Pure Michigan 400 Preview: Larson Michigan Sweep?

Pure Michigan 400 Preview: Larson Michigan Sweep?

This article is part of our Weekly Preview series.

NASCAR returns to Michigan International Speedway this weekend for the Pure Michigan 400. This is the second and final race at the Brooklyn, Mich., oval for the season. We return to the scene of Kyle Larson's big victory in June at the two-mile oval. He took the lead from Kyle Busch and led the final 15 laps to capture his second-straight victory in the Irish Hills. This has become the theme for this race track in recent seasons. It's not always the strongest car and driver of the day that wins, but often times it's the team that surges in the final leg of the 400 miles and has the right pit strategy and timing at the end. In this case, multiple crashes and cautions came into play over the closing laps and became another variable in this equation. Considering that the driver of the No. 42 Chevrolet is battling for a good position in the Chase for the Cup entering this weekend, Larson will have high expectations coming to the Irish Hills of Michigan this time around. The Chip Ganassi Racing star has only two wins this season and he will be looking to add to that total in order to improve his Chase for the Cup standing. The distinct possibility of a Larson Michigan sweep is on everyone's minds as we take on Sunday's Pure Michigan 400.

With the Larson sweep theme of this weekend, we have to acknowledge that it has mostly been Chevrolet teams and drivers

NASCAR returns to Michigan International Speedway this weekend for the Pure Michigan 400. This is the second and final race at the Brooklyn, Mich., oval for the season. We return to the scene of Kyle Larson's big victory in June at the two-mile oval. He took the lead from Kyle Busch and led the final 15 laps to capture his second-straight victory in the Irish Hills. This has become the theme for this race track in recent seasons. It's not always the strongest car and driver of the day that wins, but often times it's the team that surges in the final leg of the 400 miles and has the right pit strategy and timing at the end. In this case, multiple crashes and cautions came into play over the closing laps and became another variable in this equation. Considering that the driver of the No. 42 Chevrolet is battling for a good position in the Chase for the Cup entering this weekend, Larson will have high expectations coming to the Irish Hills of Michigan this time around. The Chip Ganassi Racing star has only two wins this season and he will be looking to add to that total in order to improve his Chase for the Cup standing. The distinct possibility of a Larson Michigan sweep is on everyone's minds as we take on Sunday's Pure Michigan 400.

With the Larson sweep theme of this weekend, we have to acknowledge that it has mostly been Chevrolet teams and drivers that have been everyone's nemesis at this two-mile oval the last couple seasons. Prior to Larson's current win streak, we had some manufacturer parity at the Michigan speedway. Matt Kenseth (Toyota) and Joey Logano (Ford) had captured the two previous victories at the track. The Gibbs Toyota camp has been coming on strong of late with victories in two of the last four events. Carrying the flag high for Joe Gibbs Racing at the wide-grooved speedway will be the hot teams of Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin. These three drivers have combined for six-career wins at the big Michigan oval, with Kenseth being the last of those victories. The driver of the No. 20 Toyota won this event two years ago.

As usual, we'll take a look at the loop stats for the last several races at this week's track in order to collect some recent data on the drivers. The table below has the loop data for the last 25 races at Michigan International Speedway. This information will be helpful, but we'll put some emphasis on the results from June's FireKeepers Casino 400, since it was only several weeks ago and we expect that the teams will utilize the same setups for this race as well. What worked in June will likely work well again this weekend. Here are the loop stats for the top-performing Michigan drivers, sorted by driver rating.

DRIVERAVG FINISHQUALITY PASSESFASTEST LAPSLAPS LEDLAPS IN TOP 15RATING
Chase Elliott2.0917166591119.0
Matt Kenseth11.01,0242733893,783102.4
Kyle Larson12.324691147975100.7
Jimmie Johnson15.88944496063,38399.1
Joey Logano12.15381413562,18296.9
Dale Earnhardt Jr.13.09732052893,13495.5
Kevin Harvick11.47992142352,94693.7
Brad Keselowski12.658581752,21492.9
Denny Hamlin14.78491171582,89490.2
Kurt Busch19.28101863302,99989.3
Kasey Kahne16.8878187612,74187.4
Kyle Busch19.97921872192,95187.1
Martin Truex Jr.16.06751911502,34985.4
Ryan Blaney18.81229060184.6
Erik Jones13.0249011681.0
Clint Bowyer17.570041282,36679.9
Ryan Newman17.476015322,29378.2
Austin Dillon17.6237292290777.1
Jamie McMurray16.662229371,74774.1
Paul Menard17.858225161,74872.5

