Consumers Energy 400 Preview: NASCAR's Chess Match

Consumers Energy 400 Preview: NASCAR's Chess Match

This article is part of our Weekly Preview series.

NASCAR returns to Michigan International Speedway this weekend for the Consumers Energy 400. This is the second and final race at the Brooklyn, Mich., oval for the season. We return to the scene of Clint Bowyer's big victory in June at the two-mile oval. He took the lead from Kevin Harvick after the conclusion of stage 2, and led the final 8 laps before a downpour would bring the racing to an end for the day. This has become the theme for this race track in recent seasons. It's not always the strongest car and driver of the day that wins, but often times it's the team that surges in the final leg of the 400 miles or has the right pit strategy and timing at the end. In this case, weather was the number one factor, and Bowyer the No. 14 SHR team capitalized on pit strategy to claim the win. Considering that the driver of the No. 14 Ford is battling for a good position in the Chase for the Cup entering this weekend, Bowyer will have high expectations coming to the Irish Hills of Michigan this time around. The Stewart Haas Racing veteran has two wins this season and he will be looking to add to that total in order to improve his Chase for the Cup standing. The distinct possibility of a Bowyer Michigan sweep is on everyone's minds as we take on Sunday's Consumers Energy 400.

While there is a Bowyer sweep theme this weekend,

NASCAR returns to Michigan International Speedway this weekend for the Consumers Energy 400. This is the second and final race at the Brooklyn, Mich., oval for the season. We return to the scene of Clint Bowyer's big victory in June at the two-mile oval. He took the lead from Kevin Harvick after the conclusion of stage 2, and led the final 8 laps before a downpour would bring the racing to an end for the day. This has become the theme for this race track in recent seasons. It's not always the strongest car and driver of the day that wins, but often times it's the team that surges in the final leg of the 400 miles or has the right pit strategy and timing at the end. In this case, weather was the number one factor, and Bowyer the No. 14 SHR team capitalized on pit strategy to claim the win. Considering that the driver of the No. 14 Ford is battling for a good position in the Chase for the Cup entering this weekend, Bowyer will have high expectations coming to the Irish Hills of Michigan this time around. The Stewart Haas Racing veteran has two wins this season and he will be looking to add to that total in order to improve his Chase for the Cup standing. The distinct possibility of a Bowyer Michigan sweep is on everyone's minds as we take on Sunday's Consumers Energy 400.

While there is a Bowyer sweep theme this weekend, we have to acknowledge that it has mostly been Chevrolet teams and drivers that have been everyone's nemesis at this two-mile oval the last couple seasons. Prior to Bowyer's June win, Kyle Larson had taken the last three consecutive victories at Michigan International Speedway. While the No. 42 Chevrolet was conspicuously missing from the Top 10 in June at MIS, we wouldn't rule out a major rebound effort for the Chip Ganassi Racing star. Larson has been better in recent weeks, and is coming off a strong sixth-place showing at Watkins Glen last weekend. That could signal that Larson is ready to challenge for his first win of the season this Sunday afternoon at the two-mile Michigan oval.

As usual, we'll take a look at the loop stats for the last several races at this week's track in order to collect some recent data on the drivers. The table below has the loop data for the last 27 races at Michigan International Speedway. This information will be helpful, but we'll put some emphasis on the results from June's FireKeepers Casino 400, since it was only several weeks ago and we expect that the teams will utilize the same setups for this race as well. What worked in June will likely work well again this weekend. Here are the loop stats for the top-performing Michigan drivers, sorted by driver rating.

DRIVERAVG FINISHQUALITY PASSESFASTEST LAPSLAPS LEDLAPS IN TOP 15RATING
Chase Elliott4.61587566881108.9
Matt Kenseth12.31,0642813893,95499.8
Kyle Larson12.8316971501,24799.0
Joey Logano12.65781433562,46896.6
Jimmie Johnson16.19174496063,44596.4
Kevin Harvick11.18372512843,23996.2
William Byron13.0180013395.5
Brad Keselowski12.46411171802,54395.3
Erik Jones10.37818538790.8
Kurt Busch18.38672003763,29790.4
Denny Hamlin14.69211271743,19089.8
Ryan Blaney16.7176381586389.4
Kyle Busch18.98572002333,23387.9
Martin Truex Jr.15.57322582072,63586.5
Kasey Kahne17.8888189722,79785.4
Clint Bowyer17.073353362,57881.6
Ryan Newman17.180515322,43078.0
Austin Dillon16.429329221,10577.6
Jamie McMurray16.067230372,01375.1
Paul Menard17.958926191,79772.0

