Who are some Favorites in the Firekeepers Casino 400 from Michigan?
BROOKLYN, Mich. – The next stop on the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series tour is the Irish Hills of Michigan. As the regular season winds down, who can leave the Motor City with a huge win in their quest for the championship? Many may be quick to think that Michigan is an easy win for Kyle Larson. However, plenty of others have great chances at taking home the Michigan Heritage Trophy.
While he is currently the first man out of the Playoffs, the coming two races offer hope for Austin Dillon. Michigan has been a quietly great track for the RCR No. 3 team in recent years, with two top-fives and five top-10s. Dillon’s best result at Michigan has been fourth in two separate races. In the second leg of last year’s Michigan doubleheader, the 3 finished eighth.
“Michigan has been a fun race for us on the No. 3 team for us the last couple of years, so we always circle it,” Dillon said. “We are really focused on this one and the points situation we’re in, we like going to places where we’ve had success in the past. Everybody at RCR has put a lot of focus on our car for that weekend, knowing it’s a good place for us. We’d like to go there and show out for our partners at Dow and Chevrolet. Dow is based out of Midland up there and it’s always good to put on a good show for everyone that helps us get to the track each and every weekend.”
Dillon must gain ground on his teammate Tyler Reddick if he is to have any hope at a Playoff appearance. The 3 enters Michigan 28 points behind the 8. Dillon starts 26th Sunday, so he must rally early to gain every Stage point possible.
On the other end of the RCR-team battle at the Playoff cut line, Tyler Reddick enters Michigan with an advantage. After sweeping both Stages last week at Indy, Reddick’s points cushion over Dillon grew to 28. Dillon was not far behind Reddick in either Stage though, so this battle is far from over. In two Cup starts at Michigan, Reddick has a best finish of 18th. The 8 must perform better than that on Sunday if he is to remain in the top 16.
Michigan vs. Other Recent Tracks
Michigan will see a return of the 550-horsepower rules package, of which Reddick had recent strong runs in both Pocono and Atlanta. Can anything from these tracks transfer over to the two-mile Michigan oval?
“They’re similar, but they’re not,” Reddick explained. “There’s something you can draw from, but I think the important thing is that a lot of these races you show up, you unload, you go through tech, and you hit the racetrack without ever really getting a chance to adjust on what you bring and what you think is going to be the best piece for that race that weekend. The one thing that does remain the same is you’re working lots of hours on the car and where you’re going to start with the balance and all that, all beforehand, and have that set in a pretty close box where you want it to be before you go to the racetrack.”
“So, as we go from places like Michigan and Pocono and Atlanta, when we go to Vegas and some of these other ones, it’s going to be the same type of deal. It’s going to be really important to have our homework done the right way. It’s very different to make big adjustments. So that aspect of it, yes, it’s going to be important to be able to take this car to Michigan and run good.”
Reddick has done an excellent job of remaining ahead of Dillon in the points chase all season long. The 8 is certainly capable of another top 10 day at Michigan. Reddick will roll off 14th Sunday, hoping to keep that 3 car in his rearview mirror.
On paper, Kevin Harvick should enter Michigan as an odds-on favorite right up there with Kyle Larson. However, the five-time Michigan winner has struggled a bit this year. 24 races have only yielded six top-fives and 16 top-10s for the 4. As the winner of four of the last five Michigan races (including the last three-straight), can Harvick win this time? The 4 did pull off the doubleheader sweep a season ago, but things have changed since then.
“With so many stipulations put on the rules this year about what you can and can’t race, you would hope that we go back up there and be decent, as far as the things we did over the offseason and the small rule changes here and there,” Harvick said. “So much is going to be very similar to what we did in 2020. You want to hope that the results can be as rewarding.”
“A fast car is the biggest key,” Harvick said of his Michigan success. “Our organization has run really well at Michigan. The Roush Yates folks from the engine side and Doug Yates, in particular, love going to Michigan. Ford, from a manufacturer’s side, loves having the manufacturers’ trophy sitting in its facility. So there is a lot of motivation going into Michigan. For us, being at a racetrack we have run well at and won at, the expectations are in the same category. We want to get to victory lane.”
