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Michigan 400 Preview: Save Fuel, Win the Day

Mark Taylor

Mark Taylor

Taylor covers NASCAR for RotoWire. He is a three-time winner of the FSWA's Racing Writer of the Year award. He is also a military historian, specifically the World War II U.S. Navy in the Pacific.

NASCAR returns to Michigan International Speedway this weekend for the Pure Michigan 400. This is the second and final race at Brooklyn, Michigan for the season. The last few races at this two-mile oval have come down to fuel conservation and nervous crew chiefs punching buttons on calculators in the closing laps. The fastest car in the field hasn't always crossed the finish line first at MIS in recent seasons, and it's for this reason you should tune in on Sunday afternoon to witness the drama of competition and luck play out on TV. Considering 2011 has been the season of pit strategy and fuel mileage, we have a hard time seeing this race play out any other way.

Even though Toyota teams have recently stolen the spotlight at Michigan International Speedway, Chevrolet and Ford both proved to be formidable adversaries in the last race at MIS in June. Joe Gibbs Racing star Denny Hamlin led just the last eight laps, but it was good enough to one-up Matt Kenseth and teammate Kyle Busch in this season's Heluva Good! Sour Cream Dips 400. The usually Michigan-strong Roush Fenway Racing put two teams (Carl Edwards and Kenseth) in the Top 5 that day. Roush drivers led 115 of the 200 laps run that Sunday afternoon, thanks in large part to Greg Biffle's 68 circuits on the point. Aside from that, Stewart Haas Racing's one-two combo of Ryan Newman and Tony Stewart both cracked the Top 10 and made their presence easily seen. They were also joined by two Chevrolet drivers from the Richard Childress Racing camp, and Paul Menard brought home a stellar fourth-place finish and Clint Bowyer a respectable eighth-place effort. For this weekend's clash at the two-mile oval, we expect to see Gibbs' Toyotas leading the way again, with Roush and Stewart Haas in close pursuit.

As usual, we'll take a look at the loop stats for the last several races at this week's track in order to collect some recent data on the drivers. The table below has the loop data for the last 13 races at Michigan International Speedway. This information will be helpful, but we'll put some emphasis on the results from June's Heluva Good! Sour Cream Dips 400, since it was only several weeks ago and we expect that the teams will utilize the same setups for this race as well. What worked in June will likely work well again this weekend. Here are the loop stats for the top-performing Michigan drivers, sorted by driver rating.

DRIVERAVG FINISHQUAL. PASSES# of FASTEST LAPSLAPS LEDLAPS IN TOP 15DRIVER RATING
Carl Edwards5.96911712742,276110.8
Greg Biffle11.76231852742,119106.1
Jimmie Johnson14.84892594431,979105.3
Matt Kenseth10.05971301931,983103.5
Denny Hamlin10.0519921481,60299.1
Tony Stewart9.5520801381,88497.5
Kurt Busch19.24491312411,76496.5
Dale Earnhardt Jr.11.55461161091,61094.5
Jeff Gordon15.84821321061,68494.4
Brian Vickers14.739394951,33593.9
Kyle Busch16.6485911471,76993.3
Kasey Kahne17.9458110401,36686.7
Mark Martin18.443270471,47784.2
Kevin Harvick13.443470611,23084.2
Martin Truex Jr.17.4306575995380.9
Joey Logano14.02008040379.5
David Ragan17.8261161274877.2
Clint Bowyer19.33402371,00976.5
Jeff Burton19.534613196874.9
Ryan Newman21.7353121695773.4


The Contenders - Drivers in the hunt for the win

Carl Edwards -
Edwards is thick in the middle of the battle to win this season's championship. Since he has only one victory on the season, he needs to show that he's capable of winning prior to the Chase for the Cup starting. MIS ranks as his best statistical track with two victories, nine Top 5's and an average finish of 6.2 in 14 career starts. Edwards has led 274 laps at the two-mile oval in Michigan, so he's used to racing up front here. The No. 99 team could cash in with its first win since March in this Sunday's Pure Michigan 400.

Greg Biffle -
Biffle has stepped up his performance for Roush Fenway Racing the last few weeks. The driver of the No. 16 Ford has collected Top 10's in each of the last three races entering this weekend. Biffle is a two-time winner at MIS, but the last of those victories came in 2005. However, he has led well over 130 laps in his last two races at the two-mile oval and Biffle cracks the Top 5 at an astounding 41 percent rate. That shows us that the veteran driver races up front with the leaders and generally finishes there most of the time. This could be Biffle's weekend to break through to victory lane in 2011.

