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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 their first visit of the season 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 two years 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? Based on what we've seen to this point in 2014 we would expect so.

In general, track records have been falling everywhere with this season's rule package on the Cup car. While Mother Nature will have had another year to wear down the racing surface at the two-mile oval to some degree, the new car package could trump that factor and records could fall again this weekend. The oval in Michigan 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. 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 breeds the long green-flag runs 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 nine years or 18 races at Michigan International Speedway.

Greg Biffle10.48493115003,047110.0
Matt Kenseth10.18011642302,868105.6
Carl Edwards8.28501982912,925104.7
Jimmie Johnson16.46913575052,583101.4
Dale Earnhardt Jr.13.47491822832,34797.0
Tony Stewart10.16851001562,44795.9
Kyle Busch16.56691371692,38692.0
Brian Vickers 14.839894951,33991.5
Jeff Gordon16.76091591602,19589.8
Denny Hamlin15.0633981581,91389.7
Kurt Busch21.25501743052,16589.6
Kasey Kahne17.8665170572,03389.3
Kevin Harvick12.658399611,78286.1
Joey Logano16.7312347297784.8
Martin Truex Jr.15.747986711,56284.6
Brad Keselowski16.9262453796984.1
Clint Bowyer15.452529271,67881.6
Ryan Newman18.952612161,52376.5
Jeff Burton18.34842021,33275.5
Aric Almirola18.0970026673.3

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 couple years have seen Ford drivers gravitate to the top of the heap at the two-mile oval. This is an unusual development for a track that has seen Chevrolet and Toyota drivers dominate much of the five prior years. Penske Racing and Roush Fenway Racing drivers have won the last three straight Michigan events. Greg Biffle won this event one year ago and the event before that at the Michigan oval when he took the checkers first in August 2012 for the 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. Our last race at MIS saw Penske Racing young gun Joey Logano capture the victory. He outdrove and outsmarted both Brad Keselowski and Mark Martin to claim his first win at the two-mile oval. Given how well the Penske drivers are performing entering this weekend, we expect both Keselowski and Logano to be major players in the 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 two years ago. He snapped a big winless streak and built on an already impressive Michigan portfolio. With Earnhardt coming off the big Pocono victory, he and Jimmie Johnson will likely carry the banner the highest for Chevrolet at Michigan this Sunday afternoon. Joe Gibbs Racing star and Toyota driver Kyle Busch won at Fontana earlier this season. He only led 5 laps but he had the right strategy and fuel mileage to beat his brother Kurt and Kyle Larson. 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 Denny Hamlin is a two-time winner of this event in 2010 and 2011. The total scorecard has Toyota drivers winning four of the last nine races at Michigan International Speedway. We have to pay these drivers and teams top billing for 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

Brad Keselowski -
We've been sensing it for a couple weeks now, but with its awesome Pocono performance we believe we have the evidence to prove that the No. 2 Ford team is hitting a major hot streak. With runner-up finishes at both Dover and Pocono, Keselowski has been the hottest driver of the month of June. He travels to his home state track with a huge wave of momentum and a ton of confidence for this Sunday's Quicken Loans 400. The Penske Racing star has never won at the two-mile Michigan oval, but he does have a pair of Top-3 finishes in his last five trips there. Keselowski also led 38 laps in our earlier race at Fontana this season, he should be very dialed-in for this race at MIS.

Kyle Busch -
Joe Gibbs Racing's big gun in their assault on Michigan is Busch and the No. 18 team. Busch hasn't been running as well as his teammate Denny Hamlin of late, but should still be very dangerous at Michigan. Busch won his first race at this two-mile oval in 2011's Pure Michigan 400. He's also been a strong performer at the similar oval in Fontana, California. Busch has won the last two-straight event there, which includes this season's Auto Club 400. The veteran driver has a real knack for these two mile ovals and it shows in his record in all divisions of NASCAR at these tracks. We believe he'll be a tough challenger for the win this Sunday afternoon.

