‘How about that, boys and girls?’
Aside from stealing Erik Jones‘ line from his first career win, it was a wild weekend in the rolling hills of Michigan.
Pockets of rain kept the FireKeepers Casino 400 at Michigan International Speedway in limbo on Aug. 6. NASCAR Cup Series drivers were able to complete 74 laps before another shower ultimately postponed the event to Monday, where rain once again threatened the race during the morning hours.
Fortunately, the race went the full distance, and that is what Jones needed. The Byron, Mich. native pieced together a strong event to land a 10th-place result at his home track when all was said and done.
After finishing ninth in stage one on Sunday, Jones restarted Monday’s event in fifth, firing quickly out of the gates. In a race dominated by Toyota up to that point (more like dominance by Martin Truex Jr.), the No. 43 held tough with future Toyota teammates Truex and Bubba Wallace early on.
A caution on lap 102 brought Jones to pit road, while others would stay out. As an effect, the dirty air stunted Jones’ progress, leaving him in 18th at the end of stage two.
The No. 43 team pitted twice to top off on fuel before opening the final stage in 30th. With 50 laps to go, Jones had made his way back into the top 20 before a long green flag run took the race to finish. The hometown kid sliced through the field and grabbed a top 10 to cap off an impressive run overall.
The summertime has been the right time for Jones. In the past seven races since Nashville Superspeedway, Jones has three top 10s, five top 11 runs and only one finish worse than 16th. And as for his backyard track of Michigan, he has back-to-back top 10s with Legacy Motor Club after earning just one in his first nine career starts at the track.
Jones still has to win to keep any playoff aspirations alive, which is very possible at Daytona International Speedway, but either way, it has been a remarkable turnaround from the team’s fortunes earlier this year.
Corey LaJoie showed some impressive speed in his Spire Motorsports Chevrolet. The speed was evident in practice, but LaJoie went for a spin during that session after slapping the turn 4 wall, forcing the team to make repairs.
LaJoie quickly worked his way through the field early on, and thanks to varying strategies throughout the pack, he was able to score a stage point in 10th to close stage one. During stage two, however, he butted heads with Ryan Blaney after washing up into the No. 12 shortly before the red flag for rain flew. The two drivers talked after the race was halted, with both sides keeping it cordial.
On Monday, LaJoie was in the heat of the battle for most of the race, getting mired back in the field at times. However, over the final green flag run, he was able to settle in and drive from 20th to 15th when the checkered flag flew. Fresh off a multi-year contract extension with Spire, it is LaJoie’s best finish since the Chicago street course after four consecutive finishes of 27th or worse.
The result may not be flashy, but Harrison Burton continues to display spurts of improvement in his sophomore campaign. The Wood Brothers Racing driver spent a large portion of the race inside the top 15, including stints in the top 10 at times. He was able to run near his alliance-mates at Team Penske, another step of growth that is vital for this team. In the end, Burton would finish 17th, giving him three top 20s in the past four races and topping his Michigan debut a year ago by 15 spots.
We also learned he enjoys winning against friends like Todd Gilliland on the Nintendo Wii.
Spire Motorsports can definitely take away a lot of positives from Michigan, as Ty Dillon was able to follow LaJoie in the top 20, finishing 20th. In his second week with new crew chief Kevin “Bono” Manion, Dillon was mired outside the top 20 for most of the event, but the last run is what mattered most. On the last restart on lap 134, Dillon was positioned 27th. When he made his last stop of the day with 22 laps remaining, the team opted to put two tires on the No. 77. Dillon did the rest of the work and exited with his best finish on a non-superspeedway this season.
Who’s in the Dog House
It has been noted many times that Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is enjoying a career-best season thus far. Even without the Daytona 500 victory, Stenhouse would still be inside the playoffs. However, despite the momentum he has found this season, Michigan was a miss. Like many others, Stenhouse was mired mid-pack for most of the event, occasionally cracking the top 10 or 15 during strategy plays. The No. 47 also suffered some damage to the hood ducts during stage two, which can cause issues on a track like Michigan. Ultimately, the 35-year-old finished 21st.
Given everything he had to face during the race, Michael McDowell was able to stop the bleeding before it got too much worse. Early in the race on Sunday, McDowell gave Chase Briscoe an innocent push down the backstretch. However, McDowell noticed something as he continued on: His car was significantly slower down the straightaways, a big red flag at a high-speed track. As a result of his push, McDowell separated some space between his splitter and nose, increasing drag. The team was able to repair the car and get the No. 34 back to full speed.
McDowell was able to find a second win later in the racing, getting as high as 16th in the closing stages. However, as the run went along and teams played strategy during the final round of stops, McDowell faded to 24th. After entering 18 points above the cut line, McDowell now sits 17th, three points out. Fortunately, with two road courses and Daytona closing out the regular season, the Phoenix, Ariz. native has a lot to be optimistic about.
AJ Allmendinger did not see his points situation improve much either. The Kaulig Racing driver was able to get inside the top 10 on strategy in stage two, scoring two stage points in eighth. However, it unraveled in the final stage. On the final pit stop, Allmendinger entered just outside the top 20. However, he was forced to pit a second time with a loose left rear wheel. The miscue relegated him to 26th. Allmendinger now sits 24 points back, but like McDowell, he has two great opportunities at Watkins Glen International and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course, the sites of both of his Cup wins.
Josh Berry continued to be the “super sub” of 2023, filling in the seat of Legacy Motor Club’s No. 42 for a suspended Noah Gragson. With the last-minute call, all Berry needed was to gain more laps and bring the car home in one piece. Unfortunately, Berry didn’t make it to Monday as he spun on lap 51, making hard contact with the outside wall. The Hendersonville, Tenn. native finished 34th.
What They’re Saying
Jones (10th): “It was a good day for the No. 43 Allegiant Chevy team. I thought our Chevy was a top-five car. We just got shuffled around on some restarts. When the No. 48 (Alex Bowman) got wrecked there, we had to come in and change tires; got shuffled to the back, and we had that long green-flag run there at the end. To drive from the back up to 10th, it’s good. Obviously we wish it was better, but we had good speed and a good car all race yesterday and today. The balance was just a little tighter today and kind of held us back. We’ll see moving forward. We’re getting faster, we just need to capitalize on these days and go try to make the most of them to get the finishes that we can. Happy with the way we’re going.”
Allmendinger (26th): “We had decent handling in our Nutrien Ag Solutions FARMSMART Chevy all weekend. We just struggled in traffic and overall lacked speed. Pit road mistakes definitely cost us today. We’re disappointed in our finish, but our focus right now is making our team better. We’re moving on to Indy. Hopefully, we can unload with speed and have a solid weekend.”
Small Team Scheme of the Week
This scheme is no stranger to the Wood Brothers, as it has run at Michigan several times, but it still looks sharp every time. Burton piloted an alternate look to the typical red and white No. 21, this time sporting a black with a red wrench down the sides. The scheme recognizes the Quick Lane technicians, and it got plenty of exposure at the two-mile track.
About the author
Luken Glover arrived on the Frontstretch scene in 2020. He has been an avid NASCAR fan for the majority of his life, following in the footsteps of his grandfather, who used to help former team owner Junie Donlavey in his garage. Glover covers news for the site and took over "The Underdog House" column in 2021. In addition to being a college junior, his hobbies include volunteering at church, playing basketball and tennis, racing go-karts, and helping at his high school alma mater.
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