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Quicken Loans 400 Preview: Toyota's Playground

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.

As we put the high speeds and high thrills of the three-turn oval in Long Pond, Penn., behind us, we look forward to this weekend when the Sprint Cup Series will pay their first visit to Michigan International Speedway for the Quicken Loans 400. This will be the first of two visits to the two-mile oval in Brooklyn, Michigan. For the second straight week NASCAR will go racing on a repaved oval. As we saw at Pocono this past week, the speeds were high, the grip was great, but as a consequence the hot streaks and historical trends were largely thrown out the window. We could be in for another trend-breaking race this Sunday at Michigan. That will force us to look with more scrutiny toward current momentum and who preformed well on the new pavement at Pocono Raceway. MIS has similar characteristics to Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, which the Sprint Cup Series raced at in March of this season. Both tracks are two-mile ovals, but Michigan has a little more banking in the corners and straight-aways. As a result, the oval in Brooklyn boasts average speeds around the 190 mph range. We could see this climb significantly higher this weekend with the fresh asphalt topping. As with Fontana, Michigan is all about aero handling and horsepower, and races at the large oval often come down to fuel strategy as well. The track is conducive to the long green-flag run so the crew chiefs had better keep a close eye on their pit windows and fuel mileage over the course of the event. If recent races at MIS are any indicator, be prepared for about 20-25 lead changes and four-to-five caution flags on Sunday afternoon so the racing should be pretty continuous. The result will be an emphasis on fuel efficiency, pit crew performance and pit strategy as these will be big keys to victory in this 400-mile event.

Since we can look back on the early race at Fontana as essentially a preview of this event, those results will be a great guide to picking a fantasy racing lineup this weekend. The similarities between the two ovals afford us this luxury. Still, enough time has passed since that Fontana race to give us some pause about completely hanging our hats on those numbers. Current trends for Michigan International Speedway will serve us well too. The drivers who have performed well at MIS over the years are certainly worth some added scrutiny. The loop stats shown below cover the last seven years or 14 races at Michigan International Speedway.

DRIVERAVG FINISHQUAL. PASSES# of FASTEST LAPSLAPS LEDLAPS IN TOP 15DRIVER RATING
Greg Biffle12.36662133602,306106.5
Carl Edwards8.16911772742,277106.5
Jimmie Johnson13.95242824612,122105.6
Matt Kenseth10.06211432082,183104.7
Denny Hamlin12.1547941481,68597.1
Tony Stewart9.4586801382,03296.8
Jeff Gordon15.15291541561,88796.4
Kyle Busch15.55621331691,96695.6
Kurt Busch20.24971332411,92295.3
Dale Earnhardt Jr.11.66101191091,78594.2
Kasey Kahne17.1527115431,56588.0
Mark Martin17.448777491,67685.8
Kevin Harvick14.045571611,26383.3
Martin Truex Jr.17.533657591,01380.0
Joey Logano15.22298045878.2
David Ragan17.2328161285677.7
Clint Bowyer18.33912371,16977.6
Ryan Newman20.540712161,15475.5
Jeff Burton19.43821311,04175.0
David Reutimann20.226711474171.0

In years past, Michigan International Speedway was a track of parity. It seemed that any manufacturer was a contender for victory lane. However, the last three years have seen Toyota and Chevrolet gravitate to the top of the pile at the two-mile oval. This is an unusual development for a track that saw Ford drivers dominate for so many years. Joe Gibbs Racing star and Toyota driver Kyle Busch dominated at Fontana earlier this season, he led 80 laps but didn't win. Busch is also our last Michigan winner. The driver of the No. 18 Toyota out-dueled Jimmie Johnson and won last August's Pure Michigan 400. Not to be overshadowed, Busch's JGR teammate Denny Hamlin has won this race the last two seasons in a row. The total scorecard has Toyota drivers winning four of the last five races at Michigan International Speedway. We have to pay these drivers and teams top billing for Sunday's Quicken Loans 400. As for the Ford camp, Carl Edwards was the last Ford driver to take the trophy for Roush Fenway Racing and his manufacturer at this big oval all the way back in 2008. Considering the fact that Roush and all the Ford teams are on the rebound this season, we could likely see Matt Kenseth (two-time MIS winner) or Greg Biffle (two-time MIS winner) in victory lane on Sunday afternoon. Kevin Harvick was the last Chevrolet driver to reach victory lane at the Irish Hills of Michigan. The RCR star won the Carfax 400 in 2010 for his one and only Michigan victory. Harvick may only be one of a handful of Chevy drivers who have the potential to win this Sunday's Quicken Loans 400. We'll examine recent hot streaks of this season and the history at Michigan International Speedway and give you the drivers you need to dominate your fantasy racing leagues this weekend at MIS.

The Contenders - Drivers in the hunt for the win

Denny Hamlin
Two-time Michigan winner Hamlin looks to defend his title of race winner from this event one year ago. The No. 11 Toyota team has been putting together some momentum so that the Joe Gibbs Racing star can return to victory lane again this season. Their strong run this past weekend at Pocono Raceway is a good example of the team's current high level of performance. Hamlin out-dueled teammate Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth in this event last year and walked away with the victory. He could easily recreate the magic that has made him so successful at this oval the last two seasons.

