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Pure Michigan 400 Preview: Biffle Three-Peat?

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. We return to the scene of Greg Biffle's big victory in June at the two-mile oval. He led 48 of the 200 laps that day and held off Kevin Harvick to capture his second-straight victory in the Irish Hills. In August of 2012, the Roush Fenway Racing star outfoxed the field in a fuel mileage battle and led the final seven laps to win the Pure Michigan 400. It was Biffle's fourth career win at the two-mile oval, so to say that MIS holds a special place in Biffle'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. 16 Ford is battling for a Chase for the Cup berth entering this weekend, Biffle will be walking tall coming to the Irish Hills of Michigan this time around. The distinct possibility of a Michigan three-peat is on everyone's minds.

Despite the immense Biffle three-peat theme of this weekend, we have to acknowledge that it has mostly been Toyota teams and drivers that have been his arch nemesis at this two-mile oval rather than Chevrolet teams in recent seasons. Prior to Biffle's current streak, four of the prior six Michigan trophies had gone to Toyota drivers, mostly of the Joe Gibbs Racing camp. JGR drivers Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin grabbed three of those four victories. While this camp has been slumping in the last couple months, don't discount a surprise performance from Busch or even new Gibbs driver Matt Kenseth in Sunday's Pure Michigan 400. Carrying the flag high for Chevrolet at the wide-grooved speedway will most likely be the hot teams of Hendrick Motorsports. Jimmie Johnson and Kasey Kahne have been nearly unstoppable of late and should ride their momentum into MIS. Kahne is a one-time winner at Michigan, but surprisingly Johnson has never experienced the sweet taste of victory lane at the two-mile oval. The five-time champion has flirted with the checkers several times at this facility, but he's never been able to close the deal for one reason or another. In this race one year ago, it was an engine failure with five laps to go that bit his chances. Maybe this Sunday's Pure Michigan 400 will be the race where Johnson finally breaks into winner's circle at MIS.

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 17 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.

AVGQUALITYFASTESTLAPSLAPS INDRIVER
DRIVERFINISHPASSESLAPSLEDTOP 15RATING
Greg Biffle10.58022904722,862110.0
Matt Kenseth9.87511592302,707106.0
Carl Edwards8.18111942912,761105.1
Jimmie Johnson15.06753575022,555104.0
Dale Earnhardt Jr.12.17201802632,21397.5
Tony Stewart10.16851001562,44795.9
Kyle Busch15.66371361692,24193.1
Brian Vickers14.839894951,33991.5
Denny Hamlin14.7611971491,86191.1
Jeff Gordon16.75801591602,10690.7
Kasey Kahne18.5621164571,90089.0
Kurt Busch22.25111542621,96887.7
Mark Martin19.65531051031,97486.5
Martin Truex Jr.15.745982711,49685.0
Kevin Harvick13.253175611,58784.2
Clint Bowyer16.150727271,58781.2
Brad Keselowski17.5218272077580.6
Joey Logano18.4285152178179.1
Ryan Newman19.349512161,39575.9
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.16.014106775.4

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 our first experience seeing the new Gen-6 stock car on the high-banked two-mile oval. Greg Biffle proved up to the task of defending his Michigan dominance despite the change in cars. While everyone is focused on the three-peat watch this Sunday, we can't lose sight of the other dominant teams coming to the Irish Hills. Could we see a resurgence of Hendrick Motorsports at MIS this weekend? Will Jimmie Johnson collect his first career win at the oval? Will Dale Earnhardt Jr. surprise and pick up a third career victory at one of his favorite tracks? Will Joe Gibbs Racing star Matt Kenseth rebound from his sub-par performances recently to post a big win at Michigan? Will Kyle Busch step up and equal his strong Watkins performance of last weekend 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

Greg Biffle -
The three-peat watch falls on Biffle this weekend. For his sake, we hope things don't turn out like they did for last weekend's three-peat candidate, Marcos Ambrose at the Glen. The driver of the No. 16 Ford has won the last two races at the two-mile oval. In addition, he's finished in the Top 5 in three of his last four events on ovals of this size and style. The four-time Michigan winner qualified second and finished sixth at Fontana earlier this season, so this could be Biffle's weekend to break through for victory number two of the 2013 season.

