Brooklyn, Mich. — The young guns on NASCAR's Monster Energy Cup series are starting to make some noise this summer, occasionally spoiling the party for veterans Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and defending series champion Martin Truex Jr.
Michigan native Erik Jones won at Daytona for his first career win in early July and Chase Elliott earned his first career win at Watkins Glen last Sunday in his 99th start.
Jones and Elliott are both 22 and will try to continue their momentum this weekend at Michigan International Speedway’s two-mile superspeedway, which is known as NASCAR’s fastest track.
So, who will win Sunday’s Consumers Energy 400? Harvick and Busch have each won a series-high six races and Truex owns four wins this season. Kyle Larson won his first career race at MIS in the August race in 2016 at age 24, then swept the two races at the track last season.
Clint Bowyer — Harvick’s Stewart-Haas teammate — ended his 190-race winless streak at Martinsville this winter in his No. 14 Ford, then won at MIS in June to become the fourth multi-win driver this season.
Qualifying for Sunday’s Consumers Energy 400 took place Friday with 37-year-old Denny Hamlin winning the pole with a speed of 202.794 mph in his No. 11 FedEx Office Toyota, slipping past Busch (202.731), his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, with Harvick third-fastest (202.100) in his No. 4 Busch Light/Mobile 1 Ford, followed by Jones in his No. 20 Toyota for JGR.
“We're working hard and every team works hard, but I especially have worked harder in the last two months for sure than I've ever had to before to figure out what we need to do to be better and be faster and get better finishes," said Hamlin, who won his second straight pole but is still in search of his first win of the season. He sits 12th in points, 189 ahead of Ricky Stenhouse Jr. for the 16th and final spot in the playoff chase.
"I'm very optimistic about this week," he said. "This is a race track that we have had success at before and never qualified on the pole here before, but we have a car that's been driving good all day and if we can duplicate that and have it driving the same in race trim, it should be a great day for us (Sunday)."
Hamlin has been one of the most consistent drivers in the series over the past decade, winning at least one race in all 12 seasons he has competed for Gibbs, and is still trying to keep that streak alive. He won at MIS in 2010 and 2011.
“It is a very important streak," Hamlin said. "I think about it and I thought it was all over in 2013, the year that I broke my back and we won in the final race of the season to keep the streak alive. You look back at the really great drivers of NASCAR and they all had long streaks — 10 years and above of winning in a row and you just want that to go on for sure. It's important."
Harvick, Busch and Truex are the face of the Cup series, but Jones, Elliott and Larson have to be the next drivers to climb the ladder with the retirement of such stars as Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the past few years.
Elliott is the son of legendary NASCAR driver Bill Elliott, who won at MIS seven times. Chase replaced Jeff Gordon and competed in the No. 24 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports for his first two years in the series before getting behind the wheel of the No. 9 made famous by his father during the ‘80s and early ‘90s.
Elliott had eight runner-up finishes, including second-place spots at MIS in both races in 2016 and again in the June race last season. He placed ninth in the new Chevy Camaro ZL1 for Hendrick two months ago at MIS, then went on to put together three straight strong runs in the events heading into this weekend, including a fifth at New Hampshire, seventh at Pocono and the win on the road course at Watkins Glen.
Elliott is thrilled to finally get that first win to take away some pressure, especially since it assured him a playoff spot for the final 10 races of the season.
“Obviously, I would have loved to reverse a few of those finishes over the past couple of years, but really it makes you appreciate them a heck of a lot more,” said Elliott, who qualified 21st Friday. “I know I appreciated this past weekend more because of my past couple of seasons, more than I would have if we had come here and won this race in 2016 and that is just the facts whether you want to believe them or not. Not to say that I wouldn’t have loved to have won that race in ’16 or won a race in ’16 or ’17, but they make you appreciate it more because they are not easy to get.
“As you move forward they don’t get any easier. I definitely feel a lot of relief to have finally won a race after being so close so many times. I certainly feel like I have some more confidence that I haven’t had leading into a race weekend, which is nice, but that doesn’t mean things are going to get any easier.
“I’m excited to see where we go moving forward, whether it gets better or worse I don’t know, but I feel good about it and that is all that matters.”
Elliott should be interested to see how well his team performs in the weeks ahead since teams competing in the new Chevy have just two wins, the first by Austin Dillon in the season-opening Daytona 500.
So, how much of a struggle has it been for Chevy drivers? Well, seven-time series champion Jimmie Johnson — Elliott’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate — is sitting 15th in points and still sweating out one of the final playoff spots, especially since drivers with a win are locked in and there are four more races before the cutout, the start of the playoffs which begin Sept. 16 in Las Vegas.
Johnson has just two top-five finishes in 22 races this season and will start Sunday’s race from the 19th spot. Hendrick Motorsports driver Alex Bowman owns the 16th spot with two top-fives, sitting 62 points ahead of Stenhouse. William Byron, the fourth Hendrick driver, is 21st in the standings.
Rochester Hills native Brad Keselowski, who owns a win, will start 18th.
Busy weekend for Larson
Larson expects to have a busy weekend. He qualified 17th and plans to attend practice Saturday morning, then travel for Knoxville in the early afternoon for Saturday night’s Knoxville (Iowa) Nationals Sprint Cars on dirt, the Super Bowl of dirt racing.
Larson competed in the Knoxville Nationals last August, then returned to win at MIS the following day.
Larson actually began his busy week Monday, following his sixth-place showing at Watkins Glen.
“Iowa has been good,” Larson said, adding: “We were able to win Monday night at Oskaloosa and then had a really good prelim night Wednesday (in Knoxville). We will start third tomorrow. Brad Sweet and Donny Schatz will be the two guys to beat, but I feel we are close.”
On Wednesday at Knoxville, Larson finished third in the A Main, then qualified third on Thursday for Saturday night’s final. He finished second in the Knoxville Nationals last year to Schatz.
Larson, who finished 28th in the June race at MIS, has yet to win this season, but owns runner-up finishes at California, Pocono and Chicago in his No. 42 Chevy Camaro. He has a strong shot to make the playoffs on points, sitting 11th for the playoff chase’s 16 spots, owning a 199-point lead over Stenhouse.
Consumers Energy 400
When: 2:30 Sunday
Where: Michigan International Speedway, Brooklyn, Mich.
Support race: Trucks, Corrigan Oil 200, 1 p.m. Saturday