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NASCAR race preview: Consumers Energy 400 at Michigan International Speedway

by racedaysaeditor | Posted on Sunday, August 12th, 2018

Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series

Next Race: Consumers Energy 400

The Place: Michigan International Speedway

The Date: Sunday, August 12

The Time: 2:30 p.m. ET

TV: NBCSN, 1:30 p.m. ET

Radio: MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio

Distance: 400 miles (200 Laps); Stage 1 (Ends on Lap 60),

Stage 2 (Ends on Lap 120), Final Stage (Ends on Lap 200)

 

Going For Two in a Row

It’s a good time to be Chase Elliott. Not only did the popular 22-year-old star pick up his first career Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series win at Watkins Glen on Sunday, he is one of the top-ranked drivers at Michigan International Speedway, where the series moves this week for Sunday’s Consumers Energy 400 (2:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

Chase Elliott, driver of the #9 SunEnergy1 Chevrolet, poses with the winner’s decal on his car in Victory Lane after winning the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series GoBowling at The Glen at Watkins Glen International on August 5, 2018 in Watkins Glen, New York. (Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)

 

Elliott has five top-10 finishes in five starts and his average finish of 4.6 in this race is twice as good as the next driver – Erik Jones, whose average finish is 10.33 in three starts. Among those with more than five starts, veteran Matt Kenseth is tops with an 11.34 average finish.

Elliott finished runner-up in his first three races at the Michigan two-miler and has completed every lap of each race he’s run.

A victory on Sunday would make him the first driver in 53 years to win his first two Cup races back-to-back on the schedule. Billy Wade was the last to do so in 1964 and NASCAR Hall of Famer Ned Jarrett did it in 1959.

Elliott has three consecutive top-10 finishes in his No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet heading into Michigan. 

Youth on a Roll

Not only did Elliott, 22, win at The Glen, four other drivers aged 26 or younger finished in the top eight. Daniel Suarez, 26; Erik Jones, 22; and Kyle Larson, 25 finished fourth, fifth and sixth, respectively. And 20-year old rookie William Byron was eighth. Ryan Blaney, 24, finished 11th. 

It’s the second consecutive week that NASCAR’s young stars have crowded the top-10 in a race finishing order and may well signal that the youth movement, so often a hot topic in the preseason, is now beginning to find its stride.

Suarez (runner-up), Alex Bowman, 25, (third) and Byron (sixth) all had top-10 finishes – all career best days – at Pocono two weeks ago.

Michigan is a good place for these drivers too. Larson has won three of the last four races and Elliott has three runner-up finishes in the last five races. Blaney led 15 laps at the June rain-shortened race in the Irish Hills and finished eighth.

Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 Interstate Batteries Toyota, practices for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Consmers Energy 400 at Michigan International Speedway on August 10, 2018 in Brooklyn, Michigan. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Big 3 Still Holding Strong

For all the well-deserved props to Elliott for the win on Sunday at Watkins Glen, he still had to hold off two members of the “Big 3” for the victory. The race’s defending winner Martin Truex Jr. finished runner-up, closely challenging Elliott throughout the final laps. And championship points leader Kyle Busch finished third. Even six-time race winner Kevin Harvick rallied to a 10th-place finish – as both Busch and Harvick had to rally late because of mid-race issues.

Truex, the defending Monster Energy Series champion and a four-time race winner in 2018, is looking for his first career Michigan victory. The driver of the No. 78 Furniture Row Racing Toyota was runner-up in this race last year – one of three second-place finishes he has at the track.

Busch, a six-time 2018 winner, has three consecutive top-10 finishes at Michigan. His only career victory at the track came in this race in 2011. In the last 13 races, the driver of the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota has led only 64 laps.

Harvick is coming off a real near-miss at Michigan, having led a race best 49 laps in his No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford in the rain-shortened event in June – but he finished runner-up to his SHR teammate Clint Bowyer. Harvick now has four top-10 five finishes in the last six races there. His lone win came in this race in 2010 while he was still competing for Richard Childress Racing.

 

Kyle Larson (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

Larson Lurking

Kyle Larson may well feel he’s done everything BUT win in 2018. And with three of his five career wins coming at Michigan International Speedway, there may be no one more eager to get to the Irish Hills.

Larson’s streak of three wins was snapped in the rain-shortened race earlier this summer when he finished 28th. He has led 141 of his career total (150 laps) at Michigan in the last four races there.

The driver of the No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet has only one top-10 finish (a sixth-place at Watkins Glen) since a ninth place at Kentucky Speedway four weeks ago and he hasn’t led a lap since his runner-up finish at Chicago, six races ago. Twice this year, he’s started on the pole (at Dover and Sonoma) and twice he’s led more than 100 laps but not gotten the trophy (200 at Bristol and 101 at Kansas).

