FireKeepers Casino 400 Preview: Fastest Track in NASCAR

FireKeepers Casino 400 Preview: Fastest Track in NASCAR

This article is part of our Weekly Preview series.

As we put the high speeds and high thrills of the three-turn oval in Pocono behind us, we look forward to this weekend when the Sprint Cup Series will pay their first visit of the season to Michigan International Speedway for the FireKeepers Casino 400. This will be the first of two events at the two-mile oval in Brooklyn, Mich. This facility wowed us in 2012 when the Cup Series took to the freshly-paved track and promptly blew all the speed records at MIS away. Marcos Ambrose won the pole position for this event four years ago with a blazing-fast 203.241 mph lap. That was almost 10 mph faster than the old record set by Greg Biffle in 2005 of 194.232 mph. The fresh pavement and new tire technology that Goodyear brought to the oval combined to make Michigan International Speedway the fastest oval on the circuit. The teams were running somewhere close to 12 mph faster average laps than they do at Talladega Superspeedway. Fast forward four years and Mother Nature has had several seasons now of the winter/summer cycle to wear down this racing surface. However, the speeds are not dropping off that much. We would credit much of this to the rules package on the cars. In this event one year ago we saw Kasey Kahne claim the pole with his 201.992 mph qualifying lap. We'll see if these Sprint Cup Series cars continue to post laps over 200 mph this weekend. Although NASCAR has been trying
As we put the high speeds and high thrills of the three-turn oval in Pocono behind us, we look forward to this weekend when the Sprint Cup Series will pay their first visit of the season to Michigan International Speedway for the FireKeepers Casino 400. This will be the first of two events at the two-mile oval in Brooklyn, Mich. This facility wowed us in 2012 when the Cup Series took to the freshly-paved track and promptly blew all the speed records at MIS away. Marcos Ambrose won the pole position for this event four years ago with a blazing-fast 203.241 mph lap. That was almost 10 mph faster than the old record set by Greg Biffle in 2005 of 194.232 mph. The fresh pavement and new tire technology that Goodyear brought to the oval combined to make Michigan International Speedway the fastest oval on the circuit. The teams were running somewhere close to 12 mph faster average laps than they do at Talladega Superspeedway. Fast forward four years and Mother Nature has had several seasons now of the winter/summer cycle to wear down this racing surface. However, the speeds are not dropping off that much. We would credit much of this to the rules package on the cars. In this event one year ago we saw Kasey Kahne claim the pole with his 201.992 mph qualifying lap. We'll see if these Sprint Cup Series cars continue to post laps over 200 mph this weekend. Although NASCAR has been trying to bring speeds down at certain tracks, and Michigan is one of them.

The oval in Michigan has similar characteristics to Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, which the Sprint Cup Series raced at in March of this season. Both tracks are two-mile ovals, but Michigan has a little more banking in the corners and straight-aways. As a result, the oval in Brooklyn boasts higher average speeds as we have seen for the last several years. As with Fontana, Michigan is all about aero handling and horsepower, and races at the large oval often come down to fuel strategy as well. The track breeds the long green-flag runs so the crew chiefs had better keep a close eye on their pit windows and fuel mileage over the course of this event. If recent races at MIS are any indicator, be prepared for about 20-25 lead changes and seven or eight caution flags on Sunday afternoon so the racing should be pretty continuous. The result will be an emphasis on fuel efficiency, pit crew performance and pit strategy as these will be big keys to victory in this 400-mile event.

Since we can look back on the early race at Fontana as essentially a preview of this event, those results will be a great guide to picking a fantasy racing lineup this weekend. The similarities between the two ovals afford us this luxury. Still, enough time has passed since that Fontana race to give us some pause about completely hanging our hats on those numbers. Current trends for Michigan International Speedway will serve us well too. The drivers who have performed well at MIS over the years are certainly worth some added scrutiny. The loop stats shown below cover the last 11 years or 22 races at Michigan International Speedway.

