Biggest NASCAR Storylines to Watch Ahead of Sprint Cup Series at Michigan
The headline from Sunday’s Pocono 400 could (and should) have read “Trash Takes Its Toll, Junior Takes Advantage.”
While Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s win was a great triumph for his legions of fans and for the members of the No. 88 team, it was another “right place at the right time” moment for NASCAR.
There was no thrilling pass for the lead in the closing laps as we’ve seen in several races this season. What race fans did get was a lesson on how a small object can bring down a big one. The piece of trash on the front of Brad Keselowski’s Ford Fusion might as well have been the size of a billboard. Its location on the front of the No. 2 couldn’t have been much worse, as it blocked much of the air needed to cool a very hot Ford racing engine.
It’s time to look forward to the week ahead as teams prepare to race 400 miles on what has become the Sprint Cup Series’ fastest track.
Michigan is the traditional home of the American auto industry and so a win at the 2-mile Michigan International Speedway, with its grandstands full of autoworkers and automotive sponsor VIPs, is a huge morale boost for both the team and the winning manufacturer.
Chevrolet has dominated Sprint Cup competition in 2014. History tells us that MIS is Ford country.
Here are the key storylines for the week as the Sprint Cup Series heads to Michigan for the Quicken Loans 400 at Michigan International Speedway.
And Junior Makes Four
His win was a thrill for his legion of fans and it put Dale Earnhardt Jr. in an exclusive club—multiple race winners in 2014.
But it doesn’t make his team championship material—at least not yet. And Earnhardt Jr. knows it.
“We're still not the best team,” said Earnhardt Jr. during Sunday’s post-race press conference. “We can always improve, and there are areas where we can improve. But we're doing some great work, and I feel like what we do is really dependable. I think our team is very dependable and mistake-free, so hopefully we can maintain that.”
Junior’s pragmatic view comes from sharing the same race shop as the No. 48 team on the Hendrick Motorsports campus. He knows that his team is not the 48 team, but he can see how working alongside the Chad Knaus-led squad has been beneficial to his own team.
“Chad is really good at putting the right people in the right places to keep that team competitive and give Jimmie [Johnson] a lot of chances to win races,” said Earnhardt Jr. “We're successful because of their success and vice versa. I think we really work well together.”
The emotions that are running high with this team could be that "X-factor" that puts them in position to win at Michigan, a track that Junior knows very well. He ended a 143-race winless drought there in June 2012.
Roush Fenway Rumors and Rumblings
His three Sprint Cup teams have struggled and have but one win between them (Carl Edwards, Bristol); two of his biggest stars (Edwards and Greg Biffle) are rumored to be leaving; he’s signed an unknown quantity in Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne to drive for him in 2015; and his up-and-coming driver, two-time NASCAR Nationwide Series champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is in a sophomore stupor, yet veteran team owner and industrialist Jack Roush marches forward full of optimism and planning for the future.
“We’re addressing some issues and making changes to our organization that should produce positive results,” Roush told this writer during a conversation in the Sprint Cup garage prior to Sunday’s Pocono 400.
“We’re behind, but we expect that the changes will be ready for the Chase,” he added.
Biffle apparently is staying, according to The Charlotte Observer. That would make him the senior player on the team, a role he may not be the best suited for.
According to Edwards, Roush Fenway Racing is undergoing positive changes.
"Yeah, I feel like there have been a bunch of moves internally—there definitely will be changes at Roush Fenway Racing,” Edwards said during media availability before the Pocono 400. “We know we have to be faster and there are big changes trying to address that. We have everything there, we just need this much more speed and we would be really good."
Media reports have Edwards leaving after this season. Until his future is announced and while the RFR teams struggle to find the speed to keep them competitive—at least as competitive as fellow Ford runners Team Penske—this situation bears close watching.
