NASCAR picks pack: New asphalt should level playing field at Michigan

by | Special to CBSSports.com
  •  

WHEN: June 17, 2012 | GREEN: Approximately 1:16 p.m. ET

WHERE: Michigan International Speedway

TRACK DESCRIPTION: 2-mile oval

BROADCAST: Fox | RACE LENGTH: 200 laps, 400 miles

The lowdown

For the second consecutive week, NASCAR will visit a track that has been repaved since its most recent race and fans hope that the changes to Michigan International Speedway are as dramatic as they were at Pocono. The added drama last week, however, did not come on the track, but rather on the newly repaved pit road that gave several drivers trouble. Along with the repaving, the timing lines were moved. By the end of the race, 22 speeding penalties were handed out to the drivers; several of them were nabbed by the NASCAR cops multiple times.

Pocono has always been prone to single groove racing in the corners, so the increased grip from the new asphalt did not change the complexion of the race itself. This week is liable to provide a much different story. Michigan has traditionally hosted some of the best side-by-side racing through the corners; repaved tracks nearly always devolve into single-groove affairs immediately following the work, but MIS officials did their best to minimize that tendency by completing a laser survey of the track last year to collect more than 100 million data points that would allow them to replicate the original pavement.

A Goodyear tire test in April had drivers unofficially hitting 215 mph at the end of the straights with speeds mid-corner in the 180 mph range. If they can run that fast and race side by side, the Quicken Loans 400 might well be the most exciting event all season.

A new surface also levels the playing field in terms of the favorites. Last week, Joey Logano dominated the top five en route to his second Cup victory, and this week could feature another fresh face in Victory Lane.

10 best drivers at Michigan

Over the past six races at Michigan, these drivers have the best average finish.

1. Tony Stewart
Last six races average finish at Michigan: 8.50 in 6 attempts
Career avg. finish at Michigan: 11.54 in 26 attempts

Stewart's magic number this week is three. He finished third at Pocono, which was his third third-place finish in the last six races. This week is a pivotal one for the defending champion, however, because the news is not uniformly good. His other three results in that span of races ended in the 20s and he has not been able to follow one top 10 with another since Martinsville earlier this season. He seems a good bet to make the Chase this year, but he is probably getting tired of the comparisons to the final 10 races of last season. A third in the Quicken Loans 400 would be nice, but he'll settle for a top 10 at Michigan, which would be his fifth consecutive at the track.

2. Denny Hamlin
Last six races average finish at Michigan: 8.67 in 6 attempts
Career avg. finish at Michigan: 12.08 in 12 attempts

Last year, Hamlin entered the Pure Michigan 400 with two victories and a second-place finish in his last three MIS attempts. In 2009, he finished 10th in the fall and had a third in the spring, but that couldn't keep him out of the wall midway through the August race. The contact broke a shock that took more than a dozen laps to fix and sent him home 35th, which snapped his perfect record of top 10s. Hamlin said he thought the repaving of Pocono would minimize his advantage there, but he finished fifth in the 400 miler. The odds are good that he will pick up where he left off last spring at Michigan as well and be one of the top contenders.

3. Jeff Gordon
Last six races average finish at Michigan: 9.67 in 6 attempts
Career avg. finish at Michigan: 11.42 in 38 attempts

Gordon and the No. 24 team continue to find new ways to lose. Last week, they were charging to the front of the pack after a bad qualification effort and were settling into a fast rhythm when the veteran was caught speeding on pit road. It doesn't matter how strong the driver once was on a track or how stout organization is overall, Gordon and the team cannot seem make the right decisions. With each passing week, the situation gets increasingly desperate and the only way they will make the Chase is by winning races, which should cause them to take bigger risks in pit strategy. Crew chief Alan Gustafson should have been thinking about that at Pocono, because the decision to pit late in the race dropped them from the potential to race for the win to another disappointing result of 19th.

4. Carl Edwards
Last six races average finish at Michigan: 10.67 in 6 attempts
Career avg. finish at Michigan: 8.20 in 15 attempts

Edwards needs something good to happen and Michigan is a great place to turn his season around. During his career, he has been almost perfect on the two-mile track. In his first 14 starts at Michigan, he finished worse than 12th only once and in the top 10 in all but two races. He claimed the ultimate prize in 2007/2008 and then finished fourth in both of 2009 races. Two of his last three attempts at Michigan have been in the top five, but the news is not uniformly good. He developed an engine problem last fall and slipped to 36th. Coupled with his disappointing 2012 season to date, he is more likely to finish in the high single digits than in the top five.

