Track Talk: FireKeepers Casino 400 at Michigan

Each weekend, our panel on The Podium Finish provide their thoughts on the latest stories in the world of NASCAR. Additionally, we attempt to pick the winner of the upcoming Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race, the FireKeepers Casino 400 at Michigan International Speedway.

This weekend, our panel consisting of Adam LucasAmanda ParmeleeAshley HobbsAshley Hull, Cody ShoppeKathleen Cassidy, Katie CoppleKayla SturmKyle Magda, and Stephen Conley muse about the significance of Ryan Blaney’s first career Cup victory, Kyle Busch’s frustrating bids for a win, the importance of Darrell “Bubba” Wallace’s debut in the premier series, and manufacturer pride at Michigan!

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Question 1
Blaney's win at Eagle earned him an eagle. Best parting gift ever.

Blaney’s win at Pocono earned him an eagle. Best parting gift ever.

Ryan Blaney scored his much anticipated first career Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series win at Pocono Raceway.  How important was this victory for Blaney, the No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing team, and for NASCAR to see this bunch make it happen at “The Tricky Triangle?”

Hull :  This is very pivotal for both Ryan Blaney and the Wood Brothers Racing team. Blaney scored his first career win in the Cup series, and the Wood Brothers had their first win since Trevor Bayne won the Daytona 500 in 2011. I think that we will continue to see great things from Blaney and this team. This win will be a catalyst for him to continue doing well. Most of the young guns are getting it done this season!

Strum :  This was one victory I was extremely excited about! Ryan Blaney is one of my favorite drivers and it’s been a long time coming for Blaney and the No. 21 crew with this win.

I think the victory was very important to Blaney and the team to not only secure their spot in the playoffs with all of the many winners already this season. Also, I think it was important for the sport, in general, for a few reasons.

First off, the No. 21 Wood Brothers car has a very dominant and important part of history in the sport. I believe it was important for fans to finally see the Wood Brothers’ car back in Victory Lane. I know it was a very popular and emotional victory in the NASCAR community.

Secondly, Blaney’s win cements the idea that the future of NASCAR is bright, and it gives hope to fans that may have been doubtful about the future of the sport. That said, congrats Ryan Blaney. Well deserved win.

Conley :  I think this is continuing a very good trend for the sport. We’ve had five first time winners since August of 2016. For the Wood Brothers to be back in Victory Lane that ties in the past and Ryan Blaney, the present, for the sport, that’s good for all of the fans as they are happy and that could be seen by the reaction in the grandstands at Pocono.

Lucas :  The win was significant for cementing the new era of drivers in the sport. I’d almost go as far to say that Kevin Harvick’s late race charge and failure to overtake Ryan Blaney may have been the passing of the torch.

We’re in the midst of one of the best seasons in recent memory, and it’s great to see the legendary Wood Brothers leading the way week in and out. I hope that the team can manage to get another win this decade. Remember that their last win was in 2011, and ten years before that in 2001. So if you do the math or believe in superstition, the next Wood Brothers win will be in 2021. Of course, we all hope that is not the case, and we all hope that Blaney will contend for the remainder of the season.

Shoppe :  This win wasn’t just huge for Ryan Blaney and the Wood Brothers but for the whole sport! It is always so refreshing to see a first time winner. To see him have to out run the very best in an ultra-exciting finish was just perfect.

Old school new young fans have to be thrilled to see the sport’s oldest team return to the winner’s circle with one of the sport’s future champs! Now that the No. 21 team got that first one out of the way, I see them breaking through more often now! I expect to see the Wood Brothers 100th win to come very soon!

Cassidy :  This win was huge not only for the Wood Brothers but for the younger NASCAR fan base. I look forward to the new generation of racing.

Parmelee :  It’s always cool to see a driver — especially a rookie — get his first taste of Victory Lane, and Ryan Blaney is no different. It’s refreshing to see someone new take the checkered flag, and as we’ve discussed extensively before, it has been a long time coming for the 21 team. I think a win is always important, some situations just make it more obvious. This may have been his first, but it definitely wasn’t his last.

Magda :   The pit crew finally won one for the No. 21 team. Ryan Blaney’s move to pass Kyle Busch and successs defense of Kevin Harvick in the final laps showed this team is for real come playoff time. Blaney has excelled on short-runs as Sunday showed it when the 23-year-old driver got off pit road first, then the fresh tires took over and Blaney began his charge towards the front. The No. 21 team was close several times this year but finally got one at the Tricky Triangle.

Copple :  I was screaming at my television as Blaney was battling Kyle Busch for the win. Screaming! Having the “new guys” take the victory for the first time is exciting and a change of pace from having the same winners every weekend. It’ll make the Chase more exciting as well! This win was huge for Blaney and the No. 21 team. This is an iconic team and an iconic number. It was only a matter of time before they were back in Victory Lane.

