Can Team Penske resume their winning ways?
The last time the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series was out in Michigan International Speedway, Team Penske dominated the proceedings. Joey Logano led 163 laps from the pole in a dominating performance as Ford's top team was simply on top of their game.
But in the past two months, Ford's fast start has fallen off heading into this weekend's Consumers Energy 400. They've won just once, with Kevin Harvick of Stewart-Haas Racing, while the trio of drivers at Penske have found themselves shut out of victory lane.
It's not like Logano, Brad Keselowski and Ryan Blaney are running all that badly. But in a system that rewards winning, no trips to victory lane mean no additional playoff points to use come September. Joe Gibbs Racing has filled in the void; their drivers have three of the top four playoff point totals with Keselowski sneaking in between them at 19.
Michigan is Keselowski's hometown track and he starts from the pole this weekend, hoping to get over the hump and finally earn a win here. He seemed to be the strongest Penske driver at the start of the year, winning three times in the first 12 races, but his speed has simply tapered off as of late. Just one top-5 finish and 21 laps led in the last eight races have him threatening to fall off the top tier of championship contenders.
Logano, the reigning series champ, has earned the benefit of the doubt despite a few recent shaky performances. He's got no top-five finishes in the last five races and a pedestrian average finish of 15.4.
In fact, of the Penske trio, it's Blaney who's had a surge in recent performance as of late. Two top-five runs in the past three races have all but secured his postseason bid during a winless season. But Blaney's also been the center of controversy after Jimmie Johnson went off on him following contact at Watkins Glen. The issue has remained front-and-center this weekend when Johnson revealed Blaney never called him during the week to apologize; Blaney, for his part, doesn't feel like he has anything to apologize for.
But stubbornness on Blaney's part might simply come back to bite him in the end. Johnson, the seven-time series champion, rarely has been this fired up against another competitor in his NASCAR career and feels slighted. That leaves Blaney in a precarious position as on-track retribution could come at any time.
Now, if there's anything we've learned with NASCAR's playoff system it's that you can slump in the summertime only to bounce back when it matters most. Logano went from Charlotte on Memorial Day weekend last year to Michigan in August without so much as a top-five finish; by November, he was a Cup Series champion. So Penske still has time to fix their program.
But their slumber needs to end at some point if they're truly going to reassert themselves as championship favorites against the four-car powerhouse over at JGR. Another dominating performance at Michigan, held in Ford Motor Company's own backyard, would be the perfect place to start their rebound.
Consumers Energy 400
Time: 3 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Track: Michigan International Speedway (Brooklyn, Mich.)
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who's at the Front: Martin Truex Jr.
Sure, Chase Elliott impressed with wins in back-to-back years at Watkins Glen International. It's the first time anyone's done that since Marcos Ambrose in 2011-12. But Elliott's also suffered through a trio of DNFs the past few months.
Instead, it's Truex, the runner-up finisher, who's kept more consistent while extending a remarkable track record on road courses. He now has five straight top-two finishes at Sonoma and Watkins Glen and would have earned a win at the Charlotte Roval last year until contact with Johnson entering the final turn.
Who's at the Back: Bubba Wallace
Wallace may have spun out Kyle Busch at Watkins Glen, causing the stands to erupt in cheers but it did little to advance a sputtering Cup career. He's just one of three full-time drivers who haven't led a lap all season and remains without a top-10 finish.
A 28th-place run at the Glen was his fourth straight outside the top 20. In fact, when you remove Daytona and Talladega from the schedule, Wallace hasn't run 20th or better since Bristol way back in the spring.
Austin Dillon and Daniel Hemric had their qualifying times disallowed Friday at Michigan. NASCAR discovered unapproved alternators on their cars which led to them starting Sunday's race from the rear of the field. Both drivers' crew chiefs were fined $25,000 while each of them lost 10 driver points. Both Dillon and Hemric are well outside postseason contention, though and need a win to make the playoffs.
Rick Ware Racing is expanding to a fourth car for Bristol Motor Speedway later this month. J.J. Yeley will debut the team, the No. 54, with sponsorship from Slayer.
Jeffrey Earnhardt has parted ways with sponsor iK9. The best season of young Earnhardt's NASCAR career now faces an uncertain future as his partnership with Joe Gibbs Racing no longer exists. He earned his best career finish with the program, a third, in the NASCAR Xfinity Series back in May.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Top-5 finish in 22 races for Aric Almirola, the fewest of any current NASCAR playoff driver inside the top 16.
Lead-lap finishes in 22 races this season for Kyle Busch in the Cup Series to lead all drivers.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Team Penske has put all three of their cars inside the top eight and should be in strong position Sunday. It's a race where track position is key and their June performance bodes well for putting each of them on your roster. In particular, Ryan Blaney could be an intriguing pick even though he has the worst track record career-wise. He has three straight top-10 finishes here; could Sunday be the day he gets over the hump?
Kevin Harvick has three straight top-10 finishes here including a win back in 2018. With his recent hot streak, finally earning his first 2019 Cup Series victory at New Hampshire he could start racking more wins up at any time.
Once upon a time, Roush Fenway Racing used to dominate Michigan International Speedway with names like Matt Kenseth, Mark Martin and Greg Biffle reaching victory lane here. Ryan Newman probably won't add his name to the list but he's battling for a postseason spot and was eighth back in June. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was less solid (19th) but has an opportunity to copy Newman’s setup and potentially ride his coattails up the ladder.
How about Alex Bowman? The No. 88 team has been mired in a mini-slump as of late but Michigan was a place where former driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. always shined. 10th in June, there are some signs Bowman is warming up to the place and he's been strong on intermediate tracks this season. Just look at Chicagoland Speedway’s June victory for proof.
I think you've got to ride the hot hand with Matt DiBenedetto right now. A 21st-place finish here back in June, the track record at Michigan is poor but he's coming off another strong top-10 finish on a road course. Fighting for his career, DiBenedetto wants a long-term contract at Leavine Family Racing and that extra push behind the wheel could result in back-to-back top-10 performances.
A longshot option could be Ty Dillon over at Germain Racing. He's run 20th, 21st, or 22nd in four of the past five Michigan Cup races. Hey, if you need a cheap option, at least you know what you're getting!
What Vegas Thinks
Kyle Busch leads the way with 5/1 odds on the weekend but he's tied there with teammate Martin Truex Jr. Joey Logano is next up with 6/1 odds.
What I Think
Brad Keselowski finally gets it done at his hometown track while Penske resumes their winning ways.