In the season's first running at Michigan International Speedway we can take away more information than just Larson's second career win at the oval. The FireKeepers Casino 400 saw just 10 lead changes among four different drivers. That was the lowest total for a Michigan race since the 1984 season. While there were plenty of green-flag passes back in the pack, the game at the front was about getting and keeping clean air. Once a driver took the lead it was terribly difficult to run them down and unseat them. This oval typically produces fuel mileage battles, but not that day in June. Hopefully, we'll see more lead changes and more leaders assuming this Sunday's event improves. While everyone is focused on the sweep watch this Sunday, we can't lose sight of the other dominant teams coming to the Irish Hills. Could we see another Chevrolet driver step up and win at MIS this weekend? Will Brad Keselowski collect his first-career win at the oval? Will Martin Truex Jr. surprise and win for a second-straight week? Could the talented Hendrick Motorsports youngster, Chase Elliott, improve on his three-consecutive runner-up finishes at Michigan and breakthrough for that first-career win? Will Kyle Busch step up and rebound from his disappointing mishap at Watkins Glen last weekend in this Sunday's Pure Michigan 400? We'll attempt to answer these questions and many more as we outline all the drivers you need to dominate the day at Michigan International Speedway.

The Contenders - Drivers in the hunt for the win

Kyle Larson -
It's clear that Larson has hit his rough patch for the season, but we're certain he's happy to once again see a large oval come up in the schedule. Entering the weekend, he's mired in a three-race Top-10 drought and looking to rebound out of it in a major way. Larson has won the last two Michigan races, and if we're looking at the similar two-mile oval in Fontana, he's won the last three straight events on these style tracks. In June's FireKeepers Casino 400, the Chip Ganassi Racing driver won the pole and led 96 laps before rallying late to secure the victory. He'll be hard-pressed to match that performance again, but the Chip Ganassi Racing star has that potential. All eyes will be on the No. 42 Chevrolet this Sunday afternoon, and for good reason.

Martin Truex Jr. -
The Furniture Row Racing veteran is coming off an impressive victory this past week at Watkins Glen, and he'll be looking to build on that performance with another possible win at Michigan International Speedway. Truex has been strong on the larger ovals the past few seasons. His last five tips to Michigan have yielded a pair of third-place and one sixth-place effort as well as 79 total laps led. Those finishes have bolstered his career Top-10 rate to 35-percent and an average finish of 16.0. Last June Truex qualified on the outside pole and led 62 laps before finishing sixth. He was really one of the few who could keep pace with Kyle Larson that day. He'll be Larson's arch rival again in the Pure Michigan 400.

Kyle Busch -
The Joe Gibbs Racing star is coming off a disappointing seventh-place finish at Watkins Glen. After leading laps early and looking like a good bet to win, Busch found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. Now we visit an oval that's been a bit of a mixed bag for the veteran driver. Busch is a one-time Michigan winner, but his career body of work at MIS is a bit shaky. However, the driver of the No. 18 Toyota bucked that trend in June's FireKeepers Casino 400. Busch led 40 laps that afternoon before finishing seventh, and provided a good challenge to Larson and Truex Jr. That should be the case again this weekend. Busch has had impressive speed the last six weeks. He's won four of the last five pole positions, won at Pocono and has led nearly 400 laps over the span. Busch has had world class speed, and that makes him very dangerous.

Brad Keselowski -
After some bad luck and a poor Watkins Glen finish, the Penske Racing star will be happy to make this homecoming trip to Michigan. Keselowski has been steadily improving on these two-mile ovals the last few seasons, and he can't wait to mount another effort to win at his home state track. He snapped a six-race Michigan Top-10 streak here in June, but he should rebound nicely. The driver of the No. 2 Ford finished runner-up earlier this season at the similar oval in Fontana, and his three two-mile oval efforts prior to June were finishes of fourth-, third- and second-place at the tracks of Fontana and Michigan. Keselowski may be a long-odds favorite to win, but he's got about the best shot at upstaging the trio of drivers above in this list.

