Who… should you be talking about after the race?
Winning back-to-back races isn’t easy. Through 22 races in 2023, only William Byron had won two in a row (Las Vegas Motor Speedway and Phoenix raceway). But for the second race in a row, nobody could beat Chris Buescher. Buescher led a race-high 52 laps, winning the FireKeepers Casino 400 by .152 seconds over Martin Truex Jr.
This has been a tough season for the Ford camp in general, with the Blue Ovals taking just two wins in the first 21 races. Team Penske has a pair of wins but has not set the world on fire, and Stewart-Haas Racing has seemed a step behind many weeks this year.
But through it all, RFK Racing has been quietly, steadily improving. A week ago at Richmond Raceway, they stopped being quiet as co-owner Brad Keselowski led the most laps and Buescher won convincingly for his first win of 2022.
Buescher is clearly coming into his own as a driver; he’s always been talented but never had the cars to match in the Cup Series. His best points finish is 16th as a rookie in 2016, just one year removed from winning the NASCAR Xfinity Series title in 2015. Now, at 30, he’s emerging as one of Ford’s best. He takes good care of his trophies, too.
And don’t forget Trackhouse Racing Team. Ross Chastain and Daniel Suarez have been quiet this year after bursting into the title conversation a year ago. Chastain is in the playoffs with a win, but Suarez sits just below the cut line with three races to go in the regular season.
The team made a statement on Monday, though. Chastain led 16 laps, finishing seventh, and Suarez scored points in both stage one and two and led a dozen laps as well, besting his teammate by one spot to finish sixth. Both drivers are also strong on road courses, so they could be picking things up at exactly the right time to build payoff momentum
What… is the big question leaving this race in the rearview?
A lot of fans looked at Sunday as Kevin Harvick’s chance to shine. With his stellar record at Michigan, he was favored among many to take the win in his final race at the track.
But after Harvick faltered a little, still taking home a top 10 but not contending, fans were left to wonder: Will Harvick win in his final season?
Despite somewhat disappointing results this year, Harvick has been the best driver at SHR, and it’s hard to point a finger in his direction; he won twice last year and nine times in 2020, though he went winless in 2021 after missing the Championship 4 cut a year earlier.
But even for drivers who won right up until the last, winning in the final season is tough. Among Harvick’s peers who have gone on to be voted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame (as Harvick surely will be), it’s a split decision. Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth and Tony Stewart each won a race in their final years (Kenseth returned as a fill-in for Kyle Larson in 2020 and did not win); Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Terry Labonte and Bobby Labonte did not.
A win in 2023 won’t change Harvick’s legacy. His 60 trips to victory lane are more than enough to cement his place as one of the best ever. But for the driver known as The Closer, expect him to race for the W until his final lap.
Where… did the other key players wind up?
Pole winner Christopher Bell started first for the second time in four races, but his race was far from smooth. Despite the two poles, Bell has struggled over the last six weeks with four finishes of 18th or worse in that span. He and his team played the pit strategy game, which cost them stage points in the first stage, and in stage two, Bell spun and hit the outside wall in turn 2 on lap 65.
He’d get back into the race, and the overnight rain delay played into his team’s hands. While they couldn’t work on the car, they had plenty of time to orchestrate a plan to salvage the day. When Monday rolled around, they were able to execute with Bell finishing 13th, impressive considering how hard he hit the wall, which proved race-ending for several other drivers.
Defending race winner Harvick didn’t look like the same driver who had won five of the previous seven races in the Irish Hills. Starting a lowly 22nd, Harvick didn’t find much speed before the rains came. But on Monday, Harvick did Harvick things, working his way forward. He ran as high as third at one point before finishing eighth, his eighth top 10 in the last nine Michigan races.
Michigan natives Keselowski and Erik Jones both had a good showing in front of their hometown fans. Jones has quietly gotten better and better as 2023 has gone on. He finished 10th on Sunday and has put together four top-11 finishes in the last five races.
