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 Monster Energy 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, Michigan. 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 five years and Mother Nature has had several seasons 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 our last Michigan race last August, we saw Joey Logano claim the pole with his 201.698 mph qualifying lap. We've seen consistently 200 mph average poles at this facility the last two seasons. We'll see if these Monster Energy Cup
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 Monster Energy 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, Michigan. 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 five years and Mother Nature has had several seasons 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 our last Michigan race last August, we saw Joey Logano claim the pole with his 201.698 mph qualifying lap. We've seen consistently 200 mph average poles at this facility the last two seasons. We'll see if these Monster Energy 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 Monster Energy 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 and racing produce 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. The new segment racing will only complicate strategies even more. If recent races at MIS are any indicator, be prepared for about 20-25 lead changes and five or six 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 12 years or 24 races at Michigan International Speedway.

DRIVERAVG FINISHQUALITY PASSESFASTEST LAPSLAPS LEDLAPS IN TOP 15RATING
Chase Elliot 2.0596866391125.1
Matt Kenseth11.09902553893,599102.2
Jimmie Johnson16.08694496063,299100.0
Joey Logano12.65051413562,01797.0
Dale Earnhardt Jr.13.29332052892,97796.0
Kevin Harvick11.37762132352,77994.0
Kyle Larson 14.2223605177594.0
Brad Keselowski12.355080732,03393.3
Kurt Busch19.57781863302,87589.8
Denny Hamlin15.28161101582,69789.4
Kasey Kahne16.6846187612,61388.2
Kyle Busch20.47741551792,75185.7
Ryan Blaney17.31027043284.6
Martin Truex Jr.16.5648141882,15183.5
Austin Dillon16.6229292290180.9
Clint Bowyer17.166837282,18279.6
Ryan Newman17.574915322,27278.8
Ty Dillon19.0434013173.7
Jamie McMurray17.059128371,60873.6
Paul Menard17.658225161,74873.3

In years past, Michigan International Speedway was a track of parity. It seemed that any manufacturer was a contender for victory lane. However, recent 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. If the last three Michigan races are any indicator, the huge oval could be tilting back towards manufacturer parity. Toyota, Ford and Chevrolet have each been to victory lane in the last three events at this facility. This track is back up for grabs, and that is great news for Toyota and the still winless in 2017 Joe Gibbs Racing camp.

Matt Kenseth took JGR to victory lane at Michigan in the August 2015 race at the oval. It snapped a seven-race winless drought for Gibbs at the two-mile oval. Last season, JGR drivers were only able to snatch three Top-10 finishes in the two combined races, and none of the four drivers of this camp were a major threat to win. That's not good news for guys like Kenseth, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch entering this weekend. Not to be forgotten in all this talk of Chevy and Toyota are the Ford teams of Penske Racing and Stewart Haas Racing. Logano went to victory lane in this event one year ago for Ford, for his second-career Michigan win. Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch are also past winners at this facility. Ryan Blaney, coming off the big Pocono win, absolutely loves this track and finished a brilliant fourth in last August's Pure Michigan 400. We have to consider the possibility that either Stewart Haas or 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

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 one victory, three Top-5 finishes and over 400 laps led in just the last four events. His Michigan history shows just seven Top-10 finishes in 22-career starts. However, the driver of the No. 78 Toyota led 73 laps, contended for the win and finished fourth at the similar oval in Fontana earlier this season. This is a scenario set up for Truex to possibly grab his first-career Michigan victory this Sunday afternoon.

Kyle Larson -
The young Chip Ganassi Racing driver just continues to show up each week with fast race cars, and in position to challenge for the win, no matter the oval. Larson now has 250 laps led and second- and seventh-place finishes in his last two races. Michigan has been a facility of quickly improving results for this driver and team. Larson won last August's Pure Michigan 400 for his first-career Cup victory. He also has three Top 10's in six-career starts at this facility. In addition, the driver of the No. 42 Chevrolet won earlier this year at the similar oval in Fontana in a dominant performance. Larson now has finishes of third-, first- and first-place in his last three starts on two-mile ovals. He'll be a homerun threat again in the FireKeepers Casino 400.

Kevin Harvick -
The Stewart Haas Racing star has excelled on two-mile ovals throughout his long Monster Energy Cup Series career. Harvick has one win and 15 Top-10 finishes at just the Michigan oval alone. He has an amazing five runner-up finishes in his last eight 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.

Brad Keselowski -
We've seen the No. 2 team suffer some setbacks the last few weeks at Charlotte and Dover. However, the veteran driver rebounded nicely at Pocono last Sunday and nabbed a fifth-place finish. 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 track, but he won at the similar two-mile oval in Fontana earlier in his career. He also finished runner-up in Fontana earlier this season. Keselowski rides a six-race Michigan Top-10 streak into Sunday's 400-mile race, and hungry as ever to finally win at his home state oval.

