Sweeps, rain tires and a square cone

Another great weekend of racing is behind us. We started off with the Trucks at Michigan, where Zane Smith scored his first victory following a last lap pass in double overtimes. He was running 16th with just over ten laps to go, but with all the carnage at the end, he managed to find his way through the field, and with a last lap pass, take the checkered flag just 0.318 ahead of Christian Eckes.

On Saturday the Xfinity Series lined up at Road America and following a lengthy thunder delay halfway through stage one, we were treated to an amazing race where we saw the rain tires being used for the first time since Montréal 2008. The track dried up before too long though and eventually things were back to normal with the usual suspects at the front. Austin Cindric won the race closely followed by AJ Allmendinger and Chase Briscoe, with Kaz Grala in 4th and Andy Lally in 5th.

Then there was the NASCAR double header. Kevin Harvick pretty much dominated both races from start to finish, winning both and taking three out of the four stages. On Saturday we had the first points race in the Cup Series with the choose rule, and I think it’s a great thing. It lets the drivers dictate their own destiny in terms of where they start and it certainly shakes things up a bit. One example is a late restart where Austin Dillon was running 11th, but since only two drivers ahead of his choose the bottom, he went left of the orange box painted on the track and restarted 5th. Early in the race however it became clear that Kevin Harvick was going to be the driver to beat, and it seemed like nobody could stop him. We did get a few cautions at the end though with some questionable lane choices on the restarts, but in the end Harvick was way too good on the outside line for anyone to be able to stay ahead of him, so lane choice probably didn’t matter to much on that matter anyways.

On Sunday Clint Bowyer won stage one, mainly thanks to the inverted top 20 from Saturdays race, putting him 2nd on the grid with Harvick all the way back in 20th. Early in the final stage it looked like Brad Keselowski, Ryan Blaney and Aric Almirola was going to able be in contention to beat Harvick, but when Blaney took the lead, Keselowski came with a huge run into turn one, drove under him and lost the car, causing both Penske Racing Fords to retire from the race. From that point on it was pretty much all Harvick to the end. Denny Hamlin put up a good fight at the end, but with the current aero package there was really nothing he could do to pass Harvick.

Thankfully we had the bubble battle to follow in both these races which really kept the excitement up throughout. Going into the Michigan double-header the gap from 14th down to 19th was 59 points. Clint Bowyer who came in on top had a decent Saturday race running most of it just around the 10th position, scoring two stage points. In the final stage he lost a bit of speed and dropped down to finish 19th, which in terms let him start 2nd on Sunday. This allowed him to win stage one, finish 5th in stage two and eventually score a 14th place finish.

The most impressive of the bubble drivers this weekend was by far Eric Jones, who despite being told this week he is not returning to Joe Gibbs Racing next year, put in a great performance, scoring a total of 22 stage points and an 11th place finish on Saturday. On Sunday he ran in to some issues late which dropped him from 6th place all the way down to 27th in just the last 35 laps. So despite having a really good weekend at Michigan, those last 35 laps meant the gap up to 16th in the standings barely changed at all.

The rest of the drivers currently in the battle for the final three playoff spots had varying days. William Byron and Matt DiBenedetto finished 14th and 15th respectively on Saturday with no stage points. Then on Sunday they DiBenedetto finished 7th with seven stage points while Dyron finished 12th with five stage points. Jimmie Johnson stayed just outside the top 10 both races, scoring just one stage point and finishing 12th and 11th, while Reddick had a miserable weekend. His 18th place finish on Saturday meant he was due to start 3rd on Sunday, but after having to go to a back-up car, he started at the rear and was never able to recover, finishing 24th with no stage points.

Here is the current playoff battle: (numbers in brackets are points gained or lost at Michigan)

14. Clint Bowyer +60 (+17)
15. Matt DiBenedetto +57 (+17)
16. William Byron +26 (+11)
17. Erik Jones -26 (+5)
18. Jimmie Johnson -26 (-1)
19. Tyler Reddick -36 (-21)

One thing to remember is that an upset win by anybody below the cut off line means that it moves up one position, as long as that winner is top 30 in points. Since this has already happened twice with Austin Dillon (17th) and Cole Custer (21st), these guys are essentially battling for 14th position in points to make the play off cut of 16 drivers. With the last four races being the brand-new (for NASCAR) Daytona Road Course, a double header at Dover and finally the Daytona Oval, really anything can happen. Specially that final race could very well produce and upset winner in Bubba Wallace (20th),  Chris Buescher (23rd), Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (24th), Ryan Newman (26th), Matt Kenseth (28th) or even Ryan Preece (30th), which would blow this play-off battle wide open.

/Linus Broström