Sunday’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race took place at Michigan International Speedway with the FireKeepers Casino 400. Two days before the race, the stock car-themed film Cars 3 was released in theaters. To promote the movie, pole-sitter Kyle Larson drove a Lightning McQueen scheme; on Sunday, Lightning Larson led a race-high 96 of 200 laps to win his third career Cup race and second at Michigan.
Sunday’s race also marked the celebration of Father’s Day. While 36 of the 37 drivers focused on the race, Trevor Bayne’s attention was also on being a father himself, as his wife was expecting their second child over the weekend. Ryan Reed, Roush Fenway Racing’s Xfinity Series driver, was tabbed on standby to take over the #6 if necessary, though Bayne was able to run the entire race.
Larson started on the front row alongside Martin Truex Jr. At the back of the field, five drivers were ordered to start there: Jimmie Johnson (qualified 13th) spun during a practice session on Monday, damaging his car’s nose; Daniel Suárez (qualified 20th) was forced to change his tire; Ty Dillon (qualified 24th) was penalized for an unapproved body modification during qualifying; A.J. Allmendinger (qualified 25th) hit the wall with less than 15 seconds remaining in Saturday’s practice, forcing him to go to a backup car; Landon Cassill (no time set) hit the wall during pre-qualifying practice. During pace laps before the green flag, Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch joined the five at the rear, also for unapproved body modifications.
The #42 of Larson led the early portion of the race. On lap seven, the first caution came out for debris when a black garbage bag was spotted on the frontstretch. This prompted NASCAR to move the competition caution – originally scheduled for lap 20 – to be moved to lap 25. The green flag waved on lap 11 and lasted until the aforementioned caution; the next restart took place four laps later. Larson remained the leader until lap 34, when Truex passed him for 1st. Truex went on to win the stage, followed by Larson, Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Matt Kenseth, Clint Bowyer, Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott, Joey Logano and Johnson.
Stage #2 started on lap 68 as Truex continued to lead. Kenseth passed Larson for 2nd and began to close in on the #78 Toyota as the stage neared its finish, but the leaders eventually started to pit with ten laps to go. Kyle Busch took the lead when Larson pitted, though Brad Keselowski became the leader two laps later when Busch also went to pit road. As the stops continued to cycle, Larson ended up in front with six laps remaining, battling with Truex for 1st. Truex cleared Larson with five laps left to win the stage and Busch also passed Larson on the last lap for the runner-up position. Behind the three were Kenseth, Bowyer, Harvick, Hamlin, Kurt Busch, Elliott and Keselowski.
The final stage commenced on lap 128 and Truex still led. 22 laps later, Ryan Sieg spun exiting turn four and ended in the grass to bring out the caution. Kyle Busch and Erik Jones won the race off pit road to occupy the top-2 positions for the restart on lap 155. Busch started on the outside line along with Larson and Elliott, while Jones and Truex were on the inside; the former proved to be stronger on the restart as Busch, Larson and Elliott pulled away, while Jones and Truex fell.
A debris caution came on lap 179 and the leaders stayed out, placing Busch and Larson on the front row for the restart with 15 laps to go. A good restart by Larson allowed him to take the lead, but the green flag was short-lived as Bowyer hit the wall in turn two one lap later. Over the radio, Busch remarked, “Thanks NASCAR.”
The next restart took place with ten laps remaining in the race and Larson and Elliott starting 1–2. As the two pulled away, Ryan Blaney gave Larson a push to the front, but would get loose and slid up the course into Harvick. The contact forced Suárez to slow down as he entered turn one. Exiting turn two, Suárez attempted to pull down the track, but was clipped by Darrell Wallace Jr. and hit Danica Patrick, sending her into the wall. This brought out the eighth and final caution of the race.
Larson paced the field to the final restart with five laps to go. Elliott was unable to catch up to Larson, who pulled away to score his second win of the season, second of his Cup career at Michigan and third overall. Logano, Hamlin and Jamie McMurray rounded out the top-5, followed by Truex, Kyle Busch, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Johnson. After her wreck on lap 192, Patrick is the lone driver to not finish the race.
With the win, Larson passed Truex for the points lead. After surrendering the position following a 33rd-place finish at May’s Coca-Cola 600, Larson now holds a five-point advantage over Truex.
“Ryan Blaney gave me a heck of a push, so I really gotta thank him a ton,” Larson stated in Victory Lane. “I knew the Penske cars took off good so I was happy to see him behind me. For us to withstand a few restarts, there were some tough competitors, it was pretty important.”
Next week marks the first road course race of the 2017 season as the Cup Series travels to Larson’s home track, Sonoma Raceway, for the Toyota/Save Mart 350. Tony Stewart, who retired after the 2016 season, is the defending race winner.
Race results (courtesy of Racing-Reference)
Featured image courtesy of Getty Images