The Firekeepers Casino 400 at Michigan International Speedway is another impound race like last week’s Pocono 400. NASCAR held two practice sessions on Friday, qualification on Saturday, and impounded the cars before the race. That means compromise was key in practice and time trials since only minor changes will be allowed to the cars this week.
Conventional wisdom used to be that this meant the cars on the front couple of rows would probably fall back in the field in race trim until they could get into the pits for service. That has been less obvious recently as the teams A) have learned to manage the setups to a greater degree with B) the current package that has become increasingly restrictive as to what they can do.
Last week William Byron led laps early after winning the Pocono pole. The front two rows this week are likely to maintain top-five positive through the first half of Stage 1.
The key to Joey Logano’s success at Michigan has been his starting position. And there has been a lot of success. Logano got a jump off Turn 2 on Saturday that allowed him to enter Turn 3 with more speed than anyone in the field. Often that means a car will wash up the track. Logano arched his car into the corner perfectly and carried that momentum all the way to the finish line to win his fifth Michigan pole and second of the season. On two previous occasions (2013 and 2016), Logano won from the pole on this 2-mile track. Logano has now started among the top 10 in 11 of his 12 races with Team Penske and finished among the top 10 in all but one of those events.
Aric Almirola was .019 seconds slower than Logano to earn the outside pole and be the best of the Stewart-Haas Racing contingent. Based on their practice speeds (detailed below), this comes as no surprise. Unfortunately, the book is not very encouraging in regard to Almirola’s starting position at Michigan compared to his finishes. He has three previous top-10 starts and only one top-15 to show for it. That came in last year’s edition of this race with an 11th. This is the fifth time Almirola has started on the front row. All of those races ended in results of eighth through 11th, so we expect that from his this week.
Frankly, Chase Elliott’s poor qualification effort is of concern. With a lap of 185.600 mph, he lands 17th on the grid, which is his second-worst start on this track. In his first three attempts, he qualified among the top 10 on his way to second-place finishes. His last three time trial efforts now have all been outside the top 10 and while he still has a perfect record of top-10 finishes, we have lost confidence in his ability to score a top-five.
Kyle Larson is another driver who will come from deep in the field. With a lap of 184.962 mph, he is more than two miles per hour slower than the pole winner. His effort of 22nd will also have a ripple effect into next week when it forces him to roll off pit road early – among the first drivers to qualify. It is possible that Larson was working just on race trim and chose to give up his starting position. Unfortunately, he is going to have to come from very deep in the pack and will not have a very good pit stall. It is still possible for him to get a top-10, but he should be one of the last, conditional picks in most games. In Draft Kings, he will earn positive place-differential points unless he crashes or makes a mistake.
Practice was also dominated by Ford – specifically Stewart-Haas. They placed all four drivers at the top of the charts in Happy Hour with Harvick posting the fastest single lap (188.763 mph) followed by Clint Bowyer (188.477) in third, Daniel Suarez (188.157) fourth, and Almirola (187.926) fifth.
Suarez, Almirola, and Harvick also landed among the top five in terms of the quickest 10-lap averages in this session – giving them a perfect mix of speed and durability. Since they start near the front, there is absolutely no reason to believe they will fade in the opening laps. However, there is a lot of ground to cover in a 400-mile race and the real key to success is in being able to keep up with adjustments.
Erik Jones was best-in-class in Happy Hour. His 10-lap average of 187.008 mph wedged him third on that chart behind Suarez and Almirola – one spot ahead of Harvick. Jones’ Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch were also among the seven-best in this session, giving Gibbs and SHR a lot of hardware at the front of the pack. Jones needs a good run this week to start quieting some of the rumors about his status for 2020. But while this track has been kind to him once, a third in the summer 2017 race is his only top-10 at Michigan.
Paul Menard was notably quick in the first practice session. His 10-lp average of 186.025 mph was fifth-best on the chart and it places him among a lot of heavy hitters. Menard has not been terribly impressive this season, but we keep waiting for him to have a break out race. Because of his struggles, he is inexpensive in most games, however, and worth the risk.