What matters at Michigan: With clean air comes control of the race


What matters in today’s NASCAR Cup Series race and how important is clean air? Let’s dive into the analytics and trends shaping the FireKeepers Casino 400 (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

Michigan’s clean air is an advantage, but a lack of falloff on worn tires keeps leaders honest

Kevin Harvick, bestowed the fastest car for both legs of a doubleheader, swept the weekend last year in Michigan. And hats off — it’s a good advantage to have, and perfect if you can replicate it.

But the problem with Harvick’s path is that of the 37 teams in today’s race, 36 won’t have the fastest car. An alternative pathway to victory is a must for the majority of the field; however, there’s one trail already forged.

It took one race for the combination of Michigan’s negligible lap-time falloff on worn tires and NASCAR’s 550-horsepower package to be capitalized upon, as Joey Logano sailed to a 2019 win in what was the fourth-fastest car in the race. Dominant by virtue of leading 80% of the contest, he utilized the longer spoiler to aero-block a pack of faster cars according to timing and scoring data, one of which belonged to Martin Truex Jr. This showcased the important advantage offered to the car with the most clean air.

“I don’t know if we could have done anything with (Logano),” Truex said after the race. “We were going to need one heck of a push from behind — a shove down the straightaway. I could get a little bit of a run but never enough to get next to him and surely not enough to get next to him and clear him getting in the corner.”

To the car with clean air goes control of the race, but retaining that control could prove difficult. The degradation in lap times across runs, if there’s any at all, allows for sizable leapfrogging via pit strategy, under both yellow and green-flag conditions. Both races in 2020 lacked green-flag pit cycles, an aid to Harvick’s victories in which vulnerable moments were removed due to the placement of caution flags. Had they occurred, his lead position would’ve firmly been in the crosshairs of those deploying calculated risks with the timing of their stops.

Still, Harvick was dealt a few other challenges, namely the debut of the choose rule on a track where the natural restart slotting wasn’t equal for all competitors. As the lead car for the majority of the weekend, he made good use of his chosen launching spots, retaining position on nine of 12 attempts, netting six positions in the process.

His performance gives credence to a focus on short and intermediate runs to establish track position which might sustain for the duration of a fuel run, unaffected laps on worn tires willing. Harvick ranked first in short-run speed in the Sunday portion of last year’s doubleheader while ranking seventh in long-run speed. It was a scenario in which track position — and the clean air it provided — masked a measurable disparity.

The restart dynamic is a deceptive curveball for competitors

Restarts on the 2-mile track look simple enough, but what’s visible is misleading. The outside groove is the strongest of the two restart lines by a hefty margin — with a difference in retention of 56 percentage points across its last four races — but that’s a common challenge in the double-file era, good enough for the existence of the choose rule.

But when you consider, a driver should prefer to start sixth rather than fourth and 12th as opposed to seventh, that’s when things appear to get a little strange. It’s a track that begs for drivers to pick their own launching spots:

Cars restarting fourth typically act as pushers for the lead car, and that’s a coupling that can drift down to the bottom groove. Those directly behind them in sixth tend to stand pat in an outside line that reliably chugs through the corners. In the last four races, sixth has averaged a better running position after two laps, 3.72 compared to fourth place’s 3.76.

Overall, the inside groove offers little daylight for its occupants, a mistake in the making for the first few front-runners. How drivers and teams game the choose zone today will impact everything that follows, to the extent that the winner will surely have been a studied chooser.

Fastest car or not, another brilliant Larson performance is in the cards

Harvick isn’t the only Michigan dominator returning to his most successful racetrack. Kyle Larson, a three-time winner at MIS when driving for Chip Ganassi Racing, will get a fair crack at winning in his first start there for Hendrick Motorsports.

That’s an evaluation that isn’t totally dependent on having the fastest car. While his 18th-place showing last month in Atlanta gave fuel to a rumor that NASCAR asked Hendrick Motorsports to make changes to the nose of its cars, it wasn’t as if Larson was slow on the 1.54-mile track, the most recently visited 550-horsepower facility.

He ranked fourth in median lap time, losing ground to winner Kurt Busch (who also had the second-fastest car in the spring race at Atlanta) and Kyle Busch, the top-ranked producer on 550-horsepower tracks with the third-fastest car on the track type across the whole of the season.

Of course, Larson would make good use of the fastest car, but speed on par with what he had in Atlanta should prove fast enough to claim clean air and keep it, based on what we’ve seen from his team’s improved performance on pit cycles.

None of Larson’s three Michigan wins came in the present-day 550-horsepower package, but he’s proved an able passer all season long on tracks utilizing the low horsepower/high downforce rules set — he ranks second in surplus passing value — and his 69.57% retention rate on restarts ranks as the fourth-best mark.

COTA Truck race results: Zane Smith wins

NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series XPEL 225
Photo by Logan Riely/Getty Images

Reigning series champion Zane Smith won Saturday’s Craftsman Truck Series race at Circuit of the Americas for the second year in a row.

The victory is Smith’s second of this year.

MORE: COTA Truck race results

MORE: Truck points after COTA

Kyle Busch finished second and was followed by Ty Majeski, Tyler Ankrum and Ross Chastain.

