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 their 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 last 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 all of NASCAR. At its height, we saw a pole qualifying lap of 206.558 mph in 2014 by Jeff Gordon, a mark 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 NASCAR bringing the new Next-Gen car to Michigan for the first time, there will be a lot of unknowns about handling and aerodynamics. The race earlier this season at Fontana (a similar two-mile oval) will be likely our best preview of what's to come on Sunday. Chevrolet dominated most of that 400-mile event in February, and we'll soon see if the bowtie camp still has a firm grip on big oval dominance with the race at Michigan.   

The pole-winning speed in the Auto Club 400 of 174.647 mph by Austin Cindric set the all-time

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 their 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 last 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 all of NASCAR. At its height, we saw a pole qualifying lap of 206.558 mph in 2014 by Jeff Gordon, a mark 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 NASCAR bringing the new Next-Gen car to Michigan for the first time, there will be a lot of unknowns about handling and aerodynamics. The race earlier this season at Fontana (a similar two-mile oval) will be likely our best preview of what's to come on Sunday. Chevrolet dominated most of that 400-mile event in February, and we'll soon see if the bowtie camp still has a firm grip on big oval dominance with the race at Michigan.   

The pole-winning speed in the Auto Club 400 of 174.647 mph by Austin Cindric set the all-time low pole speed at the Fontana track in that February race. Speeds were down but the action was up, with a mind-blowing 32 lead changes in that event, roughly double the number of lead changes we've seen at Fontana in recent seasons. NASCAR will hope to see that same action translate to Michigan International Speedway this weekend. Last year's 20 lead changes at MIS were a bit up from recent seasons but still well below the level of competition NASCAR wants to create with the new stock car.   

Since we'll be looking back about five months at Fontana for some ideas on performance this weekend, that data will be a little bit dated, as we've ran many races since then. Short-term history for Michigan International Speedway should 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 17 years or 33 races at Michigan International Speedway.

DriverAvg. FinishQuality Passes# of Fastest LapsLaps LedLaps in Top 15Driver Rating
Kevin Harvick9.81,1094316114,239101.8
Chase Elliott 7.74451081441,801100.7
Kyle Larson 11.75011322201,81098.9
Joey Logano12.68341855903,40898.1
Brad Keselowski12.59281792583,43796.8
Denny Hamlin12.91,2072282244,16593.5
Ryan Blaney15.245082581,80893.5
Kurt Busch16.61,1932273824,31692.2
Kyle Busch16.41,1522732794,20191.0
Martin Truex Jr.13.71,0183022753,43288.9
Christopher Bell14.310519331987.6
Erik Jones16.63023151,02583.2
William Byron14.7239332081082.1
Austin Dillon17.550352361,70777.5
Aric Almirola18.342429131,16872.4
Tyler Reddick23.71227023568.2
Daniel Suarez20.318915453367.0
Daniel Hemric19.0754014966.5
Alex Bowman24.723930081465.4
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.21.627311077964.3

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 four seasons have seen Michigan become a track of streaks. Ford drivers have reeled off seven straight victories at the two-mile oval, so drivers from that brand will be defending their turf heading into Sunday's battle. Kevin Harvick has won four of the last six events at the Michigan track, and although he's been winless so far in 2022, he'll be a driver under great scrutiny this weekend. Ford drivers have found it difficult to win in the new Next-Gen car, so the brand's big Michigan win streak is on the line this Sunday.

This event one year ago saw Ryan Blaney seize control after a late accident and caution period to supplant William Byron at the front. The Penske Racing star would go onto lead the final 8 laps at Michigan and collect the big victory to keep Ford's Michigan winning streak rolling. Ford drivers have only won four of the 22 events thus far this season, so they'll be at a big disadvantage. Chevrolet drivers seem to have the momentum right now, with six of the last seven wins going to the bowtie brand. Drivers like Chase Elliott, Tyler Reddick and Kyle Larson will be squarely in the spotlight this weekend to see if Chevrolet can solve the Michigan puzzle and return the brand to victory lane at MIS for the first time since 2017. We'll outline the drivers with past history at Michigan as well as the currently 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

