Column By: REID SPENCER / NASCAR – BROOKLYN, MI – Time is running out for drivers outside the cut line who are hoping to qualify for the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs.
Sunday’s FireKeepers Casino 400 at Michigan International Speedway (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) is the penultimate race in the regular season, and it’s an excellent opportunity for Kevin Harvick to solidify his position in the Playoff grid.
With five victories at the two-mile track, Harvick leads all active drivers. More than that, he has won the last three Cup races there and four of the last five. Harvick’s current winning streak includes a sweep of last year’s races on consecutive days in August during a schedule re-engineered because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The driver of the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford heads a list of no fewer than 16 drivers who could clinch one of the two remaining Playoff berths with a victory at Michigan. That list also includes Tyler Reddick (currently occupying the final Playoff spot on points), Austin Dillon (the first driver below the cut line), Matt DiBenedetto, Chris Buescher, Ross Chastain, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Bubba Wallace, Chase Briscoe, Daniel Suarez, Erik Jones, Ryan Newman, Ryan Preece, Cole Custer, Corey LaJoie and Anthony Alfredo.
In addition, Harvick can clinch a Playoff berth if any of the following three circumstances occurs: 1) there’s a repeat winner at Michigan; 2) there’s a victory by a driver who can’t advance to the Playoff; 3) Denny Hamlin wins the race.
There’s also an outside chance Kyle Larson will clinch the regular-season championship and lock up the 15-point bonus that goes with it. A five-time winner this year, Larson leads second-place Hamlin, who is winless, by 22 points.
If Larson leaves Michigan with at least a 61-point edge over Hamlin, he’ll become the fourth Cup driver to win the regular-season title, which was first contested in 2017.
Before Harvick began dominating Michigan, Larson was the pre-eminent driver there. Larson won three straight races at the two-mile track, a string that included a sweep of the 2017 events.
However, the competition package for Cup cars has changed substantially since Larson last won there.
“It’s a totally different package—aero, engine, all that—compared to when I used to win there, but Hendrick Motorsports has been strong there, and we have been good on all the bigger ovals this year,” says Larson, whose three victories at the track are tied for second most among active drivers with Joey Logano and Kurt Busch.
“The draft plays a big role there, so you have to be really patient when you’re making moves. As long as we keep executing and being smart like we’ve been doing all year long, we should have ourselves in position to challenge for another win.”
NASCAR Xfinity Series Playoff scenarios are wide open heading to Michigan
With five races left in the NASCAR Xfinity Series regular season, only five of 12 Playoff berths have been secured.
Reigning champion and series leader Austin Cindric, AJ Allmendinger, Justin Allgaier, Jeb Burton and Myatt Snider already are set to battle for the title on the strengths of victories in the series this season.
That leaves seven Playoff spots open, and any one of nine drivers could clinch on the basis of a win alone in Saturday’s New Holland 250 at Michigan International Speedway (3:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). The nine drivers are Daniel Hemric, Harrison Burton, Justin Haley, Noah Gragson, Brandon Jones, Jeremy Clements, Riley Herbst, Brandon Brown and Ryan Sieg.
The good news for that group is that Michigan is a track that has a history of producing different winners. In the last 10 races at the track, no driver has won more than once.
History also shows that full-time NASCAR Cup Series drivers have dominated the last 10 races at the two-mile track. The most recent exception is Tyler Reddick, who took the checkered flag in 2019 on the way to his second straight Xfinity Series championship. There was no Xfinity race at Michigan in 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Now driving full-time in the Cup Series for Richard Childress Racing, Reddick is the only former Michigan winner in the field for Saturday’s race, making him the most likely spoiler. Bubba Wallace is the only other Cup Series regular entered in the event.
At the bottom end of the Playoff grid, the effects of surgery to repair a stress fracture in his right femur continued to plague JR Motorsports driver Michael Annett, who had to withdraw from last Saturday’s race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course after attempting to practice there.
Josh Berry will replace Annett in the No. 1 Chevrolet this weekend, after being announced earlier in the week as a full-time driver for JRM next year. In a part-time role this season, Berry already has a win at Martinsville, but he has never raced at MIS.
“I wish Michael the best as he continues his recovery from surgery, and I’ll do everything I can to get a good finish for him, (sponsors) Pilot Flying J, Trucking Moves America Forward and everyone on this No. 1 team,” Berry says. “Michigan is a place I’ve never raced at before, and I am anxious to see it in person. It’s wide and has many grooves, so it ought to be exciting.”
Nemechek or Hill—which driver has the edge as NASCAR Truck Series Playoff begins?
John Hunter Nemechek may have a sizable advantage in Playoff points, but Austin Hill certainly carries the momentum from two recent victories into the Round of 10 of the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Playoffs, which opens with Friday’s Toyota 200 presented by CK Power at World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway (9 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.)
After stepping down from the NASCAR Cup Series and taking a Truck Series ride with Kyle Busch Motorsports, Nemechek won five of the first 13 races this season, at Las Vegas, Richmond, Charlotte, Texas and Pocono.
But Hill has won the last two events, on dirt at Knoxville Raceway and in a weather-shortened road course race at Watkins Glen.
So who has the edge as the Playoff begins at 1.25-mile World Wide Technology Raceway? To Hill, that’s a difficult question to answer.
“Honestly, when you get to these Playoffs, the wins that you had in the regular season don’t really matter,” he said. “Obviously, you get those bonus points, and that helps you start the Playoffs, but the wins that you had prior to the Playoffs don’t matter a lot.
“You need to go win races in the Playoffs now, and the races that we are going to, a lot of them are a lot different than where we ran in the regular season… I personally feel like we have the upper hand on everybody. I feel like we can compete with the 4 team (Nemechek), and I feel like we are the team that they need to be worried about the most.”
After the reset to start the Playoffs, Nemechek enters the Round of 10 with 2,049 points to 2,021 for Hill and 2,019 for third-place Ben Rhodes. The 28-point advantage Nemechek holds in Playoff points certainly gives him a leg up on the championship.
“It’s definitely nice to be called the favorite, but at the same time, just because we are called the favorite doesn’t mean that we stop working,” Nemechek said. “There’s a lot of work, a lot of detailed work, a lot of execution, a lot of optimizations from week-in and week-out, studying, a lot of things that go in to making you the favorite.
“For us, we are humble. We want to continue to win races and for myself, I’ve been the underdog. I’ve had that mind-set, and now we are kind of the favorite going into it. We have to go perform. We can’t beat ourselves. We’ve had the championship mind-set from the first race of the year, and now we are going to continue to do so.”