Track Talk: FireKeepers Casino 400 at Michigan

The location may be pristine but don’t let the surrounding Irish Hills give the impression that racing at Michigan International Speedway is like a Sunday afternoon drive.  Instead, those greens at Brooklyn, MI are companions to the spectators, drivers, teams, and press at this 2-mile superspeedway which has become one of the fastest NASCAR venues in the circuit.

Couple the speed factor with the new aerodynamic package that sees the rear spoilers shrink to 2.5 inches, the splitter being reduced to 2 inches, and the rear toe being set to zero and the FireKeepers Casino 400 suddenly becomes quite the race for the Sprint Cup Series.  Races at MIS have always been a spectacle for the manufacturers with Ford and Chevrolet vying for automobile supremacy over Toyota with Detroit just a little over 70 miles to the East.  Make no mistake as the elite teams of Hendrick, Stewart-Haas, Childress, Ganassi, Germain, and JTG Daugherty’s Chevrolet banner ready to battle the Ford contingency of Penske, Roush, the Wood Brothers, and Front Row as well as the Toyota efforts of Gibbs and Furniture Row.

If Friday’s qualifying rounds were any indication, it’s bound to be a race where the old guard mixes it up with the youth movement of NASCAR.  The greats like Brad Keselowski, Tony Stewart and Jimmie Johnson are likely to wage in some on-track battles with the likes of Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott, and Joey Logano all afternoon long.  Look for Dale Earnhardt Jr to try to charge his way to the front of the field as they’ve found some solid speed in the short and long run during final practice.

Much like the scenic Pocono Raceway, the Wolverine State’s Michigan International Speedway is a track where speed, horsepower, and fuel mileage are the three factors between being the winner after 400 miles or heading into the Father’s Day weekend reflecting on the race.  Restarts are critical here as well with lane choice being pivotal in determining if a driver’s able to make up ground or get dusted after a lap or two.  Last but not least, if you have a fast car as evident with Daniel Suarez’s stirring victory in yesterday’s NASCAR XFINITY Series race, as long as you’re inside that top-five or six, a win’s not out of the question if you’re willing to drive your car to its limits.

It’s about that time to drop the hammer on this week’s “Track Talk” with the opening segment known as “Trending Topics.”  Let’s get to work with our TPF Track Talk team of Ashley Hobbs, Ashley HullCody ShoppeKathleen CassidyKatie CoppleSean Fesko, and Stephen Conley!

Trending Topics

Question 1
We talkin' 'bout practice.

We talkin’ ’bout practice.

Dale Earnhardt Jr thinks that NASCAR needs to allow for more practice time, particularly with Happy Hour and to eliminate the morning session on the eve of the race.  What’s your take on this suggestion and would it help teams with getting their cars prepped up for the races?

Cassidy :  I think overall drivers and teams will always want more time to perfect their car.  As a fan, I currently enjoy the way things are.  However, I would not be objected to change.

Fesko :  I think it would give teams more opportunity to see how their cars would run later in the day, which is when races typically happen and could make for more exciting racing if teams are already dialed in. That being said, the racing has been fantastic this year despite the lack of a longer Happy Hour.  Part of that might be due to the fact that some cars are better than others from the get-go and others need to work on them to get faster. I like it the way it is.

Hobbs :  Drivers seem to want more practice in general, and who can blame them? It has been stated several times that they would prefer to have qualifying cancelled due to rain than replace a practice session with qualifying. It is more important to know how their car will be in race mode; qualifying is there for a good pit selection. If NASCAR can find a way to give them more practice time, I am all for that. Not that many people watch practice anyways; this would be purely for driver benefit.

Hull :  While this would give more prep time for teams, and would give some teams some kind of advantage, when would they be able to run the XFINITY/Truck Series races? They normally run them in the afternoon. I guess that at some tracks, they can run night races, but there are also tracks that don’t have lights, so it would be difficult to get everything in. They could start out on Thursday too, but again, that is when most teams arrive to the track, and that wouldn’t allow much work to be done at the shop. So while he does have a point, it wouldn’t be feasible to me.

Shoppe :  I think that practice does need some changes for sure. In my opinion, the one thing that needs to be worked on is practice for a night race being in the day. If you’re going to be racing when it’s cool, dark and with less grooves available, then you should get at least one session during the weekend in those conditions to prepare. I agree with Dale Jr that an early morning session isn’t necessary.  It’s not just because the drivers want to sleep in but the track conditions are so different from a race in most cases. Maybe NASCAR could consider a “warm up” session on raceday like IndyCar does. This would give more track time to teams and It would be closer to the race.

Copple :  To be honest, I don’t pay much attention to practices or the amount of time teams are getting on track before the race. If this was an issue with a number of the race teams, then it might be worth looking into changing the way practices are run but if only one or two drivers are complaining, then leave it the way it is. Practice times and lengths might be worth looking in to in the off season but for now…leave it be!

