Michigan International Speedway has been a favorite of Kyle Larson in recent years. The driver of the #42 entered Sunday’s Pure Michigan 400 with aspirations of winning his third consecutive race at the two-mile oval. Despite domination by Martin Truex Jr., Larson was able to steal the victory on a dramatic restart in overtime.
In a Team Penske sweep of the front row, Brad Keselowski started on the pole alongside Joey Logano. Kevin Harvick quickly took 2nd from Logano, but Keselowski maintained his position.
On lap 40, the first cycle of green flag stops began when Chase Elliott went to pit road. Others like Logano, Aric Almirola and Ryan Blaney followed, with Keselowski pitting four laps later, giving Erik Jones the lead. Jones and 2nd-placed Kyle Busch pitted on lap 46, cycling Keselowski back into 1st.
Keselowski went on to win the stage, with Harvick, Elliott, Truex, Jones, Logano, Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch, Larson and Denny Hamlin in tow. Between stages, Jones was the lone driver to pit for strictly fuel, while Daniel Suárez stayed out and became the leader. Keselowski won the race off pit road to restart 2nd alongside Suárez for the Stage #2 start on lap 65, though the 2012 champion quickly passed the reigning Xfinity champ for the lead.
Lap 89 saw Dale Earnhardt Jr. pit for a vibration, with Suárez also hitting pit road three laps later. Green flag stops for the rest of the field formally began on lap 105, with Truex and Jimmie Johnson leading the way. Jones, Blaney, Harvick and Kenseth followed on lap 108, though Kenseth was caught speeding on pit road, forcing him to take a pass-through penalty. Keselowski would pit on lap 109, enabling Busch to lead three laps before he also pitted.
Truex inherited 1st and went on to win yet another stage, his 15th of the year. Behind him were Keselowski, Harvick, Jones, Suárez, Blaney, Jamie McMurray, Larson, Busch and Hamlin. Suárez, Hamlin and Clint Bowyer pitted before the start of Stage #3 on lap 127.
Although Keselowski led early in the stage, Truex reclaimed the position shortly after. On lap 140, Kasey Kahne was racing Suárez as they exited turn two; as Kahne checked up the track, he was clipped by Suárez and hit the wall, going airborne slightly before landing in front of the #19. The wreck brought out a caution in which Keselowski, Johnson, Busch and others pitted.
Truex led the field to the restart on lap 147. More green flag stops commenced on lap 158, with Logano leading the group of pitting cars. Truex pitted on lap 161, which resulted in Jones leading a lap until he pitted and Hamlin became the leader. Johnson and Blaney only added fuel to their cars during their stops.
With 25 laps remaining in the race, Hamlin led a top ten who had yet to pit: Busch, Larson, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Almirola, Earnhardt Jr., Ryan Newman, Trevor Bayne and Chris Buescher. Hamlin pitted on lap 178.
As the laps continued to wind down, Larson, A.J. Allmendinger and Michael McDowell began reporting signs of debris, with Earnhardt also running over chunks on the backstretch. NASCAR eventually put out the caution on lap 186. The top four cars (Truex, Jones, Kenseth and Elliott) stayed out, while Bayne led the pitting cars to restart 5th. The restart took place with nine to go, though another yellow flag was waved with five laps remaining when McDowell and Paul Menard made contact on the backstretch, spinning the former.
Track workers poured speedy dry on the track to facilitate cleanup, which led to a red flag lasting five minutes and 32 seconds. When race conditions resumed to yellow, drivers like Danica Patrick commented on the difficulty of seeing through the cloud of speedy dry.
Now in overtime, the race was the first under a modified rule: in prior overtime races, an overtime line located nearly halfway through the track would determine whether a race was official (if a wreck occurred before the leader crossed it, another attempt at overtime would take place). After the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis in late July ended under controversial circumstances (an accident was occurring before race winner Kahne crossed the line, yet NASCAR waited until he passed it to summon the caution), NASCAR announced the overtime line would be moved to the start/finish line effective immediately, starting with last Sunday’s race at Watkins Glen.
On the restart, Larson quickly made his move, forcing Truex, Jones and Kenseth to go four-wide as they entered turn one. Larson passed the three Toyotas and pulled away for his third consecutive win at Michigan, third win of the 2017 season and fourth in his Cup career. Truex finished 2nd, followed by Jones, Newman, Bayne, Buescher, Austin Dillon, Elliott, McMurray and Kyle Busch.
“I was running a few options through my head and what to do if I got a good jump,” Larson stated, describing his move on the overtime restart. “That was one of them. It worked out perfect, so I can’t believe that it happened. We were struggling all day, definitely not as good as the last time we won here, but we persevered and we had some good restarts.”
The night before the race, Chip Ganassi allowed Larson to compete in the Knoxville Nationals sprint car race in Iowa, where he finished 2nd to Donny Schatz.
“Chip is the best boss anyone could ask for,” Larson said. “He knows how much sprint car racing means to me.”
The victory ended a frustrating three-race stretch for Larson, during which he finished outside the top 20 in every occasion and fell to 3rd in the points standings. With the win, he retook 2nd in the championship from Kyle Busch and currently sits 129 points behind Truex.
Next Saturday, the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series travels to the Last Great Colosseum – Bristol Motor Speedway – for the Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race. Harvick is the defending winner.
Featured image by @CGRnascar