The scenic Irish Hills of Southeastern Michigan, at first glance, seem to be an escape from all semblance of American industry. Located a ways away from Detroit, this area offers rolling hills and a series of kettle lakes to the weary city dweller or factory worker. But located within this countryside retreat is a shrine to the American muscle that made Detroit what it is now.
The NASCAR Cup Series heads to the Motor City and Michigan International Speedway this weekend for the FireKeepers Casino 400. Located some 70 miles west of downtown Detroit, this two-mile high speed oval is one of enormous importance to NASCAR's manufacturers, particularly the Chevrolet and Ford teams. For automakers, winning in the Motor City is a tremendous matter of pride. And for drivers, winning here is just as important given that there are now just four races left in the regular season before the playoffs begin.
How to Watch the NASCAR Cup Series at Michigan
Date: Sunday, Aug. 7
Location: Michigan International Speedway -- Brooklyn, Mich.
Time: 3 p.m. ET
TV: USA Network
Stream: fuboTV (try for free)
What to Watch
- As the month of August opens, Kevin Harvick is now in dire straits. After getting collected in crashes two weeks in a row, Harvick has gone from within reasonable striking distance of the playoff cutoff line on points to a full 96 points back, effectively making a win his only avenue of making the playoffs.
It has now been 64 races since Harvick has had a victory, and there have been few points this year where a win has seemed imminent. So with that considered, this weekend at Michigan takes on added importance. Harvick has five career victories at Michigan, including four in a three-year stretch from 2018 to 2020. All of those victories came in Michigan races held in August, including two in one weekend in 2020.
Beyond his own immediate circumstances, what Harvick has going for him is that Ford drivers have won the last seven Michigan races, with five of those coming from Stewart-Haas Racing. However, it has been far from a banner year for SHR, with the company's lone win coming by way of Chase Briscoe at Phoenix in March.
- Traditionally, the expectation for Michigan races was that they were spread out and somewhat drawn out, with horsepower and fuel mileage being the best indicators of how and who would win. But in the past several years, the competition at Michigan has become closer and closer -- perhaps closer than it's ever been before.
As recent aerodynamic packages have made the effects of the draft more pronounced at Michigan, races at the track have involved more nose-to-tail racing and quick maneuvering all the way down to the wire. The past three Michigan races have seen margins of victory of .284, .093 and .077 seconds -- basically a carlength -- with last year's finish being the closest official margin of victory in track history (Dale Jarrett beat Davey Allison by inches in a photo finish in 1991, but there was no electronic timing and scoring at the time).
Part of that was muted by the fact that it was easy for the lead car to defend against moves from a trailing car, as the 2019-2021 aerodynamic package would allow a driver to get close to the car in front of them but didn't give them quite enough power to overtake them outright. This year, Cup cars feature a full 120 more horsepower and a shorter rear spoiler. And if February's race at another two-mile oval in Fontana was any indication, the ability to get massive runs in the draft and use them to make passes may very well be in each driver's toolbox.
- The past three Michigan finishes have been aided in part by late restarts, with the final green flag run being 15 laps or less each time. But if there's a much longer run to the finish this week, the possibility of a fuel mileage race -- and its potential impact on the playoffs -- shouldn't be discounted.
It's happened quite a few times since a playoff format was first introduced in 2004. In 2005, Jeremy Mayfield saved just enough fuel over the final six laps to win his first race of that season on fumes. 2009 saw Brian Vickers outlast Jimmie Johnson in a fuel mileage race, allowing him to get the second of his three career Cup wins. In 2013, Joey Logano got his first win with Team Penske after Mark Martin was unable to make the final laps on the tank of fuel he had.
All three of those victories had something in common: They all launched each driver to a place in the "Chase," NASCAR's original playoff format used from 2004 to 2013. A repeat of those sort of victories this weekend would have much more immediate consequences, as they'd automatically launch the driver in question onto the playoff grid with just a few precious races left to qualify.
Pick to Win
(Odds via Caesars Sportsbook)
Bubba Wallace (+3000): I don't mean to toot my own horn, but given that this column correctly picked Ross Chastain, Daniel Suarez and Christopher Bell to win races this year, I feel pretty confident in my ability to go with my gut. And I'm pushing my chips to the center of the table and picking Bubba Wallace this weekend.
Wallace is on a hot streak, with two top fives and three top 10s in the last three races. Michigan is a track that plays to Wallace's strengths, as he's won here in the Truck Series and has a top-10 finish here in Cup. It also plays to the strengths of 23XI Racing as a team, as they've given Wallace very fast cars at similar tracks like Kansas and Nashville. And Wallace has something of a leg up over the competition, as he was one of three drivers to participate in a Goodyear tire test at this track back in June.
Everything seems to be aligning just right for Wallace to legitimately contend for a win this weekend, and that's what I'm going with. If you want a somewhat safer pick, though, Kyle Larson (+650) has three Michigan wins, led the most laps one year ago, and won at a very similar track at Fontana earlier this year.