Bowyer's gamble pays off, Ford dominates at wet MIS
Brooklyn, Mich. — Clint Bowyer won the rain-shortened FireKeepers Casino 400 Sunday afternoon at Michigan International Speedway after having to wait nearly three hours for the NASCAR series race to begin due to the inclement weather.
Bowyer earned his second win of the season in the No. 14 Ford for Stewart-Haas Racing with his teammate Kevin Harvick finishing second and Kurt Busch third, giving the team a 1-2-3 finish.
The race had to last at least two stages — 120 laps around the two-mile superspeedway — to be official.
And, drivers were definitely aggressive in Stage 2, knowing the rain more than likely would shorten the race.
Harvick won Stage 2 — his eighth stage win of the season — but wanted the win at MIS after entering the day with a series-high five wins in the No. 4 Ford.
Harvick won the August race in 2010 at MIS, but had five runner-up finishes at the track since then, including four straight from 2013-14, winning the series championship in 2014.
Stewart-Haas Racing would have been pleased if the race would have come to an end after Stage 2 since Harvick beat his teammate Bowyer by 2.7 seconds to the flag with Busch, who started from the pole, running third.
But Stage 3 did get underway and Bowyer took the lead from Harvick one lap into the restart on Lap 126 with Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch and Rochester Hills native Brad Keselowski giving chase, running like every lap was the last one with the rain closing in on the Irish Hills area.
“This Ford Fusion was just so fast, 1-2-3 for Stewart-Haas Racing, gutsy call (taking just two tires on final pit stop). Just unbelievable,” beamed Bowyer, who joined Stewart-Haas last season and ended his 190-race winless streak this past March at Martinsville.
“Being on the same tires on a restart with Kevin Harvick, you know what you’re up against, but he was so much faster than me in (Turn) 1 and 2. I got into 3 and 4 and I had to chop him off and take his line away from him, he got loose a couple of times. I’m like, it better rain quick because one more lap and he’s going to get me.
"I beat him (Harvick), make no mistake. He's just your friend. That's the guy that when I came into this sport at RCR and went to the first test, he was the guy who was there. I had no clue what the hell I was doing and he helped me get my feet underneath of me."
Bowyer’s crew chief Mike Bugarewicz gave his thought process near the end of Stage 2.
“For the longest time I was thinking we’re going to run pretty far, if not the whole thing in that third segment, and we’re probably going to need four tires at the end of the second stage,” Bugarewicz said. “Then, all of a sudden with four to go, like to the northeast a cell popped up and it didn’t look like a real heavy cell, just looked like a mist. I was thinking probably a lot of these leaders are going to do two just to keep the track position. They’ve got to be seeing it, too.
“So, when we were coming on pit road I was 100 percent sure two tires were the right call. Then, we got about three-quarters away down pit road and I was just about 70 percent sure. Then, we slid in our pit box and I was about fifty percent sure, and by then we were leaving and it was too late and our bed was made. Clint asked, ‘Are we the only one on two?’ I told him, ‘Yes, we’re the only one on two.’ I can’t say enough about the great job that Clint did holding him (Harvick) off there on that restart, just as much as important as making that two tire call for sure.”
Harvick led a race-high 49 laps; Kurt Busch, 46; and Bowyer, eight.
“The 14 (Bowyer) just gambled and rolled the dice that the rain must have been going to come and he was able to keep me on the bottom there just a little bit on the restart," Harvich said. "It was just going to take me a few laps to work back by, but he did a good job hanging on to his car and the gamble paid off for him.
“I can’t control the weather. I’ve been on both sides of this (weather) and if you’re going to have racing luck go against you, you want it to at least stay on your own team. The exciting thing to me is we did a great job on pit road and we were able to maintain the track position and beat everybody off pit road. Obviously, those guys took two tires on a gamble (while Harvick’s team took four) and it rained for them on what, three laps so it paid off pretty good.”
Then with 72 laps remaining, Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s No. 17 Ford hit the wall after getting hit by Kasey Kahne, sending out the yellow with the rain coming down soon after to end the race.
So, yes it ended up being a 1-2-3 Stewart-Haas finish after all. Harvick finished second and was followed by Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch (Toyota) and Paul Menard.
Team Penske drivers Keselowski, Joey Logano and Ryan Blaney finished 6-7-8, also all in Fords. Chase Elliott finished ninth, the top Chevrolet finish, followed by Jamie McMurray, who was also in a Chevrolet.
The Ford Motor Company left proud with seven of its drivers finishing in the top eight.
The story lines were numerous, like could anyone other than The Big Three — Harvick (five wins, Ford), Kyle Busch (four wins, Toyota) and defending series champion Martin Truex Jr. (two wins, Toyota) — reach Victory Lane in the 50th year of the two-mile superspeedway at MIS?
Well, yes … but barely, and Truex finished 18th.
And, could Kyle Larson continue his tremendous success at MIS? He was trying to become the first driver to win four straight races at the track since Bill Elliott accomplished the feat from 1985-86, sweeping both races each year.
No, Larson was running eighth, chasing down Kyle Busch when his left rear tire went down, resulting in him spinning in Turn 4 on Lap 86 and ultimately ending his chance at history. He finished 28th and is still looking for his first win of the season in the new Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 which has just one win this season, the season-opening Daytona 500 won by Austin Dillon.
And, could Chase Elliott — Bill’s 22-year-old son — earn his first Monster Energy series race? He had come so close in three of the previous four races at MIS with runner-up finishes. He placed ninth.
No Michigan born driver have ever won a NASCAR series race and Keselowski is now 0-for-18 during his career. Byron native Erik Jones finished 15th.
Joe Gibbs Racing drivers were sent behind the eight ball with Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Jones all set to the back of the field after failing the inspection on the splitter.
Kyle Busch moved his way up inside the top 10 by lap 40, as did Hamlin, but Jones wasn’t as fortunate, speeding down pit lane and being penalized on his first stop of the day.