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Pure Michigan 400 Preview: Johnson Michigan Sweep?

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 Pure Michigan 400. This is the second and final race at the Brooklyn, Mich., oval for the season. We return to the scene of Jimmie Johnson's big victory in June at the two-mile oval. He led 39 of the 200 laps that day and held off Kevin Harvick to capture his first-career victory in the Irish Hills. This has become the theme for this race track in recent seasons. It's not typically the strongest car and driver of the day that wins, but often times it's the team that surges in the final leg of the 400 miles and has the right pit strategy and timing at the end. Considering that the driver of the No. 48 Chevrolet is battling for a good position in the Chase for the Cup entering this weekend, Johnson will have high expectations coming to the Irish Hills of Michigan this time around. The Hendrick Motorsports star has fallen into a slump in the last few weeks and he desperately wants to turn things around before we enter September. The distinct possibility of a Johnson Michigan sweep is on everyone's minds as we take on Sunday's Pure Michigan 400.

Despite the immense Johnson sweep theme of this weekend, we have to acknowledge that it has mostly been Ford teams and drivers that have been Chevrolet's nemesis at this two-mile oval the last couple seasons. Prior to Johnson's big win, the prior three Michigan trophies had gone to Ford drivers from both the Penske Racing and Roush Fenway Racing camps. Roush veteran Greg Biffle grabbed two of those three victories. While this camp has been slumping in the last few months, don't discount a surprise performance from Biffle or even Carl Edwards in Sunday's Pure Michigan 400. Carrying the flag high for Penske Racing at the wide-grooved speedway will be the hot teams of Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano. Logano won this event one year ago and he led 29 laps and was a Top-10 finisher there earlier this season. Keselowski has never won at his home-state track, but he's been very close in recent appearances. The veteran driver has three Top-3 finishes in his last six Michigan starts, but he's never been able to close the deal for one reason or another. Maybe this Sunday's Pure Michigan 400 will be the race where Keselowski 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 19 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.

Greg Biffle10.98643115003,085107.8
Matt Kenseth10.38331642322,989104.5
Jimmie Johnson15.67313895442,772102.9
Carl Edwards9.08501982912,925102.2
Dale Earnhardt Jr.13.17861892842,51397.5
Tony Stewart10.17351041572,61095.8
Jeff Gordon16.26371841962,35191.2
Kyle Busch17.86851391692,46491.1
Kurt Busch20.75971753212,35090.0
Kyle Larson8.04310211889.7
Kasey Kahne17.2696174582,10089.1
Kevin Harvick12.06211381241,96688.7
Denny Hamlin15.8634981581,91488.0
Joey Logano16.0351431011,17387.8
Brad Keselowski15.529751411,16287.1
Brian Vickers16.840094951,33986.5
Clint Bowyer15.156036271,85382.2
Martin Truex Jr.16.948286711,56881.5
Justin Allgaier16.0420014279.6
Ryan Newman18.756212161,60276.6

In the season's first running at Michigan International Speedway we can take away more information than just Johnson's first-career win at the oval. The Quicken Loans 400 saw 25 lead changes among several different drivers. Despite the eight caution flags, fuel mileage and pit strategy were on everyone's minds, at least for a good part of the 400-mile race. While everyone is focused on the sweep watch this Sunday, we can't lose sight of the other dominant teams coming to the Irish Hills. Could we see another Hendrick Motorsports driver dominate and win at MIS this weekend? Will Keselowski 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 Logano successfully defend his race victory of a year ago? Will Kurt 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

Kevin Harvick -
The two-mile ovals have always been tracks of success for the SHR veteran. Harvick is a one-time winner at Michigan and one-time winner at the sister oval in Fontana. His recent performance has been nothing short of stellar. Harvick has one pole position and three runner-up finishes in the last four events at these style ovals. In June in the Quicken Loans 400, the driver of the No. 4 Chevrolet claimed the pole, led 63 laps and finished second that day to Jimmie Johnson. Harvick has been narrowly missing victory lane at this oval recently, but that could change this Sunday afternoon.

Brad Keselowski -
After a Watkins Glen mishap and poor finish, the Penske Racing star will be glad to make this homecoming trip to Michigan. Keselowski has been steadily improving on these two-mile ovals the last year or so, and he can't wait to mount another effort to win at his home state track. The last time the Sprint Cup Series visited the Irish Hills, he led 4 laps and finished a career-best third at MIS. The Penske Racing stable has been making gains at this facility, and Keselowski's performances here have mirrored that improvement. After the dust settles in the Pure Michigan 400, he could be hoisting the trophy in victory lane here for the first time.

Jimmie Johnson -
Johnson has not looked like a six-time champion the last several weeks. The Hendrick Motorsports star is looking to improve before the Chase for the Cup begins, and his victory here in June is a good sign for a potential turnaround. Johnson led 39 laps that day and out-foxed Brad Keselowski en route to his surprising first-career victory at the Michigan oval. Given the team's current struggles, it may not be very likely that Johnson pulls the season-sweep of MIS, but considering the team has great, recent data on the oval, it's also hard to bet against them. Johnson has built a career on jumping off the mat to win at the unlikeliest of times.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. -
Each time we visit Michigan the Junior Nation is on our minds. The iconic driver seems to have a special understanding of this track and how to get to victory lane here. Earnhardt is a two-time winner at MIS since 2008, and nearly each time the series visits here, he's racing with the leaders. His 348 career laps led at Michigan, with close to 200 of those coming in the last five events, prove his prowess at the speedway. Earnhardt's June outing at Michigan International Speedway netted a solid seventh-place finish, and he could improve dramatically on that this weekend.