DRIVERAVG FINISHQUALITY PASSESFASTEST LAPSLAPS LEDLAPS IN TOP 15RATING
Matt Kenseth10.89122493813,325104.2
Greg Biffle12.59243115003,271101.8
Carl Edwards9.69512153373,292101.4
Jimmie Johnson16.57814215652,94499.8
Dale Earnhardt Jr.12.09332052892,97798.6
Joey Logano13.6461831941,63393.0
Tony Stewart11.67561041572,66192.9
Kevin Harvick11.97261872022,47592.8
Brad Keselowski13.746459491,67491.2
Kurt Busch20.37321863302,74990.9
Ty Dillon14.0254010490.8
Denny Hamlin14.67531051582,32188.8
Kasey Kahne16.9795184612,39288.8
Kyle Busch19.67481401792,67487.6
Martin Truex Jr.16.5595119711,89082.9
Clint Bowyer15.764437282,13682.5
Austin Dillon17.9164272162879.9
Kyle Larson 20.315220939178.9
Ryan Newman17.968314301,96478.1
Ryan Blaney24.0253010974.3
In years past, Michigan International Speedway was a track of parity. It seemed that any manufacturer was a contender for victory lane. However, the last couple years have seen Chevrolet drivers gravitate to the top of the heap at the two-mile oval. This is noteworthy development considering that Ford and Toyota drivers pretty well had their way at the track in the Irish Hills from 2008 through 2013. Hendrick Motorsports drivers swept this oval in 2014. Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon took those back-to-back Michigan wins. The series returned in the summer of 2015, and it was Kurt Busch in a Chevrolet who won a rain-shortened Quicken Loans 400. That gave the bowtie camp three wins in a row at MIS. Considering that Busch is coming off the big win at Pocono this past weekend, he could be in line for some more victory lane action at the two-mile Michigan oval.

While Chevy teams ruled at MIS in 2014 and 2015, it was the Joe Gibbs Racing teams that were the biggest threat to bowtie dominance. Matt Kenseth won the August Michigan race and ended Chevy's three-race reign at the two-mile oval. His teammates, Carl Edwards and Denny Hamlin also showed some muscle in the two Michigan races of last season. These three drivers combined for one win, four Top 10's and 190 laps led between the two events at this oval. They're sure to bring fast cars back to MIS in this Sunday's 400-mile battle. Not to be forgotten in all this talk of Chevy and Toyota are the Ford teams of Penske Racing. Both Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski are hot right now, and both have Michigan stats to brag about at length. Logano is a one-time winner at this facility and Keselowski rides a four-race Michigan Top-10 streak into Sunday's FireKeepers Casino 400. We have to consider the possibility that Penske Ford teams could upset the Toyota and Chevrolet drivers this Sunday afternoon. We'll examine recent hot streaks of this season and the history at Michigan International Speedway and give you the drivers you need to dominate your fantasy racing leagues this weekend at MIS.

The Contenders - Drivers in the hunt for the win

Joey Logano –
Penske Racing has made a real niche on these two-mile ovals the last few seasons. Logano was a big part of that success last year alone. He collected fifth- and seventh-place finishes at Michigan International Speedway. That adds to a track resume that already contains one win and nine Top-10 finishes. At 64-percent, the driver of the No. 22 Ford's Top-10 rate already ranks among the tops in the Sprint Cup Series at Michigan. His fourth-place finish at the similar oval in Fontana earlier this season is a good indicator of the potential coming into this 400-mile race at MIS. Logano is a driver with a lot of momentum and he's visiting one of his better ovals in the FireKeepers Casino 400.

Kevin Harvick –
The Stewart Haas Racing star has excelled on two-mile ovals throughout his long Sprint Cup Series career. Harvick has one win and 13 Top-10 finishes at just the Michigan oval alone. He has an amazing five runner-up finishes in his last six starts at MIS coming into this Sunday's 400-mile race at the two-mile oval. It's really remarkable that Harvick hasn't broken through in one of those events and cashed in for the victory. It could possibly happen in this weekend's FireKeepers Casino 400. The way the No. 4 team has been racing of late, Harvick could get that little nudge he needs to convert some of these runner-up finishes into wins.

Kurt Busch –
With his great performance and victory at Pocono Raceway this past week, Busch continues to define this excellent season that is turning into a serious run at the championship. The news just continues to get better as we visit one of his favorite ovals this Sunday afternoon. Michigan International Speedway has held a lot of success for the Stewart Haas Racing veteran. Busch has two-career poles, three victories (including this event one year ago), over 400 laps led and 10 Top-10 finishes at the track in the Irish Hills. Considering what the No. 41 team has done to this point in the season we expect big things for Busch in this visit to Michigan International Speedway.