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

Kyle Busch -
The Joe Gibbs Racing big gun is a bit of a paradox right now. He shows up with race-winning cars each week, but seems to find ways not to make it into victory lane. This past week's 100 laps led and ninth-place finish at Pocono is very illustrative of this point. For this very reason, we're calling for the Michigan Top 10, but no victory for the driver of the No. 18 Toyota. His Michigan career stats are pretty poor by any measure. Busch's six Top 10's in 24 starts at MIS come in at a disappointing 25-percent rate. However, he's so hot right now, he has the speed to trump this history just a bit. Ride the Joe Gibbs Racing star if you need a steady performance and Top-10 finish, but don't likely expect him to break through for his first win of the season this Sunday afternoon.

Kurt Busch -
With his great performance and fourth-place finish at Pocono Raceway this past week, Busch continues to rebound from his slow spring and point his team towards a possible championship run later this year. 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 two years ago), nearly 450 laps led and 11 Top-10 finishes at the track in the Irish Hills. Considering what the No. 41 SHR team has done since early May we expect big things for Busch in this visit to Michigan International Speedway.

Matt Kenseth -
Kenseth has been the most consistent performer of the Joe Gibbs Racing stable at MIS over the years. The veteran driver made a trip to victory lane here in August of 2015, and he now sits at a lofty 57-percent career Top-10 rate at MIS. He has mounted a threat on the Top 10 of the driver standings with two Top 10's in his last three races leading into this weekend. 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 18-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.

Chase Elliott -
The young driver has been trending north the last couple weeks, and putting a recent slump in the rearview mirror. Elliott grabbed a fifth-place finish at Dover and followed that up with an eighth-place finish at Pocono Raceway this past weekend. The Hendrick Motorsports prodigy rides a two-race Top-10 streak into Michigan this week. Elliott has been one of the more excellent performers on the two-mile oval circuit the last year. He nabbed a pair of runner-up finishes at Michigan International Speedway last season, and he has sixth- and 10th-place finishes in his two Fontana starts since last March. His 71 laps led combined between these two similar ovals shows that the No. 24 team has them pegged and Elliott leads laps when we visit these facilities. The Hendrick Motorsports rising star will be strong in Sunday's FireKeepers Casino 400.

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

Joey Logano -
The driver of the No. 22 Ford is struggling at the present time, thus the reason for the downgrade to the sleepers list this week. There is some risk for fantasy racing deployment. However, his two-mile oval resume is hard to overlook. Going back to 2015, Logano has been the most dominant driver on these two-mile ovals. With one win, four Top-5 and six Top-10 finishes in those six starts he's been the gold standard. His two-career Michigan victories, including this event one year ago, are backed up by a staggering 11 Top 10's in 16 starts or 69-percent at this track. The Penske Racing star has been down in recent weeks, but this is the perfect track and opportunity to rebound to the Top 10.

Jimmie Johnson -
The Hendrick Motorsports star has been a bit boom or bust of late. He's either winning or struggling to crack the Top 15 each week. Michigan International Speedway has also been a mixed bag for the driver of the No. 48 Chevrolet. Johnson has one win and 12 Top-10 finishes at MIS for a 40-percent rate. Our primary reason for optimism for the No. 48 team this weekend is Johnson's sixth-place finish in his last Michigan start last August. He led 37 laps that day and turned in a strong performance in the Pure Michigan 400. While a win this weekend at Michigan is a slim possibility, there is better chance that he'll earn a workmanlike Top-10 finish in the FireKeepers Casino 400.

Jamie McMurray -
Not only has Kyle Larson been a big part of the Chip Ganassi Racing resurgence this year, McMurray has done his part as well. The veteran driver enters Michigan weekend eighth in the driver standings with eight Top 10's in the first 14 races of the season. Two-mile ovals have been a strong point of the No. 1 Chevrolet team the last two seasons. McMurray has a near-spotless five Top-10 finishes in his last six starts between Fontana and Michigan. That includes a strong sixth-place finish earlier this season at the Fontana two-mile oval. He nabbed a pair of Top 10's in his two Michigan starts last season, and that's a great indicator for this Sunday afternoon.