Kyle Busch -
The Joe Gibbs Racing star is heading up as the schedule heads quickly towards the Chase for the Cup. The No. 18 team crossed the finish line first at Watkins Glen this past weekend, so Busch is riding a huge wave of momentum into the Irish Hills. The JGR team has brought dominant cars to Michigan International Speedway 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. He's collected a victory and three Top 5s in his last five trips to the two-mile oval. Busch's big victory at the similar oval in Fontana earlier this season looms large in our memory heading into the Pure Michigan 400.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. -
Earnhardt has struggled with consistency in his last couple starts, despite having a great season. His crash at the Glen this past weekend is evidence of these problems. 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 34 laps led, but ended in heartbreak with an engine failure on lap 131. The No. 88 Chevrolet team seems to just jump to life every time the series visits MIS, so this trip should be no different. His two career victories at this track speak volumes of his love of racing here. The NASCAR icon has led a whopping 154 laps at MIS in just his last three visits alone, so Earnhardt has the place nailed stone cold.

Jimmie Johnson -
Johnson has looked like a five-time champion the last several weeks. The Hendrick Motorsports star is looking to improve before the Chase for the Cup begins, and his huge points lead over second-place driver Clint Bowyer 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 600 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. Johnson led 18 laps in our visit to MIS earlier this summer. Misfortune saddled him with a 28th-place finish that day.

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 28 career starts at the huge, sweeping oval he's crossed the finish line first twice and piled up a stack of 18 Top-10 finishes. That works out to a lofty 64 percent Top 10 rate at MIS. 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 Joe Gibbs Racing star has finished third, 17th and sixth in his last three visits to MIS, so he's almost always racing in the Top 10 at the two-mile oval in Michigan.

Brad Keselowski -
One of the hottest drivers in the Sprint Cup Series the last couple weeks is none other than Keselowski. In the last four races he's piled up one pole position, two Top-5s and three Top-10 finishes as well as 33 laps led. Keselowski narrowly missed his first victory of the season with a runner-up finish to Kyle Busch this past weekend at the road course in Watkins Glen. The No. 2 Ford team should continue to carry this momentum to Michigan this Sunday afternoon. Keselowski has never really fared well on NASCAR's two-mile ovals, but this is a weekend to throw out the record books. He led 17 laps and finished second in this event one year ago.

Carl Edwards -
Edwards is a driver to watch closely this weekend as he's a great historical play at the Michigan oval. Since the Chase is fast approaching, the No. 99 team needs to shore up their position to assure a good Chase berth. MIS ranks as his best statistical track with two victories, nine Top 5s and an average finish of 8.2 in 18 career starts. Edwards has led 291 laps at the two-mile oval in Michigan, so he's used to racing up front here. Given his staggering 78 percent Top-10 rate at the Michigan oval, the Roush Fenway star should chime in with a Top 10 in this Sunday's Pure Michigan 400.

Kurt Busch -
Busch has been a feast or famine driver at Michigan International Speedway over the years. The veteran Furniture Row Racing driver has two career victories at MIS, but only a 32 percent Top-10 rate at the track. Busch's performances have been improving though since last season and joining the No. 78 Chevrolet team. The former champion finished an impressive fifth at the similar oval in California earlier this season, and he qualified on the outside pole and led 21 laps here in June. We expect Busch to race among the leaders in Sunday's Pure Michigan 400.

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

Joey Logano -
The Penske Racing driver is having a career season in the No. 22 Ford. Logano comes to Michigan 16th in the driver standings and battling for a Chase berth. He's on pace to post career-bests in both Top-5 and Top-10 finishes this season. MIS will just be another piece of that puzzle to fall into place. Logano has four Top 10s in nine starts at Michigan International Speedway, and that includes a ninth-place effort here in June. He was also in contention for the win earlier this season at the similar two-mile oval in California. Logano is a solid choice for this event in the Sprint Cup Series schedule.

Martin Truex Jr. -
The Pure Michigan 400 is another opportunity this season for the Michael Waltrip Racing star to shine. Truex is coming off a brilliant third-place finish at the Watkins Glen road course entering Sunday's race in the Irish Hills of Michigan. When the Sprint Cup Series last visited the two-mile oval he registered an impressive third-place finish. That was his second-straight Michigan Top 10 and fifth career Top 10 at the speedway. Truex should carry the current performance of this team to a great finish in this weekend's 400-mile event.

