MENCS Race Preview: Consumers Energy 400 at Michigan

2018_mis_august_mencs_consumerenergy400Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series

Next Race
Consumers Energy 400
The Place Michigan International Speedway
The Date Sunday, August 11
The Time 3 p.m. ET
TV NBCSN, 2:30 p.m. ET
Radio MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Distance 400 miles (200 laps); Stage 1 (Ends on Lap 60), Stage 2 (Ends on Lap 120), Final Stage (Ends on Lap 200)
2018 Race Winner Kevin Harvick

MENCS Michigan Quick Facts

Pole Winners 50
Youngest Pole Winner Joey Logano (08/18/2013 – 23 years, 2 months, 25 days)
Oldest Pole Winner Mark Martin (08/19/2012 – 53 years, 7 months, 10 days)
Race Winners 38
Youngest Winner Joey Logano (08/18/2013 – 23 years, 2 months, 25 days)
Oldest Winner Harry Gant (08/16/1992 – 52 years, 7 months, 6 days)
Races Won from Pole (or 1st Starting Position) 22
Last Race Won from Pole (or 1st Starting Position) Joey Logano (06/10/2019)
Race Record Dale Jarrett 173.997mph (06/13/1999)
Qualifying Record Jeff Gordon 206.558mph (08/17/2014)

MENCS News and Notes

Top spot continues to change hands

A season-long duel for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship lead took another new turn over the weekend with Joe Gibbs Racing driver Kyle Busch wrestling the top position away from Team Penske’s Joey Logano.

Busch reclaimed the lead by 13 points over Logano following Sunday’s action-packed afternoon on the historic Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International road course, where Busch finished 11th and Logano was 23rd.

So, for the first time since early June (following the first Pocono race), Busch is atop the standings. Four races remain to settle the regular season championship beginning with Sunday’s Consumers Energy 400 at Michigan International Speedway (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

And while Busch has certainly driven the No. 18 JGR Toyota to the top of the season rankings with four victories, a series-best 18 top-10 and 11 top-five finishes, the Michigan two-miler has remained a relatively challenging venue for the 2015 Cup champion.

Busch has one victory there, the second Michigan stop of the 2011 season. And he earned a pole position in 2008. He has 11 top-10 and seven top-five finishes in 29 career series starts. And he has a pair of NASCAR Xfinity Series wins and a NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series victory as well.

His 17.9 average finish in Monster Energy Series races, however, is the second worst such mark for Busch among the 14 remaining season venues. Only two tracks left of the schedule have resulted in worse overall marks for Busch – the Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway, where he is averaging a 20.3 finish and the Charlotte ROVAL (which debuted on the schedule last season), where he finished 32nd last year in the only Cup race to date.

Harvick looks to carry momentum into Michigan

After securing his first victory of the 2019 season three weeks ago in New Hampshire, Kevin Harvick and his Stewart-Haas Racing team feel not only a giant monkey off their back, but that the result finally equaled the team’s performance and expectation.

Since the victory, Harvick has scored two more top 10s. He won the pole position at Pocono, Pa. and led an impressive 62 laps. Last week he finished seventh on the Watkins Glen, N.Y. road course. In just the last six races, Harvick’s No. 4 SHR Ford has led 247 laps of his season total 544 laps out front – that’s 45 percent of his 2019 season mark.

And there’s plenty of reason to think that the positive vibe continues this week at Michigan International Speedway, where Harvick returns as defending race champion.

His career work at the two-miler is impressive. He’s won twice, had 12 top-five and 18 top-10 finishes and led 495 laps in 37 starts.

Last year, he won the August Michigan race and finished runner-up in the June version. He has six finishes of seventh or better in the last eight races at Michigan. In particular, since the 2014 champ joined Stewart-Haas Racing, he’s fared particularly well at this important venue located just outside America’s Detroit-based auto manufacturing headquarters.

In 11 starts with SHR, Harvick has the win last year and four runner-up finishes. He’s had top-five starts in five of the last six races. And Harvick has led 172 laps (34 percent of his career total) in just the last three Michigan races.

A good run this weekend is not only further confirmation that his team has this track figured out, but that the No. 4 group is in a good place for the 10-race Playoff portion of the schedule that begins in four weeks.

And with two of the sport’s auto makers headquartered nearby, this is an exclamation point race for Ford and Chevrolet. Ford has 38 victories there – the highest victory count for the company at any track the Cup series races – including the last three races.

The contenders.

Strictly looking at the championship points standings – but understanding the possibility that several drivers could score a Playoff-qualifying win at the next four venues – there is an intense battle among drivers ranked 15th to 17th in the standings. The top 16 drivers will advance to the 10-race Playoffs, which begin at Las Vegas on Sept. 15.

