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Michigan 400 Preview: Fuel Mileage, the Key to Victory?

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.

As we put the three-turn oval of Long Pond, PA behind us, we look forward to this weekend when the Sprint Cup Series will pay their first visit to Michigan International Speedway for the Heluva Good! Sour Cream Dips 400. This will be the first of two visits to the massive oval in Brooklyn, Mich. MIS has similar characteristics to Auto Club Speedway, which the Sprint Cup Series raced at in February 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 average speeds in the low-190 mph range. 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. As recent races at Kansas and Charlotte have shown us, the crew chiefs had better keep a close eye on their pit windows and fuel mileage as the laps wind down. If recent races at MIS are any indicator, be prepared for many long green flag runs this Sunday. The result will be an emphasis on fuel efficiency and pit strategy as they 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, this will be an invaluable help in 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 have a definite leg-up this Sunday. The loop stats shown below cover the last six years or 12 races at Michigan International Speedway.

Carl Edwards6.06421462442,086110.5
Jimmie Johnson13.84892584431,979110.3
Greg Biffle11.45801552061,937104.8
Matt Kenseth10.7552921761,791101.2
Denny Hamlin10.9460831401,43198.3
Tony Stewart9.7472771381,72297.9
Jeff Gordon15.74581271061,64196.2
Dale Earnhardt Jr.10.74931141091,50095.9
Kurt Busch19.84051222321,56495.3
Brian Vickers15.234389951,17593.6
Kyle Busch17.843775881,58090.7
Kasey Kahne17.1403104401,23086.6
Kevin Harvick13.338268601,08483.9
Mark Martin19.237164471,31183.8
Joey Logano13.01678035582.9
Martin Truex Jr.16.5291575990581.8
David Ragan17.5253121274077.6
Clint Bowyer20.430023795676.1
Jeff Burton19.234213195875.9
Casey Mears17.022726863775.1

The Contenders - Drivers in the hunt for the win

Denny Hamlin
One-time Michigan winner Hamlin looks to defend his title of race winner from this event one year ago. The No. 11 team has been putting together some momentum so that the Joe Gibbs Racing star can return to victory lane. Hamlin led a stunning 123 of the 200 laps of this event last year and walked away with the victory. He could easily rediscover the setup that made him so successful at this two-mile oval in 2010.

Carl Edwards
The championship standings leader is looking to rebound coming into the Irish Hills of Michigan this week. Edwards is a two-time Michigan winner with an unheard of 85 percent Top 10 rate at the two-mile oval. In addition to those stellar finishing statistics, the Roush Fenway Racing star has led 244 laps at this huge oval so he's very familiar with how racing in clean air is important at this track. Edwards has all the tools and knowledge to collect a third career win at this oval on Sunday afternoon.

Kevin Harvick
Harvick 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. 29 team puts on a good performance. MIS should be no exception to that trend. Harvick has been the Sprint Cup Series most dominant driver on two-mile ovals recently. With his victory at Fontana this February and at Michigan last August, the Richard Childress Racing star has won the last two events at two-mile ovals.

Kyle Busch
Joe Gibbs Racing's other big gun in their one-two assault on Michigan is Busch and the No. 18 team. Busch has been running better than Denny Hamlin this season and can sweep into victory lane any weekend. The Joe Gibbs Racing star has never won at Michigan International Speedway, but he has led close to 90 laps for his career at the two-mile oval. Busch's 151 laps led and third-place finish at Fontana earlier this year has us very optimistic of his chances in the Heluva Good! Sour Cream Dips 400.

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

Kurt Busch
The No. 22 Dodge team has performed at a high level this season, and Busch is a two-time winner at the huge oval in Michigan. These two reasons alone are more than enough to start the Penske Racing driver in your fantasy racing lineups this weekend. Busch won the pole, led 60 laps and finished third in this event one year ago so the memory of that performance should be fresh on his mind this weekend.

Jeff Gordon
After walking away with an impressive victory at Pocono last weekend, we have to give the No. 24 team some close scrutiny this week at Michigan International Speedway. While we feel certain he won't be lifting the trophy again this week, we do feel that he warrants serious consideration for this 400-mile race. The two-mile oval of MIS has held a great deal of success for Gordon over the years. He has two victories and 23 Top 10's at the huge oval. Three of his last four trips to this facility have yielded brilliant Top 5 efforts.

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 seven career Top-10 finishes. Johnson collected sixth- and 12th-place finishes at Michigan International Speedway last season, so a decent performance should be on tap. He's looking to snap a brief winless spell, and Sunday could be his day to break out.