Kyle Busch -
The Joe Gibbs Racing star needs to heat up if he intends on being a factor in the upcoming Chase for the Cup. While the No. 18 team has never crossed the finish line first at MIS, the team has brought dominant cars here in recent seasons. Busch has led over 140 laps for his career at Michigan, but managed for one reason or another to come away winless. His last race at Brooklyn, Michigan saw Busch lead a career-best 59 laps and finish third in the Heluva Good! Sour Cream Dips 400. There's a good chance he could scratch the win column for the first time at the two-mile in the Pure Michigan 400.

Denny Hamlin -
Hamlin is just about to explode, and we can sense it. His recent performances point to a breakout with some race wins in the offing. Hamlin has won two of the last three races at the Michigan oval, so how's this week's race for timing? This part of the schedule tends to be a good patch in Hamlin's yearly performance, so the savvy fantasy racing player will take advantage of it at Michigan International Speedway this weekend.

Solid Plays - Drivers who are near locks for a Top 10 and have an outside shot at winning

Matt Kenseth -
When we visit Michigan we always think of the Wisconsin native Kenseth. In his 24 career starts at the huge, sweeping oval he's crossed the finish line first twice and piled up a stack of 15 Top-10 finishes. You could say that this big oval feels like home for Kenseth and he indeed races like it each time we visit the Irish Hills. The Roush Fenway Racing star has finished fifth and second in his last two visits to MIS, so his skills here are as sharp as they ever have been.

Kurt Busch -
Busch has been a feast or famine driver at Michigan International Speedway. The veteran Penske Racing driver has two career victories at MIS, but only a 38 percent Top 10 rate at the track. Busch's performances here have been looking up of late. The driver of the No. 22 Dodge has won two of the last three Michigan poles, and he's posted third-, 40th- and 11th-place finishes in those starts. Were it not for an engine failure in this race one year ago, he'd likely have a pair of Top 5's in those three starts. The way Busch is racing right now is the principal factor in our predicted performance for this Sunday's Pure Michigan 400.

Ryan Newman -
Rocket Man is a two-time winner at Michigan, but the recent past at this oval has been quite bumpy for the Stewart-Haas Racing driver. He reversed years of sup-par finishes with his sixth-place effort in June's Heluva Good! Sour Cream Dips 400. That was his third straight Top 10 in races on two-mile ovals. The No. 39 Chevrolet team is racing well right now and Newman is putting up good finishes at these huge ovals, so there's little concern in deploying him for this weekend's race at Michigan.

Tony Stewart -
The owner/driver of the No. 14 Chevrolet is carrying a solid three-race Top 10 streak at MIS into this weekend's event. Stewart is coming off a disappointing finish at Watkins Glen, and looking for some solid results at Michigan. He has steady career numbers at Michigan International Speedway with 17 Top-10 finishes in 25 starts, which factors out to a very good 68-percent rate. Eight of his last 10 visits to the two-mile oval have yielded Top 10's with no finish worse than 17th. That is about as steady as it comes when we're looking at reliability in NASCAR.

Sleepers - Drivers with good history at Michigan who can provide a solid finish

Jimmie Johnson -
Johnson has been consistent, but not a world-beater the last several weeks. The defending Sprint Cup champion is looking to improve before the Chase for the Cup begins. While the No. 48 team has never crossed the finish line first at MIS, the team has brought dominant cars here in recent seasons. Johnson has led over 500 laps for his NASCAR career at Michigan, but managed for one reason or another to come away winless. While he's not likely to win this Sunday afternoon, another well deserved Top 10 should be in the offing for the Hendrick Motorsports star.

Kevin Harvick -
The RCR veteran has managed to hang around in the championship picture, despite racing less than his potential the last several weeks. Harvick is winless in his last 10 races, but it seems he's just biding his time until the Chase begins. The driver of the No. 29 Chevrolet won this event one year ago, and in recent season's Harvick has been on of the series' more consistent drivers on these two-mile ovals. He won at Fontana earlier this season, so there's little doubt he's capable of pulling the upset in this week's Pure Michigan 400. At the very least Harvick should crack the Top 15 on Sunday afternoon.