Chase Elliott – Elliott had an off week at Indianapolis this past Sunday, but he should rebound to his usual strong form this weekend at Michigan International Speedway. He's been the hottest driver in the Cup Series the last several weeks, with two victories and four Top-5 finishes in his last five events, making him the top point-getter during that span. The Hendrick Motorsports star has never won at Michigan but has registered three runner-up finishes at the Irish Hills speedway. Elliott's 91-percent career Top-10 rate at this track is almost too dazzling to comprehend, and his start in this event one year ago netted 68 laps led and an eighth-place finish. The driver of the No. 9 Chevrolet will be the man to beat Sunday in the FireKeepers Casino 400.   

Tyler Reddick – Coming off his second career victory this past weekend at the Indy GP circuit, Reddick is looking for an encore performance at Michigan. The young Richard Childress driver is quickly becoming quite the impactful driver in NASCAR's top division. Reddick now has two wins and three Top 5's in the last five races. His start earlier this season at the similar two-mile oval in Fontana netted a dominating 90 laps led in the Wise Power 400, though Reddick would eventually run into some trouble and finish a disappointing 24th-place. That experience will help the No. 8 team this weekend, as Reddick is an even more polished driver at this point. His three prior Cup Series starts at MIS have not been too noteworthy, but we believe that could change dramatically Sunday at Michigan. 

Kyle Larson – Larson has been a bit inconsistent of late, but the intermediate and large ovals have been his strength this season. The reigning Cup Series champion led 18 laps and cracked the Top 5 at Pocono, as a recent example. Larson won earlier this season at the similar oval in Fontana, leading 28 laps and capturing the victory in the Wise Power 400. He's always liked the two-mile ovals as his two career Fontana victories and three career Michigan wins illustrate. The driver of the No. 5 Chevrolet won the pole, led 70 laps and finished third-place in this event one year ago. That boosted Larson's career Top-5 rate at Michigan to a whopping 46-percent, making MIS easily one of Larson's favorite ovals on the circuit.

Kyle Busch – Busch has had a tough road the last several weeks, but his workmanlike 11th-place finish at Indianapolis this past week is a big move back in the right direction for the No. 18 Toyota team. The bigger ovals have been Busch's strength in the 2022 season. He's led a combined 94 laps on the ovals 2 miles in size and larger this season and would have two Top-5 and three Top-10 finishes were it not for his Pocono disqualification. Busch will be eager to get on the track this Sunday at Michigan, as he's a one-time winner at MIS and rides a strong nine-race Michigan Top-10 streak into Sunday's FireKeepers Casino 400. The Joe Gibbs Racing star will be plenty dangerous in this 400-mile contest at the high banks of Michigan. 

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

Christopher Bell – Bell has been on a roll the last several weeks. His victory at New Hampshire kicked off a three-race run with 73 laps led, one win, two Top-5 and three Top-15 finishes. The No. 20 JGR Toyota team appears to be hitting on all cylinders at the moment. Bell's strong fourth-place performance at the two-mile Pocono oval a couple weeks ago is particularly intriguing heading to the Irish Hills this Sunday. The young driver suffered an engine failure at the similar oval in Fontana earlier this season, so Bell didn't get the full opportunity to show what he could do in the Next-Gen car on a big sweeping oval. He's been generally a Top-15 finisher in his prior Michigan starts, but we're willing to bet he's a Top-5 challenger in Sunday's FireKeepers Casino 400.    

Ross Chastain – Chastain's crash at Pocono and track limits penalty at Indianapolis this past weekend have slowed down what has been a hot No. 1 Chevrolet team. It seems that this Trackhouse Racing veteran is nearly always racing among the leaders from week-to-week, and we expect a rebound performance for Chastain at Michigan. The multiple racing lines and wide corners of MIS will be a welcome sight to this driver and team. Chastain won at the big oval in Talladega earlier this season and led 16 laps two weeks ago at the big Pocono tri-oval before an untimely crash took him out of the running to win. That speed is demonstrative of Chastain's performance on the big ovals this season. The FireKeepers Casino 400 is a tantalizing opportunity for the 29-year-old Floridian. 

