When will Chevy's Camaro crack their winless drought?
The 2018 NASCAR season began with a new model in Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Victory Lane. After a last-lap battle, Austin Dillon pushed the new Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 to the front in February's Daytona 500, a fairy-tale debut for the sports car in NASCAR's Super Bowl. After two down years, losing their patented manufacturer's title to Toyota it appeared the Bowtie Brigade was back on track.
Who would have guessed that's the first and last time the Camaro would win this year?
Heading to Sunday's race at Michigan International Speedway, Chevy rides a 13-race winless streak and sits a distant third in the manufacturer's race they once won in dominant fashion from 2002-16. Despite having more full-time cars than Ford and Toyota (18 were entered last week at Pocono) they have the fewest wins and are tied for the fewest playoff-eligible drivers (four). Only Kyle Larson (ninth) sits inside the top 10 in MENCS points, a stunning slump for a company that has built dynasties in this sport with Dale Earnhardt, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson.
It's not just that the Camaro has been bad; Chevy teams have tripped all over themselves. Johnson didn't even lead a lap this season until getting to the front on pit strategy Sunday at Pocono; it's easily the worst start of his career. Chase Elliott has suffered through multiple L1 penalties for inspection violations that have put his postseason in jeopardy. Dillon has virtually disappeared since his 500 victory, running no better than 10th. Rookies William Byron and Darrell Wallace Jr. have made their share of freshman mistakes.
But the manufacturer's rich history at MIS, particularly with Larson gives them an opportunity to get their act together. Larson has won three straight at this two-mile oval; one more would ties the series record here set by NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott. Son Chase has a 3.5 average finish here in four starts; he started his MIS career with three runner-up performances. Six of the top 10 in August's race ran Chevys, a total they've yet to reach in any race thus far in 2018.
This track, while not in the postseason, is a good gauge for where the Chevys are in comparison to top contenders. Charlotte, a fellow intermediate saw them showing a few signs of life; Johnson ran fifth and at least saw the leaders as a small speck in front of him. Hey, it's better than being lapped, right?
This track is the type those select few who do make the cut have to master in order to make it to Homestead-Miami in November. But for those down on Chevy, past history also offers hope. Toyota was outright terrible in the first half of 2017; it took until July for Joe Gibbs Racing, their main four-car hub to finally win with a new Camry. But by November, Kyle Busch had emerged as the main challenger to fellow dominant Toyota driver Martin Truex Jr. Between them, they captured seven of the final 10 races and wound up settling the title amongst themselves.
There's still time for Chevy to turn this crisis around. But they better start soon. Playoff points accumulated by Truex, Busch and Kevin Harvick have their rivals getting away under the new stage system. Winning may advance you in the postseason but even drivers like Johnson won't move on otherwise considering their points disadvantage.
The Camaro may be a pretty car but, sooner or later, those looks have to come with lasting speed.
50th Annual Firekeepers Casino 400
Time: 2 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Track: Michigan International Speedway
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who's at the Front: Martin Truex Jr.
With all the hype surrounding Harvick and Busch, the sport's defending champion turned the spotlight back on him with a strong performance Sunday at Pocono. Overcoming an early pit stop stumble, Truex charged from 14th after winning stage one, fighting back to the front and earning his second victory of the season.
Despite a rough spring stretch (three wrecks in four races) Truex remains right where he wants to be in NASCAR's playoff chase. So far this season, he has those two wins and nine top-5 finishes; last year, through 14 events he had two and five, respectively. The duo in front of him has flashed more speed consistently this year but it's clear the No. 78 team can't be counted out.
Who's at the Back: Erik Jones
It was a Pocono wreck on a restart Sunday, while not Jones' fault that killed his chances at a solid finish. A mediocre 29th dropped him just 12 points in front of Alex Bowman for a spot in NASCAR's playoff field. Matt Kenseth's replacement at Joe Gibbs Racing hasn't exactly been stellar over the last two months, posting only one top-10 finish in the past seven races and failing to lead a single lap in that stretch. To add insult to injury, Kenseth ran 13th at Pocono, outperforming Jones head-to-head in a No. 6 Ford that has half the resources as JGR.
