Race Weekend Central

The Big 6: Questions Answered After the 2016 FireKeepers Casino 400

Who… gets my shoutout of the race?
If anyone thought that Tony Stewart was going to simply ride quietly into the sunset, he set them straight on Sunday, qualifying third and driving to his second top 10 of the year. Stewart’s struggles since his 2013 injury have been well-documented, but it’s hard to say that he doesn’t have a win or two left in him before he hangs up his racing shoes for good at the end of this season. Stewart has always been a driver you could never count out, so perhaps Michigan can give him a little momentum heading into summer, a season that he’s embraced throughout his career, seemingly heating up with the days.

What… is the takeaway from this race?
Tweaks to the current rules designed to take away downforce were in effect at Michigan, and overall, seem to have been successful, with hard racing all day long and drivers manhandling their machines at times. There were also a lot of spins and crashes as cars skated out from under their drivers.

Of the nine cautions that flew, only one was for debris and that was from a damaged car. Did the changes go too far? It’ll be an interesting story to watch as the same package will be raced at Kentucky, the next intermediate track race on the schedule. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. said after his early crash, “It’s not a whole lot different than the old package. We talk about packages too much.” Though Earnhardt later admitted his words were spoken out of emotion, how many crashes are too many? The package certainly eliminated lots of long green-flag runs, and the cautions were authentic, both positives, but are a lot of spins really the answer?

Where… did the pole sitter and the defending race winner wind up?
Joey Logano should not have surprised anyone with his run Sunday — he qualified on top and stayed there for most of the race, leading a race-high 138 laps. He looked vulnerable mid-race, but he came back to close the deal for the first time in 2016, rolling into Victory Lane when all was said and done.

Kurt Busch found himself in the same position this week as Martin Truex, Jr. did at Pocono, as both the defending race winner and the series’ most recent victor. While Busch’s luck didn’t run out on him the way Truex’s did last week, he never led a lap in the attempt to defend his win. He did score a top 10, finishing 10th, but he lost his dual bid for two in a row.

When…did it all go sideways?
There’s always discussion about whether figuring out a new rules package early in the year is as great as it sounds on paper. This year, it was Joe Gibbs Racing, which came out swinging, scoring wins for all four in-house teams and a satellite organization by the end of May.

But as the summer heats up, so have a few other teams, and if JGR had an advantage earlier this year, it hasn’t appeared to sustain it in the last couple of weeks. Kyle Busch leads the Cup Series in wins, but hasn’t finished higher than 30th in a points race since Kansas. Denny Hamlin hasn’t won since Daytona and hasn’t really looked like a threat to win. Matt Kenseth has been uncharacteristically out of contention a lot of weeks, and while Carl Edwards has been consistently running well, he’s been beatable.

On Sunday, Busch suffered an early and spectacular engine failure and Hamlin had some restart struggles before a blown tire caused a violent crash. Even Edwards, who finished sixth, was third on the final restart only to lose those positions. Has the field caught JGR? And if they’re just figuring things out, who will hold the advantage when things get serious in the Chase? Did JGR peak too soon, or is this just a summer slump?

Why… did Joey Logano win the race?
Raise your hand if you thought Logano wasn’t going to win before the Chase cutoff. Yeah, didn’t think so. Logano has been solid all year and the No. 22 team put it all together this weekend. Logano was fast off the truck, something that’s always been important, but has been even more so recently, and he qualified on the pole. Was he beatable? Maybe. He didn’t always have the fastest car mid-race, but he did get great restarts when his competition didn’t. He also stayed out of trouble and he was fast when he needed to be. Sometimes, the best team coming into a weekend is the best team leaving it, and this was one of those times.

How… did the little guys do?
The three best:
Ryan Blaney, Wood Brothers Racing: “Resilient” is perhaps the best word to describe the No. 21 team’s effort on Sunday. Blaney had another strong qualifying effort, lost a lap in the first half of the race, got it back with a free pass under caution and then ran handily inside the top 15…until he got loose racing Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. and tapped the wall on Lap 162. After that, Blaney faded into the low 20s, but rebounded late to finish 17th. The team made the most out of some unfortunate circumstances.

Chris Buescher, Front Row Motorsports: Buescher was very solid all weekend, making the second round in qualifying and starting 22nd. He raced his way into the top 15 mid-race, and while he couldn’t make that stick, he scored a top 20 while teammate Landon Cassill finished 25th for a strong day all around for FRM.