Daniel SuarezRoss Chastain is not the only Trackhouse Racing driver to deploy this weekend. The driver of the No. 99 Chevrolet has two Top-5 and four Top-10 finishes in the last five events leading up to Michigan weekend. The big two-mile oval should be a great opportunity for Suarez, who finished a brilliant fourth-place at the similar two-mile oval in Fontana earlier this season. Suarez has been a good performer at Michigan International Speedway in the past when he's been given good cars. Between Stewart Haas and Joe Gibbs Racing, Suarez nabbed 11th-, fourth- and fifth-place finishes in three consecutive events at MIS between 2018 and 2019. Sunday's 400-miler will be a golden opportunity for Suarez and the No. 99 team.

Austin Cindric – Cindric will be making his Cup Series debut at Michigan this weekend, but that's of little concern. The Penske Racing youngster has been coming on strong in recent week, as his two Top-5 and three Top-10 finishes in the last five events illustrates. Cindric is coming off a brilliant runner-up performance at Indianapolis this past Sunday and will ride that momentum into Sunday's FireKeepers Casino 400. Cindric and the No. 2 Ford team won the pole position earlier this year at the similar two-mile oval in Fontana, and while he didn't get the finish he expected, it was still a good experience for the young driver. Cindric's recent uptick in performance has included a lot of success on intermediate and larger ovals. 

Sleepers – Drivers with good history at Michigan & solid upside

Martin Truex Jr. – Truex enters this weekend with Top 10s in two of the last three races and is looking to build momentum as we had towards the playoffs. The Joe Gibbs Racing star has led over 200 laps in his last four races, and it's clear that this driver and team are getting some things sorted out. Truex rides a five-race Michigan Top-10 streak into Sunday's FireKeepers Casino 400 and sports a steady 45-percent career Top-10 rate at the two-mile oval in the Irish Hills. Ovals of at least two miles have given Truex and the No. 19 team some of their best success this season, with one Top-5, two Top-10 and four Top-15 finishes. The 9.5 average finish on the larger ovals is an encouraging statistic for fantasy players considering Truex this weekend.

Kevin Harvick – Harvick's recent inconsistency downgrades him this week from solid plays to the sleeper list. However, it's impossible to overlook the Stewart Haas Racing star given his ample success at Michigan International Speedway. Harvick is a five-time winner at this two-mile oval and four of those victories have come in just the last six starts at MIS. His nearly 700 laps led at this track, 15 Top-5 and 21 Top-10 finishes are truly amazing statistics. Harvick has struggled in the new Next-Gen car, but he's had some success on the larger ovals as his seventh-place Fontana and 10th-place Talladega finishes illustrate. The seventh at the similar Fontana oval is particularly interesting given how poorly Harvick qualified that weekend. He had little trouble racing through the field in that 400-mile battle.       

Joey Logano – Logano stirred some hopes that his recent slump is over with his solid sixth-place finish at Indianapolis this past weekend. That performance comes just in time for what has been solidly a Ford track in recent years. Logano's three career victories at Michigan International Speedway rank him among the active leaders at this track. Additionally, his 68-percent Top-10 rate at MIS is very strong and among the best rates in the Cup Series. With close to 600 laps led at Michigan, Logano is used to racing up front here. Given his production and performance on big ovals this season (including a fifth-place finish at Fontana), a Top-10 performance should be well within reach, even if we don't expect a win for the No. 22 Ford team.

Bubba Wallace – We've been waiting to see if Wallace would hit a hot streak this season, and after his Top 5 at Indianapolis this past weekend, that appears to be now happening. The 23XI Racing driver has finishes of 14th-, third-, eighth- and fifth-place in the last four events. Wallace is not a polished road-course performer, so his Top 5 at Indy this past Sunday is particularly intriguing. This Sunday will be Wallace's ninth career Cup Series start at Michigan International Speedway, so his experience here is pretty deep. He registered his lone Top 10 at the track in 2020, so some of his success has been recent. Wallace and crew chief Bootie Barker are starting to figure some things out, so another Top 10 this Sunday can't be ruled out.