Garrett Smithley is making his MENCS debut this weekend at Michigan. He'll drive the No. 99 for Starcom Racing as the organization continues its push to expand to two cars when proper sponsorship is available. Victory Lane Oil will serve as primary sponsor for the full-time XFINITY Series regular.
Speaking of the XFINITY Series, Kyle Busch's car was found to be too high in post-race Pocono inspection. Despite claims the height infraction hurt, not helped the speed in his No. 18 Toyota the team was hit with a $10,000 fine, a one-race crew chief suspension and the loss of 10 owner points. It also puts a stink on a victory that was already controversial after the MENCS regular stepped down and beat up on a lower series (again).
A bizarre story has Dylan Lupton and JGL Racing arguing over their divorce in the XFINITY Series. The team's owner, James Whitener, was diagnosed with liver failure earlier this year and is currently undergoing treatment. That's led to some financial distress that caused their No. 24 car driven by Kaz Grala to suspend operations last month. But the team claimed Lupton, who left the team abruptly this week, breached his contract by not coming up with scheduled sponsor payments from backer Fatal Clothing. Lupton and JGL had a public spat on Twitter over the incident that's led to the team's No. 28 withdrawing its entry at MIS; Lupton will be sidelined for at least this weekend while both sides regroup.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Of the last 24 NASCAR Cup races have been won by Harvick, Busch and Truex. Only Austin Dillon, Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, Clint Bowyer and Matt Kenseth have broken through during that stretch (Chevys have gone 1-for-24).
Points behind 30th place in the standings for Matt Kenseth after three starts behind the wheel of the No. 6. Would Kenseth get a postseason waiver from NASCAR if he were to win part-time and somehow make it inside the top 30 in points?
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Chevy's top option, Kyle Larson, hasn't finished outside of Victory Lane at Michigan since the spring of 2016. That alone should be enough to make him your top option here. Even if the No. 42 team doesn't win, tying the NASCAR record of four in a row at MIS he'll be a likely top-5 performer.
Behind Larson sits Martin Truex Jr., who led 119 laps here the last two MIS races but got shut out of the Winner's Circle. Truex was snookered by Larson on a final restart last August, wasting an opportunity but still wound up second and sixth in those events.
Chase Elliott's track record at MIS speaks for itself. When a driver hasn't finished outside the top 10 in four starts, he's a good bet to have on your roster. At some point, the winless drought for Elliott is going to end and this track would be a great place to break through considering it was his father Bill's best track.
Jamie McMurray, on paper doesn't seem like a top option. He only has two top-5 finishes at MIS in 30 career starts. But one of them came last year (fifth) and the veteran is running a streak of four top-10 results here off teammate Larson's coattails. The driver of the No. 1 Chevrolet has had a tough year but qualified well the past two weeks (seventh, third) and has the speed to stay there. He just needs to put a full race together while avoiding what's been terrible luck.
Chris Buescher isn't a driver you get a chance to use all that often. But the driver of the No. 37 for JTG Daugherty Racing was sixth last August at Michigan and has two top-20 results with underfunded teams in four career starts. That should be enough to give him a shot, especially with three top-20 results in the past five races, a body of work that included a solid 17th Sunday at Pocono.
What Vegas Thinks
Once again, it's the trio everyone has been chasing on top of the list. Kevin Harvick, despite a so-so MIS track record has 5/2 odds followed closely by Kyle Busch at 7/2 and Martin Truex Jr. at 4/1.
What I Think
The law of averages tells us at some point Chevy is going to break through. In what's been a track position year, Larson wins the pole and then uses that clean air up front to take control of the race early and often. We finally have our second win of the year for the new Camaro ZL1.
(Top photo courtesy of ASP, Inc.)