“Michigan is a matter of pretty much running wide open and just trying to play the air game. I hate you have to race that way, but that’s how you have to run.”
Those are the terms of engagement with the NA18D rules package in the NASCAR Cup Series and Ryan Blaney executed it to perfection on the final restart of the FireKeepers Casino 400.
Of course, Blaney had some help along the way to get said track position, but once in front of the field, it was going to take a Herculean effort that didn’t seem possible throughout 400 miles of racing on Sunday afternoon at Michigan International Speedway.
Kyle Larson led from the start of the race, and couldn’t bed passed, but was beat off pit road by Denny Hamlin on older tires. Chase Elliott was able to pick off Hamlin on the ensuing restart and led the next 37 laps until he was beat off pit road by Larson, who led 14 of the next 16 laps, holding off Austin Dillon who was able to get beside him briefly.
Chase Elliott competed the only green flag pass for the lead not aided by a pit stop or restart on lap 80 and held the spot until green flag pit stops on Lap 110.
Larson assumed the lead on Lap 128 and held the position until Lap 158 when he ran out of fuel in Turn 4 coming to pit road and exited behind William Byron. Then, Larson was unable to complete the pass on Byron, with crew chief Cliff Daniels telling his driver to work with his teammate to create some separation.
That didn’t work out to well because the giant spoiler creates enough drag to pull cars closer to the leader, but they don’t have enough power with the 550hp, high downforce package to overcome the turbulence.
All of that is to say that simply getting the lead, however you did it, was vital because any competitive car could hold the position if its driver blocked properly.
On the final restart with eight laps to go, leader Byron blocked Larson and Hamlin, who each selected the outside during the choose lap. Blaney got a clean restart with a push from Kyle Busch behind him and took the lead.
From that moment, Byron made several runs at Blaney but couldn’t break through the wall of air, and certainly wasn’t aided by Larson running the bottom or once side-drafting his teammate trying to take second.
The leaders were all bunched up behind Blaney, but the race was realistically for second, even if Byron made one last charge to the bottom, the margin of victory clocking in at .077 seconds — a Michigan International Speedway record.
All Blaney had to do was drive out of his mirror, rely on spotter Josh Williams, and prevent Byron from getting close enough to side draft.
“Josh did a great job, my spotter, of giving me great information,” Blaney said. “We were able to pull it out.
“That was a pretty hard 10 laps, that’s for sure. Just lots of information. You’re just trying to stay hyper-focused on what you’re doing, not make a mistake, try to play the guessing game. It’s a weird way to race, that’s for sure, the air game. But that’s what it is.
“We played it really well today.”
The end of the race was also an example of the impact of the choose rule that permits each driver to select top or bottom lane as they cross the start-finish line at the one to go.
Blaney was fourth coming to the one to go, but Byron, Larson and Hamlin each selected the preferred outside line, as the momentum is easier to carry from the top side than the bottom. With noting to lose, Blaney opted to take the front row and Busch followed him.
That was the decisive moment in the victory, as it turned out.
“The bottom lane here is not the preferred lane,” Blaney said. “That gives drivers a chance to kind of gamble. Maybe I’m not going to be in the best lane, but I’m going to jump a few rows, see if I can get back up in line.”
He got back up in the lead.
But again, it came down to Hamlin trying to take the front row three-wide, and Byron unable to block both lanes.
“I tried to make a move on (Byron) and he was so concerned with me that he lost the lead as well,” Hamlin said. “Just crazy racing. Everyone is just sliding on each other, but it was a decent amount of fun.”
Any chance Byron had at the end required help from Larson, and they just couldn’t get on the same page.
“It was like a (super)speedway race,” Byron said. “I tried to back up to (Larson) off 4 to get a run with 2 to go. He unfortunately ran the bottom, so he didn’t have any momentum to push me. I don’t know what you do, you can only block so many lanes.”
Larson ultimately didn’t know what more he could have done in real time.
“I think honestly, I was just a little too patient behind (Blaney),” Larson said. “Could have made some, you know, dives to the inside. Who knows. I need to watch the replay.
“Just made a couple wrong moves, allowed William to get by me. Once I was in third, I hoped they would get racing, get side drafting. I was never close enough to William to help him generate a run on the 12.”
That’s what the Cup Series is right now, and potentially well into the future with the Next Gen car on intermediates and two-mile Michigan. It’s the kind of racing product Atlanta Motor Speedway is being reconfigured to create.
The cars are absolutely bunched closer together, a byproduct of the drag generated by the giant spoiler, but there isn’t enough horsepower to complete a pass. It becomes a game of blocking and mirror driving, something that doesn’t come natural to the winner.
But it is what it is.
“Fans wanted this package,” Blaney said. “The fans wanted this package. The fans wanted a high downforce package, low horsepower. If you listen to other people, a lot of other people in the garage want a low downforce, high horsepower package. That’s what personally I enjoy driving more.
“It’s not no-skill (but) it’s a different kind of racing. You have to understand just kind of a different way to approach the race, a different way to drive the car.
“We’re not all running out there and sipping lemonade while we’re running these 550 packages. It’s a different kind of racing maybe than what it used to be here three years ago with the low spoiler and high horsepower.
“It’s just changed (and) everyone has had to adapt to it.”
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