Stewart-Haas Racing a New Powerhouse in NASCAR
They’ve arguably got the most aggressive (and successful) car and driver combinations in the Sprint Cup field beginning with Daytona 500 winner Kevin Harvick; another driver that is as equally as dangerous (in the good sense) in Kurt Busch; a former champion in the prime of his driving career hampered by recovery from serious injury, team owner Tony Stewart; and a former IndyCar driver with the potential to be race winner as she gets more seat time in Danica Patrick.
Stewart-Haas Racing is the quintessential racing super team. And they’re just getting started.
This four-car team is a threat to field a winner every weekend. However, this past weekend was a mixed bag, beginning with Harvick. The Budweiser driver started out as the leader of the SHR pack, only to be hurt by not one, but two tire failures.
Team owner Stewart, who led 24 laps and looked like the Smoke of old, made a mental error while on pit road and lost his chance at a win. Afterwards, it was an uncharacteristic Stewart who took the blame for his mistake.
“It was 100 percent driver error,” said Stewart in his post-race interview. He finished 13th.
Patrick cut a left front tire on lap 138, hitting the wall at Turn 3 and ending any chance of a good finish while teammate Busch did the best of the group in finishing third, his third top five of the season.
SHR Competition Director and former championship-winning crew chief Greg Zipadelli saw the bright side of the organization’s mixed results.
“We had a good day going and it just hasn't been our year so far,” said Zipadelli after the race. “It was encouraging to have all four cars have speed all weekend. We've had one or two or three, but never all of them. They all did a good job. It's just a shame."
Harvick would likely have three and possibly four wins this season if it was not for his miserable luck, the kind of luck that has already tested his team’s morale.
Using the same engines and with engineering help from Hendrick Motorsports—a partnership that has obviously helped both organizations—SHR has established itself as a new racing powerhouse, with more potential than rivals like Roush Fenway and Richard Childress Racing.
SHR has a combined four wins at Michigan, and its wide corners and long and fast straights should make for a welcome environment for Patrick who led laps there while in an IndyCar.
Kenseth Still Positive Although His Patience Is Wearing Thin
You could see the frustration on Matt Kenseth’s face as he answered the media’s questions on Friday at Pocono. In his usual polite fashion, he answered every one. But it is easy to see that this former Cup champion is not comfortable with his current situation.
He was the points leader going to Pocono. He’s since dropped to second, 16 points back from leader Jeff Gordon. But he would rather be 25th in points with a win than in his current position.
“You know every week you go out with the idea of trying to win,” Kenseth said. “You try to do everything you can to win the race. People always ask about changing your strategies or trying harder or doing this or doing that, but if it was that easy, you’d win every week.”
It’s not like he’s forgotten how to win. But the change in the setup rules that removed the ride height restrictions has set many teams back, this one included. The feel of the car is different and for some drivers, it’s a matter of getting comfortable with how the crew chief has set up his car based on the new rules package.
Eventually crew chief Jason Ratcliff and Kenseth will find that sweet spot in the setup that both men can agree upon. But having days like Kenseth had at Pocono won’t help the cause.
Kenseth is a two-time winner at Michigan with a whopping 12 top fives. He knows how to get around the 2-mile oval in the Irish Hills. Perhaps they’ll find that sweet spot this weekend.
Rookie Larson Continues to Impress
The 2014 Sprint Cup rookie class was expected to make an impact, with eight solid contenders for the rookie of the year honors. Most had thought it would be Austin Dillon doing the impressing.
However, it’s turned out to be a driver who many pundits dismissed as “too young” or “not mature” or “another Ganassi mistake.”
Kyle Larson is proving most everyone wrong. This past weekend, the 21-year-old entered the ARCA Series race on Saturday just so that he could get the feel of the race track. He won handily, in what was one of the more well-prepared cars. He turned the experience of the ARCA race into a top-five finish on Sunday in his Cup car.
Chip Ganassi admittedly hasn’t always been perfect with his choices. Putting Indy 500 winner Dario Franchitti in a stock car while another IndyCar driver, Juan Pablo Montoya, was having some success: It sounded good on paper. In reality, however, it was something else.
