NASCAR heads to the Irish Hills

This weekend, the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series heads north to Michigan International Speedway for the FireKeepers Casino 400, where fast speed and four (sometimes five) wide racing are the norm. Can Dale Jr. turn his luck around? Will an in-state driver grab the checkered flag? Will we have another first-time winner in 2017?

WHAT: FireKeepers Casino 400 (200 laps, 400 miles. Stages of 60, 60 and 80 laps)

WHEN: Sunday, June 18, 2017. Green flag scheduled for just past 3:45 p.m. ET on FS1

WHERE: Michigan International Speedway, two-mile D-shaped-oval located in Brooklyn, Mich.

FAVORITES: Kyle Larson (4/1) and Martin Truex Jr. (5/1)


Photo: Kena Krutsinger/Getty Images

LAST YEAR’S WINNER

Joey Logano led 138 of the 200 laps in his No. 22 Ford en route to his first victory of the 2016 season. Chase Elliott led 35 laps and finished a career-best second place and became infamous for being too hard on himself post-race. He lost the lead on a lap 154 restart to Logano.


THE FIELD

Kyle Larson will roll off from the pole position for the second time this season after putting down a blazing fast lap of 202.156 mph (35.623 secs). Larson’s fast lap was an ode to Lightning McQueen, as the newly premiered movie “Cars 3” is on the No. 42 as a sponsor this weekend.

Photo: Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

Martin Truex Jr. will start second (his third straight front row start) with Clint Bowyer, Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin following. Ryan Blaney, Joey Logano, Jamie McMurray, Matt Kenseth and Chase Elliott will round out the top 10 starters. Kevin Harvick had the fastest time in rounds one and two, but qualified 11th. Brad Keselowski also made the final round, but came home in 12th place.

Some other notable qualifiers included Jimmie Johnson in 13th, Erik Jones in 14th, Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 17th, Danica Patrick in 23rd and Darrell Wallace Jr. in 27th place.


BLANEY GOING FOR TWO IN A ROW

Photo: Sean Gardner/NASCAR via Getty Images

Coming off his first-career Cup series victory last weekend at Pocono, there’s nothing Ryan Blaney would love more than to pull the No. 21 into victory lane for the second week in a row and for the 100th time for the Wood Brothers organization.

He has one top five and one top ten in two starts at Michigan. The No. 21 has also been one of the fastest cars in the garage of late. He dominated at Texas and led a ton of laps at Kansas, two 1.5-mile tracks. He delivered in Pocono last weekend and might be able to deliver again this weekend.


JONES AND KESELOWSKI LOOK TO DELIVER AT HOME TRACK

I consider myself an honorary Michigander (even though I still pronounce Mackinac “mack-in-ack” just to make people mad), so whenever NASCAR heads to MIS, it feels like home.

It also is home for Sunoco Rookie of the Year contender Erik Jones and 2012 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Champion Brad Keselowski. Jones is making his first career Cup start at Michigan, whereas Keselowski is attempting to earn his first career win in his 17th start.

Jones is from Byron, Mich., while Keselowski hails from Rochester Hills, Mich. There have been countless drivers who have won at their home tracks throughout their careers. Kyle Busch in Las Vegas. Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Larson (among others) at Fontana. Austin Dillon recently at Charlotte. The list goes on and on and on. Keselowski and Jones look to add their names to that list and give the Michiganders a hometown hero to cheer for on Sunday.


JUNIOR’S DESTINY?

Outside the top 20 in points in his last season and coming off a 38th-place finish after a shifting problem at Pocono, Dale Earnhardt Jr. should feel excited heading to Michigan this weekend.

Statistically, MIS is one of his best tracks. He has two wins, eight top fives and 14 top 10 finishes in his career. Both those wins came at a great time for Junior, as he snapped long winless streaks. He got his first win with Hendrick Motorsports in 2008 and snapped a 143-race streak in 2012 at MIS. It’s either here or Daytona–now or almost never–for driver No. 88.


JOHNSON SIGNS EXTENSION

It was announced on Friday morning that seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson had signed a three-year contract extension with Hendrick Motorsports, taking him through the 2020 season.

Photo: Chris Trotman/Getty Images

The only team that Jimmie Johnson has ever known, HMS, has also had a partnership with his long-time sponsor Lowe’s since Johnson came into the series in 2000. They also signed on for the rest of the contract, meaning sponsorship will not be an issue—as it shouldn’t be.

Johnson has one win (2014), five top fives and 12 top 10 finishes in his career at Michigan International Speedway. His driver rating of 100.0 is third-best in the Cup series as well, behind Chase Elliott and Matt Kenseth.


WHO WINS NEXT?

Photo: Jerry Markland/Getty Images

Kyle Busch dominated last weekend at Pocono … but left empty handed and still has zero wins. Kevin Harvick finished in second place, but left empty handed and still has zero wins. Dale Earnhardt Jr. can’t outrun the bad luck bug, Joe Gibbs Racing is still winless as an organization, and Joey Logano’s win is “encumbered,” meaning it essentially doesn’t count.

Who is going to win next? Playoff spots are filling up. Ten drivers have won races, meaning, theoretically, six slots remain. But there could be a case that more than 16 regular season winners would occur, which has never happened before. There are more than six drivers who are capable of winning races, which should make things interesting leading up to Richmond.


PREDICTION

Per usual, I’m sticking to my guns as stated this week on Victory Lane and going with the Rochester Hills native himself, Brad Keselowski, to wind up in victory lane this weekend. That No. 2 team (and Team Penske as a MENCS organization) have been bit by the bad luck bug the past month or so, and Keselowski wants nothing more than to win at MIS.