The key moment came when Parker Kligerman‘s truck came to a stop on the frontstretch at Lap 28. Smith, running second, made it to pit road before it was closed. Busch, who was leading, had already passed pit road entrance.

Smith gained the lead with the move, while Busch had to pit under the caution and restarted 16th. Smith was able to build a lead and beat Busch by 5.4 seconds.

Stage 1 winner: Christian Eckes

Stage 2 winner: Kyle Busch

Who had a good race: Ty Majeski’s third-place finish is his best of the season. … Tyler Ankrum’s fourth-place finish is his best of the year. … Corey Heim has finished sixth two races in a row. … Rookie Nick Sanchez finished seventh, giving him back-to-back top 10s.

Who had a bad race: Parker Kligerman was running third when electrical issues forced him to stop on track just after the end of the second stage. … After winning the first stage, Christian Eckes had mechanical issues and had to pit for repairs, costing him several laps.

Notable: Front Row Motorsports has won the Truck COTA race all three years. Todd Gilliland won the race in 2021 and Zane Smith has won it the past two years.

Next: The series races April 1 at Texas Motor Speedway (4:30 p.m. ET on FS1).

NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series XPEL 225
COTA winner Zane Smith’s truck catches fire after he did his burnout on the frontstretch. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

COTA Cup starting lineup


Hendrick Motorsports driver William Byron, who has won two of the first five races of the season, will lead the Cup field to the green flag Sunday at Circuit of the Americas.

Byron will be joined on the front row of the starting lineup by Tyler Reddick, the only driver to win multiple races at road courses last year.

MORE: COTA Cup starting lineup

Austin Cindric starts third and is joined in the second row by Jordan Taylor, who is filling in for the injured Chase Elliott in the No. 9 Hendrick car.

Taylor’s performance is the best qualifying effort by a driver making their Cup debut since Boris Said started second in his Cup debut at Watkins Glen in 1999.

William Byron wins Cup pole at COTA


William Byron will start on the pole for Sunday’s Cup race at Circuit of the Americas.

Byron won the pole with a lap of 93.882 mph around the 3.41-mile road course Saturday. He becomes the first Cup driver to win a pole at four different road courses: Charlotte Roval (2019), Road America (2021), Indianapolis road course (2021) and COTA (2023).

MORE: COTA Cup starting lineup

Byron will be joined on the front row by Tyler Reddick, who had posted the fastest lap in Friday’s practice and fastest lap in the opening round of qualifying Saturday. Reddick qualified at 93.783 mph.

Austin Cindric (93.459 mph) qualified third. Former IMSA champion Jordan Taylor, substituting for an injured Chase Elliott in the No. 9 car for Hendrick Motorsports, qualified fourth with a lap of 93.174 mph. AJ Allmendinger (93.067) will start fifth.

Taylor’s performance is the best qualifying effort by a driver making their Cup debut since Boris Said started second in his Cup debut at Watkins Glen in 1999.

Ross Chastain, who won this event a year ago, qualified 12th. Former world champion Kimi Raikkonen qualified 22nd, former world champion Jenson Button qualified 24th, seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson qualified 31st and IndyCar driver Conor Daly qualified 35th.

Sunday Cup race at Circuit of the Americas: Start time, TV info, weather


Is this Toyota’s weekend?

Chevrolet won the first four races of the season. Ford won last weekend with Joey Logano at Atlanta. Is it Toyota’s turn to win its first Cup race of the season? Or does Chevrolet return to dominance?

Chevrolet drivers have won 11 of the past 12 Cup races on road courses. The exception was Christopher Bell‘s win for Toyota at the Charlotte Roval in last year’s playoffs. Chevrolets have won the two previous Cup races at COTA: Chase Elliott in 2021 and Ross Chastain in 2022.

Details for Sunday’s Cup race at Circuit of the Americas

(All times Eastern)

START: Brendan Hunt, who plays Coach Beard in “Ted Lasso” on Apple TV+, will give the command to start engines at 3:38 p.m. … The green flag is scheduled to wave at 3:49 p.m.

PRERACE: Cup garage opens at 12:30 p.m. … Drivers meeting at 2:45 p.m. … Driver introductions at 3:05 p.m. … Invocation will be given by Sage Steele, ESPN broadcaster, at 3:30 p.m. … Jaime Camil, actor from “Schmigadoon” on Apple TV+, will perform the national anthem at 3:31 p.m.

DISTANCE: The race is 68 laps (231.88 miles) on the 3.41-mile, 20-turn road course.

STAGES: Stage 1 ends at Lap 15. Stage 2 ends at Lap 30.

TV/RADIO: Fox will broadcast the race at 3:30 p.m. Pre-race coverage begins at 2 p.m. on FS1 and moves to Fox at 3 p.m. … Performance Racing Network’s radio coverage begins at 2:30 p.m. and will also stream at goprn.com; SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry the PRN broadcast.


FORECAST: Weather Underground – Mostly cloudy with a high of 80 degrees and a 2% chance of rain at the start of the race.

STARTING LINEUP: COTA Cup starting lineup

LAST YEAR: Ross Chastain scored his first career Cup win in a physical battle with AJ Allmendinger on the final lap. Alex Bowman finished second. Christopher Bell placed third.


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