Column By: REID SPENCER / NASCAR – BROOKLYN, MI – For Kevin Harvick, a win at Michigan would be convenient—but not necessary.
For Ty Gibbs, a victory at the 2.0-mile track might make all the difference in the world.
Those two drivers are emblematic of the different agendas drivers will bring to Sunday’s FireKeepers Casino 400 in the Irish Hills (2:30 p.m. ET on USA, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
Harvick comes to Michigan International Speedway with a 182-point cushion over 17th-place Gibbs in the race for a berth in the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs. With a decent run on Sunday—if he simply maintains that margin—Harvick could clinch a position in the postseason on points.
In his final season as a Cup driver, Harvick would like more. The driver of the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford is winless so far this year, and MIS presents an opportunity to get a breakthrough victory, as Harvick did last year when he ended a 65-race drought at the track.
In fact, Harvick has won four of the last five Michigan races and five of the last seven as the primary component of an eight-race victory streak for Ford drivers. Clearly, he understands what a driver must do to win at the speedway.
“Michigan is one of those places where you don’t want to miss the center of the corner,” said Harvick, who has been to Victory Lane at the speedway six times overall. “You want to be on the throttle at the center of the corner and get that good exit speed to make the straightaway as long as you can.
“So, the less you can touch the brake pedal and the more time you can spend on the throttle to make those straightaways as long as possible, the better speed you’re going to make. And Michigan in the past has been pretty line-sensitive, so you’ve just got to be careful about where you are on the race track. And if you miss that on the entry, it just screws the whole corner up.”
Gibbs also knows what it takes to win at Michigan—in the NASCAR Xfinity Series. Scheduled for double duty this weekend, Gibbs is the defending winner of the Cabo Wabo 250. A maiden victory in the Cup Series, however, would clinch a Playoff berth for the driver of the No. 54 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, who currently is 18 points behind Michael McDowell for the final Playoff-eligible position in the standings.
“I love going to Michigan, and we’ve run well there,” said Gibbs, who gained ground with a 15th-place run last Sunday at Richmond. “Hopefully, we can have a good run in both races. Our teams are doing very well, and we’ll try to keep that going.”
Another driver who could use a victory is Trackhouse Racing’s Daniel Suarez, who has fallen out of a Playoff-eligible position with finishes of 36th at Pocono and 33rd at Richmond. Currently 19th in the standings, Suarez trails McDowell by 34 points.
There are four races left before the Playoff field is set. After Michigan, the Cup Series races on two road courses—at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Watkins Glen—before heading for the cutoff race at Daytona.
“There is a lot of racing left,” said Suarez, whose only Cup win came at Sonoma Raceway last year. “I told my guys all of us need to relax and have fun. That’s when we perform our best.
“We have some really good tracks coming up for us. Trackhouse Racing has a great road course program, and we have run really well at Daytona and Michigan.”
Justin Allgaier hopes for one-position improvement at Michigan
In the last two seasons, JR Motorsports Chevrolets have been fast at Michigan—just not quite fast enough.
Justin Allgaier, for one, hopes that changes in Saturday’s Cabo Wabo 250 at 2.0-mile Michigan International Speedway (3:30 p.m. ET on NBC, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
In each of the last two seasons, JRM has placed three of its Camaros in the top six finishing positions at MIS. Last year, Allgaier was runner-up to Ty Gibbs, who is defending his victory as a double-duty driver this weekend.
“Michigan has been a strong place for this team, and really (for) everyone at JR Motorsports for the last few seasons,” Allgaier said. “We came close to getting the win here last year, and hopefully we can be that one spot better this weekend.
“We have had some unbelievable speed here lately, and I know that (crew chief) Jim (Pohlman) and everyone on this No. 7 team will give me just as strong a car again this weekend. Hopefully, we can avoid any trouble out there and come away with the win when the checkered flag falls Saturday.”
Allgaier’s teammate, Sam Mayer, hasn’t fared well at Michigan, as a pair of 33rd-place finishes in his only two starts there will attest.
But Mayer picked up his first NASCAR Xfinity Series victory last Saturday at Road America, and he expects the momentum to carry over into the Irish Hills.
“Michigan has been a tough track for me in the past, but I’m looking forward to getting back up there this weekend, especially coming off the thrill of my first career win,” Mayer said.
“Road America was a dream come true, and now that we finally got that first one out of the way, I’m looking to keep this hot streak going and see what we can do in Michigan.”
There are six races left before the Xfinity Series Playoff field is set, and the battle for the regular-season championship has become a hotly contested affair. Austin Hill, a four-time winner this season, took over the top spot in the standings with a third-place finish at Road America.
Hill currently leads second-place John Hunter Nemechek by 14 points.