It’s been difficult for NASCAR to gain traction this month with the Summer Olympics dominating headlines. Multiple broadcasts were moved down the list of NBC networks; CNBC and USA left only hardcore fans searching their channel finder for stock car competition.
Now, even with Rio in the rear-view mirror, racing at Michigan this weekend will occur in the midst of NFL preseason, held without the sport’s Most Popular Driver in Dale Earnhardt Jr. for the sixth straight race. With a summer slump in full effect, the last thing this sport needs is an obstacle outside its control wreaking havoc on scheduling and television viewership.
If only Mother Nature would actually listen...
As of Friday morning, the forecast gives a 40 percent chance of afternoon thunderstorms on race day for a Michigan event that’s had a history of weather-related issues. The August race in 2007 was the first in NASCAR’s modern era to be delayed not one, but two days because of heavy storms; there’s been a rain-shortened race here as recently as June 2015. Any delay in the action Sunday would mark the third time in the last four races we’ve seen a Cup race interrupted by weather.
No one wins with these types of dreary forecasts. Fans on the fence about coming stay away; many at the track are forced to leave before the sporting event they paid to see actually begins. The end result is stands half-filled, TV viewership cut significantly and teams pushed to the limit with their oh-so-little time off eaten into with every drop of rain.
Weather also threatens to wreak havoc on your fantasy picks. But there’s an upside to these rain-delayed races for your roster. As we’ve seen at both Pocono and Bristol the changing conditions provide opportunities for drivers further down the list to break through. There was rookie Chris Buescher’s improbable victory last month followed by a fifth-place finish at Thunder Valley Saturday night.
So if there’s storm clouds on the horizon Sunday don’t afraid to get more aggressive in setting picks. NASCAR just hopes you’ll tune in through the resulting downpour and cleanup that’s put their sport on the backburner during the Dog Days of August.
2016 Pure Michigan 400
Time: 2 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Track: Michigan International Speedway
TV: NBC Sports Network
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Kyle Busch
Sure, Busch flamed out at Bristol, mechanical failure causing him to wreck out to his sixth finish outside the top 30 this season (39th). Busch gave a tongue-lashing upon exiting his car, angry at Justin Allgaier and the driver’s spotter for ramming him at high speed instead of anticipating the wreck better and slowing down. It was vintage, pre-championship Busch who let the heat of the moment get the better of his emotions.
That wreck opened the door for a Kevin Harvick victory, pushing some momentum back to Chevrolet but Busch’s strong summer still gives him the edge on a second straight title. He’s now led the most laps in three of the last five races, winning the prestigious Brickyard 400 and remains tied for the top seed in this year’s Chase.
Who’s at the Back: Kyle Larson
I don’t know what black cat Larson ticked off last month but he better go find it and apologize, stat. A summer that’s seen the No. 42 team surge toward the front as one of the sport’s strongest is likely to fizzle out without a Chase bid. At both Watkins Glen and Bristol this month, Larson had a top-5 finish in sight only to get caught up in wrecks not of his making. Those 40 points he left on the table would leave him one point on the right side of the Chase cutoff, inching ahead of Ryan Newman instead of sitting hopelessly behind with just three races left to make up the difference. Unless there’s a win in the cards, Larson looks like he’ll play the role of spoiler and supporter instead to likely playoff-bound teammate Jamie McMurray.
Alex Bowman returns as a substitute driver for Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s No. 88 car this week at Michigan, replacing Jeff Gordon, who has other commitments this weekend. Earnhardt, out with a concussion for over a month, will miss at least two more weeks although symptoms have been slowly improving. Fans are quietly hoping he makes a Richmond return, giving Earnhardt one chance to make the postseason by capturing the sport’s regular season finale.
NASCAR will roll out its lower downforce package at Michigan. Appearing for the third time this season, this experimental setup cuts the spoiler by one inch and reduces the splitter by two inches as the sport pushes to make the cars more difficult to drive. Feedback so far has been mixed, as has the quality of racing but officials still hope to develop the package further so it can be used full-time beginning in February 2017.
In a rare sponsorship decision reversal, OneMain Financial will remain involved with NASCAR after all. The company, which has backed Elliott Sadler for years in the XFINITY Series, announced it was leaving the sport last month after a management change but Sadler’s team, JR Motorsports, got them to reconsider. The new multi-year deal gives the series point leader ride security and positions him as a top contender for the XFINITY title this fall.
NASCAR by the Numbers
XFINITY-only drivers who have won races this season in 22 events. Elliott Sadler, Erik Jones, Daniel Suarez, Sam Hornish, Jr. and Justin Marks have been the only ones to break through in a series dominated by Cup regulars.
Wins by Kyle Busch in the sport’s Cup, XFINITY and Camping World Truck Series divisions this year. Busch, who has seven victories in XFINITY alone, has collected 166 career trophies among the sport’s top-tier divisions, a total that trails only “The King,” Richard Petty.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Two words for you when setting your fantasy roster: Team Penske. The two-car team (along with “satellite” rookie Ryan Blaney) has simply been a “can’t miss” prospect at this two-mile oval in recent years. Joey Logano, the June winner, hasn’t finished outside the top 10 at a race here since 2012. As for Brad Keselowski? The Michigan native’s lowest finish since August 2011 has been 13th. It’s a race the team puts a lot of pride in, one they know top manufacturing executives love to capture and there’s no reason to think they’ll be taking a step back come Sunday.
It’s been a difficult summer stretch for Chase Elliott, plummeting from the depths of safety inside NASCAR’s playoff positioning to the “bubble” after going eight races without a top-10 finish. When’s the last time Elliott ran that well? Funny you should ask; it was Michigan in June. If there’s a track on the regular season schedule left where the No. 24 team can get it together, this is it.
Austin Dillon has taken a liking to intermediate tracks and appears to get better at Michigan every time out. He owns four straight top-10 starts there, was fourth in this race last August and tacked on a solid eighth-place run in June. Dillon, on the “bubble” for NASCAR’s playoff needs that “cherry on top” run to get him over the hump. Expect the recently engaged young talent to commit to his first Chase appearance after a solid top-5 performance Sunday.
Michigan typically doesn’t favor the sports underfunded and underperforming drivers. But it’s hard to ignore Chris Buescher, 20th here in June and coming off a month’s worth of momentum. A Pocono victory was followed by an eyebrow-raising fifth-place effort at Bristol, one that left him 30th in points and clinging to a spot in the Chase. Sunday could offer a chance for some breathing room and with Darlington and Richmond left on the schedule; both tracks where getting in trouble can be easy, it’s crucial for Buescher to post a solid finish here.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr., driving for a team in Roush Fenway Racing that has plenty of past success at Michigan, earned his career best finish last week at Bristol. He has yet to earn a top-10 result at Michigan, posting a mediocre average finish of 22.4 but may be worth taking a flier on. Teammate Greg Biffle, a four-time winner at MIS was 19th in June and also may be worth a look.
What Vegas Thinks
Betnow.eu has Kevin Harvick as a slight favorite to capture two in a row at Michigan. Harvick has 6/1 odds over June’s winner Logano who sits at 7/1.
What I Think
Team Penske takes it to the competition at Michigan once again. Despite strong challenges from Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch, Brad Keselowski wheels into Victory Lane this time to give Ford and his organization a season sweep at MIS.
— 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.
(Photo by ASP Inc.)