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 (2 p.m. ET, FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). 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 Mich., 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 BATTLE FOR THE POINTS LEAD 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 (1:30 p.m. ET, FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
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 (Pa.) 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.