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

Chase Elliott -
Elliott slipped in consistency in the late spring and early summer. However, things have been turning back positive for the No. 24 team. Elliott has a pair of Top 10s and three Top 15s in his last four starts, and he raced competitively with the leaders last weekend at the Watkins Glen road course. The two-mile Michigan oval should provide the perfect opportunity for this young driver to finally pick up his first win, or at the very least nab another Top-5 finish. Elliott's three-career starts at Michigan International Speedway has yielded a trifecta of runner-up finishes. He's also led 66 combined laps in those starts, so he hasn't been just playing follow-the-leader. Elliott is one of only three drivers who's a perfect five-for-five in Top 10s on the two-mile oval circuit the last two seasons.

Joey Logano -
The Penske Racing driver is having a decent season in the No. 22 Ford, but things could be better. Logano comes to Michigan, which has been a track of high performance and rewards for the Penske Racing star. Logano has well over 350 laps led for his career at Michigan International Speedway, and he is a two-time winner at this track. He's practically become a specialist on these two-mile ovals the past few seasons. Logano is riding a staggering nine-race Top-10 streak at Michigan International Speedway entering the weekend. No matter the defects of the 2017 season, visiting a track like this is a veritable feast for a driver like Logano. He shouldn't disappoint in Sunday's Pure Michigan 400.

Jamie McMurray -
The other Chip Ganassi Racing driver also makes a steady fantasy racing play this Sunday at MIS. McMurray is in a bit of a four-race malaise at the moment, but an oval like Michigan should bring out his best. McMurray sports three-race Michigan Top-10 streak entering the weekend, and that includes his fifth-place finish in the Irish Hills in June. Don't get caught up in McMurray's 28-percent career Top-10 rate at Michigan, rather, look at his body of work the last few seasons. That's an average finish of 9.0 over his last five starts. His success at the similar oval in Fontana has been just as impressive. McMurray has finishes of 10th- and sixth-place in his last two trips to that oval as well.

Denny Hamlin -
Hamlin is surging entering Michigan weekend. With one victory in the last month and six Top-5 finishes in the last eight races coming into the Irish Hills, the Joe Gibbs Racing star is visiting this oval at the right time. Michigan International Speedway has been an up-and-down track for the veteran driver most of his career. However, Hamlin does have two-career wins at this oval and 11 Top-10 finishes (48-percent). He qualified third and finished ninth in this event one year ago, and he posted a more impressive fourth-place finish here in June. Hamlin should have plenty of speed for this installment of the Pure Michigan 400, and if his luck continues to hold up as it has of late, yet another Top-5 finish should be in store.

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

Kevin Harvick -
The two-mile ovals have always been tracks of success for the SHR veteran. Harvick is a one-time winner at Michigan and one-time winner at the sister oval in Fontana. His recent performances have been nothing short of impressive. Harvick has 175 laps led and three Top-5 finishes in the last five events at these style ovals. He was a bit off in his March Fontana and June Michigan performances, so we've bumped him down to the top of the sleepers list this week. But don't let that deter you from fantasy racing expectations this Sunday. Make no mistake about it, the No. 4 Ford team brings a lot of homerun potential to the table with a start at Michigan.

Matt Kenseth -
When we visit Michigan we always think of the Wisconsin native Kenseth. In his 36-career starts at the huge, sweeping oval he's crossed the finish line first three times and piled up a stack of 20 Top-10 finishes. That works out to a lofty 56-percent Top-10 rate at MIS. You could say that this big oval feels like home for Kenseth and he indeed races like it each time we visit the Irish Hills. The Joe Gibbs Racing star qualified on the pole position and won this event two years ago in a dominant performance. The two-mile ovals have been a little tough on Kenseth of late, but he should rebound nicely this weekend. He's riding a four-race Top-10 streak into the weekend, so momentum is on his side.

Clint Bowyer -
This pick is a bit of a gamble, but one we're sure will pay off. The new Stewart Haas Racing veteran had slipped in his recent outings on two-mile ovals, but most of that lack of performance had to do with his unstable team situations the past couple seasons. He also tanked, albeit with a fast car, in his June Michigan outing. But we believe there is sufficient evidence to discount these fears. Bowyer showed extraordinary speed in his No. 14 Ford in finishing third at Fontana in March. He enters this weekend in good shape with three Top-10 finishes in his last four races. Bowyer has been firing bullets the last month, and that's a great sign coming to Michigan. Despite a two-season malaise at MIS, he still sports a respectable 48-percent career Top-10 rate at this track.

