BROOKLYN, Mich. -- Rivalries are important ... they're a big part of the reason people watch sports so religiously.
They're also something that seems to be lacking in today's NASCAR. There really hasn't been anything on the level of Petty vs Pearson or Gordon vs. Earnhardt for a long time. On the contrary it seems like most of the top Cup guys go fishing with each other each weekend, which is cool on one hand but also kind of makes Sunday a bit less engaging.
That may be changing though.
BROOKLYN, Mich. -- Roush Fenway Racing has a long history of success at Michigan International Speedway, including 13 Cup wins, and a total of 23 wins, 89 top 5s, 148 top 10s in a total of 281 starts across the major NASCAR touring series.
As they return to MIS for this weekend's races, they hope to add to those accolades. In June, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. managed a top-10 finish, and is looking to improve on that this time around.
"After scoring a top-10 finish last time at Michigan, I'm really looking forward to this weekend. Every year we look at Michigan as a track that we want to do well at given Roush Fenway, Jack and Ford's success there in the past. We have been working really hard on our intermediate program, since it makes up a majority of the races in the playoffs. This weekend will give us the chance to evaluate our improvements."
BROOKLYN, Mich. -- As the drivers take to the track at Michigan International Speedway this weekend, there's a bit of drama behind that scenes on the minds of many in the sport.
As is often the case, it involves Dale Earnhardt Jr. -- the biggest name in the sport.
What's unique this time is that it involves a fellow driver being particularly critical of the perennial Most Popular Driver, who is retiring after this season.
It all starts with Kevin Harvick, who said on his radio show this week that since Dale Jr. is most popular driver but not running up front each week or winning regularly, it has limited the growth of the sport:
"I believe that Dale Jr. has had a big part in kind of stunting the growth of NASCAR because he's got these legions of fans and this huge outreach of being able to reach different places that none of us have the possibility to reach, but he's won nine races in 10 years at Hendrick Motorsports and hasn't been able to reach outside of that," Harvick said.
As you can imagine, that didn't go over well among Jr. Nation, who were quick to call Harvick disrepectful (among other colorful terms) and also remind Harvick that he got his start in Cup after the tragedy that befell Earnhardt Sr. at Daytona in 2001.
Earnhardt has responded to the comments, expressing that he was hurt by them, also but staying positive and saying that he still respects Harvick:
"I found some of those comments hurtful," Earnhardt said. "I still respect him as a champion and ambassador for the sport. That's just the way it is, I guess. I hate that's how he feels."
All the big news in NASCAR this week has centered around the Ford camp, first with the announcement that Brad Keselowski was staying with Team Penske, then a double-whammy with the news that Ryan Blaney would make the somewhat expected move over to a third Team Penske car (leaving the Wood Brothers), and that Paul Menard would come over to the Woods along with some some Menard's sponsor money to help solidify their funding (thus opening up another ride at Childress -- perhaps for Matt Kenseth?).
Dave Pericak, global director of Ford Performance, weighed in on Blaney's move to the 12 car, where he will be a teammate to Keselowski and Joey Logano.
"Ryan has certainly earned this opportunity with Team Penske. We knew all along that his time with the Wood Brothers was dependent on adding another car at Team Penske, but what he has accomplished with the Wood Brothers is impressive and he has played a key role in returning the 21 car to victory lane. Right now, we're all committed to getting the Wood Brothers their 100th win and a season championship this year," Pericak said.
After much speculation about whether he would be involved in NASCAR's Silly Season this year, it was announced this week that Brad Keselowksi has renewed his contract with Team Penske for an undisclosed number of years. At Pocono this weekend, Keselowski talked about his decision to return to Team Penske and pursue more trophys to add to his collection, which includes the 2012 Cup championship.
Here is a full transcript of his media session:
YOU RE-SIGNED WITH TEAM PENSKE RACING. WALK US THROUGH THE PROCESS: “Yeah, it’s certainly a good thing. Those things are tough and they never go easily or smoothly as you want them to go. The most important thing is that it’s done. We look forward with a lot of stability. And that stability is important for a number of reasons. It’s important for me as a racecar driver that I have a place to work and drive and pursue my passion. More than that, there’s a place to work for the 100 or so that work specifically on my team or the 400 or so collectively that work at Team Penske to keep going and keep working. I’m happy for those guys. And to have the stability as well with respect sponsors and all those things to showcase them and hopefully be a place to keep the business model in a way that drives value for them and keeps us on the track in a competitive form. Those contracts are a big deal. I think sometimes to our fans they’re probably not a big deal and I understand that. To the livelihood of the sport and the livelihood everybody in the room, they certainly are. It’s nice have those done and to be able to worry about the true passion point we have which is the racing on the track.”
BROOKLYN, MIch. -- It might sound odd to say this in the middle of June, considering how strong the Toyotas have been running overall in 2017, but Joe Gibbs Racing has yet to visit Victory Lane in the Cup series. Every week they contend, and every week they fall short.
Let’s look at Michigan’s results … Kyle Busch led 40 laps in Sunday’s race, and was among the top contenders to win. But as the final laps played out, he fell back and finished 7th. He’s run well enough to be third in points, but has yet to be first to the checkered flag this year.
Both Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth were knocking on the door of the lead Sunday (Hamlin’s shot came right at the end too). But in the end, Hamlin came home in 4th and Kenseth was 11th. Both of these drivers are on track to make the playoffs on points, but would prefer to get there via a trip to Victory Lane.
The fourth Gibbs driver, Daniel Suarez, is a rookie so there isn’t huge pressure on him to win this year. But he has the talent to do so, as he showed last year in winning his Xfinity title.
BROOKLYN, Mich. -- In the finishing order at MIS, Fords were on the short end of the stick.
The lone positives were a 3rd-place run by Joey Logano, who has been in a funk lately and needed good news, and an 8th-place run from Roush-Fenway driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Beyond that it was pretty disappointing, though Darrell Wallace Jr. did do better in his second go-around in the Petty #43 car, finishing 19th.
On Twitter after the race, Ford team owner Tony Stewart showed he’s not going to stop speaking his mind even though he’s retired from driving in the Cup series.
BROOKLYN, Mich. -- Michigan native Erik Jones is among the young drivers in NASCAR's top series still searching for his first win at the premier level. With MIS being his home track, he said it's always a bit busier than usual but also a chance to see familiar faces.
“Yeah, it’s been a busy week. I didn’t get home ‘til Tuesday night, drove back up here and went over and tested a late model on Wednesday over in Grand Rapids, Michigan and then yesterday kind of got to take the day off, visit a little friends and family and then back it again today, so just nice to come home. Nice to sleep in the house that I grew up in and stay there – it’s only about an hour away from here – and roll into the race track in the morning. It’s just cool to be here and on Sunday get all the family and friends out. I’ve burned through every possible hot pass I can get, so just nice to have everybody here and be close to home.”
Logano seeks return to form
Joey Logano has a win this year, but the reality is that the win is considered encumbered, so he does not have a guaranteed spot in the playoffs. Add to that the fact that his past month has been a bit rough on track, and the number of winners continues to grow, and it's clear that Logano must stay focused so he is able to make the playoffs -- either with a win or via points.
When asked about this pressure Friday at MIS, Logano said: “It is on my mind. I would be lying if I said it wasn’t, but it isn’t something I am very concerned about. I feel like this team is strong enough to get through it. We just need to get through it, build momentum. The way these stages are, you can gain points pretty quick. We have to be able to string three or four solid races together like we know how to. We have strung 15-20 great races together before. It is nothing this team hasn’t done before. We are very strong. No one is pointing fingers. There is none of that going on. We just have to get through it as a team together.”