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Beaver’s Best Bets for the FireKeepers Casino 400

Kyle Busch

Kyle Busch

John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

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There are a few near-perfect configurations for tracks. The 2-milers are wide and long enough to allow drivers to take a variety of lines. If the overtaking car works in more than one groove, passes can be made without a lot of lost time on the track. If that car is not adjustable, the leading car can disrupt the air and hold off the competition. Two-mile tracks are a combination of a chess match and raw speed.

Traditionally, this track type is prone to streaks. There are several drivers this week with a long string of top-15s that are only occasionally broken up. That changed this spring at Auto Club Speedway as Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, and Chase Elliott saw a streak of five or more top-10s end. In Elliott’s case, it was because his teammate Kyle Larson pinched him into the wall, but that is part of this sport.

The data pool on this course type is drying up like a stock tank in Texas. Michigan International Speedway hosted two races for the entirety of its history with a brief break in 1973. For most of the Modern Era, these two races were in closer proximity to one another than any track except Pocono Raceway, which is part of what made the races so predictable. Now Michigan is down to one race and if plans go forward to turn Auto Club into a Bristol Motor Speedway-style short track, it will be the only track of its type on the schedule.

Proposed Winner

The Wise Power 400 at Auto Club this spring was interesting. As the first unrestricted race with the NextGen car, we didn’t really know what to expect and there was a mix of favorites and dark horses. Since then, we’ve learned that favorites are only slightly lighter dark horses with 14 different winners and only one driver scoring more than two wins. No one is running away with the points this year.

Larson’s (+750) move on Elliott in the closing laps was aggressive. At the time, it seemed overly so, but given the struggles of this team since, it might have been his only opportunity to make the playoffs. Larson has not been able to string together the numbers he had in 2021. He has not earned more than three consecutive top-fives, although at one point during the middle of the regular season, he had five top-10s in a span of six races.

So why is he the favorite? The Auto Club win goes a long way, but so does his third-place finish at Michigan last year. This is a track type that has been kind in the past with Larson scoring four wins in a streak of six straight top-threes. From 2016 through 2018. He’s capable of rebounding and we think this is the weekend that happens.

Best Bets for a top five

Michigan is prone to streaks. We do not yet know if that will carry over to the NextGen car, but decisions must be made with the information at hand, and that suggests this is a great track for Hamlin (+850). His fifth-place finish in last year’s FireKeepers Casino 400 was the seventh consecutive top-12 finish there. He doesn’t have a win in that span, but a pair of second-place finishes in 2019 and 2020 are close enough to make him a good value.

With an 11th-place finish at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course Ky. Busch (+700) now has a seven-race streak of results outside the top 10. Unless he runs into serious trouble during the FireKeepers Casino 400, that will end this weekend because he has been flawless at Michigan for half a decade. His last nine races there all ended in top-10s with an average of 5.6. Only one of these results was worse than seventh.

We believe JGR has an outside chance to run the table with top-fives. Martin Truex Jr. (+1400) is running out of chances to win and lock into the playoffs, but this is a track on which he has four top-fives in his last five starts. That ended last year with a 10th. This spring, he slipped a little further with 13th at Auto Club, but that was his 14th consecutive top-15 on 2-mile tracks.

Track position is going to make the difference between a top-five finish for Elliott (+725). He showed an immediate affinity for this track with consecutive second-place finishes in his first three starts. Since then, he hasn’t scored another top-five, but seven of his last eight attempts landed in the top 10. He will forget about last week’s late spin and concentrate on the five results of second or better that preceded it.

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Best Bets for a top 10

The numbers get a little cloudier deeper down the chart. Ryan Blaney (+1200) won last year’s edition of this race as he put together a solid end to the regular season. Like Elliott, he was the victim of a teammate at the start of 2022 and if Austin Cindric had not blocked him into the wall in the Daytona 500, he would not have spent the next 21 races watching the playoff bubble grow closer each passing week. For a while, his consistency put him in a position to challenge for the regular season championship lead and points are where this team should concentrate for the next four weeks.

As of this writing, we have not yet seen if Kurt Busch (+2200) has cleared concussion protocol. If he has, he should be able to rocket back to the front of the pack. He was contending for a top-10 starting position at Pocono Raceway when he lost control in Turn 3, so he has not lacked speed. On the 2-mile tracks, he has six top-10s in his last seven attempts and 10 top-12s in the last 11. He won the 2015 Quicken 400.

Momentum is a difficult force to measure, but it’s real. With two wins in the last five races and a second-place finish at Pocono, Tyler Reddick (+1100) is one of the hottest drivers on the circuit. Richard Childress Racing (RCR) does not have the same deep pockets as Hendrick Motorsports (HMS) or Gibbs, but that is less important with the NextGen car than in years past.

Daniel Suarez‘s (+2500) Sonoma Raceway win continues to propel him. He finished 15th the following week at Nashville Superspeedway and then rattled off four consecutive top-10s. He was in contention to make that five in a row until chaos erupted in the final two restarts of the Verizon 200. The gloves came off and he was pushed back to 28th at the end, but this is an organization that is accustomed to overcoming setbacks.

Ross Chastain (+1000) had a miserable weekend at Indy that had him languishing deep in the field for most of the race. The bright spot was on the final lap when he challenged Reddick for the No. 1 position, but even that was not good news. He exceeded track limits and was hit with a 30-second penalty that dropped him to the last driver on the lead lap. The silver lining there is he showed just how badly he wants to win. Chastain will overcome a generally anemic record on 2-mile tracks this week.

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