smooth-looking Havoline throwback paint scheme, threatened to take the win and enter the playoffs. Brett Moffitt was in the hunt for yet another win. Young Tyler Ankrum was on the front row for several restarts, and even the KBM trucks made appearances up front as they battled in their final attempt to make the playoffs.

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