Matt Kenseth –
Kenseth has been the most consistent performer of the surging Joe Gibbs Racing stable at MIS over the years. The veteran driver made a trip to victory lane the last time the Sprint Cup Series visited this oval last August. He has charged into the Top-10 of the driver standings after his seventh-place finish at Pocono Raceway last week, and current four-race Top-10 streak. Now with some momentum the No. 20 team will be looking to up the ante this Sunday at Michigan. This is just the oval for the veteran driver to do it. Michigan International Speedway has been one of Kenseth's best tracks over his 17-season career. With three wins and 20 Top-10 finishes at MIS you'll be challenged to find a better driver at this two-mile oval.

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

Brad Keselowski –
We've seen the No. 2 team suffer some setbacks the last couple weeks at Pocono and Charlotte. The veteran driver has overcome those on-track challenges and posted Top-5 finishes in those events. Keselowski and the Penske Racing team should be up to the task of a good performance at the huge Michigan oval. He travels to his home state track with big expectations and looking for confidence for this Sunday's FireKeepers Casino 400. The Penske Racing star has never won at the two-mile Michigan oval, but he won at the similar two-mile oval in Fontana earlier in his career. This is much of the reason for optimism this week. Keselowski rides a four-race Michigan Top-10 streak into Sunday's race, so he has this oval pretty well dialed in.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. –
The No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevy team has performed at a very high level this season, and Earnhardt is a two-time winner at the huge oval in Michigan. These two reasons alone are more than enough proof to start the most popular driver in NASCAR in your fantasy racing lineups this weekend. He's coming off a strong runner-up finish at Pocono this past week, so he will definitely be looking for more and setting the bar higher for the FireKeepers Casino 400. Earnhardt has led over 350 career laps at this two-mile oval, so he's used to racing up front here. Riding a four-race Michigan Top-10 streak into this weekend, there's plenty of homerun potential with this driver and team.

Carl Edwards –
One of the most consistent drivers in the past 10 years at Michigan has been none other than Edwards. With two-career wins and 16 Top-10 finishes in 23 starts, the driver of the No. 19 Toyota is a whopping 70-percent Top-10 finisher at this two-mile oval. The Joe Gibbs Racing star led 41 laps and finished 12th in this event one year ago, but he returned in August and redeemed himself with a sixth-place finish in the Pure Michigan 400. Only poor pit strategy or bad luck can prevent him from visiting the Top 10 this Sunday afternoon. It's safe to say Edwards is a must start in this 200-lap battle at Michigan International Speedway.

Chase Elliott –
The rookie driver has been looking like anything but a rookie the last several weeks. Elliott grabbed a career-best third-place finish at Dover a few weeks ago, and he led a career-best 51 laps and finished fourth at Pocono this past weekend, his first-career start at the triangular oval. The Hendrick Motorsports prodigy rides a five-race Top-10 streak into Michigan this week. Elliott will be making his Sprint Cup Series debut at MIS this Sunday afternoon, but that's of little concern. He has a pair of Top 10's at the oval in two-career Xfinity Series starts, so the young driver is quite familiar with the Michigan track. Elliott's sixth-place finish at the similar oval in Fontana earlier this season is a good base line of what to expect.
Sleepers - Drivers with good history at Pocono who can provide a solid finish

Martin Truex Jr. –
Truex doesn't have the greatest career stats at Michigan, but he's been pretty hot on the ovals larger than 1.5-miles this season. Throw the history books out the window this weekend as this driver and team are on fire. During this veteran driver's current hot streak, Truex has two pole positions, one victory and over 600 laps led in just the last four events. His Michigan history shows just seven Top-10 finishes in 20-career starts. However, the driver of the No. 78 Toyota collected a pair of third-place finishes at Michigan International Speedway last season. Under the guidance of brilliant crew chief, Cole Pearn, Truex has a lot of upside and potential in this race.

Jimmie Johnson –
The Hendrick Motorsports star has been battling some consistency issues of late, and Michigan isn't one of his better ovals, but he should soldier through to a good finish this Sunday afternoon. Johnson has one win and 11 Top-10 finishes at MIS for a 39-percent rate. Our primary reason for optimism for the No. 48 team this weekend is Johnson's big victory at the similar oval in Fontana earlier this season. He led 25 laps and out-dueled a stronger Kevin Harvick that afternoon to win the Auto Club 400. While a win this weekend at Michigan is a slim possibility, there is better chance that lessons learned from that Fontana win will aide Johnson to a Top-10 finish in the FireKeepers Casino 400.

