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Pure Michigan 400 Preview: Earnhardt's House

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, Mich., for the season. We return to the scene of Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s big victory in June at the two-mile oval. He led 95 of the 200 laps that day and dominated the field en route to his first victory in 143 starts. Amazingly, it was the Michigan oval where Earnhardt had won previously to that tremendous drought starting. In June of 2008, the Hendrick Motorsports star outfoxed the field in a fuel mileage battle and led the final eight laps to win the Lifelock 400. So to say that MIS holds a special place in Earnhardt's heart would be a vast understatement. Michigan has been like the ace in his repertoire over the years and real security blanket when times have been rough. Considering that the driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet is battling for the championship standings lead entering this weekend, Earnhardt will be walking tall coming to the Irish Hills of Michigan this time around.

Despite the immense Earnhardt theme of this weekend, we have to acknowledge that it has been Toyota teams and drivers winning recently at this two-mile oval rather than Chevrolet. Four of the last six Michigan trophies have gone to Toyota drivers, mostly of the Joe Gibbs Racing camp. JGR star Kyle Busch led just 22 laps, but it was good enough to one-up Hendrick stars Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon in this event one year ago. That victory gave the Gibbs camp a season-sweep of the Michigan oval in 2011 as Busch's teammate Denny Hamlin took the June installment at the huge oval. Despite being winless since 2008, Ford and the Roush Fenway Racing camp are not to be left out of the Michigan discussion. As you'll see in the electronic scoring stats below, the Roush teams may be short on victories but not on performance at the two-mile track. This Ford camp put both Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle in the Top 5 in June's Quicken Loans 400. The duo combined to lead 55 laps that day, so there is no way we can ignore this pair of drivers in this weekend's Pure Michigan 400.

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 15 races at Michigan International Speedway. This information will be helpful, but we'll put some emphasis on the results from June's Quicken Loans 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
Greg Biffle11.76922403982,503108.1
Matt Kenseth9.56731482252,377105.4
Jimmie Johnson13.35602934612,237105.0
Carl Edwards8.37231782742,391104.7
Tony Stewart8.96351001562,23098.6
Dale Earnhardt Jr.10.96371582041,94997.2
Jeff Gordon14.55521591602,02896.7
Denny Hamlin13.8557951481,73194.3
Kyle Busch16.65671351692,01494.0
Kurt Busch20.94971382411,92291.7
Brian Vickers14.839894951,33991.5
Kasey Kahne18.2540117431,62886.4
Mark Martin18.153087491,86686.3
Kevin Harvick13.747271611,35383.2
Martin Truex Jr.17.136362591,12380.7
Clint Bowyer17.54332381,36479.7
Joey Logano18.02479056778.4
Ryan Newman20.143212161,25376.0
David Ragan17.7345171286175.3
Jeff Burton19.54011321,06173.8

In the season's first running at Michigan International Speedway we can take away more information than just the multi-manufacturer parity. The Quicken Loans 400 was essentially where Earnhardt and Hendrick Motorsports served notice that they would be a force to contend with each time we visit this two-mile oval. It was his second career victory at Brooklyn, Michigan. However, the No. 88 Chevrolet team has not shown race-winning form since that victory, only unshakable Top 10 consistency. In fact, Earnhardt's 17 laps led at Pocono two weeks ago were his first laps led since that big win in June. Could we see a resurgence of this Hendrick star this weekend? Will Tony Stewart bring the same strong car that allowed him to finish second back in June? Will championship standings leader Matt Kenseth rebound from his sub-par performances recently to post a big win at Michigan? Will Kyle Busch step up and equal his dominant Michigan performance of last season in this Sunday's Pure Michigan 400? We'll attempt to answer these questions and many more as we outline all the drivers you need to dominate the day at Michigan International Speedway.

The Contenders - Drivers in the hunt for the win

Dale Earnhardt Jr. -
Earnhardt has struggled with consistency in his last couple starts, despite having a great season. He has only one Top-10 finish in the last three races. That shouldn't be much of a concern heading into our second visit of the year to Michigan International Speedway. Earnhardt's last visit to the two-mile oval yielded 95 laps led and a dominant performance en route to the win. The No. 88 Chevrolet team seems to just jump to life every time the series visits MIS, so this trip should be no different.

Jimmie Johnson -
Johnson has looked like the five-time champion the last several weeks. The Hendrick Motorsports star is looking to improve before the Chase for the Cup begins, and his ascension to the top of the standings last week at the Glen is a good sign. 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 close to 550 laps for his NASCAR career at Michigan, but managed for one reason or another to come away winless. That could easily change this time around.

Matt Kenseth -
When we visit Michigan we always think of the Wisconsin native Kenseth. In his 26 career starts at the huge, sweeping oval he's crossed the finish line first twice and piled up a stack of 17 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 third, 10th and second in his last three visits to MIS, so he's almost always in the running for the victory at the two-mile oval in Michigan.

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 three of his last four 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 250 laps in his last four races at the two-mile oval and Biffle cracks the Top 5 at an astounding 42 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 for victory number two of the 2012 season.

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

Kyle Busch -
The Joe Gibbs Racing star needs to heat up if he intends on being a participant in the upcoming Chase for the Cup. The No. 18 team crossed the finish line first at MIS in this event one year ago for his first career win at the facility. The JGR team has brought dominant cars here in recent seasons. Busch has led over 160 laps for his career at Michigan, so we're used to seeing him race with the leaders at this two-mile oval. In this race last season Busch led 22 laps and out-dueled Hendrick stars Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon for the win. That's two Top-5 finishes in the last three Michigan races for Busch.

