NASCAR Playoff pressure ramps up in the manufacturers’ backyards at Michigan

BROOKLYN, MICHIGAN - AUGUST 22: Brad Keselowski, driver of the #2 Discount Tire Ford, drives during the NASCAR Cup Series FireKeepers Casino 400 at Michigan International Speedway on August 22, 2021 in Brooklyn, Michigan. (Photo by Logan Riely/Getty Images)

Racing at Michigan is closer than it’s ever been before. Last year’s race had a margin of victory of just .077 seconds, the closest ever recorded in the track’s history. That trend looks set to continue, with the Next Gen car providing closer racing throughout the season and Playoff pressure ramping up, in Sunday’s Firekeepers Casino 400 (3 p.m. ET on USA, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

Kevin Harvick described it as a track that rewards speed: “You want to be on the throttle at the center of the corner and get that good exit speed to make the straightaway as long as you can,” he said. “So the less you can touch the brake pedal and the more time you can spend on the throttle to make those straightaways as long as possible, the better speed you’re going to make.”

Kyle Busch added that “it’s all about speed. You just have to be fast and willing to go through the corner fast. The faster you can get through the corner, the better you are going to be down the straightaways.”

However, the original approach might just have to be thrown out the window. “You can have a baseline interpretation,” Harvick said, “but it seems to have migrated in a number of different directions at different racetracks and different scenarios this year, just because of the different characteristics that come with the car. Places that we haven’t been, you just don’t really know where it’s going to go.”

Adding to all competitiveness is the added Playoff pressure as the regular season winds down. With four races to go, fourteen winners mean just two spots are available to make NASCAR’s postseason. And, though Ryan Blaney and Martin Truex comfortably hold those spots on points as it stands, any new winner could bump them out.

That’s a list that includes Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski, Michael McDowell, Aric Almirola and Bubba Wallace, all of whom are yet to find victory lane this season. Harvick has won at Michigan five times, too, although Blaney did win the last time the series headed to Michigan.

Should Blaney win, he’d be the eleventh driver to win back-to-back races at Michigan, and would gain security in the Playoff picture.

“The easiest but hardest thing to do is win,” said Blaney. “But we’ve been trying all year.”

But it’s not only the drivers who want a win this weekend. Michigan is home to all the teams, or at least a major office for Toyota, so winning means a little extra. Plus, it comes with the Michigan Heritage Trophy, recognizing the historic links between racing and automaking in Michigan. Since the award’s inception in 2013, Chevrolet has won six times, but the trophy is sitting in Ford’s Dearborn headquarters following Blaney’s victory last season.

Plus, there’ll be a fresh face on track: Austin Hill, a two-time winner in the NASCAR Xfinity Series this year, will make his Cup Series debut at Michigan in the No. 33 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet.

Xfinity Series still has spots open

Playoff pressure isn’t quite as high right now in the Xfinity series. The series has seven winners, and six of those drivers have won multiple races, led by Ty Gibbs with four victories. That leaves space open for a new driver to join the 12-driver Playoff roster with a win in the New Holland 250 at Michigan International Speedway (3:30 p.m. ET on USA, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

Riley Herbst, who is in the Playoffs as it stands based on points but without a win, echoed that. “We need to protect our spot, but also we’re still in it to win races,” Herbst said. “A win would put all the worry of points racing aside. This No. 98 Monster Energy team deserves to be in victory lane.”

At the other end of the spectrum is JR Motorsports’ Josh Berry, who already has locked up a Playoff spot with two victories this season. In his only start at Michigan—in a relief role for injured Michael Annett last season—Berry led 24 laps and finished fourth in a race he feels he should have won.

“Michigan is the one that really got away from us last year,” Berry said. “We had a fast car and were able to race up into the lead with the speed we had, but a late caution got us. Hopefully, we can go out and have that same speed and get it done this year.”

BROOKLYN, MICHIGAN – AUGUST 21: Justin Haley, driver of the #11 LeafFilter Gutter Protection Chevrolet, leads Noah Gragson, driver of the #9 Bass Pro Shops/TrueTimber/BRCC Chevrolet, and Justin Allgaier, driver of the #7 BRANDT Chevrolet, to start the NASCAR Xfinity Series New Holland 250 at Michigan International Speedway on August 21, 2021 in Brooklyn, Michigan. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

NASCAR Cup Series
Next Race: FireKeepers Casino 400
The Place: Michigan International Speedway
The Date: Sunday, August 7
The Time: 3 p.m. ET
The Purse: $7,125,085
TV: USA, 2:30 p.m. ET
Radio: MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR (Channel 90)
Distance: 400 miles (200 Laps); Stage 1 (Ends on Lap 45),
Stage 2 (Ends on Lap 120), Final Stage (Ends on Lap 200)

NASCAR Xfinity Series
Next Race: New Holland 250
The Place: Michigan International Speedway
The Date: Saturday, August 6
The Time: 3:30 p.m. ET
The Purse: $1,269,941
TV: USA, 3 p.m. ET
Radio: MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR (Channel 90)
Distance: 250 miles (125 Laps); Stage 1 (Ends on Lap 30),
Stage 2 (Ends on Lap 60), Final Stage (Ends on Lap 125)

Owen Johnson