Jimmie Johnson
For what Johnson lacks in the way of victories at Michigan, he more than makes up for with consistency at the huge, sweeping oval. He's led well over 500 laps at MIS and picked up eight career Top-10 finishes. Johnson led 18 laps and finished runner-up at Michigan International Speedway last August, so a great performance should be on tap. When we consider that the five-time champion is a five-time winner at the similar oval in Fontana, it's not a stretch to conceive a run for the checkers this Sunday afternoon. A fresh layer of asphalt may just be the factor that tips the scales towards the No. 48 team this weekend.

Matt Kenseth
Kenseth has been the most consistent performer of the surging Roush Fenway Racing stable this season. He charged into the championship standings lead this past weekend with a great run at Pocono. That performance on fresh pavement should bode well at what has been historically a good facility for both Roush and Kenseth. The veteran driver is a two-time Michigan winner and he owns 11 career Top-5 finishes at the two-mile oval. Kenseth is still looking for that second win of the season after his big Daytona 500 victory. This Sunday afternoon at MIS is probably his best opportunity to get back to victory lane since the Great American Race.

Greg Biffle
Biffle let a good run at Pocono slip through his fingers last week, but the No. 16 Ford team is still firmly fixed in that great fantasy racing play category at the moment. Biffle sports great career stats at MIS, with two victories earlier in his NASCAR career and a 56 percent Top 10 rate. He's led 220 laps in just his last three visits to Brooklyn, Michigan and he's collected one pole position and one Top-5 finish in that span. This is all evidence that there's a very good reason to be optimistic about this Roush Fenway Racing driver's chances at Michigan International Speedway on Sunday. Biffle should lead laps and race with the lead pack at MIS.

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

Tony Stewart
One-time Michigan winner Stewart certainly has had his ups-and-downs this season. His brilliant third-place finish in the just-completed Pocono 400 erased a two-race mediocre string where the owner driver failed to crack the Top 20 at Charlotte and Dover. However, we have to play historical strength with this fantasy racing play. There are not many tracks on the circuit that Smoke performs at as well as Michigan. With 18 career Top 10s at Michigan, and his win earlier at Fontana looming large in our memory, we have to give a big endorsement to Stewart for the Quicken Loans 400.

Kyle Busch
Joe Gibbs Racing's other big gun in their one-two assault on Michigan is Busch and the No. 18 team. Busch hasn't been running as well as Hamlin of late. In fact, the engine bugaboo has bitten the JGR star the last two weeks in a row. He gets a downgrade to solid play this week as a result, but should still be very dangerous at Michigan. The Joe Gibbs Racing star won his first race at the two-mile oval in last August's Pure Michigan 400. That capped a season of 81 laps led and first- and third-place finishes at MIS in 2011. We feel compelled to stick with the No. 18 Toyota team despite their recent engine issues. The upside is just way too good to ignore.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.
The No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevy team has performed at a very high level this season, and Earnhardt is a one-time winner at the huge oval in Michigan. These two reasons alone are more than enough proof to start the most popular driver in NASCAR in your fantasy racing lineups this weekend. He leads the Sprint Cup Series with 11 Top 10s through the first 14 races, so his consistency is unequalled right now. Earnhardt finished third earlier this season at Auto Club Speedway, and considering he had one of the fastest cars on the fresh blacktop at Pocono this past weekend we have to keep rolling with Junior all the way to Michigan.

Joey Logano
After walking away with an impressive victory at Pocono last weekend, we have to give the No. 20 Toyota team some close scrutiny this week at Michigan International Speedway. Logano now has a win and three Top 10s in just the last four races entering this weekend. It could be that he and crew chief Jason Ratcliff are finally starting to click. While we feel certain that Logano won't be lifting the trophy again this week, we do feel that he warrants serious consideration for this 400-mile race. The two-mile oval of MIS has held a great deal of success for Logano in his brief NASCAR career. He has three Top 10s in six career visits and a respectable 15.2 average finish at the facility.

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

Kevin Harvick
Harvick comes to Michigan this weekend looking to make up some ground in the championship chase, so motivation won't be an issue. Seems that no matter where the Sprint Cup Series visits, the No. 29 team puts on a good performance. MIS should be no exception to that trend. Harvick has been one of the Sprint Cup Series more successful drivers on two-mile ovals in recent seasons. Harvick won at Michigan in August of 2010 and he was a fourth-place finisher at the similar Fontana oval earlier this season.

Kasey Kahne
The No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports driver snapped a career-best seven-race Top 10 streak with his crash and DNF at Pocono last weekend. We're making the rebound call for Michigan this Sunday. Kahne is a one-time winner at the Michigan oval, and he has one pole position and two Top-10 finishes in just his last four trips the Irish Hills. Crew chief Kenny Francis has given some good cars to Kahne in recent seasons on these two-mile ovals, so the duo's first visit to Michigan International Speedway in a Hendrick Chevy should be highly anticipated.

