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Wednesday June 26th, 2019 2:52PM

Drivers look for playoff stability racing into Michigan

By Holly Cain-NASCAR Wire Service
  Contact Editor

While there is understandably a lot of attention paid to the top of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series points standings, as the regular season hits the halfway point, there is a lot of legitimate intrigue at the Playoff cut-off position as well.

While four-time race winner Kyle Busch and the season’s consistency king Joey Logano have dueled for the first and second position each week, the driver claiming that 16th transfer position has varied greatly.

Kyle Larson holds that 16th position as the series heads to the Midwest for Sunday’s FireKeepers Casino 400 at Michigan International Speedway. The 26-year old Chip Ganassi Racing driver has three victories at the Michigan venue – tying him with former Monster Energy Series champion and current CGR teammate Kurt Busch for most wins among active drivers.

A victory would be especially important for Larson, who hasn’t hoisted a Cup trophy since 2017 and needs to separate himself in a crowded and talented group of drivers currently fighting for the 14th through 18th places in the Cup rankings.

Larson is actually tied with seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson in that 16th position but holds a tiebreaker advantage because his best finish of the year was third at Dover, Del. and Johnson’s was fifth place at Texas.

Joe Gibbs Racing driver Erik Jones is ranked just ahead in 15th place with a slim single-point lead over Larson and Johnson. Second-year Cup driver William Byron – Johnson’s Hendrick Motorsports’ teammate – is ranked 13th – only 18 points ahead of Jones.

And Ryan Newman is 18th, the new Roush-Fenway Racing driver only 11 points shy of Larson and Johnson.

What makes this situation especially interesting is that these drivers all either boast a solid resume at Michigan or enter this weekend with good showings in recent weeks of this season.

With three victories at the Michigan two-miler, Larson has now established himself as a driver to beat to there. In his first two wins – fall of 2016 and spring of 2017 – Larson led the most laps in each race and he won the 2017 spring race from the pole position. Last year he finished 28th and 17th in the two Michigan races, leading only a single lap in the rain-shortened early summer stop.

Johnson’s one victory at Michigan was in this race in 2014, however he has 13 top-10 finishes there and his 700 laps led is most among all active drivers. As with Larson, 2018 was a frustrating year in the Irish Hills with finishes of 20th and 28th in the two races. He earned top-10 finishes in two of the last three races of 2019, a sixth place at Kansas and an eighth place at Charlotte.

Jones, of Byron Michigan, holds that one-point edge above Larson and Johnson and would love to turn his home state fortunes around this weekend. He has been solid with four finishes of 15th or better. His best showing was third in his second race there two seasons ago. He shows up fresh off a third-place finish in Pocono, Pa. last week – his third top-10 in the season’s last four races.

Newman, who is on the points standings heels of Larson and Johnson, has won twice at Michigan – earning back-to-back trophies in 2003-04. He has nine top-10s and six top-fives in 35 starts. But he has only two top-10 finishes in his last 12 races there.

NASCAR Xfinity Series Points Battle Heads To Michigan

Paul Menard is the only former race winner entered this week as a NASCAR Xfinity Series championship battle that has proven to be one of the most competitive from the drop of the season’s first green flag at Daytona Beach heads to Michigan International Speedway for Saturday’s LTI Printing 250.

But Menard is only competing for bragging rights on Saturday, as he contends for points in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.

Championship leader, Richard Childress Racing’s Tyler Reddick, and his closest contenders, Stewart-Haas Racing’s Cole Custer and Joe Gibbs Racing’s Christopher Bell, are pacing the title run. All three drivers have won multiple races.

The reigning series champion Reddick holds a hefty 77-point lead over Bell, but he has never won at the two-mile Michigan track. Bell has three wins this season as does Cole Custer, who has the most recent victory – at Pocono Raceway last weekend. Custer also boasts the best finish at Michigan among the top three. His average finish is 6.5 in three races.

Michigan presents a rather unique challenge for the field with a series of different winners. Nine different drivers have hoisted a trophy in the last nine races. Austin Dillon won last year but won’t be competing this week. And this race in 2016 marked a historic event in NASCAR history with Mexican driver Daniel Suarez scoring his first-ever major NASCAR win.

NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series Debuts Triple Truck Challenge At Texas

The highly-anticipated NASCAR Gander Outdoors Series Triple Truck Challenge begins this weekend at Texas Motor Speedway with the Speedycash.com 400.

“The Trip” is a newly-introduced, three-race competition for the series that begins at Texas and continues June 15 at Iowa Speedway and concludes June 22 at World Wide Technology Raceway (formerly called Gateway Raceway) in Madison, Illinois.

With a half million dollars on the line, the great racing will surely be even more intense. The winner of Friday night’s race in Texas earns a $50,000 bonus. If a driver wins two of the three, he’ll earn a $150,000 bonus and if someone sweeps the triple, they will earn $500,000.

“I feel really good. Spring race we had a really fast truck. .. a truck capable of beating Kyle (Busch) and winning the race,’’ said Moffitt, whose team – should he win the Triple Truck Challenge – will give away a house, a brand new Chevy Silverado truck and $10,000 in cash.

“Pretty cool my sponsors pulled together and we are able to give the fans something, too.’’

There’s another exciting element to this weekend’s race at Texas as Greg Biffle is making his return to competition driving the No. 51 Kyle Bush Motorsports Toyota. It will be the first NASCAR start in three years for the former Gander Trucks and NASCAR Xfinity Series champion.

“It’s been a long time since I’ve driven the truck, but I’m really looking forward to it and Texas is one of my favorite tracks,’’ Biffle said. “I’m looking forward to what this weekend is going to bring.’’

