Saturday, Sep 25

Matt Kenseth Drops the Hammer on the Field in Michigan

When NASCAR enters the Irish Hills, it is always one of Matt Kenseth’s favorite stops on the circuit. When Kenseth wins a pole it normally means that his weekend will go well. For the second time this year Kenseth won the race from the pole. This wasn’t just any win; this was pure domination on the competition.

Kenseth led 146 laps on Sunday afternoon. Heading into Michigan, the No. 20 team had only been out in front for 147 laps the entire season. With the recent resurgence of Joe Gibbs Racing it is no surprise that Kenseth was able to be one step ahead of the competition at one of his better tracks. With the win, it his Kenseth’s second win in the last three races the other coming at Pocono off of fuel-mileage.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever had a car that was this dominant and not mess it up,” Kenseth said in Victory Lane. “My car took about five laps to get going but once it got going it was pretty stout. We’ve had a great couple of months and we definitely have some momentum built. The guys have us a rocket today. They’ve been giving us rockets the past couple of months.”

With the win it is Joe Gibbs Racing’s fifth win in the last six races and the team has won six out-of-the last eight races overall. The four-car team has definitely hit its stride as the Chase approaches.

Much of the race was decided on restarts that were classified as “wild.” With the new aero package that NASCAR implemented this weekend it causes a more high-drag scenario. When a car has high-drag it makes it harder to pass, and momentum is critical down the long straightaways. If a car is forced to get out of the gas in the middle of the corner, that team will suffer badly with this package.

The last time that this package was used was at Indianapolis and a Joe Gibbs Racing car won as well. More than likely this will be the last time ever that NASCAR uses this particular package with a higher spoiler and lower back of the car. The drivers don’t seem thrilled with this package and the next “new” package will run at Darlington, Labor Day weekend. That package is identical to the one that was run at Kentucky in early July.

Kevin Harvick finished in the second position on Sunday. Harvick is accustomed to finishing in the runner-up position at Michigan as this marks the fourth time in the last five races that he has come home second at the two-mile oval. The No. 4 team overcame some mid-race adversity when just passed halfway Harvick ran out of gas while leading.

Martin Truex, Jr. picked up a much needed third-place finish in Michigan. The No. 78 team has shown speed in recent weeks but hasn’t gotten the finishes to show for it. This weekend was much different for the Furniture Row Racing team as they were able to sweep third-place finishes at Michigan in 2015. This is just Truex’s second top-five finish since the race at Michigan in June.

“We fought all day,” Truex said post-race. “We passed a lot of cars but just couldn’t get the track position that we needed all day to fight for the win. I thought we might have been as good as the No. 20.”

Austin Dillon recorded his best-career finish on Sunday. Michigan has always been one of Dillon’s better tracks, but on Sunday he showed that he can run up front with the top teams.

“It was a fun day,” said Dillon. “The past seven weeks have been great for us and I feel like we passed a lot of cars today. The No. 20 was pretty stout but I feel that we had the second-best car. Good finishes are finally starting to happen. Today was very good for me.”

The No. 3 team had to start at the rear of the field because they blew an engine in final practice on Saturday. Once the race started, Dillon saved gas until the competition caution at Lap 20 because the team’s plan was not to pit. When everyone came down pit road they stayed out and Dillon led the next 19 laps once the race got restarted. He had the only car that could pass Kenseth all race long.

Denny Hamlin rounded out the top five. The two-time Michigan winner spent much of his day around the top five and inside of the top 10. With all of the recent success of Joe Gibbs Racing, the No. 11 team has kind of slid under the radar. This was Hamlin’s seventh top-five finish of 2015.

“We didn’t have quite the speed of the No. 20 all weekend,” Hamlin said. “A top five is pretty good with this aero package. Hopefully, there is light at the end of the tunnel. This was a tough one to pass on, but overall it was good. JGR and TRD gave us the tools to come here and compete for the win.”

Michigan might not be at the top of the list of places that could change the Chase implications. And although the same 16 drivers left Michigan in the same Chase positions, this race had a huge impact on several drivers.

On Lap 125, Clint Bowyer came up in front of Ryan Newman and was sent into the outside well then came back down the track and smacked the  inside wall. At the time Bowyer was running in the 11th position, but had raced much better. For the majority of the first 100 laps Bowyer ran inside of the top five and as high as second. With a 41st-place finish, it tightened the gap of the Chase “bubble.”

Aric Almirola faced a 50-point deficit between himself and Bowyer prior to Sunday’s race. After getting his lap back after the halfway point, Almirola kept gaining on his racecar and came home with a 14th-place finish, gaining 27 points on Bowyer.

Kasey Kahne finished one spot behind Almirola in 15th. Much like the No. 43 team, the No. 5 team gained valuable points on Bowyer. After being caught for speeding on pit road during the first round of green flag pit stops, Kahne fought hard to get his lap back and was able to gain back a chunk of points that they have lost over the past month.

Kahne has won at two of the remaining three tracks leading up to the Chase.

What is wrong with Hendrick Motorsports?

Ever since Dale Earnhardt, Jr. won at Daytona, Hendrick Motorsports has struggled. The team has accumulated just three top five finishes as a team in the past six races, two of them coming at Pocono off of fuel-mileage. Earnhardt finished 10th on Sunday, but his teammates Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson struggled all weekend finishing 17th and 39th. The aforementioned Kahne finished 15th. Although, Michigan has never been one of Johnson’s better tracks he was the cause of two cautions on Sunday.

This was a week to forget for Hendrick Motorsports.

The next race for the Sprint Cup Series will be held at Bristol next Saturday night and teams look at Bristol of being the real “Wild Card” before the Chase cutoff at Richmond.  

Dustin Albino

Dustin is a 20-year-old, currently studying journalism at Ithaca College. Albino has always wanted to report on NASCAR and beginning at the end of 2014 that is exactly what he did with Speedway Digest. Since that time he has become well-known around the garage area and is looking to attend even more races than he did in 2015. 

Twitter: @DustinAlbino
Instagram: @dustin_albino

 

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