Michigan. It was once the hotbed of American car manufacturing and still considered the hometown race for two of the sport’s “Big Three” – Ford and Chevrolet. While the Detroit metro area has clearly gone through a transition over the past few decades, its car creation identity remains a source of pride.
But as the sport winds its way through the Irish Hills, headed for this two-mile oval the series visits twice a year, those American-born manufacturers find themselves in a footrace to keep up in NASCAR. It’s Toyota, based in California and whose roots began on foreign soil, that has been running roughshod over the Fusions and Chevy SS models this season. Eight of 14 races thus far have been won by their Camrys; the top-5 teams for the manufacturer, all under the guidance of Joe Gibbs Racing, are virtual “locks” for the Chase.
It’s a run that has put the manufacturer title squarely within Toyota’s reach, one that Chevy has captured without resistance since 2002. Winning at Michigan, a place that evokes such pride for everyone connected to cars, would be an extra special stake driven straight into their heart. Last week, it seemed the Bowtie Brigade made progress; Kurt Busch found himself in Victory Lane for the first time this season. By comparison, Toyota’s best was Matt Kenseth in seventh, the worst “best finish” we’ve seen the manufacturer produce all season long.
This year has been Toyota’s breakthrough campaign so far. But this race, with so much emotion at stake and armed with a new rules package, is one where we’ll really have a chance to see how much Ford and Chevy have been able to pull a counterpunch.
2016 FireKeepers Casino 400
Time: 1 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Track: Michigan International Speedway (Brooklyn, Mich.)
TV: FOX Sports 1
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Kurt Busch
Busch’s consistency thus far is what stands out this season: his 12 top-10 finishes in 14 starts lead the series. By comparison, at this point in 2015 Busch only had 11 chances for a top-10 result after a three-race suspension under the cloud of domestic violence allegations put a damper on what was otherwise a quality season under the watch of crew chief Tony Gibson. Gibson returns this week but fill-in Johnny Klausmeier did just fine while his boss served a one-race suspension at Pocono; fuel mileage and track position handed Busch his first victory of 2016 (and first at Pocono in nearly a decade). The No. 41 Chevy gets swept under the rug of title contenders with the emergence of Joe Gibbs Racing’s foursome, teammate Kevin Harvick, six-time champ Jimmie Johnson, the Team Penske boys and perhaps even Martin Truex Jr. But the winner of the sport’s original Chase appears good enough to win a second title at some point during his career. Don’t count him out.
Who’s at the Back: Tony Stewart
Stewart slipped out the back door at Pocono, leaving the care center without speaking to reporters and armed with the reality his final season is in serious condition. Stewart flat out lost it Sunday, spinning out on his own, and the end result was a disastrous wreck that erased a solid top-10 qualifying effort and early in-race speed. The No. 14 Chevrolet has but a single top 10 since Stewart came back from an eight-race stint on the sidelines due to injury. Technically, the 45-year-old gets credit for that but it was Ty Dillon who steered that car for most of the day at Talladega Superspeedway. Stewart, who still seems poised to reach the top 30 in points, is incapable of making the Chase without winning a race. A three-time series champ is always capable of catching lightning in a bottle but the past few weeks have made it clear it’s going to be a daunting task.
Kyle Larson’s crew chief Chad Johnston is the latest to suffer a suspension this week due to NASCAR’s enforcement of its lug nut rules (team engineer Phil Surgen will fill in on the No. 42 Chevrolet at Michigan). Team owner Chip Ganassi turned critical of the rules this week, calling them “silly” in a SIRIUS XM interview while urging NASCAR to change the narrative and take the focus away from nitpicking at these different violations.
A NASCAR plane en route to Texas suffered from pressurization problems Thursday and was forced to turn back around and make an emergency landing. According to NBC Sports, some passengers suffered from extreme headaches and were disoriented while the plane was in flight. The first Truck Series practice was canceled as a result until all competitors were on the ground safely in Texas.
A groundhog? Yes, a groundhog. Practice at Michigan Friday was halted for 10 minutes while a groundhog was chased around the track. Officials thought they had the animal caught but his escape became the equivalent of a comedy show at a time when cars should have been zooming around at 200 miles per hour.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Second-place finishes for Dale Earnhardt, Jr. including Sunday’s race at Pocono. That’s the most for any driver this season. Earnhardt remains comfortably inside the Chase but until he visits Victory Lane in 2016 the No. 88 team remains vulnerable should a string of bad luck hit them during the summer months.
Cautions at Pocono, the most for the June event at the track since 2008.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
For Kurt Busch, Michigan can’t come at a better time. It’s the second straight week in NASCAR the previous race’s winner comes to the next event as its defending champion. The June 2015 Michigan winner, Busch boasts three career victories here and certainly enters the weekend with momentum. His stats overall with Stewart-Haas Racing have been inconsistent at Michigan (the win is his only top-10 finish with the team) but a strong performance is expected this weekend.
For years, Michigan was the Achilles’ Heel of Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 team. They just couldn’t find the lucky charm necessary to win despite years’ worth of dominance near the front of the field. But after taking the trophy home in the June 2014 race at this track the monkey is off the six-time champ’s back for whenever they come here. He’s had no top-5 finishes in the three races since that win but with the statistics Johnson puts up that only tells you he’s due. Add in a strong run at Pocono felled by bad luck (see: contact with Casey Mears) and Johnson is a sneaky start on your roster during a week some will be hesitant to use him.
Austin Dillon has more experience at Michigan than most Sprint Cup tracks, posting an 11th-place finish in 2013. Last August, he finished fourth after leading 19 laps, perhaps his best Cup Series race start-to-finish up to that point. He’s a bit of a risky play after two wrecks in the last three races; Dillon was increasingly vocal after the second concerning how his Richard Childress Racing program needs to step up. But if Dillon is going to save his Chase bid, a playoff berth that would be the first of his career, he needs to stop the bleeding at tracks favorable to RCR. This place is one of them.
It’s not like Roush Fenway Racing has been running gangbusters at Michigan as of late. But in the olden days this team was the most feared of any on the NASCAR Cup circuit in the Irish Hills. Veteran Greg Biffle owns four victories here, the last of which came in 2013 and RFR has a little extra spring in their step the second the walk through the Michigan gates. Considering the upswing in RFR performance this year Biffle, Trevor Bayne or Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is worth a flier.
What Vegas Thinks
Kevin Harvick, boasting 5/1 odds is the favorite this weekend at Michigan. Charlotte winner Martin Truex Jr. and Jimmie Johnson are next on the list with 7/1 odds. For what it’s worth all three drivers failed to finish close to the front at Pocono last Sunday.
What I Think
I think Ford jumps back to the front of the pack and a winless Joey Logano, a driver who’s shown some strength in recent weeks, charges forward to take the victory. But don’t count a surprise winner out; Austin Dillon, despite the past few weeks of struggle, comes to mind here. Fuel mileage at Michigan seems to always come into play and those strategies can often lead to quirky finishes.
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.
(Photo by ASP Inc.)