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 39 career starts that works out to an awesome 46 percent Top 5 rate at the two-mile oval. While Gordon hasn't won at the Michigan oval since 2001 he has a pair of sixth-place finishes in his last two races there. The No. 24 Chevrolet should nearly be a sure bet for a Top-10 finish in the Pure Michigan 400.

Brad Keselowski -
One of the hottest drivers in the Sprint Cup Series right now is none other than Keselowski. In the last 10 races he's piled up one win and six Top-10 finishes. Keselowski narrowly missed his fourth victory of the season 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 cracked the Top 10 for the first time in his career at MIS in this event one year ago.

Tony Stewart -
The owner/driver of the No. 14 Chevrolet is carrying a stellar five-race Michigan Top 10 streak into this weekend's event. Stewart is coming off a disappointing finish at Watkins Glen, and looking for some solid results at Michigan International Speedway. He has steady career numbers at Michigan International Speedway with 19 Top-10 finishes in 27 starts, which factors out to a very good 70 percent rate. Seven of his last nine visits to the two-mile oval have yielded Top 10's with no finish worse than 17th. That is about as dependable as it comes when we're looking for a safe play in fantasy racing.

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

Carl Edwards -
Edwards is a driver mired in a sub-par season, but he's a great historical play at the Michigan oval. Since the Chase is fast approaching, the No. 99 team needs to pick up their performance in order to assure a Chase berth. MIS ranks as his best statistical track with two victories, nine Top 5's and an average finish of 8.4 in 16 career starts. Edwards has led 274 laps at the two-mile oval in Michigan, so he's used to racing up front here. The Roush Fenway star should chime in with a Top 10 in this Sunday's Pure Michigan 400.

Martin Truex Jr. -
The Pure Michigan 400 is another opportunity this season for the Michael Waltrip Racing star to shine. Truex is riding a three-race Top 10 streak into Sunday's race in the Irish Hills of Michigan. When the series last visited the two-mile oval he registered a respectable 12th-place finish, but given the momentum of this driver and team we expect more this Sunday afternoon. Truex should carry the current performance of this team to an even better finish in this weekend's 400-mile event.

Clint Bowyer -
The MWR veteran has managed to hang around in the championship picture, with some good late season racing. Bowyer owns five Top-10 finishes in 13 career starts at MIS, but three of those have come in the last three visits. The No. 15 Toyota was very fast here in June as Bowyer wheeled that car to a solid seventh-place finish. Given the quick turnaround from June's Quicken Loans 400 at the two-mile oval we would expect similar results in this Sunday's race at Michigan International Speedway.

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 great finishes in the last three races at the Michigan oval. Newman has efforts of sixth-, fifth- and 15th-place in those last three MIS races. 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 International Speedway.

Marcos Ambrose -
The Richard Petty Motorsports driver just loves it when the series visits Michigan. Ambrose brought one of his typical Top-15 cars to this race in June. The No. 9 team set up the veteran driver with a great handling race car and he piloted it to a career-best ninth place in June's Quicken Loans 400. Ambrose 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 coming off the big win at Watkins Glen, Ambrose 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 the "downs" with an engine failure and 43rd-place finish. However, there's good reason to hedge to the "up" this weekend. Bayne owns finishes of 16th and 24th at MIS prior to his disappointing June DNF. We expect a Top 20 run from the Wood Brothers Racing driver this Sunday afternoon.

Landon Cassill -
The proverbial "roll of the dice" driver this week is Cassill. However, we have a lot of confidence in the No. 83 BK Racing team and this driver. Despite the disadvantages of this small race team, Cassill has a respectable record on the two-mile tracks. He finished a solid 18th at MIS in June, and that gives him two Top 20's in his last three trips to the huge oval in the Irish Hills. Cassill is coming off Top 25 runs in two of his last three races entering this weekend, so the BK Racing driver is a solid start most every week.

Flops - Drivers to avoid at all costs

Denny Hamlin -
Hamlin is struggling entering Michigan race week. The Joe Gibbs Racing star has had terrible luck in the last few weeks. With DNF's in each of the last two races he's slid from fifth to 10th in the Chase Standings and just trying to stop the freefall before the NASCAR post-season starts. After registering a pair of wins at Michigan International Speedway in 2010 and 2011, Hamlin has finishes of 35th- and 34th-place in his last two visits to MIS. The situation is just far too risky to gamble a start on the No. 11 JGR Toyota team this Sunday afternoon.

Kurt Busch -
Busch has been a feast or famine driver at Michigan International Speedway over the years. The veteran Phoenix Racing driver has two career victories at MIS, but only a 35 percent Top 10 rate at the track. Busch's performances here have been pretty shaky of late. The driver of the No. 51 Chevrolet has finishes of 40th-, 11th-, 34th- and 30th-place in his last four trips to MIS. As inconsistent as this team has been lately, Busch is better left on the bench for this weekend's Pure Michigan 400.

Jamie McMurray -
The Earnhardt Ganassi Racing driver has had a tough summer in the No. 1 Chevrolet. McMurray has suffered through two finishes outside the Top 20 the last three races, and that includes his big crash and DNF this past weekend at Watkins Glen. His Michigan resume has been suspect at best the last couple seasons. In the last six races at Michigan International Speedway McMurray has three finishes outside the Top 20 and no Top 10's. That averages out to a sub-par 22.2 average finish. This struggling driver isn't likely to get it back on track in Sunday's 400-mile race.

Kevin Harvick -
Harvick is still winless on the 2012 season and the prospects for that changing on Sunday at Michigan are pretty slim. Despite being a one-time winner at the track, this "A" tier driver has been performing more like a lower "B-tier" driver this season. The RCR veteran has finishes of 14th-, 22nd- and 10th-place in his three Michigan starts since his big win here in 2010. Harvick has registered only one Top 10 in the last seven races entering this weekend. That trend will likely stay intact for the Pure Michigan 400.