MIS weekend has no shortage of intriguing storylines

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News
Brad Keselowski

Detroit — NASCAR is rolling into Michigan International Speedway this weekend with enough stories to impress even that Shakespeare fella.

Four races before the playoffs, five drivers poised precariously on the bubble can solve all the problems their straggling performances have produced by winning the Pure Michigan 400 (3 p.m., Sunday, NBCSN, MRN Motor Racing Network and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

Chase Elliott, Jamie McMurray, Matt Kenseth, Clint Bowyer and, most especially, the Team Penske driver Joey Logano need a victory to clinch a postseason slot.

Meanwhile, Toyota is beating up Detroit.

When the schedule hit summer, the 2018 car Toyota introduced in the spring began bashing Chevy and Ford.

In the drivers’ standings, Martin Truex Jr. and his Furniture Row Racing Team left behind the title of “the little team that could” a couple of seasons ago. Truex is now dominating races and leading the cup standings.

He is the only driver with four wins.

But the guy looking to pass Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt for a best all-time eighth NASCAR cup title, Jimmie Johnson, is just about on Truex’s bumper in the standings.

If anyone rivaled Truex for pace in June at MIS, it was Johnson.

But bad luck shuffled him back in the field, and the narrow racing groove, since the repaving of MIS, made his likely advance to the front of the field impossible.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Another storyline for Sunday is Dale Earnhardt Jr. in a final race at MIS before his intended retirement.

And Brad Keselowski, fourth in the standings with two wins, the most top-five finishes (11) in the series and fresh off extending his contract with Team Penske, is still winless in cup races at MIS.

Meanwhile, the only Michigan-born cup champion appears in a second considerable role this weekend.

Carrying on a family tradition, Keselowski is a team owner.

Brad Keselowski Racing (BKR) has an entry in the LTi Printing 200, Saturday, (1 p.m., FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

But of all the aspects of the racing weekend, the most compelling is the playoff bubble heading into Michigan, Bristol, Darlington and Richmond, before the post-season commences, Sunday, September 17, in Chicago.

Logano finished second to Johnson for the championship, last season.

He had a significant shot at the title. Logano led 45 laps of the last race, at Homestead, and with 10 laps left, he moved directly under the race leader, Carl Edwards, and crashed.

His 2017 is star-crossed.

Just 14 laps into the season, Logano had to pit in the Daytona 500 with a loose wheel. Battling for a top five finish in Las Vegas, he wrecked with Kyle Busch.

Qualifying fifth at Richmond, he started 37th after a transmission change.Logano won anyway. But not even that mattered.

NASCAR determined after the race that because a portion of the truck arm rear suspension of the No. 22 had moved up from a pinion shim by 1/32nd of an inch. Logano could keep his victory, but not the automatic qualification for the playoffs.

NASCAR calls such a win “encumbered.”

Logano might well have had another word for it. But, instead, he declared a rule is a rule, especially in a sport that contests thousandths of a second.

“We need to win in the next few races, here,” Logano said, after finishing 24th Sunday at Watkins Glen.

In a season that started amid fond hope, he almost certainly must win one of the next four races to make the playoffs.

Truex has no such concerns. He is not only in the playoffs, he has 34 playoff points in early August, twice as many as any other driver.

He can add 15 by finishing the regular season in first place.

Truex could be excused for feeling little unease, at all, these days, except that Johnson is well-within striking distance, and likely to remain so into the playoffs.

Truex has had a fast car for weeks. He also had the best pace at MIS in June.

His late race starts were on the inside lane, and the unforgivingly narrow groove at MIS discourages side-by-side racing, even more than the aerodynamics of the current NASCAR cars.

Truex finished sixth.

“Without a shadow of a doubt we had the best car out there,” Truex said. “But those inside lane restarts at the end did us in.

“I would be awfully surprised if we’re not contending for a win this weekend.

“The beauty of this team and working with Cole (Pearn, his crew chief) is that we enter every race knowing we have a shot at a victory,” said the New Jersey native, who has a favorite fishing hole in Michigan, which he sometimes visits on race weeks.

“They keep on bringing fast cars to the track every week.”

Truex leads the series in driver points by 116, wins, playoff bonus points and laps led.

“As a group, we’ve been together for four years now, and I think it’s just evolution of our group and what we’ve been doing,” he said.

“Last year was certainly a successful season but felt like we didn’t show how good we really were.

“We didn’t achieve the things that we thought we were capable of, and so this year I feel like we’ve done a better job.

“But we’ve got to keep working hard,” Truex said. “This sport is very tough. It changes week to week.

“You never know what the next week is going to bring or three weeks from now, and our ultimate goal this year is to win our first championship together.”

Things may eventually change. Teams assured of the playoffs have shown a tendency in August and early September to holster their improvements until the post-season.

But, right now, Truex is helped by driving a Toyota.

The manufacturer has won four of the last five races and five of the last five poles.

“Remember, at the beginning of the season, Toyota unveiled this new 2018 car, and there was a little bit of figuring out the aerodynamic rules that we had in the cup series, and also the new body,” said the NBC analyst and pit reporter, Parker Klingerman.

“Well, halfway through the season, they started to figure it out.

“That has aligned with TRD (Toyota Racing Development) doing an excellent job under the hood.”

The two developments have put Toyota “at the peak of their cycle,” Klingerman said.

And, like Truex said, NASCAR often proceeds in cycles.

Beginning at the Chicagoland Speedway, especially, Ford and Chevy may have a response.

But the Camrys have won four of the last five cup races, and five of five poles.

The taster for the new vehicle came amid no small fanfare in January at the North American International Auto Show.

“The 2018 Toyota Camry NASCAR race car has been years in the making, and to unveil it simultaneously with our new production Camry is a milestone moment for our organization,” said Ed Laukes, a vice-president for marketing said, at the auto show.

“Our goal has been to maintain parallel design characteristics so our fans can enjoy driving a Camry that closely resembles the one their favorite NASCAR driver races each weekend.”

The manufacturers run in NASCAR because they believe it still markets their automobiles.

Of course, they also do it for the challenge, and because it is fun.

Not far from some of their assembly plants and headquarters, Chevy and Ford want to win at MIS.

The Detroit manufacturers will cycle back around in the cup series, and Truex will cool off someday.

In both cases, a prime question is pending Sunday in the Irish Hills and, quite likely, for the rest of the 2017 NASCAR cup season.

When?

MIS WEEKEND

Friday

5:05 p.m., Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, qualifying, NBCSN.

Saturday

9:30 a.m., NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, qualifying.

1 p.m. NASCAR Camping World Truck Series LTi Printing 200, FS1

Sunday

3 p.m., Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Pure Michigan 400, NBCSN

Tickets: mispeedway.com

gregg.krupa@detroitnews.com

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