Before coming to the Cup Series, Larson ran a limited schedule in the Camping World Truck Series: six races to be exact, scoring one win, three top fives and five top 10s. It is a remarkable record. Those who had been around racing could tell that Larson, 20 years old at the time, had talent.
Chip Ganassi was one of those who could.
Larson may very well be elevating the quality of his entire team, as the performance of the No. 42 this season is quite different from its previous driver, the aforementioned Montoya.
The young Californian will be making his second visit to Michigan International Speedway this weekend. He finished top five in a Nationwide Series race on his previous visit. He’ll like the extra power of his Sprint Cup car on those big, wide corners at MIS.
And he’ll continue to make an impression.
It's Time for a Michael Waltrip Racing Win
With two drivers as talented and fast as Brian Vickers and Clint Bowyer, you’d expect to see one of the Michael Waltrip Racing Toyotas in Victory Lane.
Could it be that this team is struggling with the ride height rules? Or do they lack speed?
According to comments by Vickers after the Pocono race, it’s the latter.
“We were okay by ourselves, just had no speed in traffic,” said the 2003 Nationwide champion. "Just kept floating the nose and (I) couldn’t get around guys. We have a lot of work to do before we come back, but I’m confident we’ll get a handle on it.”
Teammate Bowyer ran in the top ten for much of the race. On the last restart, while in sixth place, he became mired in traffic at Pocono on the final restart and finished 11th. Maybe his problem isn’t speed but opportunity.
"We had some bad luck on the final restart and lost some spots," said Bowyer. "I didn’t want to get us in trouble but I think we deserved to finish a lot better.
"Only one team can win on race day. It’s a matter of running well for most of the race and then being in position to move into the top three when its 'go time.'"
Michigan has been good for Vickers. In 2009, he gave his then-team Red Bull Racing their first Cup win.
Could We Ever Get a Season Without Change?
NASCAR’s plan to reduce the horsepower of its Sprint Cup cars through modifications to the current engine is on track to be introduced for the 2015 season.
All three manufacturers will begin testing the new engine configuration later this summer.
Less horsepower will produce slower speeds, temporarily. It won’t take long for team engineers and aerodynamicists to figure out how to gain back the speed that is lost.
Most drivers like the current speeds, as do the fans, as they tend to produce a more exciting race. Qualifying records are being set at nearly every race this season.
Darrell Waltrip of Fox Sports would like to see the cars slowed down.
Personally, I wouldn’t mind seeing the cars slowed down on the mile and half and small tracks. I do think it would make racing better.
If there is a serious downside to the horsepower change it will mean that drivers will have to get accustomed to how the cars react with less horsepower. It also means another season with another major change for drivers and crew chiefs to have to adapt to.
Wouldn’t it be nice to have back-to-back seasons without a major change? It might make the competition even better.
Goodyear Ready for High Speed Michigan Oval
In early April of this year, Goodyear engineers tested at Michigan International Speedway, in an effort to monitor the track surface since its repave in 2012 and evaluate the impact of the 2014 rules package on performance at the ultra-fast, two-mile track.
“As expected, the cars were extremely fast at Michigan,” said Greg Stucker, Goodyear’s director of race-tire sales. “Our tire recommendation will incorporate the same left side as raced in 2013, along with a multi-zone tread right side tire.
“The inboard portion of the tire—the endurance zone—will use a new compound formulated specifically for the Michigan test, aimed at controlling the heat and wear of that high stress zone. The outboard portion—the traction zone—will utilize a compound very similar to what was raced there in 2013. Overall the grip level was good, as evidenced by the speeds teams were able to run.”
NASCAR.com reported speeds approaching the 217 mph mark in a story from April.
All quotes in this slideshow are taken from official NASCAR team and manufacturer media releases unless otherwise stated.
Follow me on Twitter: @BobMargolis