5. Matt Kenseth
Last six races average finish at Michigan: 10.83 in 6 attempts
Career avg. finish at Michigan: 9.52 in 25 attempts

Pocono has not been particularly kind to the Roushketeers, but Kenseth threatened for the victory much of last Sunday. His seventh-place finish was enough to give him the points lead -- well, that plus his other seven top 10s over the last eight races. For all his success, he hasn't visited Victory Lane since the season-opening race in Daytona. When NASCAR resets the standings during the Chase, they give three bonus points to the drivers in the top 10 for each victory they earned, and now is the time to roll the dice and try to accumulate the most wins possible. Kenseth's most recent win at Michigan came in 2006, but he has earned top fives in two of his last three attempts and swept the top 10.

6. Clint Bowyer
Last six races average finish at Michigan: 11.50 in 6 attempts
Career avg. finish at Michigan: 18.33 in 12 attempts

Bowyer has been incredibly consistent at Michigan in the last three years. He swept the top 10 in 2009 and last year finished eighth in both races. He was a little less consistent in 2010 with a 22nd and 13th, but all that averages out to one of the best recent records in the field. There is a lot of momentum at Michael Waltrip Racing these days and they continue to be one of the most pleasant surprises of the season. Unfortunately, this week is going to be all about horsepower and they are liable to be lacking a few ponies in comparison to Roush, Hendrick and Childress. In the most recent two-mile unrestricted, intermediate speedway race, all three of their drivers finished in a narrow band of results ranging from eighth (Martin Truex Jr.) to 13th (Bowyer) and that is where they will probably wind up again this week.

7. Greg Biffle
Last six races average finish at Michigan: 12.17 in 6 attempts
Career avg. finish at Michigan: 14.47 in 19 attempts

Biffle's season is beginning to slip. Michigan is a good place to arrest that slide, because he has the potential to be just as strong there as his Roushketeer teammates. His first six races of the season produced four top-six finishes with an average result of 6.8; in his last six races, he's recorded only two top 10s with an average of 12.3. Part of his recent poor average is contributable to a strained engine late in the Pocono 400, but he also had an 18th at Richmond that was less than impressive. Michigan has been generally kind to Biffle during his career. He won back-to-back races in 2004-05 and sat on the pole last August. He fell to 20th before the end of the race, however, and was only 15th in the spring, so it is unlikely that he will overtake his teammate Kenseth and reassume the points lead.

8. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Last six races average finish at Michigan: 13.00 in 6 attempts
Career avg. finish at Michigan: 15.80 in 25 attempts

Earnhardt's winless streak continues to grow, but he keeps rattling off great runs. His eighth-place finish last week was the 14th top-15 finish for the No. 88 team in the last 15 races. As long as he keeps performing that well, it is only a matter of time before this team visits Victory Lane again. Finishing first this week would be poetic since his winless streak started after the 2008 LifeLock 400 at Michigan. His first and so far only win with Hendrick Motorsports came in that event when he successfully stretched his fuel mileage and survived a green-white-checkered finish.

8. Kyle Busch
Last six races average finish at Michigan: 13.00 in 6 attempts
Career avg. finish at Michigan: 17.40 in 15 attempts

Busch is coming off back-to-back engine failures at Dover and Pocono. Last week must have been twice as disappointing since teammate Joey Logano won the race and Hamlin finished fifth, leaving him to wonder just how good the setup on the No. 18 Toyota would have been. Michigan won't be any easier on his power plant, but he has a great opportunity to bounce back. He won the most recent race on that track last August and finished third in the spring Heluva Good! Dips 400. New pavement will level the playing field, but not enough to drop him outside the top 10 -- so long as his engine holds up

10. Kasey Kahne
Last six races average finish at Michigan: 13.83 in 6 attempts
Career avg. finish at Michigan: 15.44 in 16 attempts

During his career, Kahne has either been great or terrible at Michigan. He almost won in his first attempt in 2004, but finished second to Ryan Newman. He completed a sweep of the top five later that year and then failed to crack the top 15 as a sophomore. In his third season, he finished what he started as a rookie and won the first race of the season in June before finishing fourth in August. The following year, he finished in the 30s twice. Since then, he has finished second two more times and seventh once, but those are his only top 10s and he has not been able to record two strong runs on this track in a season. His fans have to worry that last week's accident at Pocono was a return of his bad luck, but he will at least have some of the strongest horsepower in the paddock.