Greg Biffle -
Biffle has been somewhat mired in a slump the last few weeks, entering this weekend in a four-race Top-10 drought. However, there's good reason to hope for a turnaround this Sunday. Biffle sports great career stats at MIS, with four victories and an impressive 64-percent Top-10 rate. He's led close to 600 career laps at the Brooklyn, Michigan oval and he's won two of the last three races at the track. 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.

Joey Logano -
Penske Racing has made a real niche on these two-mile ovals the last couple seasons. Logano was a big part of that success last year alone. He led 72 laps between both Michigan races and won the series' last visit to the Irish Hills in a dominant performance, winning from the pole. The driver of the No. 22 Ford has two victories already this season, so this team has shown race-winning chemistry from the beginning of the 2014 campaign. Logano is a driver with a lot of momentum and he's visiting one of his better ovals in the Quicken Loans 400.

Solid Plays - Drivers who are near locks for the Top 10 with an outside shot at winning

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's coming off the surprising first career win at Pocono Raceway this past week, so momentum is on his side coming to MIS. Earnhardt has led close to 350 career laps at this two-mile oval, so he's used to racing up front here. With two Top-5 finishes in his last four Michigan starts, there's plenty of homerun potential with this driver and team.

Kurt Busch -
With his great Top-3 performance at Pocono Raceway this past week, Busch may finally be climbing out of the deep dark hole he's spent much of the first 14 races within. The news just continues to get better as we visit one of his favorite ovals this Sunday afternoon. Michigan International Speedway has held a lot of success for the Stewart Haas Racing veteran. Busch has two career poles, two victories, over 400 laps led and nine Top-10 finishes at the track in the Irish Hills. In the Sprint Cup Series last visit to MIS, Busch led 43 laps and finished a brilliant third. We could see a similar performance this weekend.

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. Seems that no matter where the Sprint Cup Series visits, the No. 99 team usually 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 at Michigan International Speedway over the years. With 15 Top-10 finishes in 19 career starts, the Roush Fenway Racing star checks in at a mind-boggling 79-percent Top-10 rate at this facility. You'll be challenged to find a driver and track anywhere in the Sprint Cup Series that matches that level of success.

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 a couple weeks ago at Dover and has been runner-up for many weeks before that. Some bad luck at Pocono this past week has the No. 20 team looking for a rebound performance this Sunday at Michigan. This is just the oval for the veteran driver to do it. Michigan International Speedway has been one of Kenseth's best tracks over his 15-season career. With two wins and 18 Top-10 finishes you'll be challenged to find a better driver at this two-mile oval.

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

Kevin Harvick -
The Stewart Haas Racing star has excelled on two-mile ovals throughout his long Sprint Cup Series career. Harvick has one win and 10 Top-10 finishes at just the Michigan oval alone. In the two races at this facility last season he netted a pair of runner-up finishes in two very impressive performances. While we don't see the No. 4 Chevrolet team as a major threat to win Sunday's Quicken Loans 400, Harvick should easily be a Top-10 finisher after 400-miles of action in the Irish Hills.

Tony Stewart -
One-time Michigan winner Stewart certainly has had his ups-and-downs this season. His strong car at Pocono this past weekend, was saddled with a sub-par 13th-place finish because of a pit road speeding penalty. However, we have to play historical strength with this fantasy racing selection. There are not many tracks on the circuit that Smoke performs at as well as Michigan. With 20 career Top 10s at Michigan, the 69-percent Top-10 rate is hard to ignore. We have to give a big endorsement to Stewart for the Quicken Loans 400.

Brian Vickers -
Michigan International Speedway is probably Vickers' best track in the Sprint Cup Series tour. With three pole positions, one victory and eight Top-10 finishes, you'd be hard-pressed to find a better oval for the driver of the No. 55 Toyota. Surprisingly, this will be Vickers' first start at the track in Irish Hills with his Michael Waltrip Racing team. Thanks to his recent part-time racing schedule, he's not raced here since 2011. But that's of no major concern. As Vickers showed earlier this year at the similar oval in Fontana with a seventh-place finish, he has these style tracks pegged.