Following last weekend’s intense racing on the Watkins Glen, N.Y. road course, seven-time series champion Jimmie Johnson moved back into Playoff eligibility.

Clint Bowyer is ranked 15th, 12 points ahead of both 16th-place Johnson and 17th-place Ryan Newman. Although Johnson and Newman are tied in points, Johnson holds the playoff edge by virtue of a higher finish on the season.

All three drivers have won previously at Michigan.

Bowyer, driver of the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford, won a rain-shortened June, 2018 race, but it is his only top-10 finish in the last eight starts at the track. He was fifth on the starting grid in this year’s June race but finished 35th.  He does bring some momentum, however, with a sixth-place finish at Kentucky and an 11th-place finish at Pocono prior to his frustrating 20th-place showing at The Glen on Sunday.

Johnson, driver of the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, scored his one Michigan win in 2014. He’s led an even 700 laps at the track and has five top-five and 13 top-10 finishes in 35 starts. He led 13 laps in this late summer race last year and had back-to-back top-10 finishes in 2016 (sixth) and 2017 (10th). He picked up some important stage points last week at Watkins Glen, N.Y. before being spun out late in the race and settling for a 19th-place finish. He earned top fives at Chicago (fourth) and Daytona (fifth) in July but hasn’t had a top 10 in the four races since.

Newman, driver of the No. 6 Roush-Fenway Racing Ford, is coming off his worst finish of the season – 25th at Watkins Glen, N.Y. He has three top-10 efforts in the last five races, however, including a best of fifth at Daytona in July. A two-time Michigan winner (2003-04), he is the only driver among this trio with a top-10 effort in the first Michigan race this season – an eighth place. He has a pair of top-10 finishes in the last four races at the track and a fourth place in this race in 2017 is his best result since his 2004 win.

Team Penske races with pride at Michigan

Following a five-win first half of the season for Team Penske, and substantial time atop the driver standings for defending series champ Joey Logano, this team is obviously regarded as a favorite for the title stretch.

Logano, the driver of the No. 22 Team Penske Ford, has been in a tight battle with Kyle Busch for the regular season championship – with a frustrating 23rd-place finish Sunday at Watkins Glen, N.Y. costing him the points lead for the first time in three months. He trails Busch by a scant 13 points heading into a favorable venue for the reigning champ.

But Logano can take solace looking forward. His win earlier this summer at this week’s Michigan International Speedway venue was one for the record books. Logano led 163 of the 203 laps to earn the victory – the most dominating effort in the sport’s long history at the track.

The work wasn’t too surprising considering Logano’s record at Michigan. He has three wins, 15 top-10s and six top-five finishes in only 21 starts. He’s earned top-10 finishes in 12 of the last 13 races there.

All three of his wins came from the pole position – an unprecedented feat.

And while Logano has spent most of the season in a high-profile challenge atop the standings, his Penske teammate Keselowski’s three-win work has been comparatively quiet yet impressive.

Keselowski is coming off a ninth-place finish at Watkins Glen last week and is ninth in the driver standings. He’s finished top-10 in three of the last six races.

Michigan, however, is an innately special venue for Keselowski, who is one of two Michigan natives in this week’s field having grown up in nearby Rochester Hills. He has an impressive 11 top-10 and six top-five finishes in 20 starts at the track – and was runner-up to Kevin Harvick in this race last year. A victory at this track would be not only important as the series prepares for the Playoff run, but especially sentimental for Keselowski and his family.

He finished sixth in the No. 2 Team Penske Ford this June and has three consecutive top-10 efforts heading into Sunday’s race.

The organization’s youngest driver, 25-year old Ryan Blaney, is coming off an eventful weekend at Watkins Glen – earning the best finish of the Penske trio, a fifth-place run.

It’s the third consecutive top 10 for Blaney, who is ranked 10th in the driver standings and looking for his first victory of the season. His best finish of the year in the No. 12 Team Penske Ford is third at both Phoenix and Sonoma. He led 158 of the 500 laps at Bristol but finished fourth and he’s led only nine laps in the 14 races since.

The fast Michigan two-miler has been a good venue for Blaney. He finished ninth earlier this season – his fourth top-10 in nine starts. His best finish is fourth in the 2016 August race. He was fifth in this race last year.

Joe Gibbs Racing teammates hoping Irish Hills smile upon them

In a season stretch where all four Joe Gibbs Racing cars have shined and excelled, it will be compelling to see how the team fares this week at a track not normally considered a JGR showplace. 

Michigan International Speedway has not traditionally been one of the brightest spots on a typically very bright JGR highlight reel. Toyota has won one time (Matt Kenseth in 2015) in the last 10 years and four times in the last 20 years (Denny Hamlin 2010 and 2011 and Brian Vickers, 2009).

