BROOKLYN, Mich.—After a half-century and 100 NASCAR Cup races at Michigan International Speedway, the track has never celebrated a native from the Wolverine State in Victory Lane.
That could change on Sunday with two Michiganders in the field for the Consumers Energy 400.
Rochester Hills’ Brad Keselowski will start from pole. Erik Jones, who grew up in Byron, posted the fastest lap in Happy Hour. While any victory is special, winning at your hometown track carries special significance for a driver.
“We had a great run here in the spring,” said Keselowski who finished sixth despite a speeding penalty in the final stage. “I thought we were more than capable of winning. We had a pit road issue very close to the end when we were in a position to grab the lead and take control of the race. That was really frustrating. I felt like we had the speed last spring to be in contention at the end.
“Everything has to fall your way, and you have to execute as well, but that didn’t happen for us here and it hasn’t happened for us. It looks like we're off to a good start this weekend. We have really good speed.”
Keselowski, 35, will have the first pit stall—always a benefit in gaining track position off of pit road. Keselowski won the pole for this race two years ago and led a career-best 105 laps. Keselowski’s car wasn’t as fast mired in traffic as it was out front, and he didn’t factor into the final 50 laps. Kyle Larson rolled on to win his third-straight at Michigan.
Still, in Keselowski’s last 16 starts on the two-mile track nestled in the Irish Hills, the driver of the No. 2 Team Penske Ford has posted six top fives and 11 top 10s. With Keselowski growing up an hour from the track and team owner Roger Penske and Ford Motorsports calling Michigan home, winning on Sunday is of paramount importance to the NASCAR champion.
“Winning here is ranked first with winning the Daytona 500,” Keselowski said. “I give it that equivalency there. I wish I could win either of those two, but hopefully we will.”
Jones is still in the infancy of his Cup career with just five starts at MIS and only one top-five finish—a third-place result in this race two years ago. But currently, there’s not a hotter driver in NASCAR. After a rough start of the season—and in a contract year—Jones had three-consecutive podium finishes followed by a fourth-place run last weekend at Watkins Glen. His performance over the last four races has vaulted the driver of the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota from 18th to 13th in the standings and likely secured his ride for next season.
On Saturday, Jones’ topped the speed chart in Happy Hour. Despite having a fast car, Jones didn’t want to make an early call on his chances on Sunday.
“It’s tough to tell,” said Jones, who will start 16th. “We’re carrying so much throttle in practice and we’re so wide open it’s hard to get a feeling of where your car is going to kind of fall.
“But I feel like we’ve done the best job we can as far as we can car-wise and handling-wise and also, speed-wise to have a shot.”
Saturday night Jones paid a visit to Waterford Speedway Sportsman’s Club 80 miles from MIS. When he tweeted about his outing, Keselowski replied, “I had no idea we started racing at the same track. This is so cool!”
Topping off his homecoming with a victory at MIS would bring Jones’ journey full circle.
“It would rank right up top of wins for me,” Jones said. “Winning a Cup race here is a big goal of mine and a dream of mine. I would love to be able to do it this week. We’ve been on a great roll this last month and to close it out with a win here would be pretty perfect.
“Sometimes things work out like that, and sometimes they won’t. I think we have as good of a shot as we’ve had here. I feel like the last time we were this competitive here was in 2017 in this race. We had a shot to win that day, but we haven’t really been great here since. I feel like we have a really good car here again this weekend with enough speed to do it. It’s just going to be a matter of getting in the right spot.”