OTHERS OF NOTE

11. Kevin Harvick
Last six races average finish at Michigan: 14.33 in 6 attempts
Career avg. finish at Michigan: 15.00 in 22 attempts

Harvick is a good example of how difficult it can be to handicap NASCAR races. He won the 2010 Carfax 400, but since that is his only top 10 there in the last three years, it could hardly be described as predictable. Furthermore, his last top five came all the way back in 2003, and it was an equally erratic runner-up result. He has mostly missed the top 10 at Michigan in recent seasons, but he still showed remarkable consistency with a worst result of 22nd, which he earned last August. In fact, that was his worst Michigan finish since 2005 and he has swept the top 20 in his last four starts of 2012, so there is every reason to be encouraged that he will finish somewhere in the teens.

15. Jimmie Johnson
Last six races average finish at Michigan: 17.00 in 6 attempts
Career avg. finish at Michigan: 15.15 in 20 attempts

Johnson did not win last week's Pocono 400, but after getting dinged for speeding twice in rapid succession during green flag conditions, his fourth-place finish probably felt like a victory. That was his third top five in the last four weeks and his sixth result of sixth or better since Texas in April. Johnson remains one of the hottest drivers on the circuit and he's going to need that momentum to get over a minor Michigan hump. Four of his last seven races there ended outside the top 20 and only two of them were top 10s. The good news is that one of those strong runs came last August when he finished second behind Kyle Busch.

22. Martin Truex Jr.
Last six races average finish at Michigan: 21.17 in 6 attempts
Career avg. finish at Michigan: 17.50 in 12 attempts

Truex swept the runner-up spot in both 2007 Michigan attempts, but then he fell fast and hard. In 2008, he failed to crack the top 15 in either race on this track and in 2009, he failed to crack the top 20. Since then, he has posted only one more top 15 and that is going to create a conundrum for his fans this week. Momentum is fickle and the No. 56 is in jeopardy of alienating fate. He suffered back-to-back 20-something results at Richmond and Talladega and then rebounded with three consecutive top 15s. Unfortunately, there was not much consistency even then because these three relatively strong results were a fifth at Darlington, 12th at Charlotte and seventh at Dover, which kept them from getting into much of a rhythm. Last week's 20th-place result capped a great recovery from an early accident, but no one knows what might go wrong this week.

26. Brad Keselowski
Last six races average finish at Michigan: 22.60 in 5 attempts
Career avg. finish at Michigan: 22.60 in 5 attempts

Keselowski had a similar record at Pocono: after struggling for most of his career on that triangular track, he won last August's event. At Michigan, he posted an average finish of 27.5 with a best of only 24th in his first five attempts and then finished third in the Pure Michigan 400 behind the powerhouses Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson. If the Pocono 400 by #NASCAR taught anything, it's that blips like Kez's victory in 2011 are sometimes just blips and not reversals of fortune. This week will provide a new set of circumstances and possibly a new lesson, but that is far from certain.

All Drivers: Last six races at Michigan
DriverAvg. finish (attempts)DriverAvg. finish (attempts)
1. Tony Stewart8.50 (6)22. Martin Truex Jr.21.17 (6)
2. Denny Hamlin8.67 (6)23. Jamie McMurray 21.50 (6)
3. Jeff Gordon9.67 (6)24. Kurt Busch22.00 (6)
4. Carl Edwards 10.67 (6)25. Regan Smith22.50 (4)
5. Matt Kenseth10.83 (6)26. Brad Keselowski22.60 (5)
6. Clint Bowyer11.50 (6)27. Marcos Ambrose24.33 (6)
7. Greg Biffle 12.17 (6)28. Paul Menard25.00 (6)
8. Dale Earnhardt Jr.13.00 (6)29. Reed Sorenson27.33 (3)
8. Kyle Busch13.00 (6)30. Landon Cassill29.75 (4)
10. Kasey Kahne 13.83 (6)31. Travis Kvapil 30.00 (4)
11. Kevin Harvick14.33 (6)32. Bobby Labonte30.33 (6)
12. Mark Martin14.83 (6)33. Casey Mears 31.33 (6)
13. Joey Logano15.17 (6)34. David Stremme32.40 (5)
14. Juan Montoya16.67 (6)35. David Gilliland34.00 (6)
15. Jimmie Johnson17.00 (6)36. Mike Bliss38.00 (3)
16. Ryan Newman17.33 (6)37. Dave Blaney38.60 (5)
17. AJ Allmendinger18.83 (6)38. Tony Raines40.00 (5)
18. David Reutimann19.17 (6)39. Joe Nemechek40.33 (6)
19. Jeff Burton19.50 (6)40. JJ Yeley41.50 (4)
20. Trevor Bayne20.00 (2)41. Michael McDowell42.50 (2)
21. David Ragan20.33 (6)42. Scott Riggs44.00 (2)