Hamlin – a three-time race winner in 2019 – is the only member of the four-car Joe Gibbs organization with multiple Monster Energy Series wins (two) at the track. The driver of the No. 11 Toyota has led laps in three of the last four races there and earned a top-10 starting position in the last eight races. The 38-year old has 12 top-10 and seven top-five finishes in 27 starts and has a pair of Xfinity Series wins at the track as well in 2007 and 2017.

Current championship leader Kyle Busch, driver of the No. 18 Toyota, has a single win there (in 2011) and 11 top-10 finishes in 29 starts. His average finish is 17.9 – one of his worst average finish marks on the schedule. He did finish fifth in the season’s first visit in June. As with Hamlin, Busch has earned a pair of Xfinity Series wins – in 2004 (in a Chevrolet) and again in 2015 (in a Toyota). And Busch also won the 2015 Gander Outdoors Truck Series race at the track.

JGR team newcomer Martin Truex Jr. is looking for his first victory at Michigan. The 2017 series champion has 10 top-10 finishes in 27 starts, however, including an impressive seven top-three efforts highlighted by three runner-up finishes. He was third in the No. 19 JGR Toyota earlier this summer at Michigan.

For the team’s youngest driver, 23-year old Erik Jones, this is an especially important venue – it’s his home track. The Byron, Michigan, native has a single top 10 in five series starts – a third place in the 2017 August race. He finished 31st earlier this season in the No. 20 JGR Toyota. But Jones does bring a substantial amount of momentum with him this weekend. He’s coming off his fourth consecutive top-five effort – a fourth place at Watkins Glen – and is ranked 13th in the championship standings with four regular season races remaining.

A look at the numbers

Chase Elliott’s win from the pole position last week at Watkins Glen gave Hendrick Motorsports the edge over Stewart-Haas Racing in pole positions for the season. The Hendrick team has won seven poles (Elliott, 3, William Byron, 3 and Jimmie Johnson, 1). SHR is next with six. There have been 11 different pole winners on the season representing five organizations.

There have been 10 different race winners from six teams. Elliott’s Margin of Victory over second-place Martin Truex Jr. last weekend at the New York road course was .454-seconds, marking the 14th time through the opening 22 races of the season that MoV was less than a second. That is the highest number of races claiming that distinction since 1994 when 14 of that season’s first 22 races also had a MoV less than a second.

The average number of lead changes through the first 22 races of the season is 17.68 – the most since 2015 (18.09). The average number of race leaders (9.0) is also the most through 22 races since 2015 (9.05).

Five races to date have featured a record setting number of green flag passes of the lead, including Las Vegas, Bristol, Tenn., Kansas, Chicago and Kentucky.

Sunoco Rookie update

For the first time this season, Matt Tifft was the top finishing rookie in a race and the only first-year Cup driver to complete all 90 laps at the Watkins Glen, N.Y. road course. Tifft, who drives the No. 36 Front Row Motorsports Ford finished 24th.

Daniel Hemric, who leads the Cup Serie Sunoco Rookie of the Year standings, finished 35th in the No. 8 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet, followed by Ryan Preece, who was 36th in the 37-car field in the No. 47 JTG-Daugherty Racing Ford.

This week marks the second Cup start for all three drivers at the Michigan two-miler. Hemric finished 12th in his series debut there earlier this summer. Tifft was 24th and Preece was 25th.

Track countdown

The 2019 Monster Energy Series regular season schedule wraps up with four unique venues – providing opportunities for a variety of drivers to win their way into the Playoffs. Below is a look at the four remaining facilities in the regular season:

Michigan International Speedway – The Irish Hills provide the backdrop for this spacious, smooth and speedy two-miler that features 18 degrees of banking in the corners. Kyle Larson’s three wins each at Michigan is the most among active winners who haven’t won in 2019. Ryan Newman has a pair of wins there, while Jimmie Johnson and Clint Bowyer have one apiece.

Bristol Motor Speedway – Thunder Valley sets the scene for the half-mile, high-banked short track featuring variable banking (from 24 to 28 degrees) in the turns. All the active former Bristol winners are already victorious in 2019.

Darlington Raceway – “The Track Too Tough To Tame” is an egg-shaped 1.366-mile track with 25 degrees of banking in Turns 1 and 2, and 23 degrees of banking in 3 and 4. Jimmie Johnson’s three wins top the list of drivers who have bested the challenge of the unique configuration and he is the only active former winner at Darlington who has not won this season.

Indianapolis Motor Speedway – While Pocono is a triangle that modeled Turn 2 after Indianapolis, the “Brickyard” is basically a 2.5-mile flat rectangle, featuring short straights between the turns, which are all banked at nine degrees. Jimmie Johnson’s four wins at the famed track are most among active drivers and are second-most all-time (to Jeff Gordon’s five). Joining him on the list of active Brickyard winners who are searching for their first win this season are Paul Menard and Ryan Newman (one win each).

