FireKeepers Casino 400
June 6, 2018
By Micah Roberts
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There's not much a rivalry between the hammer and the nail, and Chevrolet has played the rare role of the nail through the first 14 NASCAR Cup Series races where Ford and Toyota have combined to win the past 13 races after Chevy's new Camaro grabbed the season-opening Daytona 500 victory, one of four restrictor-plate races a season where randomness and equality is the theme.
It's certainly been a struggle for Chevrolet so far this season and their issues will come to the forefront, even more, this weekend in the Motor City's backyard at Michigan International Speedway. Sunday's FireKeepers Casino 400 is basically the first half of the 2018 manufacturer's Super Bowl.
Michigan's wide 2-mile layout hosts two Cup races a season and all the executives from Chevrolet, Ford, and Toyota use it as a way to gather, high-five each other and root for the home squad. Since 1969, Michigan has had two races a season won by eight different manufacturers. The scoreboard reads 34 wins by Ford, 23 wins by Chevrolet and 4 wins by Toyota.
This season, if using football terms for this battle, we would say that Chevrolet is getting blown out. Ford has sevens win so far led by Kevin Harvick's series-leading five wins and Toyota has six wins, four by Kyle Busch and two by Martin Truex Jr. There's a major disparity between those who can win and those who can't unless a driver gets rain or a crazy win by fuel mileage, or gets a random plate-race win like Austin Dillon in February. The new Camaro has been giving teams fits trying to find speed or at least all except one.
Kyle Larson's No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Camaro has been good enough to win and he's been riding the high-line around Michigan better than anyone the past two seasons winning the past three races there joining legends like David Pearson and Bill Elliott as the only drivers to do so. One more win Sunday and he'll tie Elliott who had sweeps in the 1985 and 86 seasons.
In this race last season, Larson finished just ahead of Chase Elliott. He led 96 of the 200 laps and rode his high-line around the track masterfully. He's found success up high better than most and his crew has found a nice balance set-up to take advantage of those certain set of skills Larson possesses.
In the fall race, Larson led just once in the race and it happened to be the final two laps in overtime after Truex appeared to have it won. Truex led three times for 57 laps, including lap 189 to 200. Michigan native Brad Keselowski had led five times for a race-high 105 laps, the last coming on lap 161. I'd like to think Keselowski can finally win on his home track, but they're a bit behind.
Michigan has lost of room for the drivers to maneuver and while it is a downforce track that requires lots of horsepower to win, it's unique from the 1.5-mile tracks and even unique from its sister track, Calfornia Speedway, which appears identical. By the way, Truex won at California, the fifth race of the season and Larson was runner-up after winning that race in 2016. Larson has five wins in his career and four of them have come between the two 2-mile tracks. It's quite odd, but's also the main reason why you as a bettor might consider betting someone else other than Harvick, Busch or Truex this week.
Larson grabbed his fifth top-five of the season last week at Pocono, a track that requires lots of horsepower, but perhaps his most dominant performance of the season happened four weeks ago at Kansas where he led a race-high 101 of the 267 laps before finishing fourth. Harvick would end up winning the race, but chasing down Larson was difficult on that particular day.
Harvick's only Michigan win came in 2014 in his first attempt there driving for Stewart Haas Racing. He's had 34 Cup starts there and has 10 top-fives finishes.
Truex has never won at Michigan in 24 starts, but he's been close and in a couple cases you could actually say he was robbed like last fall when leading before overtime.
"I felt we had the best car at the Michigan races last year but came away empty-handed in the win column,” said Truex, who will drive the No. 78 Auto-Owners Insurance Toyota this weekend. “In fact if we circled races that we haven’t won at prior to the season Michigan would be high on the list. We really want this victory after what happened last year. It would also be nice to drive the blue car to Victory Lane since Auto-Owners Insurance is based in Lansing, Michigan.”
Truex combined to lead 119 laps between both races last season, finishing sixth in the spring race. He's posted at 5/1 odds to win by the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook and has the momentum from last week's Pocono win and his Fontana win should also be considered a huge component when handicapping the race.
Kyle Busch has just one 2011 win in 26 Michigan starts and has a very pedestrian 19th-place average, one of his worst tracks on the circuit. He's on a major slump there in his last nine starts with no top-fives which includes five finishes of 31st or worse. Despite the poor finishes, he really does like the track.
“Regardless of new pavement or not, it’s wide-open racing, and you can run from top to bottom more and more every race there as the groove widens out," said Busch. "The biggest thing used to be to find grip there. But, with the new surface, there is a ton of grip, now. Before, you had grip for maybe five laps and then you’d just be out to lunch. But now, the tire wear is all out the window and the racetrack is very fast. And the wide racetrack is good. That’s what makes Michigan so exciting and so fun. That’s the biggest deal about it.”
Busch finished third at Fontana in March leading six different times for 62 laps. This dude has already won on every track on the circuit, something no one else has ever done, and just for kicks and to keep things fun he's probably already set a goal to raise the bar higher and win at least twice on every track.
Chase Elliott is still looking for his first Cup win on any track, but Michigan has always been awesome for him, even as a kid spectator. In four Michigan Cup starts, he has 3.5 average finish thanks to three straight runner-ups to start his career there. but that Chevrolet model used then is gone. His new Camaro has been a non-factor all season. Since it's almost Fathers Day, we should mention again that Bill Elliott was a beast at Michigan. The father and son duo also shares a dubious NASCAR record with runner-ups before finally getting a Cup win.
“Dad ran second eight times and I am at eight currently," said Chase Elliott. "I don’t know if that is a good or bad thing. It has definitely been an up-and-down road to get to this point. We’ve had a lot of great opportunities and you wish you could have some of them back, but you can’t, so you just move on down the road. We just try to learn from each situation as time goes and I’ve definitely chosen the hard road to a victory for sure. I feel like in some cases it makes you better at the end of the day. Whenever the time comes when we are back and on top, those harder times and tough losses will make you better when you are in position to capitalize on some really good things.”
Two-time Michigan winners Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano have been very consistent and are getting close to the elite level, but are still behind.
“It’s obviously disappointing that our results from last weekend don’t show the performance that I know our team was capable of," Hamlin said regarding his wreck and 35th-place Pocono finish. "We’ve consistently been a top contender, we just have t to fine-tune a couple things for it to all come together. We still have time to get that win we want though and lock ourselves into the Playoffs, and we’re eager to get it done.”
Hamlin is in the same boat with several other drivers just on the edge of getting into that elite class. Logano at least has a plate-win this season that comes with the automatic playoff berth. Hamlin will certainly make the playoffs, but winning on a downforce track any time soon seems like a longer shot than the 15-to-1 odds to win offered at the Westgate. Smaller flat tracks, road courses or Daytona in July appear to be his best shot to win.
Despite driving a Camaro, Larson has the best chance to beat Harvick, Busch, and Truex this week.
Top-5 Finish Prediction:
1) #42 Kyle Larson (6/1)
2) #78 Martin Truex Jr. (5/1)
3) #4 Kevin Harvick (3/1)
4) #18 Kyle Busch (9/2)
5) #11 Denny Hamlin (15/1)