The biggest news in NASCAR this weekend may not have come from the 2019 FireKeepers Casino 400. Instead, it happened over 1,000 miles away in a Gander Outdoors Truck Series race in Fort Worth, Texas.
That’s where 49-year-old Greg Biffle, the former NASCAR star won in his first race back in the sport since Homestead-Miami Speedway in November 2016. Biffle, the 2000 Truck Series champion, earned $50,000 for the Triple Truck Challenge and put himself in position for more opportunities.
It’s reignited talk within the NASCAR fan base of how recently retired Cup drivers used to thrive in the sport’s Xfinity and Truck series. Elliott Sadler contended for titles in Xfinity for years on end after losing his full-time Cup opportunity after the 2010 season. Johnny Benson, Jr. became the 2008 Truck Series champion five years after his Cup Series ride evaporated. Todd Bodine, Ted Musgrave, even Harry Gant way back in 1996 are part of a long list of former Cup regulars who found new life running the Truck Series.
Why are they not here? Sponsorship along with the support of the sanctioning body to keep their careers going. A few years back, the sport did dabble in establishing a Senior Tour, running a NASCAR Legends exhibition race at Bristol. But a serious crash involving Larry Pearson and Charlie Glotzbach sidelined those efforts before they really began in 2010. Thus far, golf appears to be the only U.S. sport who’s had at least mild success developing a division for older athletes.
But the buzz surrounding Biffle should be a reminder NASCAR benefits when it finds ways to keep notable names still competing. There’s only so many spots in the booth or on pit road that can be taken up by former popular wheelmen like Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon and Jeff Burton. Biffle, who has dealt with his share of off-track issues since his 2016 retirement, didn’t necessarily want to stop racing. He just didn’t have a ride capable of showcasing his skills.
With the Truck Series becoming more affordable and potentially the healthiest it’s been financially in several years, opportunities for older drivers might come around again. Kyle Busch made it clear in a post-race tweet he’s open to having Biffle drive for him more; in one start, he’s won more than full-time KBM drivers Todd Gilliland and Harrison Burton. Recent returns by Gordon and Matt Kenseth to sub part-time in Cup Series rides show people will come out of retirement for the right situation.
The youngsters also benefit, too, rising talents watching old dogs teach them new tricks. It’s a way for them to keep learning from the veterans at a time NASCAR can (and should) limit current full-time Cup drivers dipping down into other series. Fans may turn off the television watching Kyle Busch dominate at a lower level but they’re all in when someone like Biffle steps up and competes.
So let’s hope Biffle’s win starts a bit of a trend toward former names giving Trucks and Xfinity a shot. It’s a great way to ignite sagging interest in the sport’s top feeder divisions for future talent.
FireKeepers Casino 400
Time: 2 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Track: Michigan International Speedway (Brooklyn, Mich.)
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Joe Gibbs Racing
Kyle Busch’s series-leading fourth victory of the season at Pocono Raceway kept the spotlight on a dominant performance by JGR’s four-car program. Toyota’s top team has won six of the last eight Cup Series races and boasts three top-tier title contenders in Busch, Martin Truex Jr. and Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin.
Even the lone straggler, Erik Jones, has gotten his act together in recent weeks as rumors swirl surrounding a contract extension. Jones has two top-5 finishes in the last three races to work his way back onto the right side of the postseason bubble.
Who’s at the Back: Austin Dillon
It’s a tough time for Dillon to have tough luck. Fighting for a postseason spot, two straight wrecks at Charlotte and Pocono have left him languishing in the garage early. Earning a total of four points over the last two races have left him tumbling from 11 points outside the postseason to 57. He’s now 21st in the standings and has little margin for error the rest of the way unless Richard Childress Racing can squeeze out a victory through fuel strategy or some other means.
Brian France has settled his DWI case from last August. The former NASCAR CEO will have his charge reduced to a non-criminal traffic violation after reaching a plea agreement with local prosecutors. France took a leave of absence upon being arrested last summer and never returned to the position; his uncle, Jim, is serving as CEO.
Martin Truex Jr. lost his team engineer after failing pre-race inspection twice at Michigan. The crewmember will be removed the rest of the weekend while the No. 19 Toyota will lose 15 minutes of practice time at Sonoma Raceway, the next race on NASCAR’s Cup schedule.
Kurt Busch is open to renewing his contract with Chip Ganassi Racing after an impressive first season driving the No. 1 Chevrolet. Busch, who’s currently eighth in Cup points, is outperforming teammate Kyle Larson while in solid position to earn a postseason bid.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Lead changes at Pocono, the fewest for any Cup Series race since Richmond in April.
Wins already for Kyle Busch across NASCAR’s top three divisions: Cup, Xfinity and Trucks.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Others might have flashier stats. But it’s hard to go against Brad Keselowski and the consistency he shows for Michigan’s top tier. Keselowski has no finish worse than 17th over the last 15 Michigan races. He hasn’t won but earned five podium finishes during that stretch, including a runner-up result last August. The Michigan native has this race on his bucket list and is motivated to seal the deal with three wins already this season.
Kevin Harvick hasn’t had the luck lately or the speed in the final stage of races. But it’s hard to ignore a Michigan track record that has seven top-2 finishes since his last year with Richard Childress Racing in 2013. Since then, he’s 7-for-12 with just one finish outside the top 15 (29th) on his resume. All four Stewart-Haas Racing cars have been fast this weekend but Harvick has the best shot at success.
It’s been an up-and-down year for Ryan Blaney at Team Penske compared to his two teammates. A 13th-place qualifying effort for Sunday doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. But Blaney’s had two straight top-10 efforts at Michigan and that mediocre starting spot could wind up landing you a few extra position differential points in daily formats.
William Byron had a best finish of 13th as a rookie at Michigan last season. But he’s entering this race with momentum, posting back-to-back top-10 performances for the first time this season with crew chief Chad Knaus. Byron has lost an Xfinity Series race here by inches before moving up to NASCAR’s top level and has shown speed on intermediate tracks.
Paul Menard has a fifth-place finish here with the Wood Brothers from last June and is always at his best at these type of tracks: 1.5 to 2-mile ovals. The No. 21 Ford has visited Victory Lane 11 times at MIS although the last time they prevailed was way back in 1991 with NASCAR Hall of Famer Dale Jarrett.
Bubba Wallace has a C+ track record here at Michigan: 19th, 19th and 23rd in three career Cup starts. But C+ at his price with the Richard Petty Motorsports Chevrolet should afford you more top-tier drivers like Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick on your roster.
What Vegas Thinks
Kyle Busch remains the favorite, once again with 5/2 odds entering Michigan. Kevin Harvick is second with 9/2 followed by Martin Truex Jr. at 5/1. A solid dark horse candidate is Kurt Busch, sitting at 28/1 odds after qualifying.
What I Think
Team Penske takes control but it’s not the pole sitter who enters Victory Lane. Instead, Brad Keselowski breaks through after running second to Kyle Busch the last week.
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.