Question 2
Not to beat around a Busch, but a win's around the corner, eh?

Not to beat around a Busch, but a win’s around the corner, eh?

Meanwhile, Kyle Busch found himself in a position to win his first Cup race of the season before a late race caution forced him into a box for track position versus fresh tires for the finish. Is the frustration starting to mount for the No. 18 team or is this added motivation for them to nab a victory in the coming races?

Hull :  Based on Kyle Busch’s attitude, I think the frustration is mounting for this team. They have had bad luck this season. And to top it off, Busch lost his crew chief Adam Stevens for four races. So something has to give for this team. I think it should be added motivation for them to win. Eventually, I think it will and I hope he channels his frustration in a positive way so that he can get it done!

Strum :  Firstly, I need to say that I’m particularly surprised that Kyle Busch doesn’t already have a win this season when last season he was dominating. Ultimately, I believe it’s a little of both.

We’ve already seen the frustration come out at Charlotte in his post-race press conference. However, with the way he’s been racing lately, I think that also shows tons of motivation. He’s been fighting hard for that first win of the season and I think the victory is close for Busch and his No. 18 crew if they can just close out.

Conley :   I don’t see this as anything less than complete frustration for that team. They have the speed they’ve shown as they’ve sat on the pole for the past two weeks. Late race situations have kept them out of Victory Lane.

Busch encountered an unwinnable situation because there was no way that he was going to be able to pit. The rest of the field did not stay out, leaving him as a sitting duck.

Lucas :  If Kyle Busch pitted, I truly believe everyone else from second on back would’ve stayed out. It’s not an ideal position to be in as a crew chief.

I think Kyle Busch is always frustrated whenever he does not win, but I think that feeds his fire. The fire that burns inside him is stronger than ever. He knows that time is ticking in his career and the young guns are coming. The team has been strong this season. However, reliability has killed their finishes. It’s not how good you race, it’s how good you finish.

Shoppe :  I’d say both can be said about Busch and the No. 18 team. It has been no secret that Kyle Busch has been very frustrated as his losing streak (in the series that matters most for him) gets larger and longer. With his childish actions, sore loser mentality, and growing frustration piled on with the loss of his crew chief, it will be a very important few weeks ahead for them to stay on track. I do think this will motivate this team more to get that win and do see it happening very soon.

Cassidy :  There are many teams who are struggling far worse than the No. 18 team. Popular drivers such as Dale Earnhardt Jr and Brad Keselowski have been struggling to pull off any good finish. At this point in time, Kyle Busch is showing good race results for his team’s efforts.

Parmelee :  I think any frustration the 18 is feeling simply comes from being on top for so long. It used to be hard to blink between times that Kyle Busch won a race. Nowadays, his team are seeing those frequent victories coming a little bit slower now. I think whatever frustration Kyle shows after the races — and let’s be honest, we know he shows a lot — will be turned into motivation come Monday mornings.

Magda :  They shouldn’t be frustrated. There’s no doubt in my mind they’ll be fine throughout the summer months. Kyle Busch has been the summer king the past two years and I expect to be the same, especially with some of his best tracks coming up. Busch hasn’t won a Cup race at Michigan in five-and-a-half years but that can change this weekend. Also, he’s running Saturday’s Xfinity race in preparation for Sunday’s event. The No. 18 team is one of the best Cup teams on the circuit currently.

Copple :  This is Kyle Busch we are talking about. I’m not worried about him not winning this season. He just hasn’t been able to “close the deal” so to speak but it’s only a matter of time before he does. He and the No. 18 team have just had a bit of bad luck when it comes to getting that victory but they are right there. It’ll come soon enough.

Question 3
Bubba Wallace in NASCAR = match made in heaven.

Bubba Wallace in NASCAR = match made in heaven.

Darrell “Bubba” Wallace had a respectable Cup debut despite his pit road speeding penalties last Sunday at Pocono, posting a 26th place finish in the No. 43 car.  What can we expect from Wallace and how critical is it for him to succeed in terms of the sport’s diversity movement and its transition between the stars of today and tomorrow?

Hull :  I think that we will see a lot of good things out of Bubba Wallace. He is a very talented driver, and he has shown that he can do well with what he is given. I think that it’s very critical for him to succeed as an African American. I love that the sport is finally becoming more diverse as time goes on. Furthermore, I think that he’s a great role model for young people, and if he stays within the sport, it will be good for both the fans and the sport.

Strum :  I fully believe that Bubba Wallace’s continuous mistakes were due to nerves. It was his first Cup race, he had big shoes to fill being in the legendary No. 43 car, and he already has some doubters (mainly for racial reasons which is quite sad).

