ATW: Two-Mile Kyle, Late Surges and Toyota at Closing Time

Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images

By Aaron Bearden, Motorsports Editor

For 180 laps, Sunday’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race seemed more or less par for the course.

Then, the caution flag flew.

Three cautions, two crashes and a group of manic restarts later, Kyle Larson emerged to claim his third-career Cup Series victory.

The race’s ending was fitting in that it matched all of the recent storylines. A young driver won, Toyota led much of the day only to fall back late and a few surprises could be found within the top 10.

One day removed from the FireKeepers Casino 400, it’s those trending tales that stuck in the mind of this humble writer. Let’s break take a closer look at them.

Two-Mile Kyle

(Photo: Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)

When the dust had settled on Sunday’s 400-mile race, and the gatorade-soaked confetti lay molded into the track’s rubber-coated victory lane, it wasn’t a NASCAR writer’s take that had stuck with me most.

Instead, it was a writer who covers… Well, just about everything else.

NBC Sports’ Tony DiZinno was one of many observers of Sunday’s race. After it’s conclusion, he came up with a nickname that may fit the Californian better than his current “Yung Money” moniker.

Two-Mile Kyle.

Silly? Maybe.

Perfectly fitting, at least so far? Absolutely.

In the midst of his fourth season on NASCAR’s top tour, Larson has catapulted from his 2016 breakthrough at Michigan into a full-blown championship contender this season, winning two of the first 15 races and topping the championship standings as the field heads to Sonoma Raceway.

However, as difficult as it may seem to believe, the Chip Ganassi Racing (CGR) driver should be sitting even better.

Aided by the ascendance of CGR back into the front sector of the field, Larson’s become a constant force in the garage area, touting seven top-fives and an impressive 7.9 average finish through Michigan. The Californian has proven to be consistent, fearless and strong.

Here’s the thing, though – he’s only managed to win on one type of track.

Larson’s three wins have each come on NASCAR’s two-mile ovals – Michigan International Speedway and Auto Club Speedway. In fact, the 24-year-old has won three races in a row on tracks of the two-mile variety.

Elsewhere, he has none.

That’s not to say Larson hasn’t contended. In fact, he’s been among the top players in nearly every race.

Larson led in the closing moments at Daytona International Speedway before Kurt Busch scooted around him in Turn 2. He scored three-straight runner-up finishes at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Las Vegas Motor Speedway and Phoenix International Raceway, then later added two more at Texas Motor Speedway and Dover International Speedway.

Through 15 races, Larson’s speed hasn’t been an issue. He’s led laps in all but five races, and finished inside of the top 10 in the same amount. The Californian’s issue has been finishing the deal.

It was on a late restart – with help from Ryan Blaney – that Larson stole the lead and, ultimately, the win in Michigan. But outside of the Irish Hills restarts have often proved troublesome.

Larson’s restart struggles have awarded two victories  to Jimmie Johnson, both at Homestead-Miami Speedway last fall and Dover this year.

To his credit, Larson claims to have learned from his mistakes, though Michigan might not have been the best facility to prove it.

“I definitely watched the replay,” Larson said of his Dover loss. “We looked at Jimmie’s driver data versus mine from the final restart at Dover, learned a little bit from that stuff.

“Honestly, I knew what I did wrong as soon as we took the green at Dover. But, yeah, here at Michigan, it’s different. You have a long straightaway. The frontstretch at Dover is pretty bumpy, so it’s hard to get grip. It’s not hard to get grip here at Michigan. It’s kind of just a drag race.”

Larson looked strong on restarts Sunday, closing out his third-career Cup Series win despite running at a track that proved too fast on the bottom lane to allow the dirt-track ace to run his preferred outside line.

Still, until he can prove the same prowess on the smaller and bigger tracks, particularly when everything’s on the line, there will still be doubts about his ability to strike when it counts – namely at Homestead for the title.

Here’s to hoping he manages it soon, lest ‘Two-Mile Kyle’ become a moniker that sticks.

Caution-Filled Shootout Shuffles Up the Field

(Photo: Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

Sometimes, when the mood hits me, I’ll listen to music on my iPhone using one of the various “radio” programs found on services such as Apple Music, Pandora and others. This experiment often proves interesting, yielding a playlist of songs and artists I love and expect, with a handful of unexpected gems thrown in along the way.

In a lot of ways, that same concept could be applied to the top 10 after the end of Sunday’s race at Michigan.

Coming to the race’s final 20 laps, everything appeared to be lining up for a standard finish. Kyle Busch was cruising out front, likely en-route to his first victory of the year. Larson was positioned for a strong run, and a few others including Chase Elliott were poised to battle for the right to salvage a strong top-five run.