In the season's first running at Michigan International Speedway we can take away more information than just Bowyer's first-career win at the oval. The FireKeepers Casino 400 saw just nine lead changes among seven different drivers. That was the lowest total for a Michigan race since the 1984 season. While there were plenty of green-flag passes back in the pack, the game at the front was about getting and keeping clean air on the nose of your car. Once a driver took the lead it was terribly difficult to run them down and unseat them. This oval typically produces fuel mileage battles, but not that day in June. The rain cutting out the last 67 laps ended any fuel mileage gambles, although it was setting up that way if the race had run full distance. Hopefully, we'll see more lead changes and more leaders in this Sunday's Consumers Energy 400. While everyone is focused on the sweep watch this Sunday, we can't lose sight of the other dominant teams coming to the Irish Hills. Could we see another Chevrolet driver step up and win at MIS this weekend? With Chase Elliott's big win at the Glen last week, all eyes will be on the No. 9 Chevrolet at Michigan. Will Martin Truex Jr. surprise and win his first-career Michigan event? Will Kevin Harvick rebound from a subpar Watkins Glen performance, and challenge for the win after his strong Michigan showing in June? Will Kyle Busch step up and rebound from his disappointing fueling mishap at Watkins Glen last weekend in this Sunday's Consumers Energy 400? We'll attempt to answer these questions and many more as we outline all the drivers you need to dominate the day at Michigan International Speedway.

The Contenders - Drivers in the hunt for the win

Martin Truex Jr. - The Furniture Row Racing veteran is coming off an impressive runner-up performance this past week at Watkins Glen, and he'll be looking to build on that effort with a victory at Michigan International Speedway. Truex has been strong on the larger ovals the past few seasons. His last seven tips to Michigan have yielded a pair of third-place and one runner-up finish as well as 136 total laps led. Those finishes have bolstered his career Top-10 rate to 36-percent and an average finish of 15.5. While Truex has yet to win at this two-mile oval, he won earlier this season at the similar track in Fontana. We really feel like the driver of the No. 78 Toyota is on the verge of a Michigan breakthrough. He should be the top contender to win Sunday afternoon in the Irish Hills.

Kyle Larson -
Some bad fortune brought Larson's three-race Michigan winning streak to an end during June's FireKeepers Casino 400. Larson had won the three prior Michigan races, and he had finished runner-up at the similar oval in Fontana earlier this season. The Chip Ganassi Racing star is coming off a strong, sixth-place showing at Watkins Glen last weekend, and he'll carry that momentum into Sunday's contest at MIS. Up until June's bobble, Larson had been the gold standard on these two-mile ovals the last two seasons. Clearly, he and crew chief Chad Johnston have figured out something special that makes a difference on these style ovals. There's no reason to believe that Larson can't return to race-winning Michigan form this weekend.

Kevin Harvick -
The two-mile ovals have always been tracks of success for the Stewart Haas Racing star. Harvick is a one-time winner at Michigan and one-time winner at the similar oval in Fontana. He led 49 laps here in June and dominated the FireKeepers Casino 400, before rain and pit strategy conspired to rob him of a well-deserved victory. Harvick still finished runner-up that afternoon. That effort brought his career Top-5 effort at Michigan up to a very impressive 31-percent mark. Harvick's six runner-up finishes at this two-mile oval since the 2013 season, speaks to his excellence here. Make no mistake about it, the No. 4 Ford team brings a lot of homerun potential to the table with a start at Michigan.

Kyle Busch -
The Joe Gibbs Racing star is coming off a disappointing third-place finish at Watkins Glen. After leading laps early and looking like a good bet to win, Busch found some bad luck on pit road and had to scuffle late to finish third. Now we visit an oval that's been a bit of a mixed bag for the veteran driver. Busch is a one-time Michigan winner, but his career body of work at MIS is a bit shaky. However, the driver of the No. 18 Toyota bucked that trend in June's FireKeepers Casino 400. Busch qualified third on the starting grid and finished fourth, providing a good challenge to Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch. That should be the case again this weekend. Busch has had impressive speed the last six weeks. He's won two victories (Chicago and Pocono), collected five Top-5 finishes, and has led nearly 200 laps over the span. Busch has had world class speed of late, and that makes him very dangerous.