Jamie McMurray
The No. 1 team's recent performance picked up a tick with his run at Pocono this past Sunday. McMurray led 14 laps and raced with the leaders to just his third Top-10 finish of the season. We don't expect the Earnhardt Ganassi Racing driver to stumble this weekend at Michigan International Speedway. McMurray has only four career Top 10s at MIS and an average finish of 19.5. However, the trend line for this driver and team is definitely up of late. We expect McMurray to crack the Top 15 in the Quicken Loans 400.

Mark Martin
The Michael Waltrip Racing star looked like sure bet to stroll into victory lane at Pocono last weekend, but he slipped to second by the end of 400 miles of racing. Things look just as promising and Michigan this Sunday afternoon, and hopefully Martin can shake off the disappointment of not winning in Pennsylvania. The driver of the No. 55 Toyota is a five-time winner at MIS and he cracks the Top 10 at a 60 percent career rate at this two-mile oval. While Martin may or may not be in the running for the win in the Quicken Loans 400, he should be a Top 10 finisher at the very least.

Clint Bowyer
As we continue to be impressed with new MWR driver Bowyer this season, we have to keep bucking his historical records due to the high level of performance of the No. 15 Toyota team this season. Bowyer has logged close to 2,300 laps for his career at Michigan International Speedway. In those 12 starts Bowyer has managed a pedestrian 18.3 average finish along with four Top 10s. While these numbers don't inspire awe, they do represent value at the end of the fantasy racing bench. We can count on Bowyer to put on a better than average performance on Sunday at the two-mile oval.

Paul Menard
Menard is starting to heat up after snapping a nine-race Top 10 drought. The Richard Childress Racing driver is coming off a respectable ninth-place finish this past weekend on the fresh blacktop of Pocono Raceway. While Michigan International Speedway hasn't been the best of venues for the driver of the No. 27 Chevrolet, we feel you can discount that data to a degree this time around. Menard finished a career Michigan-best fourth in this event one year ago, so the RCR driver should be very confident coming into this weekend's race.

Trevor Bayne
The Wood Brothers Racing youngster is making another cameo appearance this weekend at Michigan International Speedway. The last time we saw the No. 21 Ford in action, he was piloting it to a decent 24th-place finish at Charlotte in the Coca-Cola 600. Bayne already has two Top 10s in just five starts this season and that represents major value in the Yahoo! Fantasy Racing "C" group. Any time this driver and team shows up they're capable of things above the "C" group pay grade. Bayne's two career appearances at MIS have been 16th- and 24th-place finishes. We believe the best is yet to come from this young driver at this two-mile oval.

Flops - Drivers to avoid at all costs

A.J. Allmendinger
It's official ... The No. 22 Dodge team has fallen on some really hard times. No one said transitioning from Richard Petty's No. 9 to Penske Racing's No. 22 was going to be seamless for Allmendinger, and it's proven to be entirely true. His crash and DNF at Pocono this past weekend is just the latest in a series of problems for Allmendinger. He has only one Top-10 finish on the season and the Penske Racing driver has three finishes outside the Top 30 in the last four races. Things don't look to improve this week. Allmendinger has no Top 10s in nine career starts at MIS and an average finish of 21.2 at the track.

Aric Almirola
One would think that a two-mile oval like Michigan would play to the strengths of a driver like Almirola, but we believe the opposite will be true this weekend. The Richard Petty Motorsports driver has never made a Sprint Cup start at the two-mile oval in Michigan. Add to that fact that he and the No. 43 team looked rather clueless and without much speed in the just-completed Pocono 400. When we look back to Almirola's sub-par 25th-place finish at Fontana in March of this year, then we have seen all we need to see regarding his chances this Sunday afternoon.

Brad Keselowski
We've been sensing it for a couple weeks now, but with his sub-par Pocono performance we believe we have the evidence to prove that the No. 2 team is currently mired in a bit of a slump. With only one Top-10 finish in the four races since his big Talladega win, we can only conclude that things aren't running as smooth as expected in the No. 2 Penske Racing camp. That's well below expectations for this rising star. Keselowski has a scant one Top 10 in five career races at this two-mile oval, so prospects for a turnaround this Sunday afternoon seem slim.

Jeff Gordon
After limping away from Pocono this past weekend, Gordon finds himself a lowly 22nd in the championship standings coming to the Irish Hills of Michigan. The No. 24 team has taken very fast race cars to some improbably poor finishes this season. We're going to have to keep rolling with this trend on Sunday at MIS. Gordon is a two-time winner and has a whopping 24 career Top-10 finishes at the two-mile Michigan oval. Those numbers would seem to indicate that we're crazy to put Gordon in the flops list. However, Gordon looked particularly poor in finishing outside the Top 20 at Fontana earlier this season, so it's probably a safe bet to keep him on the bench again this week.
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