Jacksonville Sports Day

NASCAR NOTES: Busch Keeps Reaching Historic Heights

Fresh off a historic 55th career victory at Pocono (Pa.) Raceway, Kyle Busch is hoping to keep his momentum heading into Sunday’s FireKeepers Casino 400 at Michigan International Speedway.

Busch’s work last weekend tied him with NASCAR Hall of Famer Rusty Wallace on the all-time Monster Energy NACAR Cup Series wins list. And as with Wallace, all the drivers ranked ahead of him (with the exception of 83-time winner and current driver Jimmie Johnson) are already esteemed members of the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

Busch would love to carry some of that golden touch into Michigan, a place where he’s had to work hard throughout his career. The driver of the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota Camry has one victory (2011), 10 top 10s and six top fives in 28 starts on the two-mile track. But his 89.2 driver rating is only ninth best among the current top-16 rated drivers.

And his 255 career laps led there is near the bottom of that mark statistically for Busch through the season’s opening 15 venues. He’s only led fewer laps at Talladega (238) and Las Vegas (254) among tracks the series has visited so far in 2019.

Busch has top-10 finishes in the last four Michigan races – including fourth place and third place in the two races last season. But that snapped a streak of seven consecutive finishes outside the top-10, including a pair of DNFs in 2015 (crash) and 2016 (engine). He’s only led laps in four of the last 14 Michigan races.

With 13 top-10 finishes – including four victories – in 14 races this season, however, Busch and his team understandably arrive in Michigan feeling optimistic. His average finish this year is 6.4. The next best such mark is Joey Logano at 8.3 and Chase Elliott at 9.2. He’s led laps in 12 of the opening 14 races.

“I’m not entirely sure (what to expect),’’ Busch said of Michigan. “We’ll just go into the weekend like we always do – keep working on our car to be the best it can be in practice on Friday and hope we have a shot to get back to Victory Lane there. We have had a lot of struggles on the repave but turned that around a bit last year. Our whole team has shown how well we’ve worked together and [crew chief] Adam {Stevens] has been able to make the right calls, so I’m looking forward to seeing what he has in store for me at Michigan this weekend.’’

Motor City

The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series’ twice annual Michigan International Speedway stops have been competitive not only from the perspective of the drivers, but because the racetrack is in the backyard of two of America’s most celebrated – and competitive – auto manufacturers: Ford and Chevrolet.

Ford Motor Company leads all makes with 37 wins in the 99 Michigan Cup races. Chevrolet has 26. In the last 20 races, Chevrolet has won nine times, Ford has won six times and Toyota has won five times. Ford driver Clint Bowyer is the defending winner of this week’s Firekeepers Casino 400.

The last Toyota victory came back in 2015 with driver Matt Kenseth. Ford swept wins last year with Bowyer and then his Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Kevin Harvick at the second race. Chevrolet drivers – Kurt Busch and Kyle Larson are the winningest in this weekend’s field with three victories each.

Interesting, no manufacturer has swept the race weekend – winning both the Cup and Xfinity races – since 2014 when Johnson won the Cup race and Paul Menard drove a Chevrolet to victory in the Xfinity Series race.

The ‘Closer’ is the favorite

Kevin Harvick has had a frustrating season by Kevin Harvick standards. He hasn’t won a race yet. Yet.

The 2014 Cup champion and driver of the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford Mustang does show up at Michigan as the top-rated driver among those with more than six previous starts at the track. He’s won twice – including the second Michigan race last summer and has 17 top-10 finishes – most among active drivers. His 12 top-five finishes are twice as many as any other competitor except Jimmie Johnson, who has 13.

Harvick has five top-five finishes in his last seven Michigan races, including a runner-up and victory. His average finish of 10.75 in 36 starts is best among all active drivers except Chase Elliott, who has a 5.333 average finish in only six starts.

“How you finish at Michigan depends on how your day is going,’’ Harvick said. “If you’re having a good day, it’s not really hard to tell your guys what you need, and everyone is in a good mood. If you’re having a bad day, you can get behind at Michigan really fast. You’re going to end up with a green-flag pit stop and a whole bunch of green flag laps. You just have to be going from the time the green flag drops and keep yourself in position at the end.’’

