The NASCAR Cup Series‘ doubleheader at Michigan International Speedway began on Saturday afternoon with the FireKeepers Casino 400. Drafting on restarts was the name of the game as Kevin Harvick pushed and was pushed on his way to his fifth win of 2020.
Joey Logano started on the pole ahead of Denny Hamlin. Roush Fenway Racing drivers Chris Buescher and Ryan Newman surrendered their starting spots for spoiler infractions during pre-race inspection; in addition to the offending spoilers being confiscated, the two were penalised twenty points each in the owners’ and drivers’ standings and fined $25,000. Joey Gase and Jimmie Johnson were sent to the back for failing inspection twice, though Gase—making his first start for Tommy Baldwin Racing in the #7—was already scheduled to start last.
Despite its 400-mile name, the race was only 312 miles and 500 kilometres long due to its doubleheader nature. The 400 saw the formal points introduction of the choose rule, which allows drivers to select which lane they wish to restart; an orange arrow and square on the track designates when they must make their decision, while they receive a penalty if they run over the square.
Logano led until the competition caution on lap 15. James Davison, who had announced he will race in the Indianapolis 500 earlier in the week with Rick Ware Racing, fell off the pace after just two laps due to power issues; he and his RWR crew bounced between the garage and track during the stage before finally returning on lap 59.
Hamlin took the lead after the restart. On lap 21, his Joe Gibbs Racing team-mate Martin Truex Jr. was forced to pit for a downed right-front tyre after making slight contact with Tyler Reddick.
On lap 23, Harvick passed Hamlin and Logano to take first. The points leader would hold the position to the green-checkered flag.
Hamlin, Blaney, Kurt Busch, Brad Keselowski, Erik Jones, Alex Bowman, Chase Elliott, Kyle Busch, and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. closed out the top ten.
Quin Houff received a penalty for running over the choose box between stages.
Among the benefits of the choose rule is that it allows drivers to pick between starting on a dominant lane or start up front on an inferior line. In this case, Harvick’s decision to go on the outside paid off as he held second with Blaney leading, while Keselowski on the inside dropped to fifth.
Blaney led until lap 77, when Harvick used Brennan Poole as a pick to take the top spot. Harvick would go on to score a second stage win.
Behind the two were Hamlin, Jones, Keselowski, Kyle and Kurt Busch, Bowman, Clint Bowyer, and Johnson.
Harick beat Hamlin off pit road to hold the lead as the final stage began, while Newman was penalised for going over the choose box.
Jones, who had lost his JGR ride for 2021 on Thursday, gained four positions with his choose cone selection and restarted third. As the race resumed, he pushed his team-mate Hamlin to the lead.
On lap 94, John Hunter Nemechek spun through turn four. The rookie would produce two more cautions during the race on laps 107 and 130, the latter of which ended his day.
Between the yellow flags, Kyle Busch and Harvick spent time in front. With 18 laps remaining, Elliott took the lead.
On lap 142, Ryan Preece hit the wall exiting turn two for the next yellow. Busch (inside) and Elliott led the field to green with nine laps to go.
A push from Hamlin propelled Busch to the lead. Harvick moved up to second after restarting fourth. In turn four, the two ran close before Busch got loose and nearly hit the wall. Whether the two made contact was not immediately conclusive.
After two laps of green-flag racing, Cole Custer slammed into the turn three wall. Fluid on the track resulted in a red flag.
Harvick (outside) and Hamlin occupied the front row for the restart with three laps left. A push by Elliott sent Harvick ahead. After restarting fifth, Bubba Wallace forced three-wide with Hamlin and Elliott, though Wallace and Hamlin both fell back shortly after.
Newman and Austin Dillon produced another caution when they wrecked off turn four, forcing overtime. While racing Christopher Bell, Dillon collided and got loose, sending him into Michael McDowell before sliding up into Newman.
A pair of Fords in Keselowski (inside) and Harvick paced the field to the green flag. Wallace and Stenhouse were sucked up by cars around them, while Keselowski remained side-by-side with Harvick.
Harvick cleared Keselowski in turn three coming to the white flag. Keselowski was unable to catch the leader as Harvick scored his fifth victory of the season. It is his 54th career Cup win, tying him with Lee Petty for the ninth most in Cup history, and the third straight season in which he won at Michigan.
Truex, Blaney, Kyle Busch, Hamlin, Elliott, Logano, Wallace, and Kurt Busch scored top tens.
“I kinda showed my hand there a little bit earlier when I passed the #9 (Elliott) on the outside, and I knew that’s what I didn’t need to happen to us,” Harvick began in a post-race interview with NBCSN. “A lot of restarts, you’re relying on a push and mine was a good pusher. I just had to keep him from going by us.”
As part of the doubleheader format, Harvick will start twentieth in Sunday’s Consumers Energy 400 as the top twenty on Saturday is inverted. Assuming no developments in post-race inspection, twentieth-placed Chris Buescher will start on the pole.