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Quicken Loans 400 Preview: NASCAR's Fastest Track?

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 Pocono behind us, we look forward to this weekend when the Sprint Cup Series will pay its first visit to Michigan International Speedway for the Quicken Loans 400. This will be the first of two events at the two-mile oval in Brooklyn, Mich. This facility wowed us in 2012 when the Cup Series took to the freshly-paved track and promptly blew all the speed records at MIS away. Marcos Ambrose won the pole position for this event one year ago with a blazing-fast 203.241 mph lap. That was almost 10 mph faster than the old record set by Greg Biffle in 2005 of 194.232 mph. The fresh pavement and new tire technology that Goodyear brought to the oval combined to make Michigan International Speedway the fastest oval on the circuit. The teams were running somewhere close to 12 mph faster average laps than they do at Talladega Superspeedway. Will Michigan retain the crown of NASCAR's fastest track this weekend? We'll soon see. The series introduces a new factor this year on the one-year-old Michigan asphalt, and that's the new Gen-6 race car. In general, the new car has been pressing track records almost everywhere this season and we expect MIS to be no exception. While Mother Nature will have worn down the racing surface at the two-mile oval to some degree, the new car could trump that factor and records could fall again this weekend. These factors will force us to look with more scrutiny towards current trends in the new car and the race completed earlier this season at the comparable two-mile oval in California.

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 higher average speeds as we saw in this event one year ago. Kyle Busch set a new track qualifying record at Fontana earlier this season with the new Gen-6 car so we're almost assured to see the record fall again at MIS, despite the staggering 203 mph lap that Ambrose put down last year. 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 this event. If recent races at MIS are any indicator, be prepared for about 20-25 lead changes and six-to-eight 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 eight years or 16 races at Michigan International Speedway.

AVGQUALITYFASTESTLAPSLAPS INDRIVER
DRIVERFINISHPASSESLAPSLEDTOP 15RATING
Greg Biffle11.17692684242,677108.9
Matt Kenseth10.07161572302,512105.5
Carl Edwards8.17901852752,573105.2
Jimmie Johnson14.26143184842,392104.2
Dale Earnhardt Jr.10.56971612292,08397.1
Tony Stewart10.46481001562,26995.9
Jeff Gordon15.35801591602,10694.7
Denny Hamlin13.6610971491,85093.7
Kyle Busch16.46111351692,08992.9
Kurt Busch21.45101382411,94189.5
Kasey Kahne17.3597144431,80088.2
Mark Martin19.25411041031,93087.7
Martin Truex Jr.16.643074711,30783.1
Kevin Harvick13.949771611,42482.9
Clint Bowyer16.748827271,52881.4
Brad Keselowski18.3187272058279.0
Ryan Newman19.449012161,38276.5
Joey Logano19.62599058175.2
Jeff Burton19.44271321,10173.4
David Ragan18.2345171286172.9


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 four years have seen Toyota and Chevrolet gravitate to the top of the heap 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 125 laps and skirted by the beating and banging of leaders Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano to steal the win. Busch is also a one-time Michigan winner, in 2011. The driver of the No. 18 Toyota is sure to be in the mix come the 200th lap this Sunday afternoon. Not to be overshadowed, Busch's JGR teammate Hamlin is a two-time winner of this event in 2010 and 2011. The total scorecard has Toyota drivers winning four of the last seven races at Michigan International Speedway. We have to pay these drivers and teams top billing for Sunday's Quicken Loans 400. As for the Chevy camp, Dale Earnhardt Jr. was the last Chevrolet driver to take the Michigan trophy for Hendrick Motorsports and his manufacturer at this big oval in this event one year ago. He snapped a big winless streak and built on an already impressive Michigan portfolio. Earnhardt and Jimmie Johnson will likely carry the banner the highest for Chevrolet at Michigan on Sunday. Considering the fact that Roush and all the Ford teams are on the rebound this season, we could likely see Carl Edwards (two-time MIS winner) or Greg Biffle (three-time MIS winner) in victory lane on Sunday afternoon. Biffle won our last race at the Michigan oval when he took the checkers first in last August's Pure Michigan 400. The driver of the No. 16 Ford has been slumping of late, but nothing like a visit to Michigan to fire up the Roush Fenway Racing veteran. 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

Greg Biffle -
Biffle posted a great runner-up performance at Pocono Raceway last week. Just in time for what has traditionally been the start of a strong seasonal part of the Sprint Cup Series schedule for the Roush Fenway Racing veteran. Biffle sports great career stats at MIS, with three victories and an impressive 60 percent Top-10 rate. He's led 284 laps in just his last five visits to Brooklyn, Mich., and he's the last Michigan winner with his victory in last August's Pure Michigan 400. 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, race with the lead pack and contend for the win at the two-mile Michigan oval.

