Brooklyn, Mich. — The racing will be different this year, at Michigan International Speedway.
Brad Keselowski’s race last week at Pocono is evidence of how and why.
Keselowski, fifth in points in the NASCAR Cup Series as he fights for a second championship, played the sort of seemingly radical pit strategy the 2017 season is establishing as standard, with a new set of race rules.
There are now two stages of racing before the end of the full race. Points are awarded in each.
At MIS for the FireKeepers Casino 400, Stage 1 ends at lap 60, Stage 2 on lap 120 and the race and the final stage on the big, speedy, two-mile oval is on lap 200.
Drivers and teams compete hard for points awarded for the two stages. Towards the front of the field especially, they now routinely drive the ends of both initial stages as hard as the end of the race.
At MIS, what many consider the fastest track in NASCAR, driving it hard means one thing: Speed.
And, because all of what is essentially a so-called competition caution at the end of the first two segments, two planned pit stops provide new options and opportunities.
“Well, it’s absolutely changed your strategy and the way you call the race, for sure,” said Travis Geisler, the NASCAR competition director for Team Penske.
“If you look at Pocono and the way that played out: I mean, no one could really figure out where or what the strategy was going to be until everything shook out at the end,” Geisler said.
“It jumbles up the field, at times, in a way that nothing else has in the past.”
The two planned pit stops impact fuel and tire strategy, allow adjusting the “set-up” of the chassis for aerodynamics and handling, adding significantly to race strategy and the possibility a slower car can beat a faster one.
“It’s been definitely strategy coming into play a lot I’d say through the race,” said Cole Pearn, crew chief for the Cup series leader, Martin Truex Jr.
“It’s definitely made it more interesting, more events to pay attention to, for sure.”
It is mostly why 14 races into the season, only three “fastest cars” have been first to the checkered flag.
At Pocono, Kyle Busch clearly drove the fastest car.
But Keselowski, his crew chief of eight years, Paul Wolfe, and his team of just as long, Team Penske, were earnest in their search for something different.
When they found it and executed their strategy nearly to perfection, it was noted.
“When you’ve got a car that dominant, the only way to beat it is to go opposite,” said Larry McReynolds, an analyst for Fox Sports.
Keselowski and the team starting going the opposite of Busch, pitting around lap 12 of 160.
In another NASCAR season, that would likely signal significant difficulties with the car or maybe the tires.
This season, it was a matter of taking a chance, hoping to make a chance.
After getting two tires and an air pressure adjustment in the pits, Wolfe’s strategy of pitting early in the fuel window of the first two stages emerged.
As each of the first two stages ended, Keselowski was not among those who peeled off to pit early, realizing they could not win the stage. That planned run to the pits, usually by cars about 15 seconds behind the leader who are unlikely to finish in the top-10, is new to NASCAR this season.
The first 10 finishers in a stage earn 10 points to one point, from first place to 10th, respectively. In addition, the stage winner gets a bonus point to use in the post-season.
“The value of the stage points changes for every competitor out there,” said Steve Letarte, an NBC Sports analyst and former crew chief.
“A lot of it has to do with the tires, the tire fall-off.
“But it really comes down to the timing of the caution, the length of the track, if you lose a lap, if you pit or don’t pit under green, those things all make a huge difference,” Letarte said.
Keselowski’s strategy at Pocono and its impact on tire and fuel use allowed him to cut through the field from the start of the third stage.
He picked up 12 positions in 22 laps.
Eight laps later, he led the field for the first time all day, 30 laps before the checkered flag.
“I think they know the only way they can beat Kyle Busch is you have to do something different,” McReynolds said. “So I think there’s a method to their madness, here.”
But having led for 10 laps, with Busch on a different pit strategy now catching him from behind and no yellow flying, Keselowski pitted with 20 laps remaining.
All seemed lost.
But the caution that would have worked perfectly for him worked OK when it finally came one lap later. Instead of pitting from the lead, Keselowski restarted second to Busch, who stayed out on older tires to maintain track position.
The strategy was right.
The execution? Wanting.
On the restart, not only did Keselowski, on fresher tires, fall back from Busch, he also fell into the clutches of other cars with fresh tires, too.
He finished fifth.
“I just didn’t get enough go on the restart, which was a bummer,” he said. “I don’t know, I feel like I probably could have won it if I had just gotten that launch.
“Kyle got a great launch.”
It is all a lot for fans to keep an eye on, and some fans have complained it takes a few races to learn the new scoring system.
“The primary goal,” said Scott Miller, senior vice-president for competition for NASCAR, “was to create more incentive and more action, in what is otherwise can be a long event.
“We’ve seen a lot of action around the ends of those stages all of the way in the top 15, with all those team having a chance at some points in the stage,” Miller said. “It’s action all of the way back through the field
“There was a lot of industry collaboration on getting it with the broadcasters and the tracks and the teams and the presidents and the drivers,” Miller said. “So there was a lot of buy-in, initially, and some skepticism, with all of us.
“But we’ve been extremely happy with how it’s worked out.”
The feedback from drivers, teams, broadcasters and fans is positive enough, Miller said, that fans hoping the sport will settle in and stick to the same rules for a while, if only for the sake of familiarity, will not be disappointed.
“It was heightened at Pocono, for sure,” Miller said.
“I think stage racing is here to stay.”
When: 3 p.m. Sunday, Michigan International Speedway, Brooklyn
Support races: ARCA Corrigan Oil 200, 6 p.m. Friday; Xfinity Irish Hills 250, 1:30 p.m. Saturday
TV: All races on FS1
Defending champion: Joey Logano