Conley :  I don’t think it would make too much of a difference.  Obviously, track time is always beneficial but these teams build these cars so close towards being ready to race, it’s really just about shaking them down to make sure nothing shook loose on the truck and making minor changes.  The only time I could see it being beneficial is for night races. One night practice would be good.

Question 2
Wait, who's that fella in that 24 car?

Wait, who’s that fella in that 24 car?

We finally saw some speed from the Chevy camp at Pocono with Kurt Busch and Chase Elliott enjoying a view of the front of the pack.  Does this trend continue for the Bowtie Brigade heading into Michigan?

Cassidy :  I think the different package at Michigan will change the field up altogether.  I expect to see different drivers run up front and some big names struggle with what NASCAR has prepared for MIS.

Fesko :  Three of the last four and five of the last eight June Michigan winners have driven Chevrolets, so the odds are good that the manufacturer can stay on the top. The biggest challenge will obviously stem from the Toyota camp, who has won nearly everything this season and shouldn’t be counted out at all. I’m thinking a Joe Gibbs Racing driver takes the checkered flag first.

Hobbs :  Chevy always has speed; this season Toyota has upped their speed to make it look like Chevy is slower. I absolutely believe we will see the continued speed out of the Chevy camp.

Hull :  They could very well find some speed at Michigan again. Kurt Busch is the defending winner of this race. And in the Pure Michigan 500, five out of 10 Chevys placed in the Top-10. And while Michigan is Ford country, Chevrolets and Toyotas have been dominant here. I don’t expect to see anything out of the ordinary on Sunday either.

Shoppe :  I expect Chevy’s to be running up front again in Michigan this weekend. It’s hard to think of them as anything but the more dominant manufacturer. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a Hendrick powered car mastering the new downforce package and getting a win at MIS.

Copple :  Good lord I hope so! Chevy has been disappointing at best this season which is beyond surprising. Hopefully they, as a manufacturer, have found something that will keep them going on an upward swing for the rest of this season. But I have this feeling that Pocono was just a tease.

Conley :  Progress is certainly being made for the Chevrolet camp but it’s the consistency over the entire organization. It’s been hit and miss and with the new aero rules that we are using at Michigan and Kentucky, things could really be shaken up.

Question 3
Kurt Busch did the Monster Mash at Pocono.

Kurt Busch did the Monster Mash at Pocono.

Kurt Busch scored his first win of the season at Pocono.  By far, this is one of his strongest starts to a season.  Do you foresee Busch continuing this upward trend in the summer races coming up?

Cassidy :  Kurt Busch has had a strong season so far.  I believe Busch and his team will continue to find success this season.  With another victory or two, the 41 team will be a top competitor in the Chase.

Fesko :  Sure, I think Busch can absolutely continue his dominance. That’s dominance as in consistency, not winning races. Now that he’s basically in the Chase, he can take more chances which will either lead to more great finishes and wins or early endings. Busch has grown a lot over the last few years and I suspect that we’ll see more of the former and not the latter.

Hobbs :  Summer goes three ways for drivers; it is when they start to shine or continue to shine or come out bust. It is a long stretch and it can be daunting at times, but the focused drivers can capitalize on this. Kurt Busch seems very locked in this season and I don’t foresee anything slowing him down.

Hull :  As I mentioned in the last question, he has a great chance of winning the race on Sunday, as he is the defending winner. He has also been really consistent this year. He has scored seven top-fives and eight Top-10’s this season. Now that he has a win and is secured as a Chase contender, we will continue to see great things from him!

Shoppe :  Kurt Busch has quietly been the most consistent driver all year long. Some didn’t even take notice of his great start to the year until he finally broke in to Victory Lane at Pocono. Since the 41 team hasn’t really had a bad race all year except a couple of things out of their control, you can’t count them out for the rest of the year.

Copple :  Kurt Busch had one of his best seasons in recent years in 2015 and hopefully 2016 is even better. I was very impressed with the No. 41 camp’s run especially without Tony Gibson on the box.  I don’t think this will be the only W for them this season! I wouldn’t be surprised to see Kurt and his team in the final four heading into the Championship race at Homestead.

Conley :  I think the 41 team has certainly caught on to something that the 4 team has had.  Now, SHR has two championship contenders. Kurt and the “old man” Tony Gibson are working well together and Kurt’s persona has him slowly becoming a fan favorite.  This could be a very good second half of the year for the driver formerly known as “The Outlaw.”

Question 4
Size isn't everything...or is it?

Size isn’t everything…or is it?

Michigan arrives with a somewhat updated aero package that takes away more downforce from the cars.  Who does this favor in terms of a driver or team that enjoys racing essentially on the edge of control?

Cassidy :  I see Dale Jr. performing well with this package.  It can be noted that Jr was successful with older style cars seen throughout the 1990’s to early 2000’s.  I believe this aero package will bring the car back to those older models of the sprint cup car.  In addition, I see some back of the pack runners racing for the lead this weekend with this new set up.

