Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – DAYTONA BEACH, FL – With six races in the next four weeks to set the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series Playoff field and several of the sport’s top drivers still looking to solidify themselves as legitimate championship contenders, intensity and motivation are at a season high.
The August schedule presents an unprecedented pair of doubleheader race weekends, beginning with this week’s two-race stop at Michigan International Speedway that includes Saturday’s FireKeepers Casino 400 (4 p.m. ET on NBCSN, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) and Sunday’s Consumers Energy 400 (4:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
And the two-mile Michigan oval, located an hour from Detroit – the automaker capital of the world – will present its prestigious Heritage Trophy to the car manufacturer that either sweeps the two-race slate or earns the most points based on the top-10 finishers in each race.
It’s motivation upon motivation. Several of NASCAR’s best currently sit just outside the 16-driver Playoff eligibility cutoff line, including impressive rookie Tyler Reddick, seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson and 24-year old Michigan native Erik Jones, who has qualified for the Playoffs the last two seasons.
“Obviously with it being my home track, there’s a little bit of extra motivation as far as trying to win the race,” said Jones, who drives the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 20 Toyota.
“Really, it would be one, if not the biggest win of my career if we could go out and win one the races this weekend at Michigan. I think that would be pretty special to me. I grew up a little bit over an hour from the track so getting down there and racing is always a pleasure.
“Michigan has been a good place for us. We’ve had some really strong runs there and I think we have some good notes and plans as far as what we have to do to have a good weekend at Michigan in the doubleheader.”
And that goes beyond the sentimental feeling of winning at home.
Looking at just the championship standings, 14th-16th place drivers Clint Bowyer, DiBenedetto and William Byron are separated by only 28 points. Fourteenth place Bowyer holds only a 43-point edge on Reddick. Byron has only a 15-point cushion on Reddick, who won an Xfinity Series race at Michigan last year.
Ten drivers have secured their Playoff positions with victories, however, the list of those still vying for their first trophy of the year features some pretty impressive names. Like the reigning series champion, Kyle Busch.
Busch has endured unbelievably poor luck – scoring four finishes of 30th or worse – and yet still is in position to make the Playoffs to try and become the first back-to-back champion since Johnson won five straight from 2006-2010. “Pointing” his way into contention isn’t the standard Busch is used to, however, and it’s made each race feel more like a “must win” to put his title hopes back on track. He won at Michigan in 2011 and is riding a string of six consecutive top-10 finishes at the track.
Nine active drivers have victories at Michigan – six of them multiple trophies. Kurt Busch, Matt Kenseth, Joey Logano and championship leader Kevin Harvick have a series-best three wins each. Denny Hamlin and Ryan Newman have a pair of trophies and Bowyer, Johnson and Kyle Busch have one win each.
Of those former winners, Kenseth, Newman and Johnson are still needing to win their way into title contention. Not only does Kenseth have three wins but the car he’s driving this season, the No. 42 Chip Ganassi Chevrolet, has three wins with previous driver Kyle Larson at Michigan.
Fords have won the last four races since Larson’s string of trophies(2016-17) – with championship leader Harvick winning twice in that span including last year. Harvick has four runner-up finishes in addition to those wins since 2014. And Harvick’s No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford team arrives in Michigan riding a streak of seven top-five finishes in 2020.
“We’re just kind of grinding away,” Harvick said. “We kind of got behind at New Hampshire (last week) and were able to make up a lot of ground. Our team is doing a great job and we’re doing what we need to do each week and we’ve been fortunate to win a few races and we’re ready to get through the final few races before the Playoffs start.”
XFINITY SERIES GOES ROAD RACING
The NASCAR Xfinity Series moves to one of the country’s most iconic road courses, Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisc. for Saturday afternoon’s Henry 180 (12 p.m. ET on NBCSN, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) with nine races remaining to set the 12-driver Playoff field.
Historically the road course races have been a competitive highlight on the Xfinity Series schedule and as often the case, a group of “ringers” or road course experts such as 2013 Elkhart Lake race winner A.J. Allmendinger and IMSA champion Andy Lally are entered among a field of Xfinity championship seekers that have noticeably raised their own road course game with each passing season.
Defending race winner Christopher Bell is now a NASCAR Cup Series rookie leaving only three former winners in Saturday’s field – Justin Allgaier (2018), Jeremy Clements (2017) and Allmendinger (2013).
The Xfinity Series championship leaders – five-race winner Chase Briscoe and four-race winner Austin Cindric, former Elkhart Lake winner Allgaier and two-race winner Noah Gragson have proven themselves especially top-line on road courses. Briscoe already has a win on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course and Cindric won two of the series’ four road course races in 2019.
And with no practice or qualifying in 2020, experience will be key.
Certainly, Cindric’s recent work – three wins and a runner-up finish in the last four races – combined with his road course prowess makes him a well-deserved favorite. He was runner-up to Bell last year at Elkhart Lake after winning back-to-back road course races at Watkins Glen, N.Y. and Mid-Ohio. The 21-year old led laps in all four 2019 road course races (also including the Charlotte ROVAL in the Playoffs). He finished fifth at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course this year after a thrilling final laps battle with Allmendinger. The driver of the No. 22 Team Penske Ford arrives in Elkhart Lake with a four-point edge over Briscoe atop the standings.