Keselowski, who has not won at MIS, led 15 laps late and brought home his fourth top 10 in the last five races. Keselowski finished fourth and has looked closer to a win in the last few weeks than he had since buying into RFK Racing — and he could need one to stay in the playoff hunt, so he’s certainly coming into his own at the right time.
When… was the moment of truth?
One little wiggle. Truex has been on fire since winning at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in July, with a worst finish of seventh in the last four races. He’s also been hot on Mondays, with two of his three wins coming after the race was delayed a day.
He almost pulled it off again Monday. Truex swept the first two stages and lef six times for a total of 47 laps. He was battling with Buescher for the top spot with just 12 laps to go when the No. 19 got just a little loose as they raced side by side. Truex had to back out of the throttle to gather it in, and that was all Buescher needed to open up enough of a lead that was just enough to hold off Truex by .152 seconds for the win.
Why… should you be paying attention this week?
NASCAR heads for Indianapolis this week for a turn around the Grand Prix course at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and there’s a lot going on.
Could we see a driver currently above the cut line ousted in favor of a new winner? That’s definitely a strong possibility, especially for AJ Allmendinger, who has finishes of first and seventh in his two starts. Other drivers without wins this year who have looked strong on the Indy course include Bubba Wallace and Chase Elliott, both of whom have a top-five finish and a top-10 average finish. For Elliott in particular, a win is likely his.
But there are plenty of others looking to steal some thunder. Shane van Gisbergen is back, the 13th Cup winner this year already after making the Chicago street course look easy. Van Gisbergen is joined by a group of ringers this time: former F1 driver Kamui Kobayashi in a third 23XI entry, F1 champion Jenson Button with Rick Ware Racing and V8 Supercars ace Brodie Kostecki with Richard Childress racing.
The next three weeks are critical to the Cup regulars as the playoffs loom. But for the ringers, there’s pride on the line, a powerful motivator in itself. We probably won’t see another upset victory this year, but that doesn’t mean the way will be easy for the Cup regulars.
How… important is it for NASCAR to race on the oval at Indianapolis?
If not for the prestige of the Indianapolis 500, would anyone actually want to go back? The first few races on the famed oval were decent, but while Indy cars can catch each other and pass on the 2.5-mile rectangular oval (Rectoval? I mean, if people want to make ‘Roval’ a word … ), 21st-century stock cars … um, can’t.
If not for the rich history that Indy cars built on the track, it’s a safe bet fans would not only not embrace the 400-mile NASCAR race there but would be clamoring for the track to lose the date, like they have for tracks like Pocono Raceway. Pocono has a much longer history in NASCAR than Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and that has, perhaps, saved its date. But other big ovals haven’t survived, and do fans really miss watching races at Kentucky Speedway or the second races at Texas Motor Speedway or Pocono or Michigan? Nah.
Denny Hamlin made a case for Indianapolis based on its prestige, calling it a “major.” “You took a major off (the schedule),” Hamlin said.
Referring to NASCAR’s four crown jewel races, Hamlin continued, “What’s the fourth one, or is there no fourth one? You can make one up but there is none.”
Actually, there is and was before NASCAR was allowed to set a tire on Indianapolis. Bill Elliott can tell you exactly which races those are: The Daytona 500, Coca-Cola 600, the then-Winston now-GEICO 500 and the Southern 500 — the four races that made up the Winston Million challenge and earned Elliott the nickname “Million-Dollar Bill.”
If anything, adding Indianapolis took away the prestige of “the four” races that were uniquely NASCAR’s.
Does NASCAR need to go back? Does the sport need to race on the Indy oval to be legit? No and no. NASCAR is synonymous with Daytona International Speedway and Darlington Raceway. Indianapolis is IndyCar’s crown jewel. There’s no need to take a piece of that pie when NASCAR has plenty of its own history and writes better stories at other tracks.
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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