BROOKLYN, Mich.—When the pack of Monster Energy NASCAR Cup cars comes rolling out of Turn 4 at Michigan International Speedway, the roar sounds eerily familiar.
Maybe not as powerful as 40 cars rolling down the frontstretch at Talladega Superspeedway but closer to the sound of the field at Daytona.
But if fans are hoping to see a full-blown draft break out at somewhere other than the two formerly known as restrictor plate tracks, don’t expect a miracle in the FireKeepers Casino 400 at Michigan on Sunday.
“No, it is not going to be like Daytona and Talladega,” said Joey Logano, who won the pole on Saturday with a lap of 187.139mph. “Those tracks are so easy wide open in dirty air that the draft works throughout the whole race track.
“There are some times that you can follow a car right behind them here and still be pretty much wide open but you have to be one of the first two to four cars to be able to do that. So when you get back in the pack, the more handling is going to mean and that is when you have to approach it more like a race you would at Kansas and be smart about what lines you pick and where you are trying to make passes.”
With the current package, Logano contemplates the consequences of each move well in advance. The risk increases exponentially on a one-groove track. Logano believes the current style of racing is more mentally taxing than it has ever been.
“The cars handle better than ever but when you get in dirty air they are very unpredictable," Logano said. "The runs that are formed by other cars is a direction that I go to study now compared to what I used to study. I change a lot of what I work on as a driver and what I look for in my race car has changed a lot and it keeps changing every week. I have picked the wrong road a few times already.
“Hopefully, we pick the right road to go down this weekend and we can make some moves on the race track. It is just different types of racing than we have seen in the past. You won’t see three or four wide packs for very long. You will see three and four wide for sure but it will get to the point where cars will be looking for clean air in the corners. You won’t see many cars following each other into the corner unless it is on the bottom.”
Kurt Busch, who will start seventh on Sunday, agrees with Logano that handling will be at a premium. Busch has three wins at the two-mile track, most recently in 2015. But from what he has experienced in practice on Friday, the cars don’t handle well enough at Michigan to run in a pack for an extended length of time.
“It’s a two-mile track and it’s almost like the speeds are too high for it to blend into a Talladega or Daytona-style draft,” Busch said. “By itself, the car ran comfortable and ran really good speed.
“In the draft, whether everybody is struggling with it or for us, on the No. 1 car and the 42 (Kyle Larson), we both felt like our drafting ability was compromised a bit.”
NASCAR has slowed the cars considerably since last year—from nearly 850 horsepower to 550 with the new package. Logano’s qualifying run was 16mph slower than Kurt Busch’s lap of 203.361 mph last June. From inside the cockpit, Logano could tell the difference.
“We used to be hauling the mail around here in qualifying and you would get the shakes afterward,” said the driver of the No. 22 Team Penske Ford.
Despite the cut in horsepower, two-time Michigan winner Denny Hamlin feels the speeds are still too high to sustain a traditional draft. When this package was initially tested during the All-Star race at Charlotte Motor Speedway in 2018, the cars' horsepower was limited to 450.
“Drafting is more of a product of where you can still run wide open behind each other and we still don’t have that here,” said Hamlin, who qualified fourth. “We’re still running too fast for it to be a true drafting race track. To me, there will be opportunities where you can use the draft to push the car in front of you or maybe make a move but it’s not going to be true drafting unless you are not grip limited and you’re able to run wide open behind somebody, that way you can also use the corners for drafting as well.
“But right now, still the corners even at this race track, you lose a little ground if you’re in someone’s wake. You need all that straightaway to get it back.”