Denny Hamlin -
Two-time Michigan winner Hamlin is still seeking his first victory of 2013, and this weekend may be it. The No. 11 Toyota team has been putting together some momentum so that the Joe Gibbs Racing star can return to victory lane once again this season. Their strong performances since Hamlin's return from the back injury are a good example of the team's current high level of performance. Hamlin battled for the win with Joey Logano in the closing laps at Fontana earlier this season. He had a very strong Toyota at that similar oval that day, before crashing and receiving the aforementioned back injury. Hamlin will race with a purpose this Sunday afternoon at MIS.

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 nine career Top-10 finishes. Johnson led 23 laps and looked the part of a winner before an engine failure bit the team at Michigan International Speedway last August, so the Hendrick Motorsports star has some demons to overcome at MIS. 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. As hot as the No. 48 team is entering this event, it could finally be time for Mr. Johnson to visit victory lane in Michigan.

Kyle Busch -
Joe Gibbs Racing's big gun in their assault on Michigan is Busch and the No. 18 team. Busch is already a two-time winner this season and racing as well as anyone in this Toyota stable. He won at the two-mile oval in California earlier this season and the JGR star won his first-ever race at this two-mile oval in 2011's Pure Michigan 400. Busch led 125 laps at Fontana in his victory earlier this season, so it's not like he lucked his way into victory lane in that event. It was a very dominant performance. While Busch has some consistency issues at Michigan International Speedway, we're compelled enough by his Fontana effort to include him with this week's contenders for the Quicken Loans 400.

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 three-race Top-10 streak entering the weekend, which includes his recent victory at Dover, compels us to keep this veteran driver at the top of our power rankings this week. In addition, we have to play historical strength at MIS with this fantasy racing play. There are not many tracks on the circuit that Smoke performs at as well as Michigan. With 19 career Top 10s at Michigan, a healthy 68 percent rate, we have to give the No. 14 team due respect at this two-mile oval. Also remember, that Stewart led 18 laps at Fontana earlier this season before a late restart run-in with Joey Logano cost him a potential victory at that similar oval.

Matt Kenseth -
Kenseth has been the most dominant performer of the Joe Gibbs Racing stable this season. His three victories have been a bit muted the past three weeks by subpar performances, but we have to respect Kenseth on what has been just a dynamite track for him over the years. The veteran driver is a two-time Michigan winner and he owns 12 career Top-5 finishes at the two-mile oval. That works out to an impressive 44 percent rate of cracking the Top 5 at this oval. The driver of the No. 20 Toyota will be looking to end a mini-slump this weekend, and no better place than Michigan International Speedway to stage that comeback.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. -
The No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevy team has performed at a very high level this season, and Earnhardt is a two-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 led 95 laps and won this event one year ago. Then Earnhardt returned later in the summer and led 25 laps before posting a good fourth-place Michigan follow-up. Earnhardt finished runner-up earlier this season at Auto Club Speedway, so you could say these two-mile ovals are a bit of a niche for the No. 88 Chevrolet team.

Clint Bowyer -
As we continue to be impressed with 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 been working overtime on his Michigan numbers the last couple seasons. In his first eight trips to the track in the Irish Hills he only posted two Top-10 finishes. Since the 2011 season, Bowyer has ripped off four-straight Top 10s at the two-mile oval. That includes a combined 20 laps led and a pair of seventh-place finishes at the track last season. We expect Bowyer to keep this streak growing at MIS this Sunday afternoon.

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

Carl Edwards -
Edwards comes to Michigan this weekend looking to make up some ground in the championship chase, so motivation won't be an issue. He sits second overall at 51 points behind leader Jimmie Johnson in the championship standings. Seems that no matter where the Sprint Cup Series visits, the No. 99 team puts on a good performance. MIS should be no exception to that trend. Edwards has been one of the Sprint Cup Series more successful drivers on two-mile ovals in recent seasons. Edwards is a two-time Michigan winner and he was a fourth-place finisher at the similar Fontana oval earlier this season.

Brad Keselowski -
The reigning series champion always looks forward to homecoming weekend. The Rochester Hills native has shown a real affinity for the two-mile Michigan oval in recent outings. Keselowski has led 20 laps and posted a pair of Top-5 finishes in two of his last three trips to Michigan International Speedway. Given the pressure that the champion has been under to defend his title this season, it's probably a very good thing that we're visiting his home state track this weekend. Keselowski hasn't had quite the season he expected to this point, but he should be an upgrade for the Quicken Loans 400.