He’s a great driver and he has a fire to win, so I think in the upcoming races, once he relaxes a little bit more, he’ll perform well. Like I said, I’ve already seen some people on Twitter doubting Wallace and mentioning his race, so his performance in Cup is extremely important for the diversity of the sport.

In addition, it’s important on the other end of the spectrum because some people don’t think that NASCAR “allows” African American drivers in the sport because they’re “racist.” Yes, I have seen many, many comments on that. It’s important for Bubba Wallace to do well because with Roush Fenway suspending efforts on his No. 6 Xfinity car, if he doesn’t perform and show people what he can do, he’ll be out of a ride once Aric Almirola comes back.

Conley :  I think it’s very big for Wallace to succeed not only for the sport, but for himself.  Combine that with the fact that he’s lost his ride in the Xfinity Series and it’s pretty much audition time for a new opportunity. Plus with the news from this week that Aric Almirola may be back sooner than expected, Wallace’s time may be shortened.

Lucas :  I think that Bubba Wallace’s expectations may be higher than the teams. The team wants him to maintain their top- 20 consistency. Meanwhile, Wallace wants to prove he belongs in the Cup series. This clash of objectives could spell disaster for the young driver.  If Wallace is too aggressive, we may never see him again in the Cup series.

He should use Alex Bowman as an example from last year. Bowman showed consistency throughout his time in the No. 88 (albeit for mechanical issues causing a few dismal finishes), and that has kept him in the Hendrick rotation for this season (and maybe next year as the new driver of the No. 88, but that’s a story for another time!). If Wallace can prove his consistency during this audition period, he may be able to hitch a ride for 2018.

Shoppe :  It was a respectable week one for Bubba Wallace in the No. 43 Cup car at Pocono. After he gets a week or two to get used to the nuances of the Cup car (i.e. digital dash, faster speeds, and tougher competition), he will impress a lot of people. Putting the diversity aspect aside like we all should, this is a very crucial time for Wallace to prove his worth to a team and more importantly to a sponsor so he will have a seat when Aric Almirola returns.

Cassidy :  I think Bubba Wallace will take time to adjust to the Cup series. However, I see him being successful over time. This situation is very similar to the No. 19 crew who currently lead the rookie standings.

Parmelee :  I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again: It is an absolute shame that Bubba Wallace doesn’t have a contact in a Cup car, let alone an Xfinity ride. It doesn’t make any sense to me to see the struggles that this kid is facing when he exited the Xfinity Series running fourth in points. To put it in perspective, Kyle Busch is fourth in points in the Cup Series. Would it make sense for a team like that to suddenly face pulling their driver from the remainder of the season? Unfortunately, I think notching as many high-finishing races as possible is critical for Bubba right now — for his career and for the sport’s diversity.  

Magda :  I don’t think we should make a huge deal out of this story. He struggled with the digital dash at Pocono having never ran a Cup race in his career. Once he adjusted to the No. 43 car, he caught onto things and should run better at Michigan. Wallace is finally in a Cup ride and I’m glad for that but hopefully everyone treats him as one of 40 Cup drivers each-and-every Sunday he’s in the car.

Copple :  Wallace is talented and one of the most promising young drivers in the sport today. Getting that time in the Cup seat and racing with the “big guys” is an important step in growing his career. He held his own for a tough track like the Tricky Triangle but still has a long way to go and a lot to learn. The more seat time he can get, the better he will be when he finally does transition to the series full time. And when he does, NASCAR will have quite the talented lineup.

Question 4
Still love those Motor City wars, right?

Still love those Motor City wars, right?

Michigan is a race where manufacturer pride is on the pride in June and August. How much of this rivalry will we see play out in this Sunday’s race, particularly for teams fighting for the final seven spots to make the playoff field?

Hull :  Michigan is the home of Ford so they have a lot to prove this weekend. With the exception of Joey Logano, Team Penske had a great weekend.

Stewart-Haas also had a pretty decent weekend as well. If they can continue to shake off the bad luck, they could have a great weekend at MIS as well.

Keselowski and Logano have a great average finish here. However, the Chevys will give them a run for their money as well. We can see drivers such as Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott do well here too. This will be a great race.

Strum :  With all of the different winners already this season, I think most of the races up until the playoffs are going to be full of aggression and rivalry. There’s already been 10 different winners already this season and nine that are secured in the playoffs.

The heat is going to be ramped up and drivers are going to be fighting hard. As far as teams and manufacturers go, I think you’ll see the Toyotas and Joe Gibbs Racing pushing hard for that win. Toyotas are currently third in the manufacturer point standings when last year they won the manufacturer’s title. Joe Gibbs Racing has no wins this season yet so look for them to be some strong contenders this weekend.

Conley :  Ford certainly doesn’t like to have their party spoiled in their own backyard. With that said and Team Penske’s recent lack of performance, I think the rivalry could step up. Ultimately, we might see somebody else in that Ford camp defend the Blue Oval. The rivalry is always there when we set foot in the Irish Hills.