WDUN will have MRN Radio live coverage from Michigan International Speedway beginning on Saturday with the NASCAR Xfinity Series Lti Printing 250 beginning at 1 o’clock on 102.9 FM and streaming live on AccessWDUN.  It continues on Sunday with the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series FireKeepers Casino 400 beginning at 1 pm on 102.9 FM, AM 550 and streaming live on AccessWDUN.

NASCAR Weekend Preview

Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series
Next Race: Firekeepers Casino 400
Defending race winner: Clint Bowyer
The Place: Michigan International Speedway – Brooklyn, MI
The Date: Sunday, June 9
The Time: 2 p.m. ET
TV: FS1
Radio: MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Distance: 400 miles (200 laps); Stage 1 (Ends on lap 60), Stage 2 (Ends on lap 120), and Final Stage (Ends on lap 200).
What to Watch For: Kyle Larson, who won three consecutive races from 2017-18, in the only driver to win multiple times at Michigan in the last 11 races there. … Cale Yarborough won the inaugural race on June 15, 1969. …Only two current drivers have won consecutive races – Ryan Newman (2003-04) and Larson (2017-18). … Bill Elliott holds the record for most consecutive wins with four – sweeping the 1985 and 1986 seasons. …Nine active drivers have won at Michigan. Larson and Kurt Busch lead the series with three wins each. …The farthest back a race winner has started is 32nd – Mark Martin in 2009. … Joey Logano is the youngest driver (23 years, two months, 25 days) in history to win at Michigan (2013). … Harry Gant is the oldest driver (52 years, seen months, six days) to win at Michigan (1992). …The winningest starting position is the pole position – 21 times a driver has won from that spot on the grid (20 percent of all races). … Ford leads all manufacturers in wins (37) at Michigan. Chevrolet has 26 and Toyota has five. … The same manufacturer has not won both the Cup and Xfinity Series races in the same weekend since 2014 (Chevrolet) when Jimmie Johnson won in Cup and Paul Menard won in the Xfinity Series. …Roush Fenway Racing is the winningest team with 13 victories. Wood Brothers Racing is next with 11. … Hall of Famer Jeff Gordon has the most runner-up finishes (eight) all-time. Kevin Harvick (seven) has the most among active drivers. … Harvick leads all active drivers with 14 top-five finishes . … The closest Margin of Victory at Michigan was .085-seconds when Jeff Gordon edged Ricky Rudd in 2001. … Jimmie Johnson has led the most laps (700) among active drivers. Hall of Famer Cale Yarborough has led the most laps (1,308) all-time at the track. … Rusty Wallace holds the mark for leading the most laps (162) by a race winner. Jimmie Johnson holds the mark for leading the most laps (146 in 2009) without winning. He finished third.

NASCAR Xfinity Series
Next Race: LTI Printing 250
Defending race winner: Austin Dillon
The Place: Michigan International Speedway; Brooklyn, MI
The Date: Saturday, June 6
The Time: 1:30 p.m. ET
TV: FS1
Radio: MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Distance: 250 miles (125 laps); Stage 1 (Ends on lap 30),
Stage 2 (Ends on lap 60), and Final Stage (Ends on lap 125)
What to Watch For: Brad Keselowski is the only driver to win consecutive races (2009-10) in the Xfinity Series at Michigan. … There are no Xfinity Series points-earning drivers with victories in this race. However, last year, championship contender Cole Custer third. … In the last 10 races, Toyota has won four times, Chevrolet has won four times and Dodge and Ford each have one win. … Carl Edwards is the last driver to lead the most laps (62) and win the race. He did that in 2011. … The most successful starting position is the outside pole position – five times in the track’s 27-race history the winner has started second. Eleven times the winner has started third or better. … Last year’s 10 caution periods were the most for a race in series history at Michigan. … The 14 lead changes in 2018 were the most since 2009 (16). Four times since then there were 14 lead changes.

NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series
Next Race: Speedycash.com 400
Defending race winner: Johnny Sauter
The Place: Texas Motor Speedway; Fort Worth, Texas
The Date: Friday, June 7
The Time: 9 p.m. ET
TV: FS1
Radio: PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Distance: 400 miles (147 laps); Stage 1 (Ends on lap 35),
Stage 2 (Ends on lap 70), and Final Stage (Ends on lap 147)
What to Watch For: This is the opening of three Triple Truck Challenge races with a $50,000 bonus available to the race winner. The incentive program goes on through the Iowa and World Wide Technology Raceway (formerly called Gateway in Madison Illinois) and a driver has the chance to win $500,000 if he sweeps the three races. …There have been 43 NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series races at Texas Motor Speedway – more than either the Monster Energy Series or Xfinity Series at the track. … Johnny Sauter is not only the defending race winner, he is the all-time winningest truck driver at Texas with five victories. He won three of four races between November, 2016 to June, 2018 at the track. … Christopher Bell (2017) and Matt Crafton (2014) are the other former winners among fulltime truck competitors this weekend. … Greg Biffle is marking his return to NASCAR competition for the first time in three years. The 2000 Gander Trucks champion has never won a NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series race at Texas. He’ll be driving the No. 51 Toyota for Kyle Busch Motorsports. … In the truck race held this past March, there were 16 lead changes – the most in the last eight races. … In the last 20 races, Toyota has won 12 times and Chevrolet eight. Ford has not won during that time. Both the track’s all-time winningest truck driver Sauter and current truck championship leader Grant Enfinger will be driving Fords this weekend. … Enfinger holds a 15-point advantage over Stewart Friesen and a 33-point lead over defending series champion Brett Moffitt entering the race. … None of the top-five drivers in the standings – Enfinger, Friesen, Moffitt, Ben Rhodes or Matt Crafton – have won a race in 2019. Sauter and Austin Hill are the only series regulars with victories.

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