It could all spell a huge victory pick-me-up for the perennial championship contending team. Through the season’s opening 14 races, Harvick has nine top-10 finishes and five top-five showings and has won a series best three pole positions. He’s led 282 laps (in six races), including a race high 104 laps at Kansas Speedway last month, only to finish 13th.

He’s been ranked among the championship top-five all season – as high as second place after Las Vegas – and is ranked fifth now the only member of that top-five group without a win.

Chasing Victory

Chase Elliott has an enviable and lauded racing record at Michigan. What he’d like, is a victory to top off his hard work.

The 23-year old Hendrick Motorsports driver is the highest ranked driver in Sunday’s race – his 104.5 rating the only such mark to exceed 100. He is a perfect six-for-six in top-10 efforts at the track including runner-up finishes in his first three Cup races. His “worst” finish is ninth-place – his result in both 2018 races.

His average finish (5.333) and average running position (9.288) are tops in the field.

And Elliott comes into the weekend on a hot streak. The driver of the No. 9 Chevrolet has scored top-five finishes in the last five races. He earned his first career Talladega Superspeedway victory five races ago and answered with a fifth place at Dover and three consecutive fourth-place finishes at Kansas, Charlotte and last week at Pocono.

The work has placed Elliott third in the series driver standings – the highest he’s ever been ranked in his four-year career.

Friendly confines for Larson

Kyle Larson has certainly had an emotional roller coaster of a season. His highs, like winning his first Monster Energy All-Star race last month have been tremendous. But Larson has also suffered four DNFs in the last eight races. He’s tied with Jimmie Johnson at 16th in the points standings – the last transfer spot into the Playoffs.

In between the tough luck, the popular 25-year old Californian has excelled – even if he’s still looking for his first points-paying win since his victory at Richmond in the 2017 regular season finale. Michigan has been THE best venue on his resume. His three consecutive wins in the No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 at the track from 2016-2017 has only been matched twice before in NASCAR history – by a couple NASCAR Hall of Famers. Bill Elliott won four-straight at Michigan – sweeping the 1985 and 1986 seasons. And David Pearson won three-straight in 1972-73 seasons. Among this weekend’s starting field, only veteran Kurt Busch has equaled Larson’s three wins.

Certainly, Larson’s win in the 2017 second Michigan race was his most dominant performance of the victory trio. He won the pole position and led a race best 96 laps. When he won the following spring, Larson was ranked second in the championship standings, his highest career Cup ranking.

At this point for Larson, however, a victory this weekend is as much about restoring his championship run as it is a place in track history. Last year he finished 28th and 17th in the two Michigan races.

In this season’s previous four races leading into Michigan, Larson has a season best third place at Dover and an eighth place at Kansas before getting collected in a crash at Charlotte and finishing a disappointing 26th at Pocono last weekend.

Sunoco rookie points shake-up

For only the second time this season, there is a change atop the Sunoco Rookie of the Year standings. Richard Childress Racing driver Daniel Hemric’s 13th-place finish Sunday at Pocono coupled with JTG Daugherty Racing’s Ryan Preece’s 23rd-place finish put Hemric in first place among the first-year drivers.

Hemric, who has had four top-20 finishes in the last six weeks in the No. 8 RCR Chevrolet, is now ranked 24th in the Cup standings – four points ahead of Preece, in 25th place. Matt Tifft is ranked 31st.

Hemric led three laps at Pocono – only the second time this season he has paced the field (seven at Charlotte). His best finish is fifth at Talladega, Ala.

Preece, who has held the rookie championship lead for 12 of 14 weeks, is still looking to lead his first laps in the No. 47 Chevrolet. He has a pair of top-10 finishes – third at Talladega, Ala. and eighth in the Daytona 500.

This will be the first series start at Michigan for all the rookies. Hemric was runner-up in the NASCAR Xfinity Series race here last June and was third in a 2016 NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series race at the track. Neither Preece nor Tifft have scored a top-10 in previous races at Michigan.

 

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