Joey Logano -
Logano doesn't have a long Sprint Cup resume, but upon close examination one begins to see how much the young Joe Gibbs Racing driver likes these two-mile ovals in Fontana and Michigan. Logano has three Top 10's in his five career visits to Michigan, including a pair of 10th-place finishes at this oval last year. He has been heating up of late with Top 5's in three of his last six races entering this event, including a brilliant fifth-place finish this past weekend at Watkins Glen. The No. 20 Toyota team makes a great fantasy racing play this weekend.

Brad Keselowski -
The hottest driver in the Sprint Cup Series right now is none other than Keselowski. In the last 10 races he's piled up a couple wins and six Top-10 finishes. Keselowski narrowly missed his third victory during this span with a runner-up finish to Marcos Ambrose this past weekend at the road course in Watkins Glen. The No. 2 Dodge team should continue to carry this momentum to Michigan this Sunday afternoon. Keselowski has never fared well on NASCAR's two-mile ovals, but this is a weekend to throw out the record books. He could crack the Top 10 for the first time in his career at Michigan International Speedway.

A.J. Allmendinger -
The Richard Petty Motorsports driver just loves it when the series visits Michigan. Allmendinger brought one of his typical Top-15 cars to this race in June. The No. 43 team set up the veteran driver with a good handling race car and he piloted it to a workman-like 13th-place in the Heluva Good! Sour Cream Dips 400. Allmendinger sports a slightly better than 50 percent Top 15 rate for the season, so we expect consistency out of this driver and team. Given how well the RPM star raced here in June, and the Top 15 that he posted in Fontana, Allmendinger should be a safe play for the Pure Michigan 400.

Trevor Bayne -
Bayne returns from a two-race hiatus from the Sprint Cup Series to compete this weekend at the big bowl in Michigan. The young driver has had some ups-and-downs this season, but he's getting better nearly every week. The June race at Michigan International Speedway was one of those "ups" in the 2011 season. Bayne was able to stay on the lead lap, and posted a respectable 16th-place finish after 400 miles of racing at MIS. Since the return to Michigan is so quick, we're willing to bet the young driver picks right up where he left off.

Landon Cassill -
The proverbial “roll of the dice” driver this week is Cassill. However, we have a lot of confidence in the No. 51 team and this Phoenix Racing driver. Despite his struggles this season, Cassill has a respectable record on the two-mile tracks. He finished a season-best 12th at MIS in June, and he finished a respectable 24th at Fontana earlier this season. We expect a workman-like Top 20 for Cassill this Sunday afternoon with the upside of a potential Top-15 finish.

Flops - Drivers to avoid at all costs

Jeff Gordon -
Hendrick Motorsports had enjoyed a fair amount of success at Michigan over the years, and Gordon has been a huge part of that performance. The driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet has two career wins at MIS and a mind-boggling 18 Top-5 finishes. Over the 37 career starts that works out to an awesome 49 percent Top 5 rate at the two-mile oval. While those numbers are astounding, we have to step back and look at his recent outings here. Hendrick teams struggled tremendously at Michigan in June, and Gordon was a part of those struggles. He's failed to crack the Top 15 in his last two visits to the oval in the Irish Hills, so don't be surprised if Gordon continues to struggle in the Pure Michigan 400.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. -
Earnhardt has struggled with consistency in his last several starts, despite starting the season well. Earnhardt has only one Top-10 finish in the last eight races. That doesn't bode well for our second visit of the year to Michigan International Speedway. Earnhardt's last two visits to this two-mile oval have been uninspiring. He finished 21st here in June and 19th in this event one year ago. The chips seem to be stack up against the No. 88 team right now, so find your fantasy racing help elsewhere this weekend.

Bobby Labonte -
While we normally like the No. 47 team on most ovals, this week's race at Michigan will be a major test for Labonte. The JTG Daugherty Racing driver is a three-time winner at Michigan International Speedway, but the last of those victories came in 1999. Since then it has been a long list of struggles with multiple race teams at this huge, sweeping oval. Labonte has failed to crack the Top 20 in his last seven trips to Brooklyn, Michigan and he has two DNF's during that span. These numbers cry “stay away” in a loud, clear voice.

Kasey Kahne -
Kahne was a steady performer on the larger ovals earlier this season, but he seems to have fallen on hard times of late. Despite finishing ninth at Auto Club Speedway, he came to Michigan in June and collected a pitiful 28th-place finish. We know that the Red Bull Racing star has the goods to perform at MIS because he's a one-time winner at the oval. However, recent performances indicate a rough road ahead in this Sunday's Pure Michigan 400. Kahne enters this event with a three-race Top 10 drought and struggling on big ovals.