David Ragan, BK Racing: Ragan has had some strong finishes in recent weeks, and finds himself with another one this week, gaining a spot in points as well over the better-funded Brian Scott. Ragan has always been a talented driver, and his recent finishes with an underfunded team show that.  If this team ever gets the funding they need, they could easily be a mid-tier effort.

All the rest:

No. Driver Team Car Start Finish / Notes +/- Points Position
21 Ryan Blaney Wood Brothers Racing Motorcraft / Quick Lane Ford 5th 17th
Lost a lap in the first half; got it back on 4th caution as free pass; ran in top 15 after that until brushing the wall on lap 162; resilient
-12 16th
34 Chris Buescher Front Row Motorsports CSX Play it Safe Ford 22nd 20th
Got loose under Allmendinger and Earnhardt, Jr. to trigger lap 63 incident; took the blame on the radio; showing improvement weekly, worked his way into top 15 on lap 115; top-20 run a good step
+2 32nd
23 David Ragan BK Racing Weaver Media Toyota 35th 22nd
Brushed the wall late but was able to continue
+12 29th
15 Clint Bowyer HScott Motorsports 5-hour Energy Chevy 34th 23rd
Not able to capitalize as much on track position and attrition as he looked like he might early; two cars for HSM in top 30 is a good day
+11 23rd
95 Ty Dillon Circle Sport-Leavine Family Racing Redcap / Nexteer Automotive Ford 21st 24th
Smart race by the rookie to avoid incident and hold on for a decent finish
-3 N/A
38 Landon Cassill Front Row Motorsports MDS Transport Ford 28th 25th
Improved qualifying effort; solid day staying out of trouble and grabbing a top 25
+3 27th
55 Cole Whitt Premium Motorsports Chevy 36th 27th
Did driver swap make much difference? Whitt still beat Sorenson by 4 spots
+9 36th
46 Michael Annett HScott Motorsports Allstate Peterbilt Group Chevy 39th 28th
First lead-lap finish since Fontana; solid day for a team that badly needed it
+11 37th
30 Josh Wise The Motorsports Group Curtis Key Plumbing Chevy 37th 30th
3 laps down and top 30 fairly respectable for this team (and that’s not really a good thing in the big picture)
+7 39th
98 Reed Sorenson Premium Motorsports Chevy 40th 31st
Benefitted from attrition, but car swap seemed to show that Nos. 55 and 98 are fairly equal as driver finishes not changed much
+9 41st
13 Casey Mears Germain Racing GEICO Chevy 24th 32nd
Struggling in 2nd round qualifying this year; oil cooler issue sent Mears to the garage after about 50 laps; got turned by Brian Scott on lap; made the best of a bad situation and gained a few points; flat tire with 2 to go
-8 28th
83 Matt DiBenedetto BK Racing Cosmo Motors Toyota 31st 34th
Went to the garage during 4th caution with mechanical issue, got back on track but had terminal damage
-3 34th
7 Regan Smith Tommy Baldwin Racing Nikko / Toy State / Golden Corral Chevy 33rd 35th
Got into the wall on lap 147 to bring out caution; lots of damage but was able to get back on track
-2 31st
32 Jeffery Earnhardt GO FAS Racing Can-Am Ford 38th 37th
Slapped the wall on lap 102 to bring out 4th caution; also brought out 5th caution with a fire under the hood
+1 40th
47 AJ Allmendinger JTG Daugherty Racing Kroger / Hungry Jack / Crisco Chevy 20th 38th
Involved in lap 63 incident with Dale Earnhardt, Jr. which caused heavy damage to the car and ended Allmendinger’s day
-18 20th

About the author

Amy is an 20-year veteran NASCAR writer and a six-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found working on her bi-weekly columns Holding A Pretty Wheel (Tuesdays) and Only Yesterday (Wednesdays). A New Hampshire native whose heart is in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.

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The reason JGR hasn’t been running as well is the NASCAR rule change to the brake blowers. JGR was using the brake blowers to create additional downforce.

Broken Arrow

Seriously Amy, you think the new rules go too far because Dale Junior wrecked???????????? Just how biased can you possibly be? Ironically, the first three finishers are more than a decade younger and less experienced that Earnhardt and nary a spin among them. Maybe the new package just favors car control and the talent to drive a loose race car. I guess that means the lesser drivers will spin more. So sad for you, but good for the quality of racing.

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