Clint Bowyer -
Bowyer and two-mile ovals have been a successful combination throughout the career of the Michael Waltrip Racing star. As an example, he claimed seventh- and fifth-place finishes at Michigan International Speedway just last year alone. Three of his last five starts on these two-mile tracks have netted Top-10 finishes. Bowyer enters this weekend riding a very impressive six-race Top-10 streak at MIS. That bolsters his 50-percent career Top-10 rate at Michigan. The numbers certainly speak to the success of the driver of the No. 15 Toyota at this oval.

Kyle Larson -
The Chip Ganassi Racing rookie just continues to impress and surprise us each week. Last week's ARCA Series victory and Top-5 Sprint Cup finish in his first-ever starts at Pocono Raceway simply left us speechless. Pocono is not a track for rookies, yet Larson displayed the poise of a driver many years older at the Tricky Triangle. The other good news for the No. 42 team is that the last time we saw Larson in action on a two-mile oval, he was battling it out for the win earlier this season with Kyle Busch at Fontana. He finished runner-up that day. Michigan could hold equal success for the driver of the No. 42 Chevrolet.

Paul Menard -
Menard will look to rebound after his sub-par Pocono performance in this weekend's Quicken Loans 400. 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 has been quite good on two-mile ovals the last year. The RCR veteran has earned four Top-10 finishes in his last five starts between Fontana and Michigan for a stellar 8.8 average finish over the span. We're willing to bet the Richard Childress Racing driver is just as consistent in this 400-mile event.

Juan Pablo Montoya -
NASCAR welcomes back Penske Racing driver Montoya. This will be his first start since leaving the series at Homestead at the end of last year. The veteran driver will pilot Penske's part-time No. 12 Ford in the Quicken Loans 400 this weekend. Considering that Montoya has 14 starts of experience at Michigan and three Top-10 finishes, he's not short on experience at this two-mile oval. The last time we saw him in action at MIS, he earned a strong 11th-place finish in last year's Pure Michigan 400. While Montoya shouldn't be seen has lightning in a bottle this weekend, he should be viewed as a legitimate Top-15 threat.

Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week

Jimmie Johnson -
You won't find many occasions in 2014 when we put Johnson in the drivers to avoid list, but this is one of those rare instances. Michigan has been a real puzzle for the six-time champion. His nine Top 10s in 24 career starts check in at a surprising 38-percent rate, one of his lowest rated tracks on the circuit. Johnson's recent luck at MIS has been anything but good. Two of his last three visits have resulted in engine failure DNF's and all three starts were finishes outside the Top 20. It's best to give Johnson a break this weekend and deploy somebody else in your fantasy racing lineup.

David Gilliland -
While the larger tracks have held some measure of success for Gilliland this season, the two-mile ovals are definitely a problem for the No. 38 team. The veteran driver has only one Top-20 finish in his last five starts between Fontana and Michigan. Earlier this year he finished a disappointing 38th at the two-mile California oval, and he finished 22nd- and 37th- in his two Michigan starts last season. The 29.6 average finish in 15 career starts at Michigan International Speedway hang like a cloud over Gilliland's head this weekend.

Kasey Kahne -
Snake bitten is a phrase that comes to mind when thinking of the No. 5 Chevrolet team of late. Kahne comes to Michigan mired in a three-race Top-10 drought, and smarting off the wreck and DNF at Pocono this past weekend. Things are hardly promising for a start at Michigan International Speedway. Two of his last three starts on two-mile ovals have netted finishes outside the Top 35, and that includes his disappointing 41st-place finish at Auto Club Speedway earlier this year. Two of his last four trips to MIS have been Top-10 finishes, but the other two have been DNF's. Kahne is far from a safe play in the Quicken Loans 400.

Jeff Gordon -
Take a long, hard look because you won't likely see three of the four Hendrick Motorsports drivers in the avoid list again this season. However, the simple fact is that Gordon has really struggled at the two-mile Michigan oval in recent seasons. Despite two career victories and 25 Top 10s at MIS, Gordon has found the going difficult there of late. The driver of the No. 24 Chevy has only two Top-10 finishes in his last seven starts at MIS. Two of his last three visits to the Irish Hills have yielded DNF's. The level of performance has been concerning enough to give the iconic driver a pass this weekend.