Kurt Busch led the NASCAR Sprint Cup field to the green flag Sunday in the 5-hour Energy 500 at Pocono Raceway. The starting position was Busch's second pole in as many races, and the sole Dodge team has started looking as though it will be a regular challenger as this season continues.
Long, green-flag runs characterized the race where predictable transmission and engine troubles began biting contenders due to the varied nature of the track's turns interspersed with long straights. Carl Edwards suffered an engine issue with a broken valve, while Tony Stewart and a handful of others suffered broken gears, hampering what might have been positive days.
Both Denny Hamlin and Busch looked good at various points in the race, but it was Jeff Gordon who picked up his second win of the season.
The Irish hills of Michigan are up next for the Sprint Cup regulars. The most recent Michigan winners include Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin and Brian Vickers. Each has been quick and in position to win in the past week or two, and all should be likely contenders this week.
Michigan has been virtually owned by the Roush Fenway Racing team recently, but other drivers have started to figure out what the RFR guys are doing. The last few weeks can give us a good idea of who might have a leg up on the competition in the Heluva Good! Sour Cream Dips 400, though.
Jeff Gordon – Gordon might be the one to watch this week at Michigan. He scored his second win of the season Sunday at Pocono, and now heads to Michigan, where he has tasted his fair share of success recently. His average finish in the last five Michigan battles is 15.4, and he took three top-fives finishes away in that time as well. It seems like the monkey on his back that has plagued him for so long is officially gone in 2011. Gordon continues to run quickly every week and hasn't often encountered terrible luck or mechanical gremlins. Two wins and three other top-fives in 2011 make Gordon an even more attractive fantasy option this week in Michigan.
Brian Vickers – Sadly, Vickers only mustered a 22nd-place finish in the 5-hour Energy 500. He was competing at the front of the field through the first half of the distance, and showed some of what made him such a strong competitor before medical problems knocked him out of the 2010 season. Mistakes on pit road cost him a chance at a very welcome top finish. Vickers' record at Michigan International Speedway is an impressive one, though. His average finish in the last three races is 5.7, with a win and two top-10 finishes. Vickers spent the opening part of this season getting back into the swing of things, and now he should start to pick up some strong and consistent finishes.
Carl Edwards – Edwards had a disappointing day in Pennsylvania, dropping a cylinder and struggling to salvage whatever he could from the effort. Ultimately, he only completed 59 laps and finished 37th, but he remains 40 points ahead of Jimmie Johnson. The team will want to put its worst finish of the season behind it as quickly as possible, and the series points leader must be salivating to race at Michigan. Edwards has the best record at the track among current drivers and clearly has momentum on his side in 2011. His average finish in the last five Michigan races is 4.8, with a win and four top-fives. Edwards should challenge for the win Sunday.
Joey Logano – Eleventh place at Pocono was another good day for Logano. He might only be 23rd in the points, but the finishes are starting to come as he learns what it takes to run consistently every week in this demanding series. Logano learns quickly, and has always been very quick to boot, and those characteristics have propelled his strong finishes this season. Now that Logano is showing some muscle again, it is time to upgrade him for Michigan. This driver is confident at the track, and his average finish of 13.0 in his last four tries is encouraging. Three top-10s in that span make him a driver to consider for a second or third roster spot, if possible.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. – Earnhardt has turned a corner on his career with Hendrick Motorsports. The past three races have been very strong, and he is on the best finishing streak he has seen since joining the team. He finished sixth in Pocono, notching his eighth top-10 this season and third in a row. The No. 88 has will and desire and should visit Victory Lane soon. Earnhardt has been knocking on the door of a win the last few races now, and watching trophies slip through his fingers has ignited the fire in his eyes – he is truly gunning for a win now. That long-awaited reward could come this weekend where his average finish in the last five starts is 13.2. A top-five and another top-10 in those five tries are enough to earn a spot on fantasy rosters this weekend.
Jimmie Johnson – Fourth in the 5-hour Energy 500 leaves Johnson in second place in the points, and he made up ground on leader Carl Edwards. After consecutive top-10 finishes it might be surprising to see the No. 48 in the downgrade column, but Michigan is not one of his better tracks. His run of top finishes stands a good chance of ending considering his recent history at the track. Michigan is not a track Johnson has been his normal self at the last two years or so. Just one top-10 finish in the last five starts is all he can claim, and his average finish in that time is a shadow of what we expect at 18.0. Track statistics like that ensure that fantasy owners should save Johnson for another week.
Kurt Busch – After starting on pole in Pocono, Busch had a strong day and brought his Dodge home in the second position. The result is Busch's third top-10 in a row, signaling that he can still beat the field despite being the sole team in Dodge's stable. Your back-to-back pole sitter from Pocono and Kansas Speedway might not impress again in Michigan, though. His consistency at the tri-oval recently is suspect, and his average finish in the last five races is just 24.6. He owns a top-five and a pole at the track in that time, but with only two lead-lap finishes in those five tries you might want something more confident than Busch has to offer.
Brad Keselowski – Keselowski rolled his car home in 23rd position Sunday at Pocono. He was forcibly moved out of the way on an early restart and was simply not up to the pace of Sunday's leaders. While his win in the STP 400 was no fluke, Keselowski simply isn't what fantasy owners need just yet. His Michigan statistics only show one lead-lap finish in his last three entries at the tri-oval, and his average finish is only 28.3 in that time. Fantasy owners who look to him as a third or fourth driver on a regular basis need to find another option this week at Michigan.
Jamie McMurray – Three awful weeks of races for the No. 1 car of McMurray has been debilitating to his points effort. His average finish in the last four races is 29.0. The winner of 2010's biggest races is now 29th in points and hasn't seen a top-10 result since the series visited Darlington Raceway in early May. Additionally, one top-10 finish in his last five Michigan tries doesn't make McMurray a confident start this week. His average finish in that time is 19.4, and despite his flashes of speed in the last couple of races, he isn't a driver fantasy owners should rely on for consistent points due to his recent troubles.
Ryan Newman – The top-10 finish that Newman captured Sunday at Pocono was a small victory for him and the team after two races of a 15th-finish and worse. He holds down 10th in points and has tallied four top-fives and six top-10s in 14 races this season, but consistent top finishes have been missing. One step forward in the reliability and mistake-free realm would put Newman solidly into championship, and victory, contention every week. Still, Michigan is another track where Newman fails to impress and looks likely to slip again. His average finish in the last five races is 22.8, and he hasn't scored any top-fives or top-10s in that time. He only finished on the lead lap two of those five times. Fantasy owners should steer clear this weekend.
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