Clint Bowyer -
The MWR veteran has managed to hang tight in the championship picture with some good late-season racing. Bowyer owns seven Top-10 finishes in 15 career starts at MIS, including a string of five-straight entering Sunday's Pure Michigan 400. The No. 15 Toyota was very fast here in June as Bowyer wheeled that car to a solid seventh-place finish at Michigan International Speedway. 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 good finishes starting in the 2011 season at the Michigan oval. Newman has three Top-10 finishes in his last five MIS races. The veteran driver cracked the Top 10 at the similar Auto Club Speedway earlier this season, so the two-mile ovals have been kind to this driver and team. 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.

Austin Dillon -
The young RCR driver is up next for relief duty of the injured Tony Stewart. Max Papis did a commendable job last week in the No. 14 Chevrolet cracking the Top 15 at the Glen. We'll see if Dillon is up to the task of equaling that effort at Michigan. Given that he finished 11th at the two-mile oval in June for a lesser team we would imagine he is. This will be Dillon's third career Cup start at MIS despite his short resume in NASCAR's top division. He has more experience here than anywhere else in the series. When we couple that with the team, car and support of Stewart Haas Racing, and good things will happen.

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 “ups” with an impressive 15th-place finish. To this point in 2013, that has been the performance of the season for the Wood Brothers Racing No. 21 team. This will be Bayne's sixth career Cup start at Michigan International Speedway, so he's not short on experience at this facility. We expect a Top 20 run from the Wood Brothers Racing driver this Sunday afternoon.

Danica Patrick -
It has been rare for Patrick to break into the sleepers list this season. Outside of the brilliant Top 10 in the season-opening Daytona 500, there hasn't been much to cheer about in the No. 10 SHR camp. However, things have been gradually improving of late for NASCAR's most scrutinized female driver. Patrick posted one of her four Top-15 finishes of the season in June's race at MIS. She piloted the No. 10 car to a steady 13th-place finish in the Quicken Loans 400. The SHR driver is fresh off a respectable Top-20 finish at Watkins Glen, so optimism is at a season-high in Patrick's hauler. Michigan is a very forgiving oval, so she should challenge the Top 15 again on Sunday afternoon.

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 41 career starts that works out to an awesome 44 percent Top 5 rate at the two-mile oval. Gordon hasn't cracked the Top 5 at the Michigan oval since 2010 and his last two starts at the speedway have resulted in DNF's. The No. 24 Chevrolet team is a shaky start in the Pure Michigan 400.

Denny Hamlin -
Hamlin is beyond struggling entering Michigan race week. The Joe Gibbs Racing star has had a terrible season filled with injuries and miserable performances. With no Top-10 finishes in the last eight races he's mired deep in the standings and his hopes for Chase glory are completely exhausted. After registering a pair of wins at Michigan International Speedway in 2010 and 2011, Hamlin has no finishes in the Top 10 and three outside the Top 30 in his last four visits to MIS. The situation is just far too risky to gamble a start on the No. 11 JGR Toyota team this Sunday afternoon.

Mark Martin -
The Michael Waltrip Racing veteran is having an incredibly tough season in the No. 55 Toyota. He only has four Top 10s in 15 starts this season and he's falling way short of the bar he set in 2012 with this team. Martin has incredible career numbers at Michigan International Speedway, but performances of late have waned. His last three trips to the two-mile oval have failed to crack the Top 25. In addition, Martin was tagged with a lowly 37th-place finish at the similar oval in Fontana earlier this season. All indicators point to stay away for Martin at Michigan.

Marcos Ambrose -
Things aren't going to get any easier for Watkins Glen heartbreak driver Ambrose. After failing to three-peat at the Glen this past week due to a mechanical failure and crash, he comes to one of his tougher ovals on the circuit. The RPM driver has only two Top 10s in 10 career starts at the two-mile oval. Ambrose's two starts on the two-mile ovals this season have netted 36th and 23rd place finishes so things haven't been the best for this team and driver at these big sweeping ovals. It's best to pass over Ambrose until the series returns to intermediate ovals.
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