Photo: Stephen A. Arce/ASP, Inc.

Up to Speed: Previewing the Firekeepers Casino 400 at Michigan

By David Morgan, Associate Editor

The end of the NASCAR Cup Series regular season is in sight with just two races remaining before the Playoff field is set.

After a stretch of road course races, the series returns to an oval this weekend with Sunday’s running of the Firekeepers Casino 400 at Michigan International Speedway. With this race taking place near the home of two of the three manufacturers (Chevrolet and Ford), teams put extra emphasis on winning here 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.

While traction compound has been used at the track in the past, Michigan will employ the same resin compound that was used at Nashville in the upper grooves of the track in an effort to make more of the track usable for racing with no practice to lay down rubber and work in the groove.

The starting lineup for Sunday’s race has already been set, with Kyle Larson on pole and his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Chase Elliott starting alongside on the front row.

The remainder of the top-10 starters include: Ryan Blaney, Matt DiBenedetto, Martin Truex Jr., Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin, and Alex Bowman.

By the Numbers

What: Firekeepers Casino 400, NASCAR Cup Series races No. 25 of 36

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

When: Sunday, August 22

TV/Radio: NBC Sports Network, 3:00 pm ET Saturday, 4:30 pm ET Sunday / 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

August 2020 Race 1 Winner: Kevin Harvick – No. 4 Ford (Started third, 92 laps led)

August 2020 Race 2 Winner:  Kevin Harvick – No. 4 Ford (Started 20th, 90 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. Kevin Harvick – No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford – 102.5
  2. Joey Logano – No. 22 Team Penske Ford – 99.1
  3. Chase Elliott – No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet – 99.1
  4. Brad Keselowski – No. 2 Team Penske Ford – 97.3
  5. Kyle Larson – No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet – 96.1
  6. Denny Hamlin – No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota – 92.6
  7. Ryan Blaney – No. 12 Team Penske Ford – 92.5
  8. Kurt Busch – No. 1 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet – 91.8
  9. Kyle Busch – No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota – 90.7
  10. Christopher Bell – No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota – 89.6

From the Driver’s Seat

“I think with the 550-horsepower package we run, the mid-corner section of the track feels more high speed than anything,” said William Byron. “Even though we’re going slower down the straightaways than we were a couple years ago, I feel like the mid-corner now feels almost sketchy. It’s fully on edge and you’re close to always chattering the tires. It’s a fast track that makes you feel like you’re always running on a fine line. It’s just a different sensation of speed with this package.

“Michigan is such an important racetrack, not only for teams but for manufacturers – Chevrolet, most importantly. It’s a fun race that’s all about bragging rights for them on who had the most power, the most downforce, and things like that. I feel like we are heading into this race with a really good shot to get it done for Chevy. We have really fast cars on the 1.5-mile and 2-mile tracks. So, I’m excited to see how things play out for us and hopefully we can be the ones to give the bragging rights to Chevy at the end of the day.”

Last Time at Michigan

Ford has won the last six races at Michigan, with Kevin Harvick victorious in four of those races. When the Cup Series ran a doubleheader at the track last season, it was all Harvick, as he took the No. 4 team to Victory Lane in both races.

In the first race of the doubleheader, Harvick was up front for the majority of the day, leading 92 laps, but it wasn’t all smooth sailing for the 2014 series champion with five restarts over the course of the final 30 laps, including one in overtime.

Despite the late race challenge, Harvick was able to hold off Michigan native Brad Keselowski in the final run to the finish to score his fifth win of the season.

“Anytime we come to Michigan since I’ve been at Stewart-Haas Racing these cars have been just lightning fast,” Harvick said. “It’s definitely a place we feel like we should come up here and contend for the win, and today our Busch Light Apple Ford Mustang was just on rails, could go bottom, top, middle, was fast down the straightaway, would do everything that you wanted to do. 

“Just got challenged by a whole bunch of restarts at the end that made it kind of crazy.  But in the end it was a great day for us.  Everybody did a great job, called a great race, and we capitalized on a fast car and put it in Victory Lane.”

After starting 20th as a result of the doubleheader invert, Harvick made his way back to the front of the field, leading 90 laps on the day, but had his hands full with regular season championship rival down the stretch.

Harvick pulled away from the field after a restart with 30 laps to go, but the closer to the finish he got, the bigger Hamlin’s Toyota got in his rear-view mirror, with the two duking it out in the closing laps.

Ultimately, Harvick was able to hold off Hamlin’s charge to sweep the weekend and keep the Heritage Trophy in Ford’s possession for the next 365 days.

“Michigan is overall an important race for everybody at Ford, Roush-Yates, really all the teams,” Harvick said.  “They make you well-aware of the importance of the Heritage Trophy and how much they want to keep it in their lobby.

“I got a nice text from Edsel Ford last night to make sure I knew how happy he was, but he made sure I was well aware they didn’t want to keep it for one day, they wanted to bring that trophy back.

“We are really happy for everybody at Ford that our Busch Light Apple Ford was really fast again today.  I had a little trouble in the end in three and four, Denny was really good down there.  We were able to do a little defensive driving and keep him back there and make it to victory lane in the end.”

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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.