By Jared Turner, NASCAR Pole Position Contributor
As the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series heads to Michigan International Speedway for the second time in two months, storylines abound.
Can Kyle Larson make it three wins in a row at the fast 2-mile track?
Can Dale Earnhardt Jr., Clint Bowyer or Joey Logano — three drivers who need a win to make the playoffs — finally go to Victory Lane?
Can Chase Elliott, a runner-up in each of the past three races at MIS, score a breakthrough first career triumph?
Will Kyle Busch or Brad Keselowski seek retaliation after their run-in last Sunday at Watkins Glen?
This much is certain: Only four races remain until the 16-driver playoff field is set. And with 13 drivers having punched an automatic ticket to the playoffs by virtue of winning a race this year, only three positions at the most are up for grabs.
The bottom line? There’s a narrow window of opportunity for anyone trying to race their way into the post-season. And the drivers still searching for a win are acutely aware.
“We need to win the next few races here,” Logano said after Watkins Glen.
Meanwhile, Larson is hoping to become the first driver since Bill Elliott — Chase’s dad — to win three consecutive races at MIS. Bill Elliott’s three straight Michigan wins, which came in 1985 and 1986, were actually part of a four-race winning streak in the Irish Hills.
“Michigan I think will always be a place I look forward to racing,” said Larson, who notched his first career Monster Energy Series win one year ago at MIS. “Even before I got my first win there, it was a track where our team had come close and had some good runs. It’s size and speed just make it a fun place to go race.”
While Larson is on a two-race winning streak at MIS, he’s actually on a three-race winning streak at 2-mile tracks. Sandwiched in between last year’s Michigan win and his victory at MIS in June was a victory at 2-mile Auto Club Speedway in April.
Understandably, Larson is brimming with confidence about his prospects for another stellar weekend at a 2-mile track.
“Our race cars are fast at them,” the Chip Ganassi Racing driver said. “Michigan and Fontana are, you know, are very, very similar in shape and size. But the racing surface is way different. Fontana’s rough and bumpy. It’s a worn-out surface. You have to take care of your tires, move around, find different lanes that work.
“At Michigan, your tires don’t wear out nearly as bad. Your line doesn’t move around a ton. Really fast, lot of grip. They’re both fun, because we seem to have good race cars, especially when we come to Michigan. Seems like since my rookie season, we’ve always had fast cars here at Michigan.”
Larson’s stiffest challenge on Sunday afternoon may just come from Chase Elliott, a second-year Monster Energy Series driver who clearly shares his father’s knack for navigating the 2-mile, high-speed facility.
Elliott’s success at Michigan could also be due in part to crew chief Alan Gustafson, who won at MIS with Mark Martin in 2009 and with Jeff Gordon in 2014. When Gordon prevailed at MIS in his Gustafson-prepared car, it was from the pole.
Between his own pedigree and his crew chief’s stellar history at MIS, it’s no wonder that Elliott always seems to show up with a fast race car.
“I think a lot of it is Alan’s success there in the past,” Elliott said. “He has won races there. He has a good feel for the racetrack. We ran well there the first race, and I really think because we ran well, we went back and worked harder to try and run better.”