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Carfax 400 Preview: Fuel Mileage Festival

Mark Taylor

Taylor is RotoWire's senior NASCAR writer. A four-time FSWA award winner, Taylor was named the 2016 Racing Writer of the Year. 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 Carfax 400. The second and final race at Brooklyn, Michigan offers the drama of pit strategy and fuel mileage racing at its best. The last few races at this two-mile oval have come down to fuel conservation and nervous crew chiefs punching buttons on calculators in the closing laps. The fastest car in the field hasn't always crossed the finish line first at MIS in recent seasons, and it's for this reason that folks tune in on Sunday to see the drama of competition and luck play out on their TV screens.

Even though Toyota teams have recently stolen the spotlight at Michigan International Speedway, Dodge and Ford both proved to be formidable adversaries in the last race at MIS in June. Joe Gibbs Racing star Denny Hamlin led 123 laps and battled with both Kasey Kahne and Kurt Busch in this season's Heluva Good! Sour Cream Dips 400 before taking the checkers and the win. The usually Michigan-strong Roush Fenway Racing only put one team (Greg Biffle) in the Top 10 that day. With the Roush teams running better of late, we expect that camp's Fords populate the Top 10 this Sunday. Aside from that, Busch's No. 2 Dodge led 60 laps and made a token effort at the win before finishing third. The Penske Racing veteran will likely use the same setup this weekend, so he is a driver to watch closely in practice this Friday.

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 11 races at Michigan International Speedway. This information will be helpful, but we'll put some emphasis on the results from June's Heluva Good! Sour Cream Dips 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.

Carl Edwards6.35581432441,901111.2
Jimmie Johnson14.04492524291,809110.7
Greg Biffle12.15171291401,740102.8
Matt Kenseth11.2499901761,607101.2
Kurt Busch18.03921222321,53599.5
Dale Earnhardt Jr.9.94921131091,49798.6
Denny Hamlin11.9411801281,29298.4
Jeff Gordon14.64211131061,53397.9
Tony Stewart10.0431561021,52295.7
Kyle Busch17.739073881,44791.2
Mark Martin18.436364471,30586.9
Kasey Kahne17.433599401,03584.9
Joey Logano14.01177030083.5
Martin Truex Jr.17.4245515472979.9
Kevin Harvick14.534111088478.7
David Ragan18.4228121069377.7
Jeff Burton18.72929180575.2
Casey Mears17.022726863775.1
Clint Bowyer21.224618777472.8
Ryan Newman23.0249121365971.0

In the season's first running at Michigan International Speedway we can take away more information than just the Ford/Dodge/Toyota factor. The Heluva Good! Sour Cream Dips 400 was essentially where Hamlin and Joe Gibbs Racing served notice that they would be a force to contend with when we reach the Chase for the Cup. However, the No. 11 team has struggled since that victory. Hamlin has only two Top 10's in the last six races since that last event at MIS, and his 16.7 average finish during this span is less than spectacular. Could we see a resurgence of this Joe Gibbs Racing star this weekend? Will Kahne bring the same dominant car that allowed him to finish second back in June? Will defending Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson rebound from his poor performances recently to post a big win at Michigan? We'll attempt to answer this questions and many more as we outline all the drivers you need to dominate the Carfax 400 at Michigan International Speedway.

The Contenders - Drivers in the hunt for the win

Greg Biffle -
The surging Biffle has stepped back into that focal role for Roush Fenway Racing this season. The driver of the No. 16 Ford picked up Ford's first win of the season at Pocono a couple weeks ago and he brought a very fast car to Watkins Glen this past weekend. Biffle is a two-time winner at MIS, but the last of those victories came in 2005. However, he has led well over 200 laps for his career at the two-mile oval and collected three Top 10's in his last four visits to the facility.

Kurt Busch -
Busch has been a feast or famine driver at the oval in the Irish Hills of Michigan. The veteran Penske Racing driver has two career victories at MIS, but only a 42 percent Top 10 rate at the track. Busch piloted the No. 2 Dodge to his best Michigan finish in the last four years in June's Heluva Good! Sour Cream Dips 400 with a pole win, 60 laps led and a brilliant third-place finish. He should be running up front and factoring in the outcome again on Sunday afternoon.

Jimmie Johnson -
Johnson has been mired in a bit of a summer swoon the last month or so. The defending Sprint Cup champion is looking to right the ship before the Chase for the Cup begins. 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 over 400 laps in his last seven races at Michigan, but managed for one reason or another to come away winless. There's a good chance he could scratch the win column for the first time at the two-mile in the Carfax 400.

Denny Hamlin -
The No. 11 team have jumped up off the canvas with a roar. With Hamlin's Top 5 at Pocono and his potential Top 10 at the Glen erased by someone else's accident, the Joe Gibbs Racing star is suddenly relevant again. Hamlin dominated the two-mile oval in Michigan in June with 123 laps led and his first career victory at MIS. This part of the schedule tends to be an upswing in Hamlin's yearly performance, so the savvy fantasy racing player will take advantage of it at Michigan International Speedway.

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

Kasey Kahne -
Kahne has been absolutely fantastic on the larger speedways this season. The No. 9 Ford team heads to MIS this weekend looking to equal their success at the large oval from earlier this summer. Kahne is a one-time winner at Michigan International Speedway and has six career Top 5's to his credit there. The Richard Petty Motorsports star finished runner-up to Hamlin at MIS earlier this year, so the team should have the setup for Kahne's car pretty well dialed in.

