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Michigan 400 Preview

 

We can expect to see some different type of racing this week at Michigan International Raceway that may provide a different type of winner thanks to NASCAR reducing the 2016 low downforce package even more. The spoiler will be reduced from 3.5 inches to 2.5 inches and the splitter will be cut down two inches. The trial package will also run at Kentucky Speedway on July 9, which is where the new low down force package was introduced last season.
 
Joe Gibbs Racing was way ahead of the game when last season when the first set of changes were made and they continued that run this year winning seven of the eight races prior to Kurt Busch winning at Pocono on Monday. They still will likely have an edge this week, but it's possible that several other organizations could benefit. The cars will be looser around the corners putting even more of a premium on drivers ability to handle their cars on entry and exits.
 
So before we get into drivers who have a nice past history at Michigan and who are rolling right now, we should probably identify a couple drivers that handle loose cars very well. A few off the top of my head that fit the criteria over recent years are Dale Earnhartdt Jr, Kasey Kahne, Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards and Brad Keselowski. The looser, the better for them.    
 
The thing I like about races at the fast and wide 2-mile D-shaped oval of Michigan is that manufacturers take center stage with it being in the backyard of Motor City. All the executives from Chevrolet, Ford and Toyota root their brand loud and proud with hopes of making it to the winners circle.
 
The Ford executives have done the most cheering with 34 Michigan wins all-time, but none since 2013. The guys in bow-ties have won 23 times, including three of the past four. Toyota, the new guys on the block who make its Camry brand in Georgetown, Kentucky, have won five times, including the last race there (Matt Kenseth) in August.
 
Michigan is the sister track of California Speedway, where Jimmie Johnson won at in March, but the two tracks don't really race alike, or at least results comparison between the two over the years don't suggest it. Johnson has six wins in 22 starts at his home track in California, but his 2014 win at Michigan is his only victory there in 28 starts. He's the extreme example of the two tracks not really being the same, although looking identical. 
 
One of the links we can look at is the success of Kevin Harvick over the years at both places. He's only got one win at each, 2010 at Fontana and 2011 at Michigan while driving for Richard Childress Racing. Since moving to Stewart Haas Racing in 2014, he's been on an incredible run at both places. No wins, but a whole bunch of runner-ups. I mean, like a whole bunch.
 
He's finished second in the past two Fontana races, including leading the most laps (142) in March. At Michigan, he's been second in five of the past six races there. The only time he didn't finish second over that span was last June in the rain-shortened event when he led a race-high 63 laps but a flat tire late led to a 29th-place finish.
 
Harvick only has one win this season (Phoenix), but he's had three other second-place finishes. He had his momentum derailed a bit last season when the package was introduced at Kentucky, but I think his obvious affection for the track will give him edge this week.
 
The most consistent performer over the years has been Edwards with a 9.6 average finish in 23 starts that includes two wins, but most that success came with driving for Jack Roush who has a track-best 13 wins as an owner on his home track. Kenseth also won twice for Roush before winning last winning fall for JGR. His 10.1 average finish in 33 starts is second-best to Edwards. Greg Biffle leads all active drivers with four wins, the last coming in 2013, which was also his last top-five there.
 
Earnhardt Jr. has two Michigan wins and comes off a solid second-place run at Pocono, his fourth runner-up of the season. The horsepower required at Pocono is also a necessity at Michigan, so it's not a bad idea to look at Monday's results to add into any betting equation this week.
 
Chase Elliott came home with his fifth top-five of the season Monday and had the look of a winner. He's got 10 top-10s this season -- only two drivers have more (Harvick 11, Kurt Busch 12). He's the most polished rookie I've seen in NASCAR since Jimmie Johnson won three races as a rookie in 2002.
 
Joey Logano