In the shadow of the American autoworkers, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series headed north to visit the Irish Hills of Michigan. The task at hand, the 2.0-mile, D-shaped oval of Michigan International Speedway.
Known for high speeds and intense passing, these races often come down to fuel mileage. All teams kept this in the back of their minds as 43 drivers were set to do battle in the Heluva Good! Sour Cream Dips 400.
Pole-sitter Kurt Busch brought the field to the green flag, but he would not be able to lead the first lap. Second-place starter Jamie McMurray managed to get the advantage coming off the third turn and got the lead, giving him the first bonus points of the afternoon. But, just as quickly, Busch made the move in the first turn on the next lap to regain the top spot.
Busch would hold the advantage when the first caution came out on lap 20 when Marcos Ambrose went for a spin coming out of turn 4.
The early caution gave teams a chance to come in and make early adjustments to the cars. Some teams gambled and only took two tires, most notably Tony Stewart.
The field went back to green on lap 23 with Busch back in the lead. He would lead all the way until the second caution flag came out on lap 49 when debris was spotted in the second turn. Once again, the field came down pit road for another chance to service the cars. But, once again, Busch came out on top and was ready to lead the field back to green.
Unfortunately, another driver was ready to make his name known as a contender in the race, and his name was Denny Hamlin. Last week’s winner restarted beside Busch, but got a strong run into the first turn and put the No. 11 at the top of the leader board.
This would begin the first run of green-flag racing as the cars began to spread out around the track. As pit stops approached, Hamlin had a healthy lead on the field and wanted to make sure he kept his position. When stops began on lap 87, the lead Hamlin built was over two seconds. He would come to pit road on lap 91, one lap after Busch.
But, a little hiccup came when Hamlin left his stall as his engine was misfiring, and he began coasting on the apron of the track. His engine finally turned over in the middle of the turn, and the crew diagnosed the issue as being air in the fuel lines, telling the team that they were nearly out of fuel.
The lead then went back to Busch who was in an intense battle with Kasey Kahne, giving the fans a battle of the beer wagons. Kahne was able to grab the lead on lap 96, and three laps later the caution came out.
This time, it was Red Bull teammates Casey Mears and Scott Speed getting together, with Speed going for a spin in the second turn.
In somewhat of a surprise, despite pit stops just being completed, the field came back to pit road for service. Most of the crews made the decision to put just right-side tires on the car, having only just four laps on the tires that were just on the cars. Busch would once again win the race off pit road, but would start in the second position as teammate Sam Hornish Jr. decided to stay on track, inheriting the lead.
The field went back green on lap 105, but Busch could smell the lead and one lap later went back to the top spot. However, the team on the move once again was Hamlin. The FedEx Toyota was strong off the corners and made the pass for the lead on lap 114.
His lead would continue as the field got set to make another round of green-flag stops. A majority of the teams were complaining of a loose condition entering the corner, but a tight condition coming off. Many others were saying their cars were loose the whole way around.
Still, even with green-flag stops, Hamlin simply didn’t get worked up. He held the lead, and then got it back almost immediately once the field cycled through. At one point following the green-flag stops on lap 144, Hamlin’s lead grew to over five seconds on the field.
With a wide race track, it made for a lot of great passing and racing, but not a lot of wrecks. As the race got to 40 laps remaining, only one pit stop was left to make it to the finish. Some teams decided to try and short-pit, forcing the leaders to come in earlier than expected and meaning the competition would get closer.
Hamlin would come into pit road for his final stop on lap 179, and the team simply never failed to get the job done as they got him back on track quickly. Hamlin got the lead back one lap later, and had over a ten-second advantage.
But, NASCAR had to throw the caution on lap 183 because they spotted debris on the backstretch. This erased the advantage Hamlin had and gave his competitors one chance to possibly get back to the front and steal his thunder.
The race went back to green on lap 186, and Hamlin got a great restart on Kahne, who was in the second spot. As the laps began winding down, Kahne closed in to less than a second, but could not keep up the momentum to try and make a pass. Soon, he began to fade back, and it was over at that point.
There is such a thing as momentum, but if there’s such a thing as being on fire, the No. 11 team is that. For the second straight week, it was Denny Hamlin coming around the final turn to take the checkered flag, winning the Heluva Good! Sour Cream Dips 400.
It would be Hamlin’s fifth victory of the season, all of which have come after NASCAR implemented the new rear spoiler on the current car. It was at last year’s season finale in Homestead that Hamlin predicted his team would win a championship in the next few years. At this point, it seems as though that will become a reality.
Next week, a little bit of a twist for NASCAR. Instead of going in circles, these cars will be going up, down, left and right. NASCAR is going road racing for the first time this season as they make the trip out west to the Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, California.
The twists, turns and elevation changes will make for an interesting race, as well as the up-shifting, down-shifting, throttle control and braking.
The Toyota/Save Mart 350 will once again be on TNT starting at 2 p.m. ET with “Countdown to Green.” The race will begin approximately an hour later.
RESULTS: 1-Hamlin 2-Kahne 3-Kurt Busch 4-J. Gordon 5-Stewart 6-Johnson 7-Earnhardt Jr. 8-Burton 9-Biffle 10-Logano
NOTABLE FINISHES: 12-Edwards 16-Martin 19-Harvick 20-Kyle Busch 32-Newman
CAUTIONS: Four for 14 laps. Lap 20-22 (No. 47 spin-FS), 49-51 (Debris-T1), 100-103 (No. 82 spin-T2), 183-186 (Debris-BS)
LEAD CHANGES: 18 among 9 drivers. Kurt Busch POLE, McMurray 1, Kurt Busch 2-19, Stremme 20, Nemachek 21, Kurt Busch 22-48, R. Gordon 49, Kurt Busch 50-51, Hamlin 52-91, Kurt Busch 92-95, Kahne 96-99, Kurt Busch 100, Hornish 101-105, Kurt Busch 106-113, Hamlin 114-140, Kenseth 141-142, Hamlin 143-176, Kahne 177-178, Hamlin 179-200.
TIME OF RACE: 2 Hrs, 33 Mins, 28 Secs.
AVERAGE SPEED: 156.386 MPH
MARGIN OF VICTORY: 1.246 Seconds
POINT STANDINGS: 1. Harvick, 2169 points; 2. Kyle Busch, -22; 3. Hamlin, -47; 4. Kurt Busch, -118; 5. Kenseth, -150; 6. Johnson, -170; 7. J. Gordon, -182; 8. Burton, -224; 9. Biffle, -304; 10. Edwards, -313; 11. Stewart, -329; 12. Martin, -343