Michigan may just be a barometer for how well the 4 can contend come Playoff time. Harvick hopes to keep alive his own MIS win streak, as well as score Ford’s seventh-consecutive victory in Motor City. Harvick will try and achieve this feat after starting eighth.
Martin Truex, Jr.
Although he’s winless in 30 career Michigan starts, Martin Truex, Jr. could change that this weekend. The summer months have not been super kind to the 19; the 12 races since his Darlington win only have seen MTJ earn four top-10s. With a streak of four-straight Michigan top-fives though, Truex can get his season turned around on this two-mile oval.
“Michigan is just a fun racetrack,” Truex said. “It’s wide and you can move around a little bit. We’ve also had very strong cars up there the past few years, just haven’t quite had the best car yet, but we have been close. I’m excited to get back up to Michigan this weekend. I love the track and love that part of the country. It would mean a lot to finally win there for sure.”
The Joe Gibbs Toyotas may just be all that stands between Hendrick and another victory. Truex starts fifth Sunday, the highest of any Toyota. Larson stole a Michigan win from Truex a few years ago, MTJ will try and return that favor.
A three-time Michigan winner, Joey Logano also hopes to keep Ford’s hot streak alive in their backyard. The 22 machine has a top 10 in 14 of the last 16 trips to MIS. This run includes two-straight coming into Sunday. Logano is still sixth in points with only one win this season, but also only claims one top 10 in the last five races. While some of Logano’s teammates will start up front, the 22 is not as lucky. The Shell/Pennzoil Mustang will have to rally early from a 19th-place starting spot. Aside from Harvick, Logano may be the best chance Ford has at another Michigan win.
While Chase Elliott is 0-for-10 at Michigan, he does have three second-places here and only one finish worse than ninth. After a few near wins the last two weeks on road courses, can Elliott earn his first oval win of 2021? Michigan could be the site of Elliott’s third victory in his title-defense year.
“We just have to peak at the right time,” Elliott said about the Playoffs. “That was really what we did best last year. We just really peaked at the right time and kind of got hot for a stretch of races. It was perfect timing. Unfortunately, you can’t always draw that up. That’s not just something you can snap your fingers and make happen. It’s a lot of hard work, it’s a lot of effort and it comes from everyone at Hendrick Motorsports, everyone on the road, myself, our off-track help. Everything has to really be clicking at the right time. Our Playoffs are 10 weeks, which is a long time. Just that stretch of races, it’s tough to be at your peak for 10 weeks. We just hope we can peak at the right time again, that’s key. We want to perform when it matters most.”
Elliott enters Michigan as one of the favorites, as Hendrick Chevrolets have been stout all year long at 550 tracks. The 9 will take Sunday’s green flag on the front row in second, going for another victory.
Still in the midst of his best season to date, William Byron is another Michigan contender. Although he only has one MIS top 10 in six starts, the 24 team has been under-the-radar good all year. Byron is fourth in points, in a dead heat against Kyle Busch. Between the 24 and 18, Michigan is the next battleground for third in the regular season championship. Despite not the best history at Michigan, Byron knows that this track will race differently with this rules package.
“I think with the 550 horsepower package we run, the mid-corner section of the track feels more high speed than anything,” Byron said. “Even though we’re going slower down the straightaways than we were a couple years ago, I feel like the mid-corner now feels almost sketchy. It’s fully on edge and you’re close to always chattering the tires. Michigan is a fast track that makes you feel like you’re always running on a fine line. It’s just a different sensation of speed with this package.”
If Byron is to contend for another strong result at Michigan, he has a hole to dig out of. The 24 will take the green flag from 18th Sunday. With two teammates starting up front though, the 24 surely has the speed to join that battle.
