FireKeepers Casino 400 Preview: Big Oval Racing

FireKeepers Casino 400 Preview: Big Oval Racing

This article is part of our Weekly Preview series.

As we put the wild restarts and fender-beating action of road course racing behind us, we look forward to this weekend when the NASCAR Cup Series will pay its first and only visit of the season to Michigan International Speedway for the FireKeepers Casino 400.  Historically, there have been two annual events at the Michigan oval, but this season's schedule shakeup has trimmed the action to just one race at the high speed, two-mile track. 

 This facility has wowed us for years with some of the fastest speeds recorded in NASCAR.  At its height we saw a pole qualifying lap of 206.558 mph in 2014 by Jeff Gordon, and that still stands as the pole qualifying record at MIS.  The speeds have gradually drifted downwards in recent seasons due to many aerodynamic and performance changes to the Cup Series car, but we still see average laps in the low 190s.  With no practice or qualifying this weekend, drivers won't get to shake down their cars for this high speed oval, but they'll be flying by the seat of their pants as they head off into turn 1 for the first lap after the green flag drops Sunday. 

The oval in Michigan has similar characteristics to Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., which the NASCAR Cup Series raced at in March of last season.  NASCAR was able to squeeze that event in last year before the pandemic shutdown.  However, we have not and will not visit that track in the

As we put the wild restarts and fender-beating action of road course racing behind us, we look forward to this weekend when the NASCAR Cup Series will pay its first and only visit of the season to Michigan International Speedway for the FireKeepers Casino 400.  Historically, there have been two annual events at the Michigan oval, but this season's schedule shakeup has trimmed the action to just one race at the high speed, two-mile track. 

 This facility has wowed us for years with some of the fastest speeds recorded in NASCAR.  At its height we saw a pole qualifying lap of 206.558 mph in 2014 by Jeff Gordon, and that still stands as the pole qualifying record at MIS.  The speeds have gradually drifted downwards in recent seasons due to many aerodynamic and performance changes to the Cup Series car, but we still see average laps in the low 190s.  With no practice or qualifying this weekend, drivers won't get to shake down their cars for this high speed oval, but they'll be flying by the seat of their pants as they head off into turn 1 for the first lap after the green flag drops Sunday. 

The oval in Michigan has similar characteristics to Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., which the NASCAR Cup Series raced at in March of last season.  NASCAR was able to squeeze that event in last year before the pandemic shutdown.  However, we have not and will not visit that track in the 2021 schedule.  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 six or seven 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 don't have a race this season at Fontana to look over, we'll have to rely a lot on the two races that were held at Michigan last year.  We've not raced on a two-mile oval in 2021, so that data will be pretty valuable to us this weekend.  Short term history for Michigan International Speedway will serve us well too, probably as far back as 2019.  The drivers who have performed well at MIS over the years are certainly worth some added scrutiny.  As always, hot streaks entering this weekend will play a part, so we'll keep an eye on those as well.  The loop stats shown below cover the last 16 years or 32 races at Michigan International Speedway.

DriverAvg. FinishQuality Passes# of Fastest LapsLaps LedLaps in Top 15Driver Rating
Kevin Harvick9.71,0564256114,099102.5
Joey Logano11.77821815903,25099.1
Chase Elliott 7.738497761,61399.1
Brad Keselowski12.78731752523,29997.3
Kyle Larson 12.44481181501,61696.1
Denny Hamlin13.21,1372082143,96792.6
Ryan Blaney16.439680501,61892.5
Kurt Busch17.01,1412173814,13691.8
Kyle Busch16.71,0922652664,02590.7
Christopher Bell15.0679018689.6
Martin Truex Jr.13.89583002753,29289.3
Erik Jones16.42963151,00986.6
Austin Dillon16.446946341,60677.1
William Byron16.81628263376.8
Ryan Newman16.890718442,72876.5
Aric Almirola18.441027131,15572.9
Daniel Suarez20.117715451068.9
Tyler Reddick21.036405066.0
Alex Bowman25.519222069464.2
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.22.22539074463.7

Throughout the years Michigan International Speedway was a track of parity.  It seemed that any manufacturer was a contender for victory lane each time we visited the Irish Hills.  However, the last three seasons have seen Michigan become a track of streaks.  Ford drivers have reeled off six-straight victories at the two-mile oval.  Drivers from that brand will be defending their turf heading into Sunday's battle.  Kevin Harvick swept the double header weekend here last season and won the late Summer installment at Michigan in 2019 so he rides a three-race Michigan win streak into the FireKeepers Casino 400.  Harvick is winless so far in 2021 so a lot will be riding on the No. 4 Stewart Haas Racing team to break into the win column this weekend and lock in a spot in the upcoming playoffs.