He has 12 top-10 and six top-five finishes in 22 races this season.

 

Clint Bowyer, driver of the #14 Haas 30 Years of the VF1 Ford, races during the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series FireKeepers Casino 400 at Michigan International Speedway on June 10, 2018 in Brooklyn, Michigan. (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images)

Returning to the Scene of Triumph

Clint Bowyer’s victory in the rain-shortened Michigan race earlier this summer was his first ever at the track in 24 previous starts and his second victory on the season – putting him in rarefied company as a multi-time winner. He joins “The Big 3” in that category this year – six-time winners Harvick and Busch and four-time winner Truex.

Bowyer’s victory – his first top-20 finish since 2015 at Michigan – started a three-race streak of top-10 finishes on the schedule for the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford team. He was third at Sonoma then fifth at Chicago. The pit strategy used for his Michigan win (two tires on the final pit stop) certainly made the difference and it was a big boost for the whole organization. His SHR team finished 1-2-3 – the first sweep for a team since Roush-Fenway Racing in 2008 at Dover, Del.

“When we finished first with Kevin [Harvick] and Kurt [Busch] behind us, it was just awesome,’’ Bowyer still recalls fondly. “We got out and gave each other hugs. We were truly, genuinely happy for one another. That’s what it takes. That’s what it takes to push you to another level.

“Working together, the communication, pushing each other each week. It’s not just Kevin, Kurt, Aric (Almirola) and I. It’s our teams, our crew chiefs, our pit crews, everybody who raises the bar for everybody involved. It’s cool to see.”

And after back-to-back 11th-place finishes – at Pocono and Watkins Glen – Bowyer wants to close out the regular season in title-contention form.

He has 10 top-10 finishes on the season and six top-fives, but crashed out in two of the last five races (at Daytona and at New Hampshire).

 

Brad Keselowski (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Change of Pace

Former Monster Energy Series champion and Michigan native Brad Keselowski has long anticipated celebrating a win in the Michigan International Speedway victory circle. And uncharacteristically winless late in the regular season, this weekend would be a perfect place to score that first Cup win there.

Keselowski has seven top-10 finishes in the last nine Michigan races. He won the pole position for this race last year and led a race-best 105 of the 202 laps but finished 17th.

The driver of the No. 2 Team Penske Ford has led at least a lap in three of the five races leading up to this week’s Michigan stop, but he’s had two DNFs in the last five races – three finishes of 32nd or worse. His only top-15 in that span was a third at Kentucky Speedway four races ago. The previous top-10 was a sixth-place at Michigan eight races ago.

Still, he remains well within the Playoff threshold in 10th-place. He has 11 top-10 finishes on the season and led 323 laps, but he has five DNFs – equal to a career-high total (2017).

Jimmie Johnson (Photo courtesy of NASCAR and Getty Images)

Closer and Closer

Seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson didn’t win Sunday, but he was the among the very first to congratulate his young teammate Chase Elliott on the win. The victory marked the 250th for the championship Hendrick Motorsports organization and Johnson has contributed 83 of those wins.

He’d love to get 84 NOW. It’s been a career-long 36-race winless streak for Johnson and the sport’s best is ready to regain form. Judging by the past few weeks, it appears Johnson’s No. 48 Chevrolet team is poised. In the last five races, Johnson has run 43 laps in either first or second place on track – that’s more front-running laps than the previous 17 races combined.

And Johnson shows up in Michigan having led the most laps (687) there of any active driver – nearly 200 more laps out front than anyone else in the field. His lone win came in 2014, but Johnson has more reason to feel optimistic. Of all drivers to win on two-mile tracks such as Michigan, Johnson’s seven-victory total puts him in some esteemed company joining NASCAR Hall of Famers Richard Petty and Bill Elliott.

“I’m beyond happy for Chase and proud of the effort and strides we have been making at Hendrick Motorsports – what a great win for this company,’’ Johnson said after the big weekend at Watkins Glen.

“I’m looking forward to carrying that momentum with us to Michigan this weekend.”

William Byron (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Sunoco Rookie Race

Last weekend was a big milestone for first-time winner Chase Elliott, but it was also an important day for Sunoco Rookie of the Year contender William Byron, whose eighth-place finish at Watkins Glen gave him his first back-to-back weeks of top-10 finishes. He was a career-high sixth place at Pocono two weeks ago.

Byron returns to Michigan with a nice feather in his cap. He is the only driver to have run 100 percent of his laps among the top-15. He finished 13th at the track in June and the driver of the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet has a nice record at the two-miler.

He was fourth in the 2016 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race here and runner-up last year in the NASCAR Xfinity Series race.

Bubba Wallace similarly arrives in Michigan feeling optimistic. He won the Camping World Truck Series race at the track last year and one of his two top-20 finishes (19th) in the last eight Monster Energy Series races came earlier this summer here as well.

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