Photo: Justin R. Noe/ASP, Inc.

Up to Speed: FireKeepers Casino 400 at Michigan Preview

By David Morgan, NASCAR Editor

After last weekend’s race at Pocono saw Martin Truex, Jr. score his second win of the season, the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series heads to Michigan to race on one of the biggest and fastest tracks on the circuit, Michigan International Speedway, in Sunday’s running of the FireKeepers Casino 400.

With this race taking place near the home of two of the three manufacturers (Chevrolet and Ford), teams put extra emphasis on winning this race for bragging rights. The two-mile speedway tends to favor the teams that can get the most horsepower out of their cars and since being repaved in 2012, the track’s groove has widened out every race since allowing drivers to race from the wall down to the apron. Though horsepower is key, fuel mileage is also a big key as races at this track come down to fuel mileage more often than not.

Through the first 14 races of the year, all but three have been won by the triumvirate of Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, and Martin Truex, Jr. However, Kyle Larson has been on the rise in his Chevrolet in recent weeks. Can he make it four Michigan wins in a row or will one of the three dominant drivers on the year add another win to their resume?

By the Numbers

What: FireKeepers Casino 400, Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race No. 15 of 36

Where: Michigan International Speedway – Brooklyn, Michigan (Opened: 1968)

TV/Radio: FOX, 2:00 pm ET / MRN and Sirius XM NASCAR Channel 90

Track Size:  2.0 mile D-shaped oval

Banking: Turns: 18 degrees; Straights: 12 degrees (front), 5 degrees (back)

Race Length: 200 laps, 400 miles

Stage Lengths: First two stages – 60 laps each, Final stage – 80 laps

June 2017 Race Winner: Kyle Larson – No. 42 Chevrolet (Started on pole, 96 laps led)

August 2017 Race Winner:  Kyle Larson – No. 42 Chevrolet (Started ninth, two laps led)

Track Qualifying Record: Jeff Gordon (34.857 seconds, 206.558 mph – 8/17/2014)

Top-10 Highest Driver Ratings at Michigan International Speedway:

  1. Chase Elliott – No. 9 Chevrolet – 113.9
  2. Matt Kenseth – No. 6 Ford – 101.9
  3. Kyle Larson – No. 42 Chevrolet – 101.1
  4. Erik Jones – No. 20 Toyota – 98.4
  5. Jimmie Johnson – No. 48 Chevrolet – 97.7
  6. Joey Logano – No. 22 Ford – 96.3
  7. Kevin Harvick – No. 4 Ford – 94.5
  8. Brad Keselowski – No. 2 Ford – 94.3
  9. Denny Hamlin – No. 11 Toyota – 90.1
  10. Kurt Busch – No. 41 Ford – 89.0

From the Driver’s Seat

“How you finish at Michigan depends on how your day is going,” said Kevin Harvick. “If you’re having a good day, it’s not really hard to tell your guys what you need and everyone is in a good mood. If you’re having a bad day, you can get behind at Michigan really fast.

“Usually, when you’re hooked up at Michigan, the leaders have clean air and move through traffic pretty well. But, if you’re in the middle of the pack, you find yourself getting behind and going a lap down pretty quickly. You’re going to end up with a green-flag pit stop and a whole bunch of green-flag laps. You just have to be going from the time the green flag drops and keep yourself in position at the end.

“The good thing about the racetrack is that it has definitely aged and the groove has spread out over the last couple of races, so you have a lot more options than you did a few years ago when they repaved it. Every time we go back there, it gets a little more racey. When we go back this time, there should be lots of room to race and you’ll see lots of speed. As we go through the restarts and traffic and different things, we’ll have to see how it all goes, but it should be interesting.”

Last Time at Michigan

There’s something about two-mile tracks that just fits Kyle Larson’s driving style. Since breaking though for his first Cup Series win at Michigan in August 2016, Larson is undefeated on the two-mile oval since then.

Last August, it didn’t look like Larson would be in the running for the win, but in the closing laps, the No. 42 Chevrolet came out of nowhere to be in position when it mattered most, capitalizing on a late race restart in overtime to get past Martin Truex, Jr. and score the victory.

Larson was so confident he could hold off Truex that he started celebrating over the radio down the backstretch on the final lap, only to be told to finish the race first by his crew.

With the win, Larson joined Bill Elliott and David Pearson as the only drivers to win at least three straight races at Michigan.

“That’s some awesome company for sure,” said Larson. “It was an awesome finish for us.  Kind of a struggle all day, honestly.  I felt like we were ‑‑ I was good and I could find clean air on my car, but any time I’d get any bit of dirty air or any bit of the wake from the car in front of me, I’d get extremely loose, even when I wasn’t close to anybody.  We definitely didn’t have the car that we had here the last two times we won, but we kept fighting, probably even harder than we did in those other two wins.

“Caught a caution at the right time there to line up eighth on fresh tires, got to fifth, and then edged in front of Chase for fourth as the caution was coming out, and that allowed me to line up behind Martin and get a good restart.

“I was running a few different options through my head under that red flag of what to do, and that one was one of them, and it played out exactly how I had hoped.

“This win feels amazing to steal one in a way, and my other three wins I felt like we had the first or second-best car, but today at times I didn’t think we were a top 10 car.  But to get the win that way is awesome.”

Weekend Schedule (All Times Eastern)

Friday, June 8

  • MENCS Practice (11:30 am to 12:20 pm – FOX Sports 2)
  • MENCS Qualifying (4:10 pm – FOX Sports 1)

Saturday, June 9

  • MENCS Practice (9:05 am to 9:55 am – FOX Sports 1)
  • MENCS Final Practice (Noon to 12:50 pm – FOX Sports 2)

Sunday, June 10

  • MENCS FireKeepers Casino 400 (2:00 pm – 200 laps, 400 miles – FOX)

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David Morgan is the Associate Editor for Motorsports Tribune. A 2008 graduate from the University of Mississippi, David has followed NASCAR since the early 90’s and became hooked at an early age after attending his first race at Talladega Superspeedway in 1993. He has traveled across the country since 2012 to cover some of the most prestigious events both IndyCar and NASCAR have to offer, with an aim to only expand on that in the near future.