Blaney fends off challengers to win at Michigan

Ryan Blaney stands next to the winner's trophy after the NASCAR Cup Series auto race at Michigan International Speedway, Sunday, Aug. 22, 2021, in Brooklyn, Mich. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)
Ryan Blaney stands next to the winner’s trophy after the NASCAR Cup Series auto race at Michigan International Speedway, Sunday, Aug. 22, 2021, in Brooklyn, Mich. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

Ryan Blaney deftly navigated the final eight laps of Sunday’s race at Michigan to get his second win of 2021.

Blaney got the lead on the race’s final restart thanks to a huge push from Kyle Busch. Blaney, who was fourth before the restart, chose the inside line on the restart after the inside had not been the preferred groove all day at the two-mile track. That inside line restarted him on the front row and he stayed out front after Busch pushed him into clean air.

Blaney’s expert driving over the final eight laps showed just how important it is for a driver to be able to use his car’s aerodynamics to block chasing cars. Blaney didn’t have the race’s fastest car. We think. Maybe he just didn’t have the track position. He only led once for those final eight laps.

But when Blaney got out front he kept everyone behind him. Hendrick teammates William Byron and Kyle Larson were in hot pursuit — they seemed faster than Blaney all day — but they never had a legitimate pass attempt over the race’s waning laps.

“Michigan is a matter of pretty much running wide open and trying to play the air game,” Blaney said after climbing from his car. “I hate you have to race that way. That’s how you have to run. Worked out for us.”

Blaney’s win is the seventh consecutive win for Ford at Michigan.

Harvick clinches a playoff berth

Kevin Harvick was the most dominant driver for Ford in recent years at Michigan. Harvick had won the last three Michigan races and four of the last five at the track. 

Harvick was not a factor at all on Sunday. He finished 14th. But he clinched a playoff spot with the result and is the 15th driver guaranteed into the 16 driver field. 

Harvick’s inclusion means there’s one spot left. And Tyler Reddick has the advantage for that spot on points — assuming there’s not a new winner on Saturday at Daytona. Reddick is 25 points ahead of teammate Austin Dillon. They both had bad days at Michigan.

Austin Dillon crashes out at the end of stage 2

Dillon was running well throughout the first two stages of the race. He had a car capable of a top-five finish and, maybe, could have contended for a race win.

That all disappeared at the end of the second stage. Dillon was racing Brad Keselowski for sixth and dove to the apron to make sure he got the position. Keselowski went down toward the apron with Dillon to try to side draft him as they got to the end of the stage.

All good, right? Nope. Just after they crossed the start/finish line, Dillon thought he was clear of Keselowski and moved up the track. He was not. Keselowski hadn’t moved up and Dillon’s car went careening into the wall head-on.

“I was just trying to get as many stage points as I could get right there and did a good job of side-drafting and came down to the apron and I’ve seen just one quick replay, but it was after the start/finish line,” Dillon said after exiting the infield care center. “I was starting to come up off the apron because it’s so rough down there. But I figured by that point, he would have given me a little room. I hate it.”

It’s understandable why Dillon thought Keselowski wouldn’t be near his car. But it’s also understandable why Keselowski wouldn’t have backed off. They had barely crossed the line when the wreck happened and the caution for the end of the stage doesn’t fly until the top 10 has crossed the line. Keselowski would have been incorrect to slam the brakes.

Should he have moved up and given up the spot to Dillon before the line? Maybe. Should Dillon have throttled down or looked in the mirror? Maybe. This is very clearly “one of them racing deals” and it could have massive implications for Dillon’s playoff hopes.

Dillon is thankful that Reddick had his own issues. Reddick was involved in a restart crash in the final stage and then spun on his own. The two teammates finished just seven spots apart. 

What’s at stake in Daytona

The scenario entering the final race of the regular season is pretty simple. If a winless full-time driver not named Denny Hamlin or Kevin Harvick wins on Saturday night, he earns his way into the playoffs. If Hamlin or Harvick or a driver already with a win gets the checkered flag, then Reddick or Dillon — whoever is higher in the points standings — is the final driver in the playoff field. 

The drivers who have clinched spots in the playoff field are denoted below in the race results. 

Race results

1. Ryan Blaney (Clinched playoff berth)

2. William Byron (Clinched playoff berth)

3. Kyle Larson (Clinched playoff berth)

4. Kurt Busch (Clinched playoff berth)

5. Denny Hamlin (Clinched playoff berth)

6. Matt DiBenedetto

7. Kyle Busch (Clinched playoff berth)

8. Chase Elliott (Clinched playoff berth)

9. Brad Keselowski (Clinched playoff berth)

10. Martin Truex Jr. (Clinched playoff berth)

11. Chase Briscoe

12. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

13. Christopher Bell (Clinched playoff berth)

14. Kevin Harvick (Clinched playoff berth)

15. Chris Buescher

16. Alex Bowman (Clinched playoff berth)

17. Aric Almirola (Clinched playoff berth)

18. Erik Jones

19. Bubba Wallace

20. Michael McDowell (Clinched playoff berth)

21. Ryan Preece

22. Daniel Suarez

23. Cole Custer

24. Ryan Newman

25. Justin Haley

26. Josh Berry

27. Cody Ware

28. BJ McLeod

29. Tyler Reddick

30. Quin Houff

31. Josh Bilicki

32. Garrett Smithley

33. Joey Logano (Clinched playoff berth)

34. Anthony Alfredo

35. Ross Chastain

36. Austin Dillon

37. Joey Gase

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