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 with a blazing-fast 203.241 mph lap. That was almost 10 mph faster than the old record set back in 2005. 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. Six years have passed since that repave 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 hardly at all. We would credit much of this to the rules package on the cars. In our last Michigan race last August, we saw Brad Keselowski claim the pole with his 203.097 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
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 with a blazing-fast 203.241 mph lap. That was almost 10 mph faster than the old record set back in 2005. 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. Six years have passed since that repave 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 hardly at all. We would credit much of this to the rules package on the cars. In our last Michigan race last August, we saw Brad Keselowski claim the pole with his 203.097 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.

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. Stage racing only complicates this strategy even more. If recent races at MIS are any indicator, be prepared for about 15-20 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 13 years or 26 races at Michigan International Speedway.

DRIVERAVG FINISHQUALITY PASSESFASTEST LAPSLAPS LEDLAPS IN TOP 15RATING
Chase Elliot 3.51327366770113.9
Matt Kenseth11.51,0642813893,954101.9
Kyle Larson 10.9298951491,173101.1
Erik Jones8.06218531498.4
Jimmie Johnson15.99104496063,44097.7
Joey Logano12.95591413562,33796.3
Kevin Harvick11.58252262353,10694.5
Brad Keselowski12.86221071802,41494.3
Denny Hamlin14.89001261743,08390.1
Kurt Busch18.98531873303,16489.0
Kyle Busch19.58361982333,12787.4
Martin Truex Jr.15.47152562072,54687.0
Kasey Kahne17.6883189612,76886.5
Ryan Blaney18.215714073485.1
Clint Bowyer17.771843282,44579.8
Ryan Newman16.978515322,34478.1
Austin Dillon16.627629221,02377.6
Jamie McMurray16.365930371,91674.7
Paul Menard18.558625161,75171.5
Daniel Suarez30.5405313271.0

Throughout the years Michigan International Speedway was a track of parity. It seemed that any manufacturer was a contender for victory lane. However, the last two seasons have seen a Chevrolet driver singlehandedly wrestle control of this two-mile oval away from the field. This is a noteworthy development considering that drivers from all three manufacturers captured victories at MIS up until 2016. Kyle Larson won the fall installment at Michigan in late-August of 2016, and he's walked away the winner of the last three Michigan races. We haven't seen a streak like this at the Michigan oval since Bill Elliott won four in-a-row at MIS in the 1985 and 1986 seasons. However, we have seen several two-race win streaks at the facility in the intervening years, so Michigan is big on repeat and streak winners. Those will be tidbits to keep in mind this weekend.

Larson's victory at Michigan International Speedway last August was anything but a dominant performance. The driver of the No. 42 Chevrolet survived NASCAR overtime and foiled Martin Truex Jr. en route to stealing his third-straight victory at the two-mile oval. Considering that Chevrolet teams have suffered a speed deficiency this season in the new Camaro, it will be interesting to see if Larson can complete the Hail Mary pass on Sunday and extend his Michigan win streak to four. As hot as Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Truex have been of late, it would seem to be a monumental task for the Chip Ganassi Racing driver. However, before we rule out Larson, we have to realize that this is the oval that could get him back to his winning ways. Larson has had better speed and performance than any other Chevrolet driver this season, and that's a huge plus for his streak hopes. He'll face stiffer competition this weekend than any of his previous three wins, so this is shaping up to be a real knockout battle. One that will resemble last weekend's final laps at Pocono Raceway. 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 and two runner-up finishes in just his last three events. His Michigan history shows just nine Top-10 finishes in 24-career starts and no victories. However, the driver of the No. 78 Toyota led 57 laps, contended for the win and finished runner-up in his last Michigan start. Additionally, Truex won from the pole in a dominant performance earlier this season at the similarly configured oval in Fontana. 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 has won the last three races at this facility with no signs of slowing down. Larson now has one pole position, three victories and five Top-10 finishes in eight-career starts at Michigan International Speedway. He has been the driver to beat at this oval the last two seasons. Despite being winless in 2018, the driver of the No. 42 Chevrolet has had race-winning speed at times this season. Larson has led 335 total laps and finished runner-up three times, including this past weekend at Pocono. One of those runner-up finishes also came at the similar two-mile oval in Fontana in March. His four victories and six Top-5 finishes the last three seasons on two-mile ovals makes Larson the class of the field this weekend. Michigan presents the best opportunity for him to win thus far this season.

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 and seven Top-5 finishes at this facility since the 2013 season. 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 Ford team has been racing of late, Harvick could get that little nudge he needs to convert some of these runner-up Michigan finishes into wins. Never count him out any race weekend, including this one.