Daniel Suarez -
The Joe Gibbs Racing rookie is fresh off a good Top-15 finish at Pocono Raceway. Now Suarez comes to Michigan and looks to make his first-career start at the speedway just outside Motor City. The good news for the young driver is that he claimed his second-career Cup Top 10 earlier this season at the similar oval in Fontana. Suarez started 10th on the grid that day and finished an impressive seventh. The multiple grooves and flexibility of this style of racing should appeal to the driver of the No. 19 Toyota. The tracks larger than 1.5-mile in size have been the strength of this driver and team. Suarez should challenge for his fifth Top-10 finish of the season in this 400-mile battle.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. -
The Roush Fenway Racing driver has just done nothing but perform this season on the larger ovals. Stenhouse grabbed the win at Talladega earlier this spring, and he's been a Top-15 finisher each time we've visited tracks larger than 1.5-mile in size in his last five starts. That includes his steady 11th-place finish this past weekend at Pocono Raceway. Stenhouse has been nothing impressive in his Michigan history. In eight-career starts he has no Top 10's and an average finish of 23.0. However, we feel things will be different this Sunday afternoon. This is an improving driver with a lot of confidence. We should see yet another Top-15 finish for the No. 17 Ford team.

Ryan Blaney -
The Wood Brothers Racing rookie is on a tear. With Blaney's first-career win at Pocono Raceway this past week, he now has five Top 10's for the year and comes to Michigan a lofty 12th 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 four-career Monster Energy Cup Series starts at Michigan International Speedway with the No. 21 team. This will certainly help this weekend. His last start yielded an impressive fourth-place finish in last August's Pure Michigan 400. Riding the tidal wave of momentum from his first win, he's not a driver to bet against in the FireKeepers Casino 400.

Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week

Kasey Kahne -
With crashes and DNF's in his last three starts, Kahne is again showing he can't be depended on for reliable fantasy racing deployment. He's now fallen to a season-low 21st-place in the driver standings as we enter Michigan weekend. Kahne has had a fairly decent career record at the Michigan oval, but he hasn't cracked the Top 10 at this facility since 2014. The veteran driver's start earlier this season at the similar two-mile oval in Fontana yielded a disappointing 20th-place finish. That's likely the benchmark for this Sunday afternoon, and that's well below reliability or high-end potential for fantasy racing deployment at Michigan.

Danica Patrick -
Coming off the up-tick 16th-place finish at Pocono it would seem that now would be a good time to deploy Patrick in deeper leagues and weekly lineup games. However, a word of two-mile of caution is in order. The Stewart Haas Racing driver hasn't show a flair for racing on these huge ovals the last two seasons. She has only one Top 20 in her last six combined starts between Fontana and Michigan and an average finish around 24.8. That mirrors Patrick's last start at MIS which was a 23rd-place effort in last August's Pure Michigan 400. The stats simply don't inspire any expectations for a good weekend for the No. 10 Stewart Haas racing team.

Denny Hamlin -
Michigan International Speedway has been a good oval for the Joe Gibbs Racing star. Hamlin nabbed a couple wins here earlier in his career and has 10 Top 10's at the track to-date. However, his disappearing act at one of his better ovals of Pocono this past week is concerning. Hamlin labored to a 12th-place finish at an oval where he normally races among the leaders. His last three starts on two-mile ovals show finishes of 33rd-, ninth- and 14th-place. The latter coming at Fontana earlier this season. Those are finishes that cause some concern. The No. 11 team doesn't appear to be on top of their game at the moment, and ovals of this size and configuration have been a puzzle for the veteran driver.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. -
The No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevy team had almost improbable shifter issues at Pocono this past week. Earnhardt dumped not one, but two engines at Pocono Raceway last week due to miss-shifts. The first was in practice, and the second came in the race relegating the NASCAR icon to the engine damage and DNF. His post-race interview can only be described as speechless as to the cause. Quite frankly, that's not good enough for us. While he won't be shifting like that at Michigan this week, it's still cause for concern. Earnhardt does have two-career Michigan wins in his resume, but only a 40-percent Top-10 rate. He had seemed to be gathering some momentum prior to Pocono, but now we're not so sure.

Want to Read More?
Subscribe to RotoWire to see the full article.

We reserve some of our best content for our paid subscribers. Plus, if you choose to subscribe you can discuss this article with the author and the rest of the RotoWire community.

Get Instant Access To This Article Get Access To This Article
RotoWire Community
Join Our Subscriber-Only NASCAR Chat
Chat with our writers and other RotoWire NASCAR fans for all the pre-game info and in-game banter.
Join The Discussion
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.
NASCAR DFS: PrizePicks Selections for the Ambetter Health 400
NASCAR DFS: PrizePicks Selections for the Ambetter Health 400
NASCAR DFS:  Ambetter Health 400
NASCAR DFS: Ambetter Health 400
NASCAR DFS Trucks: Fr8 208
NASCAR DFS Trucks: Fr8 208
Ambetter Health 400 Preview: New Slot for Atlanta
Ambetter Health 400 Preview: New Slot for Atlanta