Fesko :  Carl Edwards immediately comes to mind. So does Kyle Larson. I think, with the way those two have been running this season, they could put on a great show for fans with the new package.

Hobbs :  This favors NASCAR. NASCAR loves change more than anyone I can think of. I am confident that if NASCAR does not like the way things go on track that we will see yet another package for another race in the very near future. But in terms of drivers who love to rail-ride, that speak Kyle Larson to me. And maybe even Chase Elliott and Dale Jr. as of late. But drivers who love that slick feeling and running against the wall would be the ones to listen to and watch this weekend.

Hull :  One driver that easily comes to mind, is Carl Edwards. Carl, as we know, has a ton a dirt racing experience, The lower downforcce is just perfect for someone who has a lot of experience on dirt tracks. And this is the kind of package that Carl thrives on. He has done well this year with the lower downforce package. He is good at Michigan too, so he will be good here on Sunday too. We have also seen Joe Gibbs  Racing have a lot of experience with the lower downforce package too. So I see that JGR having yet another dominant weekend.

Shoppe :  Well any team that can find a great setup will thrive in with the new package just like any other. When I think of who’s the team most likely to find the right combination, JGR comes to mind first. I’m predicting that Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, and Matt Kenseth will be out front of a field with their hands full on Sunday.

Copple :  I think this will benefit a lot of these veteran drivers, much like any aero package does. We will see the likes of Johnson, Earnhardt Jr., Harvick and others up front but I hope this change up gives some other drivers a chance to run with the big guns! I’m interested to see how Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney handle this aero package!

Conley :  You’d have to say the veterans like Carl, Greg, Kevin and even Jimmie will excel.  However, the likes of Kyle Larson, drivers that have that dirt success of knowing how to slide around, and the rookies have no fear. Ultimately, I think this is one that goes to a “senior” driver that can balance the slide and keeping those Goodyears happy.

Solid effort with the new lownforce package, team!  Before we roll our car onto pit road for today’s race at Michigan, let’s review how we fared at Pocono with our race and points report!
TPF Pocono 1 race report

Dale Jr was the man to go with at Pocono.

Meanwhile, Canada Cassidy still leads!

Meanwhile, Canada Cassidy still leads!

Well, it’s about time to start the engines!  Let’s head onto the track with our picks for today’s FireKeepers Casino 400 at Michigan International Speedway!
Who'll be partying in the Wolverine State?

Who’ll be partying in the Wolverine State?

Tiongson :  He’s been on a great five straight race streak in which he’s scored a top-10 finish since Talladega.  It seems like the team is really making a full circle with closing one amazing book in racing with one that’s being written by a young Georgian.

Yep, I’m going with Chase Elliott again.  The faster the track, the stronger this driver is and I expect more of the same for the rookie as he looks to get his first Cup win ever at a place kind to Hendrick and the Elliott clan: Michigan International Speedway.

Hobbs :  I’m sticking with the stats this time – come on Chase Elliott!

Cassidy :  I shall go with Carl Edwards.

Conley :  Carl Edwards is that “senior” that will slip slide his way to Victory Lane.

Hull :  Even though I see JGR doing well this weekend, the stats also don’t lie. I think I will go with Joey Logano because this is one of his best tracks.

Fesko :  Joey Logano (goes against everything I said, I know … but I have a feeling about this one).

Copple :  Dale Earnhardt Jr will win it!

Shoppe :  It’s Martin Truex Jr time today.

That wraps it up, race fans! Thanks for joining us for another edition of Track Talk!   We’re about ready for some racing.  How about you? What do you think are the biggest storylines heading into today’s race and who is your favorite to win?  Tweet us now @ThePodiumFinish and tell us now!

Thanks as always to the TPF team. The opinions and thoughts expressed in Track Talk are solely of the authors and do not reflect on any organizations that we are affiliated with outside of TPF. This weekly feature is strictly for entertainment purposes and are not indicative of TPF, the organization, and its staff.

Rob Tiongson

Rob Tiongson is a 30-something motorsports journalist who enjoys sports like baseball, basketball, football, soccer, track and field and hockey. A Boston native turned Austinite, racing was the first sport that caught his eyes.

From interviews to retrospective articles, if it's about anything with an engine and four wheels, it'll be here on TPF, by him or by one of his talented columnists who have a passion for racing.

Currently seeking a sports writing, public relations, or sports marketing career, particularly in motorsports. He enjoys editing and writing articles and features, as well as photography. Moreover, he enjoys time with his family and friends, traveling, cooking, working out and being a fun uncle or "funcle" to his nephew, niece and cat.

Tiongson, a graduate of Southern New Hampshire University with a Bachelor of Arts in Communication, pursues his Master of Arts in Digital Communications at St. Bonaventure University. Indeed, while Tiongson is proud to be from Massachusetts, he's just as happy to be a Texan.

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