Matt Kenseth
Kenseth has been the most consistent performer of the surging Roush Fenway Racing stable this season. That should bode well at what has been historically a good facility for both Roush and Kenseth. The veteran driver is a two-time Michigan winner and he owns 14 career Top-10 finishes at the two-mile oval. Kenseth posted a fourth-place finish at Auto Club Speedway earlier this season, so a good finish for the No. 17 team should be in the offing.

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

Tony Stewart
One-time Michigan winner Stewart certainly has had his ups-and-downs this season. His 21st-place finish in the just-completed Pocono race is evidence of that. However, we have to play historical strength with this fantasy racing play. There are not many tracks on the circuit that the owner/driver of the No. 14 Chevrolet performs as well at as Michigan. With 16 career Top 10's and three of his last four trips to Brooklyn, we have to give Stewart some respect this week.

Greg Biffle
Biffle let a good run at Pocono slip through his fingers, but the No. 16 team is still firmly fixed in that good fantasy racing play category at the moment. Biffle sports great career stats at MIS, with two victories earlier in his NASCAR career and a 63 percent Top 10 rate. Four of his last five visits to Brooklyn, Michigan have resulted in Top-10 finishes, so there's good reason to be very optimistic about this Roush Fenway Racing driver's chances at Michigan International Speedway.

Brian Vickers
As the No. 83 Red Bull Racing team continues to find its stride after Vickers' long layoff in 2010, Vickers needs to step up at his favorite tracks. Michigan International Speedway has been a great venue for him over the years. Vickers owns five straight Top 10's at Michigan along with three pole positions and one victory. We believe the No. 83 team will unload a fast Toyota this weekend.

Kasey Kahne
The Red Bull Racing star looked like sure bet to crack the Top 10 at Pocono last weekend, but he slipped to 12th by the end of 500 miles of racing. Things look just as promising and Michigan this Sunday afternoon, and hopefully Kahne can deliver this time around. The driver of the No. 4 Toyota is a one-time winner at MIS and he cracks the Top 5 at a 43 percent career rate at this two-mile oval. While Kahne may not be in the running for the win in the Heluva Good! Sour Cream Dips 400, he should be a Top 15 finisher at the very least.

A.J. Allmendinger
As we reach into the sleeper bag this week, we pull out Allmedinger's name. The Richard Petty Motorsports veteran has logged over 1,300 laps for his career at Michigan International Speedway. In those seven starts Allmendinger has managed a pedestrian 23.9 average finish. While these numbers don't inspire awe, they do represent value at the end of the fantasy racing bench. Allmendinger's last two efforts at MIS resulted in 11th- and 17th-place finishes. Considering his Top 15 at Fontana earlier this season, we expect similar results this Sunday afternoon.

Paul Menard
Menard is starting to heat up after about a four-race mini-slump. The Richard Childress Racing driver is coming off 19th- and 14th-place efforts at Kansas and Pocono the last two weeks. 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's 16th-place finish at Auto Club Speedway earlier this season is likely a much better indicator.

Flops - Drivers to avoid at all costs

Marcos Ambrose
We normally like the No. 9 Ford team most any Sprint Cup weekend, however Ambrose has had major problems during his brief NASCAR career with these two-mile ovals. In his five career starts at MIS Ambrose has three finishes outside the Top 30 for an average finish of 27.8. When we combine those facts with his current two-race skid at Kansas and Pocono, the odds are just too risky to take a chance on the Richard Petty Motorsports team in this 400-mile event.

Bobby Labonte
One would think that a two-mile oval like Michigan would play to the strengths of a driver like Labonte, but opposite has been true in the late stages of his career. The JTG Daugherty Racing driver collected four pole and three wins earlier in his career at MIS while racing for owner Joe Gibbs. Those days and results are now just distant memories. Labonte has failed to crack the Top 20 in his last six trips to Michigan, and he has two DNF's during that span.

Clint Bowyer
We've been sensing it for a couple weeks now, but with his sub-par Pocono performance we believe we have the evidence to prove that the No. 33 team is currently mired in a slump. Bowyer hasn't been fast in practice or racing the last three events. During those races the RCR veteran has posted pedestrian Top-20 finishes. That's well below expectations for this rising star. Bowyer has a scant two Top 10's in 10 career races at this two-mile oval, so prospects for a turnaround this Sunday afternoon seem slim.

Jamie McMurray
The No. 1 team's recent slump hit yet another season-low at Pocono Raceway last week. McMurray labored to a poor 33rd-place finish to extend his current Top 10 drought to four straight races. We don't expect the Earnhardt Ganassi Racing to stop the slide this weekend at Michigan International Speedway. McMurray sports an anemic 25 percent career Top 10 rate at this two-mile oval. His 23rd-place finish at Fontana earlier this year is likely a good indicator of what to expect from this driver and team this Sunday afternoon.