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Drivers look to secure NASCAR Chase bids in Michigan


Winning still not everything for nearly locked-in Chase drivers  
Sunday’s green flag at Michigan International Speedway will leave just three left before NASCAR’s field for the Chase for the Sprint Cup is set. Series points leader Jimmie Johnson is the only one of the 43 drivers who will start the race who knows he’s completely and totally locked in the championship field.

But several others — Clint Bowyer, Carl Edwards, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Matt Kenseth and Kasey Kahne — are on the verge of being locked in to the 10-race championship fight by virtue of points scored or races won. Still, many aren’t bullish enough to admit that going all out for a race win Sunday is a worthy goal. Consistency and a decent amount of points earned is the preferred result to a potential three-point Chase bonus for regular season wins.

“We are in a good position right now on the points side, but to be honest I’m pretty superstitious when it comes to talking about anything related to (the Chase) until I know for sure if I’m going to be there,” Bowyer said. “I like our chances, but at the same time a lot can happen in the next couple races. One or two things go the wrong way and we’ll be back fighting for our spot.”

Bowyer isn’t saying, of course, that he doesn’t want to win. But the lack of urgency presents an interesting opening into the lack of emphasis that NASCAR’s point structure puts on race wins. Wouldn’t it be nice if Sunday’s race could earn a winning driver a bonus of 20 points or so usable in the Chase?

How will Hendrick Motorsports respond to June failures?  Jeff Gordon’s race ended in a crash against the Turn 2 wall on Lap 6. Kahne exited the competition on Lap 104 after a blown tire sent him to a fiery Turn 1 wall collision. Earnhardt sat helplessly as his No. 88 erupted the smoke of a blown engine on Lap 131. Johnson, vying for the lead, watched his dreams of a checkered flag end with a blown tire three laps from the finish.

The June Michigan race had a sorry finish to a day of such promise for most of the Hendrick Motorsports camp. Kahne, Earnhardt and Johnson were first, first and second, respectively, when their individual problems began. They all finished worse than 25th. They likely all should have been in the top 10.

Those results will make Sunday’s race awful interesting to see just how far teams evolve over the course of NASCAR’s summer stretch. In what amounts to just over two months, will Hendrick’s impressive initial returns in June translate to the August event? Or will the competition have made progress on what made the HMS cars so fast, if not reliable?

Ford teams circle back to site of last 2013 win
Ford was certainly the manufacturer most pleased with the HMS struggles during the June race, but not for ill-suited or low-blow purposes. Instead, the problems with Hendrick’s Chevrolets gave an opening for Greg Biffle to grab the checkered flag and take credit for Ford’s 1,000th victory in a NASCAR national series.

Hopefully the gleeful haze of that victory in the home state of the Blue Oval stuck around for a while because Ford hasn’t won a Cup Series event since then — a span of two months and seven races. On the six oval tracks, Brad Keselowski (fourth at New Hampshire) and Joey Logano (fourth at Kentucky) have tied for Ford’s best overall finish. Keselowski was second last week at Watkins Glen.

Just like questions about a Hendrick recovery, Sunday’s race will be an important footnote in seeing if Ford is making progress in a season filled with surprisingly few strong results. The manufacturer has just three Cup wins in the 22 races, and one of them came when David Ragan emerged with a surprise victory at Talladega in May.

A saving grace for Ford has been the impressive consistency from Carl Edwards. Third in the point standings, Edwards has 12 top 10s and has finished on the lead lap of all but two races this season.

Austin Dillon up next in Tony Stewart’s seat
Predicting another Jamie McMurray moment — remember when he won his second-career Cup Series race as a fill-in for Sterling Marlin in the fall of 2002? — is next to impossible in today’s NASCAR. And even if he won Sunday, Austin Dillon’s story wouldn’t have quite the same lore: Sunday marks Dillon’s 10th Cup start.

But Dillon, the 2011 Truck Series champion, should be considered a darkhorse for Sunday’s win as he takes over as the second driver to fill in for the indefinitely-sidelined Tony Stewart in the No. 14. The grandson of team owner Richard Childress, Dillon will start Sunday at the track where in June he finished an impressive 11th. He’ll start a car for a team that finished fifth.

Beyond a good opportunity to run well, Sunday’s race provides an interesting glimpse into how Dillon is viewed across the NASCAR garage area. The call from Stewart-Haas Racing to get Dillon in the car proves that his talents and on-track success has defined Dillon beyond just being the grandson of a major series team owner. It’s cemented by the fact that Dillon will have to split time between Michigan and his Nationwide Series ride at Mid-Ohio.

Sure, Dillon’s connections with SHR sponsor Bass Pro Shops played a role in the process and we know that sponsor money is large influence on other decisions made by SHR (and across the sport, for that matter). But SHR undoubtedly could have gone any number of other routes for a temporary replacement. Instead, it landed on Dillon.

That’s a nice compliment.

Michigan among NASCAR’s annual repeat-race pilgrimageMichigan’s second race of the season is among NASCAR’s annual run back through many tracks it has visited previously this season. In fact, of the 14 races remaining on the Sprint Cup calendar, just three of them will mark the track’s only date on the schedule. The rest are repeats.

The ink is still drying on NASCAR’s most recent round of television deals, and the security of more than $6 billion coming to the sport over the next decade may provide decision-makers with extra flexibility to freshen up the 36-race Cup Series schedule a bit. Of course, the money could also be cushioning for executives who think everything in the sport is the way it simply ought to be.

I disagree pretty heavily with that idea, if only because of the some of the staleness that both the current and most recent incarnation of NASCAR-designed race vehicle in use has produced on track. NASCAR seems a long way from solving the competitive aerodynamic advantage of a race leader.

One option NASCAR should consider is happening as an example this weekend in a series owned by the France family. The Rolex Grand-Am Series is racing at Kansas Speedway Saturday night under the lights on a road course that travels through the infield and uses three-quarters of the track’s oval. Returns aren’t quite in yet on how competitive the layout will be, but it’s an event that NASCAR should watch closely.

Think about it: In a series that is begging for a few more right turns in its schedule, why not keep a second date at a current facility and simply use a different style of racing?

I’m typically fine with tracks having repeat dates, but there are exceptions. Thinking a bit outside the box like the Kansas example might just be an answer to improve the racing product.

Follow Geoffrey Miller on Twitter:@GeoffreyMiller
Photos byActions Sports, Inc.