Solid Plays - Drivers who are near locks for the top 10 with an outside shot at winning

Chase Elliott - Elliott has noticeably turned it up a notch or two the last few weeks, and it resulted in his first-career win at the Glen this past weekend. He rides a three-race Top-10 streak into the Irish Hills this week. The two-mile Michigan oval should provide the perfect opportunity for this young driver to challenge for another victory, or at the very least nab another Top-5 finish. Elliott's five-career starts at Michigan International Speedway has yielded a trifecta of runner-up finishes, and five-straight Top 10s. He's also led 66 combined laps in those starts, so he hasn't been just playing follow-the-leader. The Hendrick Motorsports driver finished ninth here in June's FireKeepers Casino 400, and we're willing to bet Elliott will be much better than that this time around.

Brad Keselowski -
After some bad luck and a subpar Watkins Glen finish, the Penske Racing star will be happy to make this homecoming trip to Michigan. Keselowski has been steadily improving on these two-mile ovals the last few seasons, and he can't wait to mount another effort to win at his home state track. He won the pole in this event one year ago, and led 105 laps before a disappointing finish. The driver of the No. 2 Ford returned in June of this year and qualified on the outside pole before finishing sixth in the FireKeepers Casino 400. Keselowski may be a long-odds favorite to win, but he should have a good line on a strong, Top-10 finish.

Joey Logano -
The Penske Racing driver is having a decent season in the No. 22 Ford, but things could be better. Logano comes to Michigan, which has been a track of high performance and rewards for the Penske Racing star over the years. Logano has well over 350 laps led for his career at Michigan International Speedway, and he is a two-time winner at this track. Logano owns 13 Top-10 finishes at MIS in 19 starts. That works out to an impressive 68-percent Top-10 rate at this facility. He started fifth on the grid here in June and finished a respectable seventh. That has been a pretty typical Michigan performance for Logano of late. He shouldn't disappoint in Sunday's Consumers Energy 400.

Clint Bowyer -
The June Michigan winner checks in on the solid plays list this week. While rain did aide Bowyer in his big victory at MIS earlier this summer, the No. 14 Ford did have undeniable speed, and would have factored in the Top 5 without rain forcing the end of the FireKeepers Casino 400. Things have been a bit of a mixed bag for the veteran driver since his June Michigan win. However, Bowyer is coming off consecutive 11th-place finishes at Pocono and Watkins Glen, and looking good for a return to the Top 10 at the Michigan oval. The Stewart Haas Racing veteran has 12-career Top 10s in 25 starts at Michigan International Speedway, and that checks in at a respectable 48-percent rate. We can't forget the speed this driver and team had here in June, so there's tremendous upside with Bowyer this week.

Sleepers - Drivers with good history at Michigan who can provide a solid finish

Erik Jones - While Jones was somewhat subpar at MIS in June (15th-place), he's been on a tear ever since. The driver of the No. 20 Toyota picked up a first-career victory at Daytona. Jones also has six Top 10s in the seven races since the Monster Energy Cup Series was at Michigan in June. That makes the young Joe Gibbs Racing driver one of the hottest drivers in the series entering this weekend. Jones has 13th-, third-, and 15th-place finishes in his three prior Michigan starts. This two-mile oval hasn't been a puzzle for him at all, and he likely has saved his best performance in the Irish Hills for this weekend's Consumers Energy 400.

Denny Hamlin -
Hamlin is coming off the pole win and 13th-place finish at Watkins Glen this past week. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver hasn't been stellar, but he has been steady of late, and that's the primary reason for the sleepers list this week. Michigan International Speedway has been an up-and-down track for the veteran driver most of his career. However, Hamlin does have two-career wins at this oval and 11 Top-10 finishes (44-percent). He qualified 10th- and finished 12th-place here in June, and much of that is due in part to the weather. Hamlin should have plenty of speed for this installment of the Consumers Energy 400, and he should challenge the Top 10 Sunday afternoon in this 400-mile battle.

Jamie McMurray -
Larson's Chip Ganassi Racing teammate also makes a steady fantasy racing play this Sunday at MIS. McMurray has been in a malaise this season, but he's coming off a strong seventh-place finish at Watkins Glen this past week. The veteran driver sports a surprising five-race Michigan Top-10 streak entering the weekend, and that includes his 10th-place finish in the Irish Hills in June. Don't get caught up in McMurray's 32-percent career Top-10 rate at Michigan, rather, look at his body of work the last few seasons. That's an average finish of 8.2 over his last five starts. His success at the similar oval in Fontana has been just as impressive. McMurray has a pair of Top-10 finishes in his last three trips to that oval as well.

