Photo: Jerry Markland/Getty Images

Up to Speed: Previewing the FireKeepers Casino 400 at Michigan

By David Morgan, NASCAR Editor

After a barn burner of a finish at Pocono last weekend that culminated in Ryan Blaney taking the Wood Brothers back to victory lane, 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 and 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.

The lower downforce package that was tested at the track last year will also make its return as it has been implemented series wide this season, so drivers will be seeing speeds well over 200 mph entering Turn 1, making brakes a key component to keep an eye on for the second week in a row. Brake failures were one of the big storylines leaving Pocono last weekend and with the high speeds at Michigan, we could be taking about that same thing by the time the checkered flag flies on Sunday.

By the Numbers

Opened: 1969

Track/Race Length: 2.0 mile D-shaped oval (200 laps, 400 miles)

Stage Lengths: Stage 1 and 2: 60 laps each; Final Stage: 80 laps

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

Pit Road Speed: 45mph

Pace Car Speed: 55mph

June 2016 Race Winner: Joey Logano – No. 22 Ford (Started on pole, 138 laps led)

August 2016 Race Winner: Kyle Larson – No. 42 Chevrolet (Started 12th, 41 laps led)

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

Top-10 Highest Driver Ratings:

  • Chase Elliott – No. 24 Chevrolet – 125.1 (Best finish: 2nd)
  • Matt Kenseth – No. 20 Toyota – 102.2 (3 wins)
  • Jimmie Johnson – No. 48 Chevrolet – 100.0 (1 win)
  • Joey Logano – No. 22 Ford – 97.0 (2 wins)
  • Dale Earnhardt, Jr. – No. 88 Chevrolet – 96.0 (2 wins)
  • Kevin Harvick – No. 4 Ford – 94.0 (1 win)
  • Kyle Larson – No. 42 Chevrolet – 94.0 (1 win)
  • Brad Keselowski – No. 2 Ford – 93.3 (Best finish: 2nd)
  • Kurt Busch – No. 41 Ford – 89.8 (3 wins)
  • Denny Hamlin – No. 11 Toyota – 89.4 (2 wins)

From the Driver’s Seat

“The biggest thing about Michigan is respecting the speed. It’s a very fast racetrack,” said Kurt Busch.

“Michigan is a tough place because of the way the cars have that grip level on fresh tires versus old tires. What I mean by that is, when you put on fresh tires, your tires are cold and they don’t grab the asphalt as well. A lot of guys try to stay out at Michigan with the hot tires on and they get better restarts. Restarts at Michigan are already pretty wild with how wide the track is and how many lanes there are for options. It comes down to just trying to put yourself in the best position with the best-percentage chance of whether it’s fresh tires, or it’s staying out, or it’s making spots up on restarts.”

“The toughest part is turn three. It seems like the cars do this weird, four-wheel, light drift getting down in there. If your car is dialed in, and I’ve won there three times, it feels like turn three is the easiest corner. Turn three to me is the challenge each time I go there.”

Last Time at Michigan

It was a battle of the young guns in the Pure Michigan 400 last August, with one driver coming away for his first career win.

After coming up short on victory so many times in his career in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, Kyle Larson finally had everything come fall into place for himself and his No. 42 team at Michigan as Larson held off a hard charging Chase Elliott for the win.

“I was teared-up that whole last few laps because I could just feel it,” said Larson. “It was finally going to be it. This one is for the Clauson family. We really miss Bryan. We love you guys. We’re going to miss him. We parked it for him, so that’s really cool. We had a lot of work to do for that first third of the race, and got it done. Thanks to Target. Thanks to everyone on this team. Chad (Johnston, crew chief) and the pit crew and everybody. We messed up that last stop by we made it back.”

“Well, he hung in there with our team,” car owner Chip Ganassi added. “We were building. We’ve been building over the years. He came on board and did a great job. The team rallied around him. I can’t say enough about the kid and the job he’s done over the last few years and it’s been a nice gradual coming-up through the pack. And I couldn’t be more happy with Kyle right now.”

“It’s really, really big. We’ve been on the cusp for so many years. We got Jamie (McMurray) in there last year and now getting Kyle in, we couldn’t be happier. I’m kind of speechless to tell you the truth.”

Larson took over the race lead for the first time at lap 125, only to lose the lead to Elliott under green flag pit stops later in the race. Elliott looked like he had the win in the bag as the laps wound down, but a caution for debris flew with 14 laps to go, giving Larson and the others one final shot at the race lead. On the restart, Larson got the jump and that was all it took as he pulled away for the win.

With the win, Larson locked himself into the Chase for the first time in his career, which was looking doubtful before Michigan. The win also marked a weekend sweep of first time winners after both the Truck Series and Xfinity Series featured first time winners as well.

“Just a better restart again,” said Elliott, who had to settle for second at Michigan for the second time in as many races. “That was what it was all about for sure.  Once that guy (Kyle Larson) got out front it was really hard to pass.  My guys did such a good job today of making the most of pit road. That was the only place you could make a large sum of ground in a short period of time.  They did exactly what I asked them to do.  I said ‘you guys are going to have to bail me out here I messed up.’ They did they got us the lead just like I asked and I gave it away again.  It’s one of those things where you do or you don’t and I didn’t.  You just got to recognize your mistakes, look at the positives I guess and move on down the road.”

Following Larson and Elliott to the finish was Brad Keselowski, Ryan Blaney, and Kevin Harvick.

Weekend Schedule (All Times Eastern)

Friday, June 16

  • MENCS Practice (11:00 am to 12:25 pm – FOX Sports 2)
  • MENCS Qualifying (4:15 pm – FOX Sports 2)

Saturday, June 17

  • MENCS Practice (9:00 am to 9:55 am – FOX Sports 2)
  • MENCS Final Practice (Noon to 12:50 pm – FOX Sports 2)

Sunday, June 18

  • MENCS FireKeepers Casino 400 (3:00 pm – 200 laps, 400 miles – FOX Sports 1)

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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.