One debris caution later, the race began to devolve into an ever-changing guessing game of restarts and tires.

The caution flag would fly three times in total over the race’s final 20 circuits – first for debris, and then twice for accidents involving Stewart-Haas Racing teammates Clint Bowyer and Danica Patrick.

With each yellow flag came varying pit strategies, the stacking up of the field and one of Michigan’s notoriously wild restarts.

Through it all, the top 10 that seemed to be a given just 20 laps early saw rapid changes, with a few surprising sprinkled in.

Let’s run through a few of them.

  • Elliott ran in the back-half of the top 10 all day, only to find himself somehow in contention for the victory on the race’s final restart. The Georgian somehow managed to leave Michigan with his third-straight runner-up performance in the Irish Hills.
  • Joey Logano salvaged a subpar day – and reversed the trend from a dismal two months – by stealing a third-place run that he said felt” like a win.”
  • Jamie McMurray overcame mid-race tire issues to finish a quiet fifth, continuing his season of under-the-radar speed and performance.
  • Martin Truex, Jr. and Kyle Busch were forced to settle for sixth and seventh after the first swept the day’s early stages and the latter led before the caution spree began.
  • Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. overcame a speeding penalty to finish eighth.
  • Hendrick Motorsports teammates Dale Earnhardt, Jr. (ninth) and Jimmie Johnson (10th) surged late to steal a pair of top 10s after a brutal weekend.

Toyota’s Trouble

(Photo: Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

Toyota stole the show for the majority of Sunday’s 400 miles, claiming both stages with Truex and appearing poised for the race win with Busch.

Yet again, they ultimately failed to deliver results that matched their early promise.

Truex continued to do what he does best through the first two stages of the FireKeepers Casino 400, getting the better of Larson to tally his ninth and 10th stage wins and pad his lead in the playoff point charts.

Fans and media have spent a lot of time discussing Truex’s incredible stage dominance this year, and for good measure. However, they must also acknowledge his Furniture Row Racing (FRR) team’s glaring issue – failure to continue the dominance through the race’s end.

Truex has tallied two victories in the opening 15 races of the season – the only two victories for Toyota on the year. Under most circumstances those numbers would be impressive, but the Mayetta, New Jersey native’s stage performance indicates that he should be performing better.

The 2015 Championship 4 participant has won enough stages to fill five of the opening 15 races, but he’s managed only two race wins, both achieved with late overtakes. The 36-year-old has topped 100 laps led in five events this year, but triumphednin only two of them.

Truex has been impressive in the early stages of races, and in doing so stacked his odds of advancement to Homestead in this fall’s playoffs with a slew of playoff points. However, the 12-year Cup Series veteran’s inability to finish races off with consistency should be a worry given that NASCAR’s championship race has come down to the ability to finish off the final race with strength in each of the past three seasons.

On a similar note, the younger Busch brother has led the charge for Joe Gibbs Racing this season, rising from 11th to third in the series standings over the past two months with a host of strong performances.

The Las Vegas Nevada native has led 19 or more laps in each of the past six races, establishing himself as a constant force up front.

Unfortunately for Busch, none of those races have yielded a victory.

Whether chocked up to tough luck, poor pit strategy or just getting beat outright on-track, Busch has seen each potential victory slip away in the closing laps over the past six events.

At first, the losses came as a positive, with Busch and JGR’s newfound momentum cascaded to the NASCAR fanbase as a story to follow over the summer. However, over this six-race stretch the positives of Busch’s storyline have given way to frustration.

Where once Busch supplied a host of great quotes such as, “Everything is great,” and, “Nothing surprises me,” the Nevadan now declines interviews, heading directly to his hauler and, ultimately, the airport after his latest tale of woe.

It’s difficult to blame Busch for heading off without comment. If the 2015 Cup Series champ’s winless story has begun turning stale for those of us in the media, one can only imagine what emotions the losses must invoke within Busch himself.

All four JGR drivers had won by this point in the season last year. This season, Busch often appears to be their biggest – and perhaps only – hope.

The Nevadan still has time to earn a trip to victory lane, and nothing short of an injury or litany of new winners outside of himself could eliminate the Toyota driver from the playoffs.

Still, “Rowdy” would be best off making his way to victory lane soon.

His mood is slowly souring, and a host of potential playoff points are steadily drifting away.

One Comment

  1. Nerdy1

    June 20, 2017 at 2:08 pm

    I guess another nickname could be Mile-and-a-Half Jimmie!

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