Kyle Busch may only claim one career victory at Michigan International Speedway, but he has run very well here recently. Driver 18 has an active streak of eight Michigan top-10s, including five top-fives. Aside from the lights-out fast Hendrick Chevrolets, Busch’s Toyota may just be a heavy favorite for Sunday. KB18 has been stout on 550-horsepower tracks all year long, winning two of them. The summer stretch of the past 12 races have seen Busch rally from 10th to third in points. There’s no reason that run won’t stop in Michigan.
“Michigan has been a hit-or-miss place for us,” Busch admitted. “I remember winning there on the final race of the old pavement and that was super cool. Ever since the repave, it’s been stuck up there in lane number two where everyone wants to run. Last year, we got to put on more side-by-side racing and I ended up third. Looking forward to coming back there with a fast Interstate Batteries Camry.”
“Our 550-horsepower race package has been pretty good for us this year, so I hope it bodes well for us there this weekend. (Kevin) Harvick and (Joey) Logano and, really, the Ford’s in general have been really quick over the last few years there. It seems like they either have their engine or aero packages squared away there a little bit more than us. This year, it’s been more about the Hendrick guys, so they are probably the group you have to race to win there, as opposed to what it’s been at Michigan the last few years.”
Busch will go for Michigan win number two and his third victory of 2021 after starting seventh on Sunday. If anyone is to outrace the HMS cars, it may just be the No. 18 Toyota.
Similar to his teammate Busch, Denny Hamlin has also not won at Michigan in 10 years. Despite this lengthy dry spell in Motor City, the 11 does boast a top 10 in four of the last five MIS races. This streak also includes two second-place finishes, one being in last year’s doubleheader. With his Playoff future now secured, can Hamlin finally get his first win of 2021?
“We were never worried about it,” Hamlin said about the Playoffs. “We knew our weekly performance would get us in whether we won or not. Now we just need to try to get ourselves in the best position and the most points we can get before the Playoffs start.”
“There’s definitely something to be said for familiarity when it comes to racetracks. Last week was pretty messy with it being the first time that course was set up for Cup cars. We’ve made some progress on our intermediate program this season, so I’m looking forward to going to the Michigan oval this week.”
Last week at Indy may have been the closest Hamlin has been to a win all season, as he led in overtime. Hamlin will try and put that devastating loss behind him and win at Michigan, where he starts ninth.
While he may be the hottest driver on the planet today, not long ago Kyle Larson was the hottest man at Michigan. ‘Two-Mile Kyle’ won a streak of three-straight MIS races from 2016-2017, including his first career win. All of those victories came in a Ganassi car. So how will he fare on familiar turf in a Hendrick car? The 5 has been lights-out on 550 tracks this year, but things have changed a bit at Michigan since 2017.
“It’s a totally different package; aero, engine, all that compared to when I used to win there,” Larson said. “But Hendrick Motorsports has been strong there and we have been good on all the bigger ovals this year. The draft plays a big role there, so you have to be really patient when you are making moves. As long as we keep executing and being smart like we have been doing all year long, we should have ourselves in position to challenge for another win.”
Do Michigan Changes Matter for Larson’s Chances?
Despite the changes, Larson does head to Michigan as the odds-on winning favorite. This comes regardless of him only having one top 10 since his three wins here. The 5 will start from the pole, as he goes for a series-best sixth win of 2021. Can anyone stop the tear the 5’s been on? It may take a self-inflicted error to keep Larson out of Michigan victory lane again.
Coverage of the FireKeepers Casino 400 kicks off on Sunday, August 22 at 3:00 p.m. ET on NBCSN, MRN, and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio Channel 90. Sunday marks the first time since 1973 with only one Cup race at Michigan. With that being said, the pressure for each manufacturer to take home the Michigan Heritage Trophy is higher. Fords may have won the last six trips to the Irish Hills, but Chevrolets and Toyotas have this race circled as well. Larson, Elliott, and Busch are among the top three favorites heading into Sunday.
Written by Peter Stratta
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