Parade Laps: Insights ahead of this week’s driver media rotations

Six drivers from the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series – Roush-Fenway Racing’s Ricky Stenhouse Jr., GO FAS Racing’s Corey Lajoie, Hendrick Motorsports’ Jimmie Johnson, Richard Childress Racing’s Austin Dillon, Chip Ganassi Racing’s Kyle Larson, Front Row Motorsports’ Matt Tift and Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin will be participating in this week’s media rotations at Michigan International Speedway in advance of Sunday’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series’ Consumers Energy 400 (3 p.m., ET, NBCSN, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

Ricky Stenhouse Jr., 31, of Olive Branch, Miss., had a solid, if unspectacular day on the Watkins Glen, N.Y. road course finishing 15th and maintaining his 20th-place position in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup standings. His last top 10 came nine races ago – a fifth place at Charlotte, although he’s led laps in three races since, including a season high of 21 laps at Kentucky Speedway. The driver of the No. 17 Roush-Fenway Racing Ford has three top-10 finishes at this week’s Michigan International Speedway venue, including a best showing of eighth place in 2017. He started 10th and finished 19th in the first Michigan race this season.

Corey LaJoie, 27, of Concord, N.C., had a rough outing due to engine woes last week at Watkins Glen, N.Y. finishing 34th in the No. 32 GO FAS Racing Ford. He has four top-20 finishes on the season, including a best of sixth at Daytona only five races ago. LaJoie arrives in Michigan fresh off his best career finish in five starts there – a 23rd place earlier this summer.

Jimmie Johnson, 43, El Cajon, Calif., is in a tightly-contested battle for the final Playoff transfer position. Technically he holds the 16th and final berth by virtue of top season finish – although he is mathematically tied with Ryan Newman in the driver standings. Johnson’s No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet team has a new crew chief as of last week, Cliff Daniels, who led the team to stage points and ultimately a 19th place finish at Watkins Glen, N.Y last weekend. Johnson was on pace for a higher finish but was collected by Ryan Blaney late in the race and rallied to the top-20 showing. He won at Michigan in 2014, has led 700 laps on the two-miler and earned 13 top-10s in 35 career starts. He started 19th and finished 15th earlier this summer there.

Austin Dillon, 29, of Lewisville, N.C., is looking to right his Richard Childress Racing ship. The driver of the No. 3 RCR Chevrolet has had six finishes of 30th or worse in the last 10-race stretch. Chicago was a highlight in that time frame, where he earned his third pole position of the season and finished 10th. He was 31st at Watkins Glen last weekend and is ranked 22nd in the championship, his lowest ranking of the season. Michigan, however, has been a positive on Dillon’s resume. He has four top-10s and a pair of top-five finishes there. He’s led laps the last two times the Cup series has competed on the track and earned top-10s in four of the last eight races.  He was 26th on the season’s first stop there in June. He started fifth and finished fourth in this race last year, however.

Kyle Larson, 27, of Elk Grove, Calif., has certainly rallied in the waning laps of the regular season, earning three top-10 finishes in the last four races – five top-10 finishes in the seven races. He is currently 14th in the championship and brings the No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet to his most celebrated venue, Michigan International Speedway. Larson earned his first career Cup victory at the track in this late summer race in 2016 and answered by sweeping the 2017 season races there. In his last Michigan win – the second stop of the 2017 season – he led a dominating 96 laps and won from pole position. He hasn’t had a top-10 in the three races since, however. He was 14th earlier this season and 17th in this late summer race last year.

Matt Tifft, 23 of Hinckley, Ohio, scored the first Monster Energy Series top 10 of his rookie season – a ninth place at Daytona International Speedway a month ago. He is coming off a 24th place finish at Watkins Glen last week in the No. 36 Front Row Motorsports Ford. He will be making his second Cup start at this week’s Michigan venue. He started 26th and finished 24th there in June.

Denny Hamlin, 38, of Chesterfield, Va., is in the midst of one of his best season efforts. He started the year earning his second Daytona 500 victory and has answered with wins at Texas Motor Speedway and most recently Pocono (Pa.) Raceway two weeks ago. And Hamlin is in the midst of a four-race top-five finish streak, including a third place showing in the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota last week on the Watkins Glen, N.Y. road course. He is a two-time winner at this week’s Michigan venue – earning the victories in the 2010 and 2011 early summer races. He has 12 top-10 and seven top-five finishes in 27 starts at the big track. He’s finished 11th or better in four of the last six races and led laps in three of the last four races. He started fourth and finished 11th in the first visit earlier this summer.

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