Two years ago this month, Kevin Harvick pulled into victory lane at Michigan International Speedway. Dominating the second race of a COVID-induced doubleheader, Harvick led 90 laps before fending off a late challenge by Denny Hamlin to sweep the weekend.
Harvick's lead in the regular season standings was immense, ballooning to 137 over Brad Keselowski. That meant he could sit out the next two races and still be guaranteed to remain atop the standings.
"I think this is really something that we've been fortunate to excel at, adapt," Harvick said that weekend about his 2020 COVID-year success. "We're good at adapting and adjusting, trying to figure things out on the fly. I think that's what experience brings you with this particular race team."
Somewhere along the way, crew chief Rodney Childers, Harvick, and Co. have lost that edge. They would win three more times that year but fail to make the Championship 4 in an everything-that-could-go-wrong, went-wrong postseason collapse.
Their malaise has continued ever since. While finishing fifth in the standings last season, the No. 4 Ford lacked front-running speed, utilizing that mix of strategy and resilience to eke out top-10 finishes in their first winless year together since Harvick joined the team in 2014.
2022 was supposed to be a step back to contention for one of the sport's most successful organizations, their experience adapting well to the new Next Gen chassis. Instead? Harvick's on the verge of missing the postseason for the first time since 2009, sitting 10th in the standings with a career-worst 13 laps led.
Can the raw speed of MIS turn things around? It's been a great track for both Harvick and Ford, a manufacturer that's won seven straight races at their hometown track. A seventh this year at sister track Auto Club Speedway leads to hope Harvick can claw his way to the front in a race the Blue Ovals covet.
This much is clear: a win is needed for Harvick, fellow winless teammate Aric Almirola, Erik Jones, Brad Keselowski, and anyone sitting on the outside of the playoffs looking in. Fourteen of 16 postseason spots are taken by drivers with at least one victory; the other two, filled by Ryan Blaney and Martin Truex Jr., are drivers with nearly 100 points more than anybody else.
The mission, then, is simple for Harvick: find a way to reach victory lane. Watch for other drivers from different manufacturers like Bubba Wallace and Austin Dillon to surprise through aggressive moves on restarts, pit strategy — any way they can push to the front.
Will Ford be able to find a way through Harvick, Almirola, or even their Team Penske stalwarts of Blaney and Joey Logano? Just three Ford drivers have won this year and only one (Logano) has multiple victories. The success of Chevrolet and Toyota on intermediates this year makes MIS a steeper challenge.
But desperation can make a difference for a chassis that puts more in drivers' hands, even at a horsepower track like MIS. And for Harvick, past history puts him in a unique position here.
Can the Blue Oval crowd find a way to get their veteran leader over the finish line first?
Firekeepers Casino 400
Date: Sunday, August 7
Time: 3:00 p.m. ET
Track: Michigan International Speedway
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who's at the Front: Tyler Reddick
Reddick took an important step less than three weeks after announcing he'd be leaving Richard Childress Racing for 23XI Racing in 2024. Winning from the pole at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course, it showed the No. 8 team will fight hard for this year's championship despite the raw emotion of an unexpected divorce.
"Kevin Harvick and I saw down and talked when he was leaving for a couple of hours and made our joint press conference," owner Richard Childress said to Frontstretch's Daniel McFadin, referring to his last bombshell departure: Harvick in 2012-13. "This didn't happen like [that]."
It would be one thing for Childress to vent frustration right after the move happened in July. But this quote came right after Reddick reached victory lane! Even the driver was a little shaky, claiming "he should be racing here next year" in his press conference before RCR reaffirmed they would, indeed, be honoring Reddick's contract in 2023.
You wonder what would have happened if this team didn't win over the final few regular season races…
Who's at the Back: William Byron
Hendrick Motorsports has splintered into two distinct groups over the last few months: Chase Elliott and everybody else. Put Byron in the camp of those struggling, posting no finish better than ninth since winning at Martinsville Speedway back in April. He's crashed in two of the last four races, including the IMS road course, posting a position differential of -24 over this stretch.
Kyle Busch is OK after his family suffered a scare in a recent Mall of America shooting. Busch and his family were among those in the mall when someone fired shots around the Nike store, forced to flee as part of a mass evacuation while the area was put on lockdown. Thankfully, there were no victims in the gunfire, but the assailant remains at large.
Front Row Motorsports and Michael McDowell have dropped their appeal of a L2 penalty that cost them 100 driver and owner points. Crew chief Blake Harris, assessed a $100,000 fine, will serve his four-race suspension, with team engineer Chris Yerges named to serve in his place with the No. 34 team.
Former NASCAR Cup Series independent Buddy Arrington has died at 84. Arrington spent 25 years racing in the sport's top division, from 1964-88, making 560 starts and posting 15 career top-5 finishes in his signature No. 67. He never won, finishing third twice, including the 1979 Winston 500 at Talladega Superspeedway. Instead, the underfunded driver was best known for sticking with Dodge years after the manufacturer pulled out of the sport in the late 1970s.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Straight wins in Cup by a driver who started inside the top 5. It's the longest streak since 2005, when that happened in seven straight races from April through the beginning of June.
Laps led by reigning NASCAR Cup champion Kyle Larson through 22 races. By comparison, he led a season-high 2,591 laps last season.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Last year, Michigan belonged to Team Penske, Ryan Blaney eking out a win down the stretch after mastering the final restart of the race. Blaney could use a victory in 2022 to lock down a playoff spot and his Michigan stats are impressive overall: five top-10 finishes in the last seven races here, including that win, and 58 laps led.
As you saw above, Kyle Larson has struggled in 2022 and is coming off an ugly wreck at the IMS road course with Ty Dillon. Michigan could be a place that makes it all better; Larson won at sister track Auto Club Speedway earlier this year and has three career victories at MIS in 13 starts.
Kevin Harvick has underachieved considering how often he's been in this space in 2022. But the Michigan stats are just too good to pass up. Harvick hasn't finished outside the top 15 at this track since June of 2015, posting four wins, 424 laps led, and a +31 position differential during that stretch. Expect the No. 4 team to contend.
Last summer, Austin Dillon had a car capable of reaching victory lane at Michigan only to make contact with Brad Keselowski at the end of the second stage. With teammate Reddick giving momentum to RCR, could the No. 3 car emerge on Sunday as a dark horse contender again? Dillon has two career top-5 finishes at Michigan and a position differential of +24 in his last four starts there despite that wreck.
Bubba Wallace was forgettable at Michigan last year, posting a 19th-place finish in the 23XI Racing Toyota. So, what makes this year different? Three straight top-10 finishes for the first time in his Cup career. Wallace has always had more speed this season than his results have shown; it's time to ride the hot hand as he seeks a victory to close this regular season out and make the playoffs.
Harrison Burton will be making his first career Michigan start just one week after his first career top-5 finish in Cup (third at the IMS road course). MIS is the perfect place to continue that upward trend in a No. 21 Wood Brothers car where Matt DiBenedetto wound up a strong sixth last summer. The Cup rookie also ran a strong fifth in his lone NASCAR Xfinity Series start at the track in 2021.
What Vegas Thinks
The vegasinsider.com odds have Chase Elliott on top of the food chain for MIS with the point leader listed at +600. Kyle Busch is next up at +650, followed by Kyle Larson at +700 and Denny Hamlin at +750.
Looking to put a longshot on your radar? Dillon is sitting at +5000.
What I Think
I wouldn't put it past Kevin Harvick to get the job done. But if he doesn't prevail, keep an eye on Ryan Blaney, who has run well enough this year to earn a second MIS victory and become the Cup Series' 15th different winner in 23 races.
— 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.