Move over Talladega — Michigan International Speedway deserves some of the spotlight now.
NASCAR’s fastest non-restrictor plate track took a step up with the assistance of Sprint Cup’s new rules package, and Who’s Hot and Who’s Not shows that other than the faster speeds, nothing really changed. Long green flag runs were prevalent, and smart strategy won the day. Watch out Ford, this trip to Michigan was dominated by Chevrolet.
Well, this is an easy choice: Jimmie Johnson.
Johnson’s breakthrough Michigan win just happened to occur during a stretch of three wins in four races for the white-hot six-time champion. The No. 48 team breezed to its 69th win together, using a unique pit strategy to take the Quicken Loans 400.
Johnson took an outride lead in the Chase grid and continues to progress towards overtaking *Hendrick Motorsports* teammate Jeff Gordon for the overall points lead.
There is no reason for the HMS superstars to fight about the highly contested battle atop the standings, because the organization is having more than enough success to go around. Even Dale Earnhardt, Jr. has gotten a piece of the winner’s circle pie lately. Cup’s most elite group of drivers has won the last five races overall and shows no signs of slowing down after each HMS entry finished inside the top 10 in the Irish Hills.
It isn’t outside of the realm of possibility for the HMS momentum to overlap into this weekend’s event at Sonoma. Gordon is the active wins leader there with five and both Johnson and Kasey Kahne have added one each, giving Rick Hendrick seven with this generation of drivers alone.
Paul Menard followed the No. 48 down pit road on lap 165 and used that strategy to outlast several other drivers en route to a fourth — his eighth top 10.
Menard has been great for Richard Childress Racing in the post-Harvick era. He is currently in line for an at large Chase bid and the best year of his career. It has been said before, but it’s becoming more and more likely to happen because Menard has yet to run into the midyear struggles that have hampered his progress in years past.
The Childress captain will have a chance to build on what’s been an exceptional few months at Sonoma, where he has slowly rounded into a respectable talent. He qualified third there in 2011, showing that he is capable of the speed necessary to succeed on the road course. Then, two years later, Menard finished 14th — a career best.
Kyle Larson left Michigan with a No. 42 that was in anything but mint condition. Larson was involved in an early spin with Kahne (who had an even better comeback), a brush up with Tony Stewart, and a speeding penalty, but that wasn’t enough to hold the rookie back. Larson went on to finish eighth, continuing what has been a powerful first-time tour of the NSCS schedule.
Larson is competing with the best drivers that the series has to offer week after week despite a limited amount of experience in NASCAR. He’s distanced himself from the other rookie of the year candidates and is now pushing for a Chase birth.
Austin Dillon’s substandard rookie season was masked by a hold on the top 10 in the standings for the first eight races, but lately that veil has begun to slip. Dillon has since fallen to 17th in points and has only one top 10 finish: the Daytona 500.
The dropoff means that Dillon is becoming more and more likely to need a win to make the Chase because his at large chances are no longer favorable. The problem Sunday came because of tire problems, issues that must be avoided if Dillon hopes to get that victory. The No. 3 was in position for a top-five finish, and possibly more, before three pit stops — two unscheduled — over the last 11 laps dropped him to 30th in the final order.
Things didn’t turn out well for Denny Hamlin and another Joe Gibbs Racing teammate either.
Hamlin finished 29th, disappointing because he needed a better effort with Sonoma — one of his worst tracks — on the horizon. Over the last three trips there, Hamlin has an average finish of 31.7 and a DNF.
Hub problems briefly put Kyle Busch and the No. 18 in the garage area, then another issue complicated things even more. It was enough to ruin Busch’s day. His absence and lack of speed afterwards contributed to a 41st. With Dover’s 42nd only two weeks ago, Busch has had a less-than-memorable June to this point.
The only things keeping Busch out of the cold category are his lone win and a couple of guys who logged even fewer laps.
There is tons of preparation that goes into a Sprint Cup Series main event: engine and aerodynamic work, testing, and qualifying, hundreds of man-hours that culminate in a 400-miler. The wall has a way of wiping it all away, making the time spent preparing these high-tech rides a waste. For Brian Vickers, that and his chance to capture an all-important win were dashed before the end of the first trip around MIS. Vickers overdrove the corner and lost the No. 55 while trying to correct its trajectory. That’s all it took to ruin a 10th-place qualifying run.
Vickers returned to the track to save some face later, but those laps were meaningless. A 42nd does nothing for him except to further tarnish what was a good-looking Hot or Not stint through the beginning of summer. Two finishes of 40th or worse in three races isn’t helping Vickers as he pursues a Chase birth.
Travis Kvapil has been running a part-time schedule for Frank Stoddard since Phoenix, but he hasn’t done much over that span. His involvement in Vickers’ embarrassing moment sums up his 2014 up. Kvapil is only getting attention and camera time when he does something wrong, it’s been that kind of part-time.
Kvapil had nowhere to go when Vickers slid down off the banking except into the No. 55. It resulted in a 43rd, Kvapil’s worst finish to date, but not by much. A 29th at Pocono was the high point of a season during which he’s endured 10 finishes of 33rd or worse.