Caution to the wind

Most caution flags: 10 (2006 GFS Marketplace 400)

Fewest caution flags: 0 (1999 Kmart 400 by Castrol Super Clean, 1984 Champion Spark Plug 400, 1973 Motor State 400)

Average number of caution flags per race: 4.9

Final Caution, last five races:
August 2011: Lap 198 of 203 - 2-car accident in turn 2 (Jamie McMurray and Kurt Busch).
June 2011: Lap 192 of 200 - 1-car accident in turn 2 (Dale Earnhardt Jr.).
August 2010: Lap 169 of 200 - debris.
June 2010: Lap 183 of 200 - debris.
August 2009: Lap 159 of 200 - 1-car spin on frontstretch (David Stremme).

Most caution laps: 78 (1969 Yankee 600)

Fewest caution laps: 0 (1999 Kmart 400 by Castrol Super Clean, 1984 Champion Spark Plug 400, 1973 Motor State 400)

Average number of caution laps per race: 25.9

Leading the way

Most leaders: 15 (1982 Gabriel 400)

Fewest leaders: 5 (1984 Champion Spark Plug 400, 1980 Gabriel 400, 1973 Motor State 400, 1971 Yankee 400, 1971 Motor State 400)

Average number of leaders: 9.1

Most lead changes: 65 (1981 Champion Spark Plug 400)

Fewest lead changes: 7 (1984 Champion Spark Plug 400)

Average number of lead changes: 22.7

Front runners

Everyone wants to lead, but only one driver can do it at a time. One of the ways to determine strength is the number of laps led in a race, but to decide who has been truly superior, take a look at which active drivers have led at least one lap in the most races at Michigan.

Driver (number of races led)
Mark Martin (27)
Jeff Gordon (23)
Kurt Busch (13)
Dale Earnhardt Jr. (13)
Bobby Labonte (13)
Greg Biffle (12)
Jimmie Johnson (12)
Matt Kenseth (12)
Ken Schrader (10)
Carl Edwards (9)
Ryan Newman (9)
Jeff Burton (8)
Kyle Busch (8)
Tony Stewart (8)
Denny Hamlin (7)
Kasey Kahne (5)
Jamie McMurray (5)
Kevin Harvick (4)
Casey Mears (4)
David Ragan (4)
Scott Riggs (4)
Paul Menard (3)
Joe Nemechek (3)

Victory Lane

Last five winners at Michigan (starting position):
August 2011: Kyle Busch (17th)
June 2011: Denny Hamlin (10th)
August 2010: Kevin Harvick (8th)
June 2010: Denny Hamlin (7th)
August 2009: Brian Vickers (1st)

Worst starting position for race winner: 32nd - Mark Martin (June 2009)

A race at Michigan has been won by the pole sitter 16 times and from the front row 24 times in 85 races.

Active winners at Michigan

Mark Martin (5)
Bobby Labonte (3)
Ryan Newman (2)
Matt Kenseth (2)
Kurt Busch (2)
Jeff Gordon (2)
Greg Biffle (2)
Denny Hamlin (2)
Carl Edwards (2)
Tony Stewart (1)
Kyle Busch (1)
Kevin Harvick (1)
Kasey Kahne (1)
Dale Earnhardt Jr. (1)

First-time winners at Michigan

Dale Jarrett: 1991 Champion Spark Plug 400

Two-mile tracks: Michigan vs. Auto Club (since 2009)

Roger Penske was so impressed by the track he owned in Michigan that he dusted off the blueprints and replicated it in Fontana, Cal. The ownership of both tracks has since transferred to International Speedway Corporation, but these two courses remain very similar in the demands on engines, brakes and drivers.

