NASCAR picks pack: Despite his Michigan history, Keselowski should challenge for win

by | Special to CBSSports.com
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WHEN: August 19, 2012 | GREEN: Approximately 1:16 p.m. ET

WHERE: Michigan International Speedway

TRACK DESCRIPTION: 2-mile oval

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

The lowdown

The controversy of whether NASCAR should have thrown a caution flag last week for oil on the track aside, a lot happened in one single lap. According to NASCAR Statistical Services, the lead changed hands four times during the final lap of the Finger Lakes 355 at The Glen when Brad Keselowski spun Kyle Busch entering the esses and was later bumped from the lead by Marcos Ambrose.

The implication for the second seed for a wild-card slot was no less profound and it changed three times during the final lap. If Busch had been able to get back to the finish line and win his second race of the season, the pressure would have risen for four drivers with a single victory 11th through 20th in the points and they would be back in the unenviable position of needing to win or miss the Chase.

When the smoke cleared, Ryan Newman staked claim to the current second seed for the wild-card berth behind Kasey Kahne. Busch leap-frogged Gordon and now those three drivers are separated by only 10 points, which is the equivalent of two and half positions on the track per race. That can easily be made up. There is another wrinkle, however. Should Carl Edwards win this week -- and his career-record at Michigan is one of the best in its history -- he would take over the second seed and widen the gap by at least another six or seven points.

With a 40-point advantage over 11th, it is also conceivable that Denny Hamlin could fall out of the top 10 in the standings. His two wins would further cloud the wild-card picture for the single-race winners below him unless Kahne, with two wins of his own, happens to be the driver who displaces him. Ten positions per race sounds like a lot to lose during the next four weeks, but the No. 11 has finished 25th or worse in five of its last eight starts.

The wild-card race continues to be one of the most interesting battles each week and since it is this article's mission to predict things, here is one: At least two of the final four races will be won by the drivers currently 11th through 20th in the point standings and the final seed will not be determined until the last lap at Richmond.

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: 7.67 in 6 attempts
Career avg. finish at Michigan: 11.19 in 27 attempts

Watkins Glen was a missed opportunity for Stewart. He has been playing hide and seek with momentum for the past 16 weeks and managed to post back-to-back top 10s only three times in that span. When he and the team hit on the right setup, they are excellent, with a victory at Daytona, second-place finishes at Michigan and Sonoma and three more third-place finishes sprinkled into Smoke's recent results. Unfortunately, they have missed the top 10 in eight of his past 16 races as well. Michigan should provide an antidote; he enters the weekend with a five-race top-10 streak and should earn another, but the real test will come next week at Bristol and the following one at Atlanta. Stewart needs to string some strong runs together and develop momentum before the Chase.

2. Matt Kenseth
Last six races average finish at Michigan: 8.00 in 6 attempts
Career avg. finish at Michigan: 9.27 in 26 attempts

Roush Fenway Racing once dominated Michigan and its drivers swept the top five and top 10 with regularity. Even their Young Guns could be expected to run well with David Ragan, Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards earning top 10s early in their careers on this track. All of Roush's drivers could achieve long streaks of strong runs seemingly at will, but NASCAR's parity program eventually exacted a price. Kenseth is all that is left of their once legendary dominance. He enters the weekend with a four-race top-10 streak, during which he finished runner-up to Denny Hamlin in 2011 and was third this June. He finished conservatively in the top 10 at the Glen and is a good bet to finish that well again this week.

3. Jeff Gordon
Last six races average finish at Michigan: 10.33 in 6 attempts
Career avg. finish at Michigan: 11.28 in 39 attempts

Gordon entered the Finger Lakes 355 at The Glen tied with Ryan Newman in the points and had the second seed for the wild-card berth because of a tiebreaker. He knew just how important a single position on the track could be and after passing the No. 39 five laps shy of the checkers, he continued to dig. On the final corner of the final lap, he tried to get around Kenseth and spun in the oil that played such a huge role in the end of the race. Before he could get his car turned back around, he slipped to 21st. That snapped a seven-race streak of top-12 finishes and now he is relegated to playing catch up once more. In a tight three-man race to the Chase, Gordon would be hard to beat in his prime, but he has experienced enough disappointment this year to make him an underdog.

4. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Last six races average finish at Michigan: 10.83 in 6 attempts
Career avg. finish at Michigan: 15.23 in 26 attempts

Earnhardt's 142-race winless streak was bookended by Michigan. He won the 2008 LifeLock 400 and this June's Quicken Loans 400, but the two could not have been less similar. His 2008 victory was courtesy of fuel mileage compared to a recent performance that was about as dominant as fans have seen in the past few years. The two victories do have one similarity, however, and Junior Nation will not be happy about that. Before winning in 2008, he finished in the top 10 nine times in the previous 12 races. After his fuel-mileage aided victory, he scored only one more top 10 in his next 10 attempts. His backslide hasn't been quite as steep this year, but he has failed to crack the top 10 in four of his last seven races.

5. Clint Bowyer
Last six races average finish at Michigan: 11.00 in 6 attempts
Career avg. finish at Michigan: 17.46 in 13 attempts

At Michigan, Bowyer is the model of consistency. Five of his last seven races there ended in results of seventh through 10th. Last year, he finished eighth in both events and even with the curveball of new pavement this spring, he scored a seventh in the Quicken Loans 400. Looking at both two-mile tracks of Michigan and Auto Club, his record is no less impressive. Dating back to the 2009 LifeLock 400, he has earned nine top 10s in 12 starts. One of these was a runner-up finish at Auto Club, but the remainder was all in that same narrow band of seventh through 10th. Guess where he is predicted to finish this week?

6. Carl Edwards
Last six races average finish at Michigan: 11.83 in 6 attempts
Career avg. finish at Michigan: 8.38 in 16 attempts

Edwards swept the top 10 in his first eight races on two-mile tracks. Conversely, he has finished outside that mark in half of his most recent eight attempts at Michigan and Auto Club with two of his worst efforts ever on this track type during that span of races. Edwards suffered an ignition problem in the 2010 Pepsi Max 400 in California and strained an engine at Michigan in this race last year to finish in the 30s both time. He cannot afford another mistake this week because even though he is capable of winning on any of the remaining four tracks, this is by far his best opportunity to make the Chase.

7. Greg Biffle
Last six races average finish at Michigan: 12.00 in 6 attempts
Career avg. finish at Michigan: 13.95 in 20 attempts

Biffle doesn't always finish in the top 10 at Michigan, but he nearly always finishes on the lead lap. In 20 attempts there, he failed to qualify once and didn't complete all the laps only twice after that. One of these was in his inaugural attempt in 2003 and the other was in 2007, so it is a fair bet he will be on the same lap with the leader this Sunday. Where he will actually finish is anyone's guess because his last six efforts on this track produced two top fives, another top 10, a 15th place finish and pair of 20ths.

8. Kevin Harvick
Last six races average finish at Michigan: 13.00 in 6 attempts
Career avg. finish at Michigan: 14.78 in 23 attempts

Harvick's position among the 10 best this week is largely attributable to his victory in the 2010 Carfax 400, but he is an example of why some statistics need to be explained. That is one of only three top fives that he has produced on this track in his 23-race career and before visiting Victory Lane, his most recent top five at the track came nearly a decade ago in 2003. That strong run was a runner-up finish, but he has been mostly mediocre at Michigan since, with only five top 10s in his last 17 attempts. An average finish of 14th in that span of time shows that he hasn't been bad, but it has been difficult to find that little adjustment late in his races that would propel the No. 29 into the lead.

9. Denny Hamlin
Last six races average finish at Michigan: 13.83 in 6 attempts
Career avg. finish at Michigan: 13.77 in 13 attempts

Hamlin's luck during the last eight weeks has been horrible and it all started with a Lap 134 accident at Michigan this June. Hamlin was racing four-wide and battling for a spot in the top 15 when he got a slight nudge from Newman that sent him into a spin. The No. 11 caught on fire and retired from the race. The following week, a hood pin broke on Hamlin's Toyota and he ultimately left Sonoma early with crash damage. He crashed twice in Daytona, was collateral damage in the Johnson/Kenseth wreck at Pocono and finally destroyed two cars at the Glen last week. Notably, his bad luck is bookended by fire when his engine burst into flames on lap 59 at The Glen. Fate can be cruel.

