NASCAR returns to Michigan International Speedway on Sunday for the only time this year with the running of the Firekeepers Casino 400 (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN). It’s a return to where Kevin Harvick’s career-best 2020 season took off just one year ago.
Back then, Harvick swept both races of a doubleheader, sparking a streak of five wins in nine races to make himself the overwhelming favorite for the Cup championship. All seemed to be going Harvick’s way as he racked up nine wins overall, a NASCAR Cup record for a driver age 44 or older.
But in the Round of 8, it all fell apart, Harvick missing the Championship 4 in heartbreaking fashion after a series of missteps at Martinsville Speedway. That black cloud has remained over Harvick this year as he’s failed to reach victory lane, the 31-race winless drought by far the longest for him at Stewart-Haas Racing.
SHR as a whole has struggled, winning just once this year. But that massive upset, ala Aric Almirola’s team occurred just a month ago at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. It was the last time NASCAR visited an oval, giving hope this four-car Ford team is on the verge of a turnaround. Harvick was competitive in that one, leading a season-high 66 laps before fading to sixth as his teammate surged to the front.
Can they flex their muscles in Michigan, the automotive capital of America? It’s still a place Ford and Chevy megateams like to shine for their bosses. The Blue Ovals have the edge, winning the last six times out and remain favored to prevail in this one. Joey Logano joins Harvick as former Cup title winners who have successful Ford pedigrees here.
Further down the list, Tyler Reddick and Austin Dillon are waging a battle amongst teammates. Just two spots remain in the 16-driver NASCAR playoffs and, barring two upset winners, Harvick should have one of them on lockdown. That leaves the final spot to these RCR teammates, separated by 28 points after a late-race fracas scrambled the finishing order at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course.
Reddick and Dillon have been top-10 or top-15 cars on speed in recent weeks. But will RCR use some wacky strategy in a boom-or-bust move to get to the front? After all, some sort of Cinderella upset winner either here or at Daytona International Speedway next week knocks both drivers out of contention.
Meanwhile, Kyle Larson keeps cruising, taking the overall point lead from Denny Hamlin while placing third in that wacky Indy ending. Larson has a strong history of Michigan success here (three wins) and is eager to reassert Hendrick Motorsports’ dominance on ovals after a few missteps before the Olympics break.
Can Larson and the Bowtie brigade finally put an end to Ford’s win streak? Or will Sunday be the race Harvick uses to turn a terrible 2021 around?
Firekeepers Casino 400
Date: Sunday, Aug. 22
Time: 3 p.m. ET
Track: Michigan International Speedway (Brooklyn, Mich.)
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: AJ Allmendinger
Talk about an upset. Allmendinger emerged from late-race Indy chaos that included a curb breaking apart, two red flags for wrecks and a penalty up front when Chase Briscoe dumped Denny Hamlin during the final green-white-checkered finish. Pouncing with fresh tires, the ‘Dinger snuck ahead of Larson and a dominant HMS group to post his first Cup win since Watkins Glen International in 2014.
It was also the first Cup victory for Kaulig Racing, a full-time NASCAR Xfinity Series team, in just seven career starts on the Cup level. Their blueprint may be a future foundation for new ownership as the sport looks to attract fresh faces in the age of the Next Gen car.
Who’s at the Back: Ryan Preece
Remember the optimism surrounding Preece and JTG Daugherty Racing after posting two straight top-10 finishes to start the year? They’ve now posted two DNFs in the last five races while plummeting to 27th in the season standings. Well out of title contention, barring a miracle victory the next two weeks, the lone unchartered car on the grid may be headed for a series of major changes this offseason.
Corey LaJoie has been subbed out of his car at Michigan International Speedway this weekend due to COVID-19 protocols. JR Motorsports NASCAR Xfinity Series driver Josh Berry will step up to replace him. LaJoie has one top-10 finish this season, his first with Spire Motorsports, and sits 29th in the series standings.
NFL Hall of Fame running back Emmitt Smith is teaming up with Jesse Iwuji to form a NASCAR Xfinity Series team next year. Smith, who has attended NASCAR races in the past, is the latest athlete to take the plunge, hoping to follow Michael Jordan’s path to the Cup Series. He’ll partner with Iwuji, who’ll hold the title of driver/owner after posting a best finish of 23rd in five career Xfinity starts.
The NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race at World Wide Technology Raceway went dark a little early Friday night. An accident in a nearby area knocked out a transformer, causing a power outage that forced a red flag with 66 laps complete. The race was won by Sheldon Creed after the hour-long delay.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Laps of overtime in the first NASCAR Cup race on Indy’s road course. By comparison, the entire first stage ran 15 laps.
Years between Cup victories for AJ Allmendinger, breaking the modern era record set by Martin Truex Jr. (2007, Dover; 2013, Sonoma).
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Typically, Hendrick Motorsports would dominate your choices in this space. But I do think it’s a good weekend to bet on Kevin Harvick and the Ford contingent. Harvick’s four wins in the last five MIS races make him a good bet to have speed at a track with no practice or qualifying. Add in an eighth-place starting spot and there are even position differential points here that could put you over the top.
How about third-place starter Ryan Blaney? Penske always runs well at Michigan and the No. 12 Ford team has been the best of their trio of Fords as of late. Blaney’s never won at MIS, posting three top-5 finishes in 12 starts, making him a slightly cheaper pick that could be worth the money. He was fourth here in one of the 2020 races before crashing out in the second race of that doubleheader.
Kurt Busch hasn’t won at Michigan since 2015. But the surprise Atlanta Motor Speedway winner has flashed some speed in the low-horsepower package, part of a recent surge that includes six top-10 finishes overall in the last nine races. Add in back-to-back 10th-place finishes at Michigan this season and Busch could be primed for another surprise performance.
Christopher Bell is motivated after a crash at the Indy road course ruined yet another chance at a strong finish. If not for wrong place, wrong time he’d have four top-5 finishes potentially in the last five races. At Michigan, he had some of his better runs for now-defunct Leavine Family Racing, posting finishes of 13th and 17th. I’d expect him to do much better if Lady Luck gives him a chance on Sunday.
Matt DiBenedetto has had a miserable year but, like always, the second he’s thrown to the wolves (I.E. – losing his ride for 2022) things start looking up. He’s got five straight top-11 finishes this season and did well at Michigan in 2020, posting runs of 15th and seventh with the Wood Brothers. My only concern is his starting position (fourth) which could cause negative position differential.
New Hampshire winner Aric Almirola is in position to build more momentum this weekend at Michigan. This year, he’s struggled in the low-horsepower package but has had success at this two-mile oval as of late; his lone two top-10 finishes at Michigan have come within his last five starts.
What Vegas Thinks
Kyle Larson leads the way at Michigan according to odds posted at CBSSports.com. Larson’s 3/1 odds are based on his successful past history here as he looks to post a career-best sixth victory this season.
Martin Truex Jr. sits second with 6/1 odds despite Toyota’s last Michigan win coming way back in 2015. Kyle Busch is next up with 13/2 while Chase Elliott is 15/2.
Where’s Kevin Harvick? Sitting at 8/1. Not exactly the longest of long shots but absolutely worth a wager heading into Sunday.
What I Think
I think it’s too hard to keep Kevin Harvick down the whole season. After a miserable year, the No. 4 team rights the ship at Michigan to become the 15th different winner in the first 25 races of 2021.
— 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.