In the penultimate race before the NASCAR Playoffs, the intensity of the closing laps at Michigan International Speedway was befitting of the stakes at hand for those drivers hoping to race for a championship. And the end result was one of the most thrilling races in recent memory at Michigan, and a tone-setter for the week to come.
After making his way to the front by virtue of the choose zone prior to the final restart, Ryan Blaney was able to take the lead from William Byron and then outlast him over the final seven laps, holding him off at the finish line to win the FireKeepers Casino 400 at Michigan. Blaney's victory is his second of the season, and his first since Atlanta in March.
Blaney beat Byron to the start/finish line by .077, the closest finish at Michigan since the introduction of electronic timing & scoring in NASCAR in 1993. The margin of victory for Blaney bests the margin of victory in June of 2001, when Jeff Gordon held off Ricky Rudd for the win by .085.
Unofficial Top 10:
1. #12 - Ryan Blaney
2. #24 - William Byron
3. #5 - Kyle Larson
4. #1 - Kurt Busch
5. #11 - Denny Hamlin
6. #21 - Matt DiBenedetto
7. #18 - Kyle Busch
8. #9 - Chase Elliott
9. #2 - Brad Keselowski
10. #19 - Martin Truex Jr.
Blaney's chance came on the final restart, when William Byron and Denny Hamlin washed up high from the outside lane, allowing the third-generation racer from Ohio to get the lead with a shove from Kyle Busch, and then go to work in keeping it.
"Michigan's a matter of pretty much running wide open, and just trying to play the air game -- I hate you have to race that way, but that's how you have to run and it worked out for us," Blaney told NBC Sports. "I'm proud of everybody on the No. 12 team. We weren't great to start the day off, but kept working and working and got a lot better.
"... We just worked on it a lot. (Crew chief Todd Gordon), we had our problems early, and we took a lot of time to try to fix it. And we got better and better and just picked a good lane on the restart there and was able to get the push we needed.
"Really it was the push. I mean, the No. 18 pushing me, that was the whole thing. So I appreciate Kyle for pushing me through there and we were able to hold them off."
With one race left before the NASCAR playoffs, there is now only one spot remaining in the 16-team field. By virtue of his finish today, Kevin Harvick was able to secure a playoff spot on points, leading only one spot up for grabs at Daytona International Speedway next Saturday night.
Sunday looked as though it may be a banner day for Austin Dillon, as he raced for the lead and earned considerable stage points to allow him to close in on Richard Childress Racing teammate Tyler Reddick for the final playoff spot. But after finishing sixth in Stage 2, Dillon's right rear made contact with the left front of Brad Keselowski's car, hooking him into the outside wall in a hard, spectacular crash that nearly sent Dillon upside down. Dillon finished 36th, putting his playoff hopes on the brink.
"I was starting to just come up off the apron because it's so rough down there, but I figured by that point (Keselowski) would have given me a little room," Dillon said. "... I think we would have had a shot to do something there at the end with that racecar. The best racecar we've brought to the track at RCR this year, I feel like. Just a bummer."
If there was any solace for Dillon, it was that Reddick also experienced late-race misfortune that cost him a good finish. Contending for a Top 10, Reddick ended up cutting a left rear tire and spinning out, relegating him to a 29th place finish.
Reddick now holds a 25 point lead over Dillon for the final spot in the playoffs, and the two are now the only drivers with a chance to make the playoffs on points. Every other driver not already in the playoffs, from Matt DiBenedetto in 18th on back, must win at Daytona next week in order to earn a playoff spot.