10. Jimmie Johnson
Last six races average finish at Michigan: 14.17 in 6 attempts
Career avg. finish at Michigan: 14.67 in 21 attempts

Michigan has not been overly kind to Johnson during his career, but that did not keep him from finishing second in this race last year or fifth in the Quicken Loans 400 earlier this season. Those two stout runs propelled him into the top 10 this week and probably predict another strong showing, but his fans should also be aware that in his last eight attempts on this track, he failed to crack the top 15 four times. One reason for his lackluster showing on this track may be that it has never hosted a Chase race and there has been little incentive to allocate resources to going fast there since it has not helped his championship bids.

OTHERS OF NOTE

16. Martin Truex Jr.
Last six races average finish at Michigan: 17.17 in 6 attempts
Career avg. finish at Michigan: 17.08 in 13 attempts

In 2007, the powerhouse teams of Jack Roush and Roger Penske won both Michigan races with Edwards steering his Ford to victory in the spring and Kurt Busch following him to that hallowed ground in the No. 2 Dodge that August. Truex was the runner-up finisher in both of those races and, since this was only his sophomore season on the circuit, it was easy to predict Michigan would be one of his better tracks. The following five seasons have raised the question of how a driver could be so good for a short time and then suddenly lose the setup, however. Truex struggled for the next two and half years and failed to crack the top 15 a single time. His latest four races have been unpredictable as well, with a top 10 earned in August 2010, a 26th and 19th in last year's pair of races, and a 12th this June.

21. Brad Keselowski
Last six races average finish at Michigan: 21.00 in 6 attempts
Career avg. finish at Michigan: 21.00 in 6 attempts

Despite having the worst Michigan record among the top 10 in points, Keselowski will challenge for the victory this week and he will owe that all to momentum. He won the Quaker State 400 at Kentucky and that track bears some similarity to Michigan since both are flat unrestricted, intermediate speedways. Since then, he has a perfect streak of top 10s and has also run strong on tracks were he traditionally struggled. One of those venues was the road course of Watkins Glen and he held the lead twice on the final lap.

All Drivers: Last six races at Michigan
DriverAvg. finish (attempts)DriverAvg. finish (attempts)
1. Tony Stewart7.67 (6)21. Brad Keselowski21.00 (6)
2. Matt Kenseth8.00 (6)21. Sam Hornish Jr.21.00 (3)
3. Jeff Gordon10.33 (6)23. David Ragan21.67 (6)
4. Dale Earnhardt Jr.10.83 (6)24. Jamie McMurray 22.00 (6)
5. Clint Bowyer11.00 (6)25. Paul Menard23.00 (6)
6. Carl Edwards 11.83 (6)26. Regan Smith23.60 (5)
7. Greg Biffle 12.00 (6)27. Kurt Busch25.67 (6)
8. Kevin Harvick13.00 (6)28. Landon Cassill27.40 (5)
9. Denny Hamlin13.83 (6)29. Reed Sorenson27.50 (2)
10. Jimmie Johnson14.17 (6)30. Trevor Bayne27.67 (3)
11. Kasey Kahne 15.83 (6)31. Bobby Labonte28.33 (6)
12. Ryan Newman16.00 (6)32. Travis Kvapil 29.20 (5)
13. Kyle Busch16.17 (6)33. Casey Mears 30.67 (6)
14. Joey Logano16.83 (6)34. David Gilliland33.17 (6)
15. Juan Pablo Montoya17.00 (6)35. David Stremme33.60 (5)
16. Martin Truex Jr.17.17 (6)36. Dave Blaney35.60 (5)
17. Jeff Burton18.67 (6)37. Joe Nemechek40.00 (6)
18. David Reutimann19.20 (5)38. JJ Yeley40.60 (5)
19. Mark Martin19.50 (6)39. Scott Riggs43.00 (3)
20. Marcos Ambrose20.67 (6)39. Mike Skinner43.00 (3)

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:
June 2012: Lap 134 of 200 - 2-car accident in turn 4 (Denny Hamlin and Ryan Newman).
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.