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

Joey Logano -
The Penske Racing driver is having a great season in the No. 22 Ford. Logano comes to Michigan a lofty fifth in the driver standings and battling for a top 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 over 100 laps led in his last three Michigan starts and in those he's came away with one victory and three Top-10 finishes. He's practically become a specialist on these two-mile ovals. Logano is a solid choice for this event in the Sprint Cup Series schedule.

Matt Kenseth -
When we visit Michigan we always think of the Wisconsin native Kenseth. In his 30 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 60-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 won the pole position and finished fourth at the similar oval in Fontana this season. A Top-10 finish should be in store for the No. 20 Toyota team this weekend.

Greg Biffle -
The driver of the No. 16 Roush Fenway Racing Ford leads all active drivers with four career victories at Michigan International Speedway. Biffle's 10 Top-5 finishes here rank him fourth among active drivers. He truly is among the top in the Sprint Cup Series in performance at this oval. Only his teammate Carl Edwards has collected more championship points on the two-mile ovals the last two seasons. In this event one year ago he led 28 laps and came from mid-field in the starting grid to crack the Top 10 in that installment of the Pure Michigan 400. BIffle is a safe play this Sunday afternoon.

Kurt Busch -
Busch has been a feast or famine driver at Michigan International Speedway over the years. The veteran Stewart Haas Racing driver has two career victories at MIS, but only a 33-percent Top-10 rate at the track. Busch's performances have been improving though since two seasons ago and since joining the No. 41 Chevrolet team. The former champion finished an impressive third at the similar oval in California earlier this season, and he qualified eighth and led 16 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

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 9.0 in 20 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 75-percent Top-10 rate at the Michigan oval, the Roush Fenway star should chime in with a Top 10 in this Sunday's 400-mile race in the Irish Hills.

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 43 career starts that works out to an awesome 42-percent Top-5 rate at the two-mile oval. Gordon hasn't cracked the Top 5 at the Michigan oval since 2010, but his last performance here in June was a turn back in the right direction. He led 36 laps and finished sixth in the Quicken Loans 400.

Kasey Kahne -
The Pure Michigan 400 is another opportunity this season for the Hendrick Motorsports star to shine. Truex is coming off a steady 12th-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 fifth-place finish. That was his second-straight Michigan Top 10 and 10th career Top 10 at the speedway. Kahne 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 nine Top-10 finishes in 17 career starts at MIS, including an amazing string of seven-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 10th-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 MIS.

Paul Menard -
Menard has been a model of consistency at this two-mile oval in recent seasons. The Richard Childress Racing driver didn't post a single Top 10 in his first five years of Sprint Cup Series racing at Michigan, but he's made up for lost time in the last few years. Four of his last seven appearances have netted Top-10 finishes, and Menard rides a pair of fourth-place finishes at MIS into this Sunday's Pure Michigan 400. The driver of the No. 27 Chevrolet and his crew chief Slugger Labbe have figured something out about this oval and they keep employing it to good effect.

Kyle Larson -
It's clear that Larson is the next budding superstar in the Sprint Cup Series. It seems that each week he visits a new track and never fails to impress. Now that we're swinging through the schedule for the second time at a lot of these tracks we should the CGR rookie stack up the Top 10s. That should be the case in Sunday's Pure Michigan 400. In Larson's only career start at the oval in June he qualified a steady 12th, led 2 laps and finished a strong eighth-place. It's hard to believe but he could be even better this time around.

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 a respectable 19th-place finish. To this point in 2014, that has been the performance of the season for the Wood Brothers Racing No. 21 team. This will be Bayne's eighth 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.

Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week

David Ragan -
The Front Row Motorsports driver comes off a pair of steady Top-20 performances at Pocono and Watkins Glen. However, the sailing won't be quite that smooth this Sunday at Michigan International Speedway. Ragan has a long history at the two-mile oval, but a lot of disappointments as well. In his 15 career starts Ragan a pair of Top-10 finishes early in his career at Roush Fenway Racing. Since then, it's been a big struggle. No Top 10s and no finishes inside the Top 20 in his last five starts. In June of this year he finished a disappointing 38th in the Quicken Loans 400.

Denny Hamlin -
Hamlin is beyond struggling entering Michigan race week. The Joe Gibbs Racing star has had a poor season filled with inconsistency and struggling performances. With his 24th-place finish at the Glen last week, he's mired deep in the standings and his hopes for a championship season are nearly 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 six visits to MIS. The situation is just far too risky to gamble a start on the No. 11 JGR Toyota team this Sunday afternoon.

Kyle Busch -
The Joe Gibbs Racing star is coming off a tough performance at Watkins Glen where more than one mishap conspired to give him a poor finish. After 42nd- and 40th-place finishes the last two races, Busch has tumbled from sixth- to 15th-place in the championship standings. Now we visit an oval that's been a bit of a mixed bag for the veteran driver. Busch is a one-time Michigan winner, but his performances of late have been very shaky. Since the victory in 2011 he's posted finishes of 32nd-, 13th-, fourth-, 31st- and 41st-place in the five starts since. The luck has not been with Busch of late and his recent history at MIS has been less than inspiring.

Tony Stewart -
Driving record aside at Michigan, Stewart is going through the battle of his life right now with the fall out of last weekend's sprint car accident and death of a young driver on a New York dirt track. As of this writing, the owner/driver of the No. 14 Chevrolet has not declared if he will race this weekend at Michigan after sitting out last Sunday at Watkins Glen. We can only imagine the psychological distress and turmoil that Smoke must be going through with the ongoing criminal investigation, grief and other unfortunate side effects from an incident such as this. It's probably best to shelve Stewart for the short term until this situation takes a clear direction.