The Indiana-native Briscoe, however, has certainly raised his own road course game. He earned his first road course victory at Indy overtaking the dueling Allmendinger-Cindric duo with a dramatic pass with two laps remaining. There’s every reason to believe that kind of must-see action will return this weekend. His five wins are most in the series and with Cindric’s recent rise, especially, Road America looks to be a fantastic match between the season’s two title favorites. Briscoe, driver of the No. 98 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford, scored top-10 finishes in all four road course tests last year. And he is in the midst of a strong run – finishing first or second in four of the last six races.
The veteran Allgaier is also poised to play a big role in any road course event. He’s earned five top-10 finishes in the last six races at Elkhart Lake, including a runner-up finish in 2013 to complement his 2018 victory. He also finished top-10 in all four road course races last year with a best of third at Watkins Glen. A hard luck 2020 has frustrated the driver of the No. 7 JR Motorsports Chevrolet, but despite it all he’s scored top-10 finishes in five of the last six races. He was fourth at the season’s first road course race at Indianapolis. A win this week would certainly be the perfect uptick for the team’s title outlook.
“I’m really looking forward to heading to Road America and getting back to some road course racing,” said Allgaier, who won two of the series road course races in 2018.
“This BRANDT Professional Agriculture team continues to put together fast Camaros each week and we’ve proven to be really strong on road courses over the years. There are definitely some guys each week who will be tough to beat, but if we can avoid the chaos and keep our car on the track, we’ll have a great shot at battling for the win.”
GANDER TRUCKS RETURN
With only six races remaining to set the 10-driver NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series 2020 Playoff field, there is good reason to expect tight and intense racing in Friday night’s Henry Ford Health System 200 (6 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) at Michigan International Speedway. But then again, putting it all the line is the very essence of this series – as the championship driver standings will indicate.
Hattori Racing Enterprises driver Austin Hill is not only the series standings leader – by 43 points over Ben Rhodes – he is also the defending Michigan race winner, earning a .125-second victory over Sheldon Creed last summer in an overtime thriller. He brings a series-best nine top-10 finishes and a series-high 186 laps led to Michigan.
All three of those drivers, Hill, Rhodes and Creed return to the fast Michigan two-miler assured of their Playoff opportunities, but that’s not the case for a pair of otherwise heavy championship favorites who are still in need of a victory or a major points boost.
Defending series champion Matt Crafton punched his Playoff ticket two weeks ago, winning at Kansas Speedway, but a pair of annual championship contenders – former series champion Johnny Sauter and 2019 Championship Four competitor Stewart Friesen – are still below the Playoff cutline.
Sauter is ranked 12th, 53 points behind 10th place Todd Gilliland. Sauter, the 2016 NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series champion, won at Michigan in 2014 and was race runner-up in 2018. The driver of the No. 13 ThorSport Racing Ford finished 12th here last year.
Friesen, driver of the No. 52 Halmar Friesen Racing Toyota, is ranked 14th – 71 points behind the cutoff line. He has a pair of career-best eighth-place finishes in three starts at Michigan. His best showing this season is fourth place at Texas Motor Speedway. He finished 27th and 34th in the two series’ most recent two races at Kansas.
Tyler Ankrum, the 18-year old considered one of the top up-and-coming drivers in the sport, is ranked 11th in the championship standings coming to Michigan, only 22 points behind 10th place Gilliland and 27 points behind ninth place Derek Kraus. Ankrum was leading at Michigan with two laps remaining last summer when he was collected in a nine-truck crash that forced overtime.
Gilliland’s best Michigan finish is fourth in 2018. He led 14 laps last year but was also caught in the same late race crash as Ankrum. This will be the 18-year old Kraus’s Michigan debut.
Beyond positioning themselves among the Playoff favorites, several of the highest ranked drivers in the standings are still looking for that first victory of the season to send them into title contention on a high note.
Hill (Kansas), Grant Enfinger (Daytona, Atlanta), last year’s Michigan runner-up Creed (Kentucky) and now Crafton (Kansas) are the only series regulars with victories. Meaning that six of the 10 Playoff positions will be filled based on points standings unless a new – championship eligible driver – wins over the next six races.
Former series champion Brett Moffitt is among those seemingly secure in the championship standings but still looking for a victory guarantee. His two wins at Michigan (2016 and 2018) make him the winningest driver in Friday night’s field. He’s finished in the top-five in three of his four Michigan starts. He is fifth in the points standings.
Rhodes, driver of the No. 99 ThorSport Ford, can also be counted among the highly-motivated this weekend. His eight top-10 finishes this season are second only to Hill’s nine. The 23-year old Kentucky native Rhodes has a pair of top-10 finishes at Michigan, including a best of sixth place twice (2016 and 2018). He was 23rd last year.