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: 26.0

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: 9.2

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

Victory Lane

Last five winners at Michigan (starting position):
June 2012: Dale Earnhardt Jr. (17th)
August 2011: Kyle Busch (17th)
June 2011: Denny Hamlin (10th)
August 2010: Kevin Harvick (8th)
June 2010: Denny Hamlin (7th)

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 86 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)
Dale Earnhardt Jr. (2)
Tony Stewart (1)
Kyle Busch (1)
Kevin Harvick (1)
Kasey Kahne (1)

First time winners at Michigan

Dale Jarrett (1991 Champion Spark Plug 400)

Michigan vs. Auto Club (since 2009)

From the air, the two-mile tracks of Michigan and Auto Club are among the most similar on the circuit, but there are slight differences in banking and the condition of the track surface. Before it was repaved, Michigan's asphalt was weathered and tough to navigate; now that distinction passes to Auto Club. Here is a comparison of how drivers have fared on both tracks:

DriverCombined Avg.AttemptsMichiganAuto Club
Tony Stewart6.92137.576.17
Jimmie Johnson10.231315.294.33
Clint Bowyer10.311310.869.67
Matt Kenseth10.69139.7111.83
Jeff Gordon10.85139.1412.83
Carl Edwards11.231310.7111.83
Kevin Harvick12.151313.7110.33
Greg Biffle13.001311.0015.33
Kyle Busch14.691315.7113.50
Juan Pablo Montoya15.381315.4315.33
Mark Martin15.691316.8614.33
Dale Earnhardt Jr15.851311.2921.17
Ryan Newman16.541317.0016.00
Denny Hamlin16.621312.2921.67
Kasey Kahne17.151316.5717.83
Kurt Busch17.541323.1411.00
Joey Logano17.771318.0017.50
David Reutimann18.171219.1717.17
Sam Hornish Jr19.75823.0016.50
Jeff Burton20.231319.7120.83
Martin Truex Jr21.081319.8622.50
David Ragan21.311320.7122.00
Brad Keselowski21.701021.0022.75
Jamie McMurray21.851320.4323.50
Regan Smith22.401023.6021.20
Paul Menard23.921324.5723.17
Marcos Ambrose24.381322.1427.00
Casey Mears28.001329.7126.00
Trevor Bayne28.25427.67-
Travis Kvapil28.601029.2028.00
Bobby Labonte28.851328.2929.50
Reed Sorenson29.00727.3330.25
Landon Cassill29.63827.4033.33
Aric Almirola30.004-34.33
David Stremme30.44934.3322.67
David Gilliland31.771333.0030.33
Dave Blaney36.751236.3337.17
Josh Wise39.502--
JJ Yeley40.13840.6039.33
Joe Nemechek40.621340.2941.00
Scott Riggs41.20543.0038.50
Mike Skinner43.25443.25-

Beaver's Best Bets for Michigan

Winner: Brad Keselowski. From worst to first among the top 10 in points. Keselowski has momentum on his side and is willing to gamble late in the race if needed.

Dark horse top 10: Paul Menard. This team has been flirting with the top 10 for the past six races and they will break through this week. In fact, the No. 27 will be the top-performing RCR car in the Pure Michigan 400.

Don't bet on it: Martin Truex Jr. The weight of his career is against Truex finishing inside the top 10. He'll come close though, with a result in the low teens.

Beat Beaver -- Predicting the top 10

Once upon a time, this track was among the easiest to predict. With the new pavement this June, however, teams have to start rebuilding their notebooks and four of the top-10 finishers in the Quicken Loans 400 finished in the 20s in last year's Pure Michigan 400. This week will have a mixture of familiar faces and new visages at the front of the pack.

1. Brad Keselowski
2. Matt Kenseth
3. Tony Stewart
4. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
5. Kyle Busch
6. Jimmie Johnson
7. Jeff Gordon
8. Clint Bowyer
9. Ryan Newman
10. Paul Menard

LAST WEEK'S PICKS

Predicting the winner is extremely difficult each week, but it certainly pays a lot of points. Marcos Ambrose was a safe bet at the start of the weekend, but he wasn't leading when the white flag waved. The final frantic lap helped my predictions in some cases, but it hurt them in others; still, this was my second-best week since we started tracking my predictions.

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.Marcos Ambrose120
2.Kyle Busch75
3.Juan Pablo Montoya33-1
4.Tony Stewart19-1
5.Carl Edwards14-1
6.Jeff Gordon21-1
7.Brad Keselowski25
8.Joey Logano32-1
9.Jimmie Johnson35
10.Matt Kenseth85

Total points for Michigan = 35 (out of a possible perfect score of 110)

Season best: 37 points (Charlotte, May); Season worst: 2 points (Daytona, July); Season avg.: 22.9 points (12 races)

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

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