Newest Lower Downforce Package Makes Debut at Michigan

The NASCAR Sprint Cup and Xfinity Series head to the Irish Hills of Michigan this weekend, where the latest lower downforce package will make its debut in Sunday’s FireKeepers Casino 400 at Michigan International Speedway (1:00 p.m. ET). The Xfinity Series will race on Saturday afternoon in the Menard’s 250 (1:30 p.m. ET), while the Camping World Truck Series is at Texas Motor Speedway for the Rattlesnake 400 (Friday evening, 7:00 p.m. ET).

Coming into the 2016 season, the biggest storyline by far was the new lower downforce package. Drivers and fans alike were enthusiastic about the change, and so far, it hasn’t disappointed. The racing has been somewhat overshadowed by drama off the track and Joe Gibbs Racing’s dominance, but don’t mistake the fact that 2016 has been one of the best years in recent memory in NASCAR when it comes to flat-out racing.

However, many drivers, including Ryan Newman, Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski, have gone on the record as saying they would like to see more downforce to be taken off the cars. NASCAR listened, and a new package debuts this weekend.

Here are some of the changes for this weekend on the cars. The rear spoiler has been reduced in height (from 3.5 to 2.5 inches) and length (from 61 to 53 inches). Cooling fans and rear-axle offset, or “skew,” have also been eliminated. These were two changes that were first used in the Sprint All-Star Race a few weeks ago (elimination of skew is planned only for Michigan and Kentucky). The fin on the rear decklid (trunk) will be smaller, and the front splitter has been trimmed from five to two inches on the sides.

All of these changes are expected to reduce downforce on the 3,500-pound stock cars. That, in turn, will make the cars more difficult to drive (which is what drivers, crew chiefs and fans want). According to data from the Goodyear tire test at Michigan International Speedway last month, as well as practice speeds on Friday morning, straightaway speeds are up about 5 mph, whereas corner speeds are down 5-10 mph. This is because of the lower downforce, as cars are a handful to control, meaning drivers will have to slow down to be able to corral their vehicles. If they don’t, they’ll be spinning every which way come Sunday afternoon.

Speaking of Sunday afternoon, Joey Logano will lead the field to the green flag. He won the pole with an average speed of 199.557 mph. After starting second the past two weeks, and just barely missing the pole, the No. 22 driver finally got the best of the other 39 drivers.

“It just feels really good, because the last couple of weeks we’ve come in second in the final round,” said Logano. “We’ve been qualifying really well, we just haven’t had the pole, so it’s really nice to finally break through and get a pole with this new package.”

“It really goes to show how great Team Penske is on preparing cars from the shop and really not knowing what they’re coming to. It has some great adjustability in it and a fast car, obviously. Couldn’t be more proud of the team with our qualifying efforts as of recently, it’s just we finally won the right round – the last one.”

Coca-Cola 600 winner Martin Truex Jr. will roll off second, followed by Tony Stewart (best start of the season), Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin and rookie Ryan Blaney. Ryan Newman, Kyle Larson, Austin Dillon, Kyle Busch and Chase Elliott round out the top ten starting positions for Sunday’s race at MIS.

Some other notable starters include Carl Edwards in 11th, Michigan native Brad Keselowski in 15th and Jimmie Johnson in 16th. Last weeks, and defending race winner, Kurt Busch, will start in 17th. Matt Kenseth rolls off 19th, Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 27th and Kevin Harvick in 29th.

Earnhardt Jr. has won twice at MIS, and Kenseth and Harvick have both one once at the track, located in Brooklyn, Michigan. The No. 88 has been close to winning this season. Could Michigan be the site of yet another big win in Junior’s career?

Round one of qualifying was delayed by 15 minutes due to a gaggle of cars trying to pass inspection. Many, including Keselowski, Truex Jr. and Greg Biffle, had trouble complying with the aforementioned skew rules, new for this weekend.

I forgot to give the listeners my prediction on this week’s episode of Victory Lane (oops), so I’ll give it here. Kyle Larson will win this weekend for his first Sprint Cup Series victory. I think the new lower downforce will play into his hand, and the No. 42 will rim-ride his way to the winner’s circle. Also, watch out for Tony Stewart. He is starting inside the top five, likes his car loose handling and always heats up in the summer months. Keep an eye out for ol’ Smoke. Lastly, his Stewart-Haas Racing teammate, Harvick, has finished second at MIS in four of his last five times. You have got to believe that the No. 4 car will be up front from 29th in no time.

Again, you can catch the FireKeepers Casino 400 from Michigan International Speedway this Sunday at 1:00 p.m. ET on Fox Sports 1. Unfortunately, no Spartans (to my knowledge) will be in attendance. Last year, MSU head football coach Mark Dantonio was the grand marshal, giving the command to fire engines and waving the green flag. Enjoy the races, everyone!