Ryan Blaney -
The Wood Brothers Racing driver has been pretty consistent in recent visits to the two-mile ovals. Blaney scored a fourth-place finish in this event one year ago, and he nabbed a strong ninth-place finish earlier this year at Fontana. He had good speed in June at MIS, qualifying sixth on the grid. However, some bad luck that day relegated him to 25th-place by the checkered flag. We believe you can toss that finish out of the recent sample, and expect more of the prior on the two mile ovals. The driver of the No. 21 Ford scored a solid eighth-place finish this past weekend at the Glen and snapped a three-race Top-10 drought. The impressive youngster should be sharp in Sunday's 400-mile battle at Michigan.

Daniel Suarez -
Looks who's riding a four-race Top-10 streak into Sunday's action at Michigan, it's no other than Joe Gibbs Racing rookie Suarez. The driver of the No. 19 Toyota has really turned it on the last month. Suarez has claimed Top-10 finishes at tough venues like the Brickyard and Watkins Glen. He'll be riding a tidal wave of momentum as we make his second-career start at Michigan International Speedway this Sunday. The young driver slogged to a 24th-place finish here in June in his Michigan debut. We're willing to bet it will be a 180 this time around. Suarez collected a seventh-place finish at the similar oval in Fontana earlier this season, and we're optimistic that will be similar to the mark he posts this Sunday afternoon in the Pure Michigan 400.

Erik Jones -
Suarez isn't the only surging rookie driver of late, we also have to give a tip of the hat to Furniture Row Racing rookie Jones. The driver of the No. 77 Toyota is riding a two-race Top-10 streak into Sunday's action and has three Top 10s over the last five events. As we approach the Chase for the Cup these young drivers are really beginning to figure things out and are making the most of their second look at some of these ovals. Jones nabbed respectable 12th- and 13th-place finishes at Fontana and Michigan earlier this season. However, the No. 77 team is really coming into focus now and putting up great numbers. We expect this rookie driver and team to challenge the Top 10 again this weekend at MIS.

Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week

Jimmie Johnson -
Johnson hasn't looked much like a seven-time champion the last several weeks, and his current three-race Top-10 drought can't go overlooked. The Hendrick Motorsports star is hoping to improve before the Chase for the Cup begins, and there will be a lot of pressure to perform in this Michigan race. Johnson has always looked less than superhuman at the Michigan oval over the years. Despite one-career win, he only has 13 Top 10s in 31-career starts at this track (42-percent). MIS ranks has one of his bottom four tracks on the circuit. Johnson has only two Top 10s in his last five Michigan starts, and that sort of falls in line with that 42-percent rate.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. -
Just when we didn't think things could get much worse for Earnhardt, he shocked us again with another DNF (engine failure) this past week at Watkins Glen. He now has seven DNF's on the season as opposed to just four Top-10 finishes. Earnhardt is now mired in a six-race Top-10 drought, and we're still scratching our collective heads. Michigan International Speedway has held a lot of success for the driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet over the years. Earnhardt is a two-time winner at this oval, and he has 15-career Top-10 finishes at Michigan. He nabbed a ninth-place finish at the two-mile oval in June, but that's been his lone Top 10 on these style tracks in his last four starts. There's still way too many question marks hanging in the air to risk an Earnhardt start at Michigan this Sunday.

Chris Buescher -
It's difficult to put Buescher in the slow down list this week. He's shown a lot of utility of late from a fantasy racing perspective on the various recent tracks. His ninth- and 11th-place finishes recently at Indy and Watkins Glen stand out. However, the JTG Daugherty Racing driver has had a tough enough time on two-mile ovals to merit a word of caution this weekend. Buescher's last five starts at Fontana and Michigan combined have yielded finishes of 33rd-, 20th-, 35th-, 25th- and 36th-place. Most of this has to do with subpar qualifying efforts. The restarts on these ovals can get a bit dicey, and you don't want to be back in traffic battling four-wide when clean air is paramount at a track like Michigan.

Danica Patrick -
Despite nabbing Top-15 finishes in four of the last five races, we have to downgrade Patrick and the No. 10 team this weekend. The Stewart Haas Racing driver has a rough Michigan history. Only one of her nine-career starts at the two-mile oval has yielded a Top-15 finish. Recent outings have turned even more sour as the style of racing here has become tougher and more competitive. Patrick hasn't cracked the Top 20 at MIS in her last four attempts. That culminated in her crash and DNF here in June's FireKeepers Casino 400. Patrick's last five starts at the ovals of Fontana and Michigan have yielded no Top 20s and an average finish of 29.0. It's best to lay off the No. 10 team 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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