Ryan Blaney gets push, hangs on to win FireKeepers Casino 400 at MIS

David Goricki
The Detroit News

Brooklyn, Mich. — William Byron talked about how he wanted the outside lane on the final restarts prior to Sunday’s running of the FireKeepers Casino 400 at Michigan International Speedway, predicting those restarts would be "crazy."

Byron was in the position he wanted, leading the race with eight laps remaining and holding that desired outside position on the restart.

Ryan Blaney stands next to the winner's trophy after his victory Sunday in the FireKeepers Casino 400 at Michigan International Speedway.

But, this time around Kyle Busch pushed Ryan Blaney, who was heading the pack from the inside spot, past Byron and into the lead.

And, Blaney led the rest of the way on the eight-lap shootout to win the race for car owner Roger Penske while giving Ford its seventh straight win on the two-mile superspeedway.

It was definitely an upset win for Blaney, who led for just eight laps and was running 11th after Stage 1 (60 laps) and 12th after Stage 2 (120 laps).

It looked to be Hendrick Motorsports’ day with NASCAR Cup defending series champion Chase Elliott (68) and his Hendrick Motorsports teammates Kyle Larson (71) and Byron (18) combining to lead 157 of the first 192 laps in Chevrolets before Blaney stole the show in the eight-lap restart in his No. 12 Ford.

Byron had the lead heading into the final restart and had the desired outside lane with Denny Hamlin pushing him, but Kyle Busch gave Blaney the push of the race from the inside, which sent Blaney’s No. 12 Ford ahead of Byron and well on the way to the win.

“I got a great push by the 18 on the restart and was able to get clear there,” said the 27-year-old Blaney, who earned his sixth career win and second of the season. “Michigan is a matter of pretty much running wide open and then I was playing defense, especially with Larson and William kind of laying back and trying to make runs.

“I’m proud of everybody on the 12 team. We weren’t great to start the day off, but kept working and working and got a lot better. It’s nice to be in Victory Lane here at Michigan. It’s huge for Ford and Mr. Penske.”

Sure, there was great racing the rest of the way with Larson, who has a series-high five wins, and Byron having multiple shots at taking the lead away from Blaney, only to come up short.

Byron finished second, 0.077 behind Blaney, followed by Larson, Kurt Busch and Hamlin.

“I just needed the 11 to stay with us and he tried to shuck us into 1 and I had to stay with him to not sacrifice my right rear so I gave up the lead trying to protect the top and just didn’t have the loyalty there to push me to the lead,” Byron said of Hamlin’s No. 11 FedEx Express Toyota. “You can only block so many lanes, so I tried to block the top and it cost myself first.”

Caution came out with 19 laps remaining due to rain, and when action resumed with 14 to go Byron took the lead on the restart with Kurt Busch second, followed by Blaney and Larson.

More than a half dozen cars were involved in an accident on that restart, including Joey Logano, Martin Truex and Christopher Bell.

The final restart took place with Kyle Busch shoving Blaney into the lead and ultimately getting the victory for crew chief Todd Gordon who announced he will be retiring following the season.

The 2021 Cup season has been owned by Hendrick Motorsports with Larson (five), Alex Bowman (three), Chase Elliott (two) and Byron (one) combining to win 11 of the first 24 races prior to Sunday.

Elliott, the 2020 Cup series champion, and Larson, who Hendrick put behind the wheel of the No. 5 Chevrolet prior to the season, had run up front for the majority of the day. Elliott finished eighth.

“That last restart worked out a little better than I thought it was going to be for me, but the 11 (Hamlin) kind of tried to stick the 24 (Byron) three-wide and they got loose and I got in the middle and was third there,” Larson said. “I was able to get to second, just made a couple of bad moves I guess. Honestly, I was a little too patient behind the 12 (Blaney) and could have made some later dives inside. Once I was third, I was just kind of hoping that they would get racing and get side-drafted. I was never close enough to William to help generate a run on 12.”

Kevin Harvick was attempting to make history by winning his fourth straight race at MIS, trying to match Bill Elliott’s mark of four straight wins — season sweeps in 1985 and ’86 — but Harvick couldn’t get it done.

And, Harvick was looking for his first win of the season or at least a good result to clinch one of the 16 spots for the 10-race playoffs which begins Sept. 5 at Darlington. The regular season concludes with Saturday night’s race at Daytona.

Fourteen spots had been locked up with Hendrick Motorsports drivers Larson, Elliott, Alex Bowman and Byron each owning one or more wins, along with Joe Gibbs Racing drivers Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr. and Bell, Team Penske drivers Logano, Rochester Hills native Brad Keselowski and Blaney, Chip Ganassi driver Kurt Busch, Stewart-Haas driver Aric Almirola and Michael McDowell, the surprise winner of the Daytona 500 for Front Row Motorsports.

Harvick (nine) and Denny Hamlin of JGR (seven) combined for 16 wins last season with both still in search of their first victory this year. Hamlin was the lone driver without a win locked into the playoffs due to his 12 top-five finishes this season. Harvick joined Hamlin, claiming the 15th spot with his 14-place finish Sunday.

Austin Dillon now trails Tyler Reddick by 28 points for the final playoff spot.

Dillon, competing in the No. 3 Chevrolet for his grandfather Richard Childress, finished third behind Elliott and Larson after the first stage (60 laps), then looked to finish sixth after the second stage (120 laps) when he was sent into the wall by Keselowski as they just crossed the finish line with Keselowski’s No. 2 Ford going low and hitting Dillon’s No. 3 right rear as he was under the white line.

“I’m thankful that the good Lord kept me safe today, that was a heck of a wreck, but I feel fine,” Dillon said after getting out of his car, which had started to go airborne before slamming down without going upside down.

“I hate it for my guys who built a rocket ship and they really wanted this one and I did too. We were working our tails off right there and I think we would have had a shot to do something there at the end with that race car. It’s the best race car we brought to the track at RCR this year.

“I don’t know why it happened really. I thought I had a little room to come up and he just held me down a little bit too long. The guys worked so hard. It was so fast I was having a blast out there racing like that. It’s fun to be able to do that.”

Things got interesting from the get-go when JGR teammates Truex and Kyle Busch made contact with Busch’s right front hitting Truex’s left rear sending them both to the back of the field.

Busch spent some time in the pits with his crew taping up the right front of his No. 18 Interstate Batteries Toyota, allowing him to make the big push for the winning move by Blaney.

Keselowski is now 0-for-24 at MIS, finishing ninth.