Lucas :  I don’t think it’s as big of a deal as it use to be. That hurts to say that too. Believe me, I wish it was a big deal. It’s sad and unfortunate.

On the flip side though, I think we’re going to see one of the craziest summer stretches of racing in recent memory. The final seven playoff spots are all up for grabs. I think we get another first time winner, if not two, within the summer months.

That could cause havoc for some of the traditional drivers that always make the playoffs. I’m concerned for Matt Kenseth not making it. He’s been off this year tremendously.

Dale Earnhardt Jr literally has one shot left to make it. Joey Logano will break his streak of bad luck at sometime, at least, we all think he will. And as for the rest of the field, who knows? It’s gonna be fun to watch!

Shoppe :  As always in Michigan, the Fords and Chevys will be trying a little extra hard to make sure they are ahead of the Toyotas in the background of the Motor City. Winless Ford teams like Kevin Harvick and technically Joey Logano, since his Richmond win was encumbered, will do all they can to get that needed win.

Cassidy :  At the end of the day, manufacturers often play a factor in every race. Moving forward, I think it will be a battle until the end for the final seven spots.

Parmelee :  Personally, the aspect of manufacturer isn’t something that is even on my radar. At the end of the day, I think the body of each car is almost irrelevant — but don’t tell anyone in Michigan I said that! I’m sure it’s going to be publicized as a huge deal given the location, but unless someone can convince me otherwise, it’s just another detail that goes into the overall makeup of each car — not something that wins or loses the race.

Magda :  Other than Charlotte, Michigan’s a big race on the schedule for teams. There hasn’t been a clear-cut winner at MIS the past few years but give the advantage to those who’ve ran well in the current-aero package. Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, and Joey Logano are three drivers to keep an eye on for this weekend and we can see another first-time winner grabbing the trophy and clinching a playoff spot.

No doubt, that was four solid laps around this two-mile mammoth speedway!  Before we drop the hammer with our Michigan picks, let’s review how we all fared last Sunday at Pocono!
Guest analyst Jim Noble proved he knows his NASCAR...

Guest analyst Jim Noble proved he knows his NASCAR…

...while the points race gets more interesting heading into Michigan!

…while the points race gets more interesting heading into Michigan!

Alright, race fans!  It’s about time for our magical moment on Track Talk.  Let’s reveal our picks to win Sunday’s FireKeepers Casino 400 at Michigan International Speedway!

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Tiongson :  My preseason prediction happened a week earlier. However, with win number 100 for the Wood Brothers Racing team looming, I’m going with Ryan Blaney to score his second career Cup win at Michigan!  

TPF Stats :  The projected winner will be Kyle Larson.

Hobbs :  I’m going with Brad Keselowski to win at home!

Hull :  My pick for the race this weekend is going to be a bold one. I think that after Ryan Blaney scored his win at Pocono, it’s time for another young gun to step it up. So I am going with Chase Elliott.

Strum :  Michigan is one of those tracks where there isn’t really a consistent winner. However, I’m going to have to go with Chase Elliott. He’s got two second place finishes there and this weekend will be his time to shine and get his first win.

Magda :  My pick is Chase Elliott.

Cassidy :  It’ll be Team Penske’s Joey Logano and his No. 22 team winning at Michigan!

Parmelee :  My pick is Joey Logano.

Conley :  Needing a win to get in the playoffs, Dale Earnhardt Jr will score a victory at Michigan.

Copple :  It’ll be Dale Earnhardt Jr’s time to shine!

Lucas :  Since we’ve seen a rash of first time winners, I think I’m going with the hometown kid Erik Jones. Michigan will be a good track for the Furniture Row team as a whole. They’re speed on ovals this season has been phenomenal.

Shoppe :  I’m going with Kyle Busch!

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

Thanks as always to the TPF team for their amazing efforts each week! The opinions and thoughts expressed in Track Talk are solely of the authors. They do not reflect any organizations affiliated with the participants and author outside of TPF. This weekly feature is strictly for entertainment purposes and are not indicative of TPF, the organization, and its staff.

Rob Tiongson

30-something motorsports journalist who enjoys sports like baseball, basketball, football, soccer, track and field, and hockey. Born and raised in the Boston, MA area, racing was the first sport that caught my eye. From interviews to retrospective articles, if it's about anything with an engine and four wheels, you'll likely see an article on The Podium Finish by either myself or one of my talented columnists who absolutely have the motorsports passion.

Currently seeking a sports writing, public relations, or sports marketing career, particularly in motorsports. I enjoy editing and writing articles and features, as well as photography.

Graduated from Southern New Hampshire University with a Bachelor of Arts in Communication.

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