Kasey Kahne –
The once snake-bitten No. 5 team is beginning to show some signs of life. With Kahne's sixth-place finish at Pocono this past week, he now has two Top 10's in the last three events. Now he comes to a Michigan oval that has held some success for the veteran driver over the years. Kahne has three-career poles, one victory and 10 Top-10 finishes at Michigan International Speedway. He won the pole position for this event one year ago, and he claimed a pair of 15th-place finishes at MIS last season. With the upswing in performance we believe Kahne will be even better in this outing.

Kyle Larson –
The young Chip Ganassi Racing driver just continues to get better each week after a slow start to the 2016 season. Last week's 11th-place finish at Pocono Raceway has him looking good coming to MIS this Sunday afternoon. Larson now has second-, 13th- and 11th-place finishes in his last three races. Michigan has been a facility of decent results for the driver of the No. 42 Chevrolet. Larson claimed a Top-10 finish in his debut here in 2014 and he has a pair of Top-15 finishes in four starts. He has been showing very good speed since All-Star weekend, and we see no reason at all for Larson to slow down at Michigan.

Paul Menard –
Menard will look to rebound after his sub-par Pocono performance in this weekend's FireKeepers Casino 400. While 2016 hasn't been the greatest season for the Richard Childress Racing driver, he has enough good data to get excited about Michigan's oval. Menard has been quite good on two-mile ovals the last year or more. The RCR veteran has five Top-10 finishes in his last seven starts at Michigan International Speedway entering this weekend's race. The two finishes outside the Top 10 were still respectable 14th- and 12th-place efforts. The ability to find a groove that works for you at this track has appealed to this veteran driver. He's been rock steady here since the 2012 season.

Ryan Blaney –
The Wood Brothers Racing rookie is on a tear. With Blaney's Top-10 finish at Pocono Raceway this past week, he now has six Top 10's for the year and comes to Michigan a lofty 15th in the overall driver standings with this small race team. He's been doing particularly well on ovals 1.5-mile and greater in size this season. Blaney has two-career Sprint Cup Series starts at Michigan International Speedway with the No. 21 team. This will certainly help this weekend. Were it not for the super-impressive Chase Elliott, Blaney would have a lock on Rookie of the Year this season. He's certainly been racing years ahead of his age and experience.

Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week

Tony Stewart –
One-time Michigan winner Stewart certainly has had his struggles this season. Since returning from injury he's only posted one Top 10 in six starts. Last week's mishap at Pocono led to a disappointing 34th-place finish. As for Michigan International Speedway, it's given the owner/driver troubles in recent seasons. Stewart has only one Top 10 in his last five trips to the Michigan oval, and a 19.4 average finish over that span. The veteran driver is looking squarely at a mid-20's finish this Sunday afternoon, and that's well below what we expect for this driver and team.

Greg Biffle –
The Roush Fenway Racing driver used to be a top performer each time we visited the two-mile oval in Michigan. Biffle racked up four wins and 14 Top-10 finishes in his first 11 seasons of racing at MIS, but he's fallen on hard times at this facility in recent years. Since 2014 he's only claimed one Top 10 in the last four trips. Biffle's 36th- and 23rd-place finishes at Michigan last year rank among his worst performances here since joining the Sprint Cup Series in 2003. The struggling No. 16 team doesn't currently perform at a level to reverse these recent trends. Keep Biffle on the bench for the FireKeepers Casino 400.

Kyle Busch –
The Joe Gibbs Racing big gun is not the best play at Michigan International Speedway. The No. 18 team has fell into a bit of a rut of late. Busch is mired in a three-race Top-10 drought, and over that span he's posted finishes of 30th-, 33rd- and 31st-place. He comes to MIS hoping to hit the reset button, but this has not been one of his better ovals on the circuit. It ranks as one of his bottom three tracks in Top-10 rate. Busch's six-career Top 10's check in at a lowly 27-percent rate. With no Top-10 finishes in his last five trips to the Irish Hills, it's best to play the odds this week and give Busch a week on the bench.

Aric Almirola –
At 14 races into the season, the driver of the No. 43 Ford is still searching for his first Top-10 finish of the season. The struggles of the Richard Petty Motorsports driver have been difficult to explain. Almirola has only two Top-20 finishes in his last nine races, and that's well below the norm for this veteran driver. Michigan has yet to yield a Top-10 finish to him in eight-career starts. In fact, finishing on the lead lap here has been a struggle for Almirola over the years. Chances for a breakout and rebound for this driver and team Sunday afternoon are slim at best.

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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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