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 35 career starts that works out to an awesome 51 percent Top 5 rate at the two-mile oval. Gordon is riding a three-race Top 5 streak at Michigan into this Sunday's race. The status quo is a good bet in this case.

Tony Stewart -
The owner/driver of the No. 14 Chevrolet is carrying a respectable four-race Top 10 streak into Michigan this week. Smoke is fresh off a workman-like Top 10 at the Glen last weekend, and looking for more solid results at MIS. Stewart has steady career numbers at Michigan with 15 Top-10 finishes in 23 starts. Six of his last eight visits to the two-mile oval have yielded Top 10's with no finish worse than 17th. That is fantasy racing peace of mind for this weekend's Carfax 400.

Carl Edwards -
Edwards is a driver thick in the middle of the battle to make the Chase for the Cup field. While he has yet to collect any wins thus far this season, don't rule him out on Sunday at Michigan. MIS ranks as his best statistical track with two victories, seven Top 5's and an average finish of 6.6 in 12 career starts. Edwards could possibly break through for his first win of the season in the Carfax 400, but he's a safe Top 10 play at the very least.

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

Joey Logano -
Logano doesn't have a long Sprint Cup resume, but upon close examination one begins to see how much the young Joe Gibbs Racing driver likes these two-mile ovals in Fontana and Michigan. Logano has two Top 10's in his three career visits to Michigan, including a 10th-place effort in this season's Heluva Good! Sour Cream Dips 400. He also finished a brilliant fifth at the similar oval in Fontana earlier this season. The No. 20 Toyota team makes a great play this weekend.

Jeff Burton -
The Richard Childress Racing veteran already has 11 Top 10's on the season and is poised to make the Chase. Burton makes a steady fantasy racing play most weeks, and Michigan is certainly no exception. The driver of the No. 31 Chevrolet led 46 laps and finished a brilliant third at Fontana in February. Burton also raced with the leaders the entire event and finished a respectable eighth at MIS in June. A start for Burton in the Carfax 400 carries very little risk and the prospects for great reward.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. -
With Earnhardt's solid performance earlier this season at Michigan and his respectable career resume at the two-mile oval, he finds himself in the sleepers list this week. He has struggled with consistency in 2010, but can make a good spot start on his best tracks in most fantasy racing formats. Earnhardt has one career win (2008) at Michigan International Speedway and Top 10's in each of his last two races at the huge oval. The No. 88 team is a good roll of the dice this Sunday afternoon.

A.J. Allmendinger -
The Richard Petty Motorsports driver just loves it when the series visits Michigan. Allmendinger brought one of his typical Top-15 cars to this race in June. The No. 43 team set up the veteran driver with a good handling race car and he piloted it to a career-best Michigan effort of 11th-place in the Heluva Good! Sour Cream Dips 400. Allmendinger sports a near 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, the team will bring out their note books and likely the same car for this event as well.

Marcos Ambrose -
The JTG/Daugherty Racing driver recently announced his departure from the No. 47 team for next season. Ambrose is now racing for a new job in the Sprint Cup Series, so motivation should be a problem for the Aussie. Ambrose is fresh off a brilliant run at Watkins Glen, so he should carry that momentum into Michigan this week. Ambrose seems to have adapted to the series' larger ovals, and his 15th-place finish here in June is proof of that.

Sam Hornish Jr. -
The proverbial "roll of the dice" driver this week is Hornish. However, we have a lot of confidence in the No. 77 team and this Penske Racing driver. Despite his struggles this season, Hornish has a respectable record on the two-mile tracks. He finished fifth in this event one year ago, and he finished 16th at Fontana earlier this season. We expect a workman-like Top 20 for Hornish this Sunday afternoon with the upside of a potential Top 10.

Flops - Drivers to avoid at all costs

Martin Truex Jr. -
While we normally like the No. 56 team on most ovals, this week's race at Michigan will be a major test for Truex. Nine prior starts at the track have yielded only two Top-10 finishes. His visit to Fontana earlier this year resulted in a DNF from a blown engine. While Truex did finish 17th in the June race at MIS, this is likely the ceiling for this driver and team on Sunday afternoon at the two-mile oval.

Ryan Newman -
Rocket Man is a two-time winner at Michigan, but the recent past has been quite bumpy for the Stewart-Haas Racing driver. He's only collected one Top-20 finish in his last five Michigan starts. Newman's poor 32nd-place effort in June's Heluva Good! Sour Cream Dips 400 is probably a good indicator of what to expect on Sunday.

Scott Speed -
Speed's season in the No. 82 Toyota has been full of ups-and-downs. He finished a season-best 10th at Daytona in the last few weeks, but more often than not Speed has found himself finishing outside the Top 20 most weeks. The Red Bull Racing youngster has three prior starts at Michigan International Speedway, with only one Top-30 finish to his credit. Prospects aren't good for much improvement in this 400-mile event.

Jamie McMurray -
The No. 1 team have not been a regular in our flops list this season, but McMurray has been inconsistent despite his career season and race-winning success. This is an occasion to sit McMurray on the bench. The two-mile oval in Michigan has been a real puzzle for the Earnhardt Ganassi driver. McMurray has just four Top 10's in 15 career starts at the oval. His 17th-place and 24th-place Fontana and Michigan finishes earlier this year don't inspire much confidence in the team, at least this weekend.