Considering that things have been on the lean side for Ford drivers thus far this season, it could be time for a changing of the guard at Michigan International Speedway.  Chevrolet and Toyota drivers will have many suitors for victory lane among them.  In the Chevrolet camp Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott will lead the way.  Larson is a three-time Michigan winner and Elliott has shown strength in recent races at MIS.  This duo will carry the torch for the bowtie brand Sunday.  On the Toyota side Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. are both racing well right now and Busch is a past winner at Michigan.  It's shaping up to be a multi-manufacturer brawl this Sunday with a lot of unknowns going into this 400-mile race.  This is the first oval of its size and configuration in the 2021 schedule so we'll be seeing some surprises this weekend for sure.  We'll outline the drivers with past history and Michigan and current streaking drivers that you need to win your fantasy racing leagues in the FireKeepers Casino 400.

The Contenders – Drivers in the hunt for the win

Kyle Larson – The transition from road racing to large ovals should go well for Larson and the No. 5 team.  We should keep our fantasy racing eyes fixed on this driver and team.  Larson is a three-time Michigan winner, and he finished a brilliant third-place here in his last Michigan start in the late Summer of 2019.  The 150 career laps led at MIS and impressive 42-percent Top-5 rate are considerable statistics of note.  The Hendrick Motorsports star has been the most dominant driver of 2021 on the intermediate ovals with well over 800 laps led and two victories, and that speed should translate well to the big aero-dependent oval of Michigan.  Larson is the driver to beat in the FireKeepers Casino 400.

Kyle Busch – The Joe Gibbs Racing star has been razor sharp on the intermediate ovals this season with one victory and a miniscule 4.0 average finish.  That bodes well for our first visit to Michigan this season.  Busch is a one-time Michigan winner, and he rides an eight-race Michigan Top-10 streak into Sunday's action.  When we last saw Busch in action on this two-mile oval, he grabbed fifth- and fourth-place finishes in last season's Michigan doubleheader weekend.  We see those marks as the floor for the No. 18 Toyota team this Sunday.  His Michigan performances have been strong in recent seasons, and Busch has been a threat to win on the larger tracks in 2021.  We believe Busch could be ready to collect career victory number two at Michigan International Speedway. 

Chase Elliott – The young driver has been sorting out his performance on the intermediate ovals this season.  After a slow start to the campaign, Elliott has rallied back to post fifth-, second- and seventh-place finishes on the cookie cutter tracks.  That speed and performance should translate well to Michigan International Speedway.  The driver of the No. 9 Chevrolet owns three-career runner-up finishes at this track, and his 90-percent Top-10 rate is an eye-popping figure.  Elliott has yet to win in his first 10 starts at Michigan, but that could change this weekend.  He already has two victories this season, and has shown the speed to challenge for more.  Elliott is not the driver to beat this Sunday at MIS, but he's a good upset candidate to spoil Larson. 

Martin Truex Jr. – Truex turned in his best intermediate oval performance of the season last time out at Atlanta in July.  That's a good sign heading into the FireKeepers Casino 400.  The Toyota teams had been lacking speed compared to the Chevrolets for most of this season, but Truex and the No. 19 team showed some muscle last time out on a larger oval.  Michigan International Speedway has been kind to Truex in recent seasons.  With a career 33-percent Top-5 rate and riding a four-race Michigan Top-5 streak into Sunday's action, we have to be very optimistic for this driver and team.  Truex nabbed a strong pair of third-place finishes at Michigan last season with this aerodynamic package.  Those notes should come in very handy for Sunday's 200-lap battle.

Solid Plays – Near locks for a Top 10 with an outside shot to win

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 15 Top 10's at the track to-date.  The driver of the No. 11 Toyota rides a three-race Michigan Top-10 streak into this weekend, and that includes a pair of runner-up finishes in the span.  These recent efforts have boosted Hamlin's career Top-10 rate at MIS to a very respectable 50-percent rate.  The two-mile tracks aren't his best facilities on the NASCAR circuit, but they're far from his worst.  Considering that Hamlin led 6 laps and finished second in his last Michigan start, he should be confident and hungry to hit the track Sunday afternoon.