Ryan Blaney – Despite some recent struggles, Blaney gets a fantasy upgrade this weekend. Call it the "Ford" factor at Michigan. The Penske Racing star was our last Michigan winner, taking the victory in last August's FireKeepers Casino 400. He now has six Top-10 finishes at the two-mile Michigan oval for a steady 46-percent rate. He had a lot of struggles earlier in his career at this track but has reversed them in recent seasons to bolster his career-stats at MIS. Blaney has a lot on the line in terms of the championship picture. As one of the few winless drivers in the top of the standings, Blaney needs to secure as many points as he can between now and the regular-season cutoff at Daytona.   

Erik Jones – The driver of the No. 43 Chevrolet has been a quite productive performer in recent weeks. Jones has nabbed two Top 10s and three Top 15s in the last five events and comes to Michigan this week looking to stay on a roll. The Petty GMS Motorsports veteran grabbed an impressive third-place finish earlier this season at the similar two-mile oval in California and has been a steady performer on the larger ovals this season. Jones hasn't been a top performer at Michigan during his Cup Series career, but his 16.6 average finish at the track is a respectable mark. His most recent outing on a 2+ mile oval track was his solid ninth-place finish at Pocono Raceway two weeks ago. It's a very good look going into Sunday's FireKeepers Casino 400 at MIS. 

Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week

Denny Hamlin – Hamlin has fallen into a pretty deep rut of late, as his disqualified victory at Pocono is just the latest in a series of turbulent circumstances. The Joe Gibbs Racing star has just one Top 10 in his last five races entering the weekend and just five Top 10s for the season. Despite his two victories, the 2022 campaign has been nightmarish in many respects for Hamlin and the No. 11 Toyota team. He finished a subpar 15th-place at the similar Fontana oval earlier this season. Despite two career Michigan wins and a Top-10 rate hovering around 52-percent at MIS, we can't recommend deploying Hamlin this weekend at Michigan.

Alex Bowman – Disappointing is the word that best describes Bowman's recent performance. The Hendrick Motorsports veteran has no Top 10s in the last five races and has three DNFs during the span. Bowman has dropped considerably in the point standings during the recent cold streak, plunging from ninth to 12th place after Indianapolis. The driver of the No. 48 Chevrolet was a lackluster 25th place in his start at the similar oval in Fontana earlier this season, a discouraging sign heading to Michigan International Speedway. Bowman has just two Top 10s in 12-career starts at MIS with a lofty 24.7 average finish to boot. He's a high-risk driver for Sunday's 400-mile battle at Michigan

William Byron – Byron's recent dry spell has been almost as bad as his teammate Bowman's recent struggles. The driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet hasn't penetrated the Top 10 in the last five races, and his two DNFs during the span have hampered his efforts to move up the championship standings. Byron led 16 laps earlier this season at the similar Fontana oval but crashed out of that event to finish 34th place in the Wise Power 400. Michigan is a daunting task for a struggling driver and Byron will experience that pressure this weekend. Byron did finish runner-up in this race one year ago, but it was only his second career Top-10 finish at the track. The 29-percent Top-10 rate at Michigan International Speedway is not a very encouraging statistic for this driver and team.

Aric Almirola – Of the drivers in the Stewart Haas Racing camp, Almirola has had it the toughest in the last several weeks. With only one Top 10 in his last five races, the driver of the No. 10 Ford is limping into the Irish Hills this weekend. Almirola's crash and DNF this past week at Indianapolis is just the latest struggle to hit the No. 10 team. As to his performance at Michigan, Almirola has labored to just two Top 10's in 18-career starts at the big track. His average finish is checking in at an inflated 18.3, and while that's not terribly bad, it's not terribly good either. Almirola has just one Top-10 finish in his last five Michigan starts.         

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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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