Kurt Busch -
We continue to watch in near amazement at the performance of this small race team each week. Busch rolls into Michigan fresh off his fifth Top-10 finish of the season at Pocono Raceway last weekend. The veteran driver of the No. 78 Chevrolet has been an up-and-down performer at MIS over the years, but the highs have been pretty stellar. Busch owns two career poles, two victories and 359 laps led at this facility. While his recent past at Michigan has been a black eye, we credit much of that to his Penske and Phoenix Racing soap operas of the last two years. The surging Furniture Row Racing driver should revert to his old Top-10 self at MIS on Sunday afternoon.

Joey Logano -
After walking away with his third Top 10 in as many races last weekend at Pocono, we have to give the No. 22 Ford team some close scrutiny this week at Michigan International Speedway. Logano now has fifth-, seventh- and 10th-place finishes entering this weekend. It could be that he and his new race team are finally starting to click and develop some consistency. While we feel pretty certain that Logano won't be lifting the trophy this week at Michigan, we do feel that he warrants serious consideration for this 400-mile race. When we look back on that race at Fontana earlier this season, we saw a driver that was in serious contention for the win in the closing laps before the fender-beating with Denny Hamlin ended those hopes. Logano led 41 laps that day and finished third at the similar California oval.

Ryan Newman -
The driver of the No. 39 Chevrolet joins his boss Tony Stewart this week in the strong fantasy play category. Newman loves the sweeping banks of Michigan to the tune of two career victories and seven Top-10 finishes. He's had a bit of a resurgence at this two-mile oval over the past couple seasons. Newman ended a five-year malaise at the track with three Top-10 finishes in his last four trips to the Irish Hills. When we consider his Top-10 performance at Fontana earlier this season, we have all the validation we need for an inclusion in the sleepers list this week.

A.J. Allmendinger -
Quite possibly the sneakiest play of the week could be Allmendinger. It was just announced this past weekend at Pocono that the journeyman driver will be taking over the No. 47 Toyota this week for JTG Daugherty Racing. Allmendinger will spell veteran Bobby Labonte in an attempt to evaluate the performance of this team. Allmendinger brings some good Michigan stats to the table with this spot start. Six of his 10 career starts at this two-mile oval have netted Top-20 finishes. In just the last three trips to MIS, the Dinger has posted finishes of 13th-, 11th- and 19th-place. If you're looking for a driver to stay on the lead lap and crack the Top 20, this is your guy.

Trevor Bayne -
The Wood Brothers Racing youngster is making another cameo appearance this weekend at Michigan International Speedway. The last time we saw Bayne in action he was celebrating his recent marriage with a Nationwide Series victory at Iowa Speedway last weekend. Bayne has two Top-20 finishes in his last three 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. In four career appearances at MIS, Bayne has picked up three Top-25 finishes in those efforts with a best of 16th-place in 2011. We believe the young driver represents Top 20 value this weekend at Michigan.

Flops - Drivers to avoid at all costs

Kasey Kahne -
After two straight weeks of problems for the No. 5 team we have to downgrade Kahne for the Quicken Loans 400. In fact, he has only posted one Top-10 finish in the last six races. Kahne is a one-time winner at the Michigan oval, but his experiences at the two-mile oval of late have been rough. The June event in particular has been puzzling for the Hendrick Motorsports driver. Kahne has finished 28th and 33rd in his last two June events at Michigan International Speedway. Given the current struggles of this driver and team, it's best to lay off Kahne at MIS.

Juan Pablo Montoya -
One would think that a two-mile oval like Michigan would play to the strengths of a driver like Montoya, but we believe the opposite will be true this weekend. The Earnhardt Ganassi Racing driver has 12 career starts at the two-mile oval in Michigan with only three Top-10 finishes to his credit. Three of his last four visits to the Michigan oval have been efforts outside the Top 25. When we look back to Montoya's sub-par 38th-place finish at Fontana in March of this year, then we have seen all we need to see regarding his chances this Sunday afternoon.

Mark Martin -
At 14 races into the 2013 season the early report card is in on the No. 55 Toyota team and it doesn't look good. Martin has just four Top 10s to this point, and only one in the last five races entering the weekend. Despite being a five-time Michigan winner, we have to downgrade the veteran driver for the Quicken Loans 400. Martin had a disappointing 37th-place finish at the similar oval in Fontana earlier this season and his last two trips to the two-mile oval in Michigan have been forgettable. He had an engine failure in this race one year ago, and in the August event Martin wrecked a race-winning car after leading 54 laps in the early going. Michigan has not been a place of luck for this driver and team.

David Gilliland -
The Front Row Motorsports driver never has been one much for the two-mile oval circuit in NASCAR. Gilliland has 13 career starts at Michigan and 12 career starts at Fontana. In those races he's only cracked the Top 20 four times in 25 starts. His Michigan average finish is an inflated 29.6 and at Fontana 27.8. This is clearly not a week to roll the No. 38 Ford team in your weekly lineup leagues. In fact, there are much better options among the "C" group in Yahoo! Fantasy Racing this weekend.
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