Kevin Harvick – It's really remarkable that Harvick is still winless 24 races into this season.  The Stewart Haas Racing star needs a win in the worst way to jump start his performance going into the Chase in a couple weeks.  Coincidentally, Michigan is his most successful large oval of the last few years.  Harvick has this place pegged with four victories in the last five events, and three-straight entering this weekend's action.  He's led nearly 700 laps for his career at Michigan International Speedway and clearly knows how to get around this large, multi-groove race track.  While his chances of defending his recent wins at Michigan are a bit slim this weekend, he should still have the savvy to navigate a Top-10 finish and potentially a Top-5 performance.        

William Byron – The driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet has been a top performer on the intermediate ovals this season.  Byron has one win (Homestead) and five Top-10 finishes on those tracks.  The 8.3 average finish is among the best drivers in the Cup Series.  Byron has six-career starts at Michigan International Speedway, and while his results have been less than impressive to this point, he has gotten progressively better with each visit to the Irish Hills.  The Hendrick Motorsports youngster has had his fill of road racing of late, and will be glad to return to ovals this weekend.  Looking to improve his standing in the Chase, we expect Byron to be razor sharp this Sunday.  He should be a Top-10 performer in the FireKeepers Casino 400.

Joey Logano – Logano has been mired in a slump of late, but the change of scenery to Michigan should go a long way to helping the No. 22 Ford team turn things around.  The veteran Penske Racing driver loves this two-mile oval.  Logano is a three-time Michigan winner and his 17 Top-10 finishes at MIS work out to an amazing 71-percent Top-10 rate.  With close to 600 laps led at Michigan it's clear that Logano loves racing at this expansive oval.  His two starts here in 2020 netted eighth- and fifth-place finishes for the No. 22 team.  Those notes should come in handy for Logano this weekend.  Michigan International Speedway is one of Logano's best ovals in his Cup Series resume.

Sleepers – Drivers with good history at Michigan & solid upside

Brad Keselowski – We've seen the No. 2 Ford team have their struggles of late, but Keselowski has maintained a high level of performance on the intermediate ovals this season.  The Penske Racing star has three Top 10's on the 1.5-mile tracks in 2021, including a steady 10th-place finish at Atlanta last time out.  Keselowski likes the big Michigan oval.  His 12 Top-10 finishes across his career work out to a decent 52-percent rate and steady 12.7 average finish.  The multiple groove racing really appeals to this veteran driver.  While Keselowski shouldn't be seen as a major threat to win this Sunday, he has finished runner-up twice at MIS since the 2018 season.  That's something to lean on this week when filling out your fantasy racing teams.     

Kurt Busch – Three-time Michigan winner, Busch, should bring it strong this Sunday in the FireKeepers Casino 400.  Consistency at this oval over his career has been the primary issue.  With 16 Top-10 finishes in 40 starts, Busch checks in at a pedestrian 40-percent rate at this facility.  However, recent visits have boosted that rate as Busch has been clocking Top 10's at an 83-percent rate at Michigan since the 2018 season.  The driver of the No. 1 Chevrolet grabbed a pair of 10th-place finishes at Michigan International Speedway last season in the doubleheader weekend.  Busch won in a dominant performance last time out on an intermediate oval in Atlanta in July and that bodes well for Sunday afternoon.    

Ryan Blaney – Blaney has been an intermediate oval performer this season despite some uneven performances across the season.  With one win and three Top 10's including a Top-5 performance last time out at Atlanta, he has to be viewed as a top performing candidate at Michigan.  Blaney's 42-percent Michigan Top-10 rate is pedestrian at best, but he did lead 27 laps and finish fourth in one of the two races of last season's Michigan doubleheader.  Had he not crashed in the second race of that weekend, Blaney may well have collected a pair of Top 5's at MIS last season.  The No. 12 Ford team brings good speed and good experience to a two-mile oval where Penske drivers have been very decorated over the years. 