DriverCombined Avg.AttemptsMichiganAuto Club
Tony Stewart7.33128.506.17
Clint Bowyer10.581211.509.67
Jimmie Johnson10.671217.004.33
Carl Edwards11.251210.6711.83
Jeff Gordon11.25129.6712.83
Matt Kenseth11.331210.8311.83
Kevin Harvick12.331214.3310.33
Kyle Busch13.251213.0013.50
Greg Biffle13.751212.1715.33
Mark Martin14.581214.8314.33
Denny Hamlin15.17128.6721.67
Kasey Kahne15.831213.8317.83
Juan Pablo Montoya16.001216.6715.33
Joey Logano16.331215.1717.50
Kurt Busch16.501222.0011.00
Ryan Newman16.671217.3316.00
Dale Earnhardt Jr17.081213.0021.17
David Reutimann18.171219.1717.17
Jeff Burton20.171219.5020.83
AJ Allmendinger20.671218.8322.50
David Ragan21.171220.3322.00
Regan Smith21.78922.5021.20
Martin Truex Jr21.831221.1722.50
Jamie McMurray22.501221.5023.50
Brad Keselowski22.67922.6022.75
Trevor Bayne23.33320.00-
Paul Menard24.081225.0023.17
Marcos Ambrose25.671224.3327.00
Casey Mears28.671231.3326.00
David Stremme28.75832.4022.67
Travis Kvapil28.89930.0028.00
Bobby Labonte29.921230.3329.50
Landon Cassill31.29729.7533.33
David Gilliland32.171234.0030.33
Ken Schrader32.333-33.50
Aric Almirola34.333-34.33
Mike Bliss37.57738.0037.25
Dave Blaney37.821138.6037.17
JJ Yeley40.57741.5039.33
Joe Nemechek40.671240.3341.00
Michael McDowell41.00742.5040.40
Scott Riggs41.25444.0038.50

Beaver's Best Bets for Michigan

Winner: Kyle Busch. The odds of him blowing three engines in a row are slim and last year Busch finished third and first in Michigan's two races. He's hungry and will be motivated this week.

Dark horse top 10: Joey Logano. The kid has a renewed sense of confidence and he is going to extend his streak of top 10s to three this week.

Don't bet on it: Greg Biffle. Michigan is a good place to arrest his slide, but Biffle is going to finish just outside the top 10.

Beat Beaver -- Predicting the top 10

New pavement at Michigan is more likely to level the playing field than it did at Pocono. This could make for some interesting faces at the front of the pack, like Trevor Bayne and Austin Dillon in part time rides. In fact, Bayne has enough experience to suggest he will finish in the top 10. My motto has always been, "no guts, no glory," which might explain the number of points I'm racking up with my top 10 picks.

1. Kyle Busch
2. Jimmie Johnson
3. Matt Kenseth
4. Denny Hamlin
5. Tony Stewart
6. Joey Logano
7. Mark Martin
8. Ryan Newman
9. Clint Bowyer
10. Trevor Bayne

LAST WEEK'S PICKS

Ouch. Blown engines, pit road mistakes and accidents: I hit the trifecta last week and had my worst week yet. Bear in mind a perfectly bad score would be -10 points, so it could have been much, much worse.

For any driver correctly picked in the top 10, five points are awarded. For any driver picked in his exact finishing position, five bonus points are awarded. For correctly predicting the winner, a total of 20 points are awarded. So for a perfect top 10, a total of 110 points are available. One point is subtracted for each driver picked who finishes outside the top 10.

Predicted DriverActual FinishPoints
1.Jeff Gordon19-1
2.Jimmie Johnson45
3.Denny Hamlin55
4.Kyle Busch30-1
5.Dale Earnhardt Jr.85
6.Kevin Harvick14-1
7.AJ Allmendinger31-1
8.Juan Pablo Montoya17-1
9.Kasey Kahne29-1
10.Jeff Burton15-1

Total points for Michigan = 8 (out of a possible perfect score of 110)

Season best: 37 points (Charlotte, May); Season worst: 8 points (Pocono, June); Season avg.: 26.8 points (4 races)

For more stats and analysis, follow @FantasyRace on Twitter.

  •  
 

Biggest Stories

CBSSports Facebook Google Plus
COMMENTS
Conversation powered by Livefyre
 

Latest

Most Popular