Ryan Blaney -
The Penske Racing driver has been pretty consistent in recent visits to the two-mile ovals. Blaney scored a fourth-place finish in this event two years ago, and he nabbed a strong eighth-place finish earlier this summer at Michigan. He has finishes of ninth- and eighth-place in his last two visits to the similar oval in Fontana, California. These sweeping two-mile ovals are really to Blaney's liking, and it shows in the results. The driver of the No. 12 Ford scored a 12th-place finish this past weekend at the Glen and he'll be eager to get back inside the Top 10 with this visit to the Irish Hills. The impressive youngster should be sharp in Sunday's 400-mile battle at Michigan.

Daniel Suarez -
Looks who's riding a surprising two-race Top-5 streak into Sunday's action at Michigan, it's no other than Joe Gibbs Racing driver Suarez. The driver of the No. 19 Toyota has really turned it on the last couple weeks. Suarez claimed a runner-up finish at Pocono and a strong fourth-place finish this past weekend at the Glen. He'll be riding a tidal wave of momentum as we make his fourth-career start at Michigan International Speedway this Sunday. The young driver hasn't been impressive in his three prior starts at MIS, but he brings that past experience and some incredible momentum into Sunday's 400-mile race. We expect to see a career-best Michigan qualifying and finishing effort for the young Mexican this weekend.

William Byron -
This past weekend's race thrust a lot of young drivers into the spotlight. Among those, Byron was included. The driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet peddled to a stunning eighth-place finish at Watkins Glen, and now rides a two-race Top-10 streak into Michigan. Performance in general at Hendrick Motorsports seems to have improved the last month. Byron has benefited from this bump in team speed. He and crew chief Darian Grubb seem to have figured a few things out together. The two-mile ovals were Byron's better tracks this season, prior to his recent surge in performance. The rookie nabbed a 15th-place finish at Fontana and 13th-place earlier this summer at Michigan International Speedway. That appears to be the ground floor for this driver and team Sunday at MIS.

Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week

Jimmie Johnson - Johnson hasn't looked much like a seven-time champion the last several weeks, and his current one Top-10 finish in the last eight events can't go overlooked. The Hendrick Motorsports star is hoping to improve before the Chase for the Cup begins, and there will be a lot of pressure to perform in this Michigan race. Johnson has always looked less than superhuman at the Michigan oval over the years. Despite one-career win, he only has 13 Top 10s in 33-career starts at this track (39-percent). MIS ranks has one of his bottom four tracks on the circuit. Johnson has only two Top 10s in his last seven Michigan starts, and that sort of falls in line with that 39-percent rate.

Ryan Newman -
The Rocket Man has been seemingly getting his act together of late. Newman has nabbed three Top 10s in the last five starts, and climbed three spots in the standings to 19th-place. However, the Richard Childress Racing veteran is coming off a subpar 19th-place finish at Watkins Glen this past weekend. Michigan is not likely the oval to keep the No. 31 team pointed in the right direction. Newman has finishes of 21st- and 22nd-place this season at Fontana and Michigan. That's somewhat above his season average of 19.1. Newman's career at Michigan International Speedway shows just nine Top 10s in 34-career starts for a lowly 27-percent average. Recent years have been just as lean for the veteran, with just two Top-10 finishes in his last 11 Michigan starts. It's best to pass on this driver and team this weekend.

Trevor Bayne -
Bayne steps back into the seat of the No. 6 Ford this weekend at Michigan International Speedway. Matt Kenseth has been racing with the team much of the summer, but will give way to the younger driver this weekend. While Kenseth has taken some steps forward with this team, they did have their troubles at MIS earlier in June. Kenseth labored to a 33rd-place finish that Sunday afternoon, and it was not a highlight of the campaign. Bayne's history at the two-mile Michigan oval is questionable at best. In 14-career starts he's only managed two Top-10 finishes and Bayne checks in at an average finish of 21.1 across that span. This weekend will be Bayne's first start since Daytona in July, and the extended time off is likely not a good factor either.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. -
The Roush Fenway Racing veteran limps into this event. Stenhouse hasn't posted a Top-10 finish since May (Charlotte), and he's been fighting hard each week just to crack the Top 20. Michigan is not likely the place for the No. 17 Ford team to stage a comeback. Stenhouse has only one Top 10 in 11-career starts at this two-mile oval. His start here in June's FireKeepers Casino 400 resulted in a disappointing 29th-place finish. With an inflated average finish of 21.7 at Michigan International Speedway, we don't expect to see this driver and team making any headlines this Sunday afternoon in the Consumers Energy 400.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark Taylor
Taylor is RotoWire's senior NASCAR writer. A nine-time FSWA finalist, Taylor was named the Racing Writer of the Year in 2008, 2009, 2010, 2016 and 2017. He is also a military historian, focused specifically on World War II and the U.S. Navy's efforts in the Pacific.
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