Alex Bowman – With the return to oval track racing, Bowman should get a fantasy racing upgrade this weekend.  The road courses have pulled the No. 48 team down in performance, but intermediate and larger ovals have been paydays for Bowman.  His 67-percent Top-10 rate on the 1.5-mile tracks should translate into good speed and performance at Michigan International Speedway.  Bowman has a pair of Top-10 finishes in his last four starts in the Irish Hills.  That's a comforting statistic to look at heading into the FireKeepers Casino 400.  His victory on the aero-sensitive oval of Pocono this summer is a good omen returning to Michigan this weekend.

Tyler Reddick – With the Chase for the Cup playoffs fast approaching, Reddick is focused like a laser beam right now on securing a playoff spot and performing well in the postseason.  The young driver should race with purpose this Sunday in the 200-lap battle at MIS.  Reddick has been quite consistent this summer on the intermediate oval circuit with three Top 10's at tracks like Kansas, Charlotte and Atlanta.  He has just two Cup Series starts at Michigan which came last season.  They were mediocre performances at best, but good experience heading into Reddick's return to the two-mile oval.  We expect Reddick will challenge the Top 10 in the FireKeepers Casino 400, and at worst crack the Top 15. 

Austin Dillon – The intermediate, aero-sensitive tracks have been places of consistency for the No. 3 Richard Childress Racing team in 2021.  Dillon's three Top-10 and six Top-15 finishes have gone largely unheralded, but the consistency has to be appreciated.  The average finish works out to a stellar 9.7 average.  Dillon should carry that speed into the Cup Series return to Michigan International Speedway.  The veteran driver's 29-percent Top-10 rate at this track is a little less than we'd like to see, but we believe his current upside outweighs that history.  In addition, Dillon finished an impressive eighth-place in his last Michigan start last season.

Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week

Aric Almirola – The Stewart Haas Racing veteran has labored on the aero-sensitive 1.5-mile tracks this season.  Almirola has just one Top-20 finish in six starts for an inflated 27.0 average finish.  That's very troubling heading to a track where handling at top speed is a high priority.  Michigan International Speedway itself has been a career-long struggle for the driver from south Florida.  Almirola has just two Top 10's in 17-career starts at Michigan.  The 12-percent Top-10 rate is a non-starter for fantasy racing expectations this weekend.  The driver of the No. 10 Ford is likely headed for a high teens or low 20's finish in Sunday's 200-lap contest.    

Cole Custer – Custer has been struggling through a difficult sophomore campaign in 2021.  He enters the weekend with just two Top-10 finishes for the season and a distant 28th-place in the series point standings.  The intermediate and larger ovals have been a big part of the struggles for the No. 41 Ford team.  With no Top-15 finishes and a 21.3 average finish on the 1.5-mile tracks, Custer has been a back-marker in these style races.  The Stewart Haas Racing youngster has just two-career Michigan starts to his credit and those were disappointing 34th- and 25th-place finishes last season.  The odds would seem to be stacked against Custer in this 400-mile race at Michigan.    

Ryan Newman – The Roush Fenway Racing veteran snapped a 10-race Top-10 drought with his 10th-place finish at Indianapolis this past week.  It's been a tough campaign for the driver of the No. 6 Ford.  However, we return to big ovals this week and leave the road circuits behind for now.  Newman has labored on the intermediate ovals this season, and in particular of late.  Finishes of 27th- and 28th-place most recently at Charlotte and Atlanta have dragged his season average finish down to 18.2 on the 1.5-mile tracks.  Despite being a two-time Michigan winner, we have to remain pessimistic this weekend for Newman.  Those victories came long ago, and his 26-percent Top-10 rate at Michigan just doesn't make the cut.

Ross Chastain – Chastain has shown some fantasy racing utility on the short tracks and road courses this season.  He's rewarded those savvy enough to start him on those tracks well.  However, the No. 42 Chevrolet team has struggled on the aero-sensitive tracks.  With just two Top-15 finishes and an inflated 21.0 average finish on the 1.5-mile tracks, Chastain has labored at these facilities.  Michigan could be a similar setup for this veteran driver.  Chastain has just three Cup Series starts at MIS and they came with a much less-equipped team than his present Chip Ganassi Racing squad.  Still, the 30.0 average finish in those three Michigan starts has to be concerning.  There are just too many question marks to rely on Chastain for fantasy racing results this weekend.

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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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