Kyle Busch -
The Joe Gibbs Racing big gun has been flexing his muscles of late. Busch has four wins already this season, the latest just two weeks ago at Charlotte. His Michigan career stats are pretty poor by any measure. Busch's eight Top 10s in 26 starts at MIS come in at a disappointing 31-percent rate. However, he's so hot right now, he has the speed to trump this history just a bit. When we last saw Busch in action on a two-mile oval, he qualified on the outside pole, led 62 laps and finished third at Fontana earlier this season. That could be more the mark for the No. 18 Toyota team this weekend. His Michigan performances were much better last season with 54 laps led and a pair of Top-10 finishes.

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

Joey Logano -
The driver of the No. 22 Ford pulled out a Top-10 finish at Pocono last weekend, despite falling off the lead lap at one point. It was a gritty performance in the face of many obstacles, and should propel him into the Irish Hills. The Penske Racing star has always loved competing at Michigan International Speedway. Logano owns two victories and 12 Top-10 finishes in 18-career starts at MIS. His driver rating checks in at a strong 96.3 at this facility, which ranks him among the elite in NASCAR. Logano led 9 laps and registered a fifth-place finish at the two-mile oval in Fontana earlier this season. We should see a similar performance in Sunday's FireKeepers Casino 400.

Brad Keselowski -
We've seen the No. 2 team struggle with some adversity the last few weeks. 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 won the pole and led 105 laps in his last Michigan start last season, but didn't get the finish he deserved. He also finished fourth in Fontana earlier this season. Keselowski has notched a blazing 78-percent Top-10 rate in his last three seasons of racing at the two-mile ovals of Fontana and Michigan. Those are numbers to rely on this weekend.

Jimmie Johnson -
The Hendrick Motorsports star has been coming on of late. Johnson bucked some recent historical trends at Pocono Raceway with his Top-10 finish last Sunday in the Pocono 400. He rides a two-race Top-10 streak into the Irish Hills this weekend, and looking to build on that current momentum. The driver of the No. 48 Chevrolet has some similar struggles recently at Michigan International Speedway, but still sports a 41-percent career Top-10 rate at MIS. In this event one year ago Johnson posted a 10th-place finish, and earlier this season he registered a workmanlike ninth-place finish at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana. The seven-time champion is far from race-winning form, but their current speed and performance is Top-10 worthy for Michigan.

Ryan Blaney -
Blaney shook off some recent bad luck and answered the call this past weekend at Pocono with a strong performance. He won the pole position, led 11 laps and picked up a sixth-place finish in the Pocono 400. Blaney will carry that momentum into Michigan this weekend. He has six-career Cup starts at this facility, with only one Top-5 finish, but those stats came from his previous team at Wood Brothers Racing. Penske teams have excelled at Michigan for decades. Blaney will use that experience to his advantage in this 400-mile battle. The best indicator we can point to was his eighth-place finish with his new No. 12 Ford team in March at Fontana. We should see a similar performance at Michigan International Speedway.

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

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 11 Top 10s at the track to-date. Two of his last three Michigan starts have netted Top-10 finishes. That coincides with his two-mile oval level of performance the last three seasons. Hamlin has three Top-5 and five Top-10 finishes in his last nine Fontana and Michigan starts. These two-mile tracks aren't his best facilities on the NASCAR circuit, but they're far from his worst. Considering that Hamlin was robbed of a well-deserved Top-10 finish this past weekend at Pocono, we should see a hungry and motivated driver of the No. 11 Toyota in this 400-mile battle.

Chase Elliott -
The young driver has been sorting out his season in recent weeks. Elliott's start to 2018 has been far from what he or the team expected, but it has been improving in recent weeks. The driver of the No. 9 Chevrolet marched to a hard-fought 10th-place finish this past weekend at Pocono Raceway. The two-mile tracks have been a real high point for the Hendrick Motorsports youngster the last two seasons. Six of his seven starts between Fontana and Michigan have netted Top-10 finishes, a series-best over the span. That streak includes three runner-up finishes at Michigan International Speedway alone. It's clear that Elliott loves racing at this facility, and that could be the advantage to propel him to another great effort Sunday afternoon.

Aric Almirola -
Not only is Almirola on track to set a career-best mark for Top 10s this season, but he's tracking towards a berth in the Chase for the Cup and a very successful season. He brings that potential to Michigan International Speedway this week, and the potential for yet another Top-10 finish. Almirola nabbed a 12th-place finish at Fontana earlier this season, and he'll be looking for even more in the Irish Hills this Sunday afternoon. The veteran driver has 11 starts at the Michigan oval, and his career-best finish of 12th came in his last start. We expect him to improve that mark in Sunday's FireKeepers Casino 400.

Clint Bowyer -
Bowyer's career history at Michigan International Speedway has been pretty good. With 11 Top 10s in 24 starts, he checks in at a respectable 46-percent rate. Recent outings haven't been as kind, and Bowyer has only racked up one Top 10 in his last six starts at MIS. The driver of the No. 14 Ford will look to hit the Michigan reset button this Sunday afternoon. Bowyer finished third- and 11th-place in his last two starts at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana. For this reason alone, we know the team has great potential on two-mile ovals. He had a fast car this past weekend at Pocono Raceway, but didn't get the finish he deserved. That will make Bowyer a motivated driver for Sunday's 400-mile battle at Michigan.

Matt Kenseth -
Kenseth has been a consistent Michigan performer for many years. The veteran driver made a trip to victory lane here in August of 2015, and he now sits at a lofty 54-percent career Top-10 rate at MIS. He showed some real savvy in posting his first Top-15 finish of the season this past weekend at Pocono. The No. 6 team is disadvantaged to be sure, but Kenseth gives them a real chance to be competitive each week. We don't have any recent stats to point to, since the veteran driver missed the Fontana race earlier this season, but when we look at his three-career wins and 20 Top-10 finishes at Michigan International Speedway we are filled with optimism. Don't be surprised if Kenseth works the fuel mileage and pit strategy to a charm again this week and earns another Top-15 finish.

Jamie McMurray -
Sixth- and 15th-place finishes the last two weeks may be signaling that McMurray's struggles are coming to an end. The season had been a pretty tough ride up until the last two weeks. The Chip Ganassi Racing veteran and his crew chief Matt McCall may finally be figuring out the new Chevy Camaro. McMurray faces another week of good potential. The two-mile ovals have been very kind to the driver of the No. 1 Chevrolet the last three seasons. Seven of his last nine starts between Fontana and Michigan have netted Top-10 finishes. That's a great statistic to lean on going into Sunday's race. It would be a good weekend in weekly lineup leagues to roll the dice on McMurray reeling in a good finish.

Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week

Kurt Busch -
Despite being a three-time Michigan winner, there's ample reason to avoid the No. 41 SHR team and Busch this weekend. Consistency really hasn't been this veteran driver's strong suit at the Michigan oval. With only 11 Top-10 finishes in 34 starts, Busch checks in at a lowly 32-percent rate at this facility. Recent visits have been even less consistent with only one Top-10 finish in his last five starts at the two-mile oval. Busch is coming off a subpar Pocono outing and scuffling coming to Michigan this week. He finished 14th earlier this year at the similar oval in Fontana. This could be another down weekend for Busch.

Kasey Kahne -
With the deterioration of his racing career, we've also seen Kahne's two-mile oval performance suffer. The ovals of Fontana and Michigan used to be favorite tracks of the 15-season veteran. Kahne owns one victory and 10 Top-10 finishes in 28 starts at Michigan International Speedway. However, he hasn't visited the Top 10 there in his last seven visits. That level of performance mirrors his last three seasons between Fontana and Michigan. Kahne has no Top-10 finishes in his last 10 starts between the two tracks and an average finish of 20.5. His mechanical failure and 36th-place finish this past week at Pocono Raceway have the No. 95 team looking for answers this weekend.

Daniel Suarez -
The Joe Gibbs Racing youngster has hit a bid of a skid of late. Finishes of 28th-, 15th- and 24th-place the last three weeks have overshadowed much better performance for the No. 19 team in April. Unfortunately, the two-mile ovals have not been his best tracks during his brief Monster Energy Cup Series career. Suarez has four starts between Fontana and Michigan since joining NASCAR's top division, and only one Top 10 in those starts. The average finish in those efforts sits around 22.8. That's pretty close to where Suarez finished at Fontana earlier this season, which was 23rd. We don't look for any breakouts from this young driver Sunday at Michigan International Speedway.

Alex Bowman -
It could be another tough weekend for the No. 88 Chevrolet team. Bowman's 27th-place finish this past week at Pocono was his worst finish in the last seven races. Michigan doesn't appear to be the place for the young driver to rebound. He has five-career starts at the facility and an average finish of 33.6 across the span. Granted, most of those starts were with lesser teams than his current one, but the point still stands. Bowman has made two starts on two-mile ovals with his current No. 88 team, and those have fetched 30th- and 13th-place finishes. That's a pretty wide spread on a small sample to be sure. At the end of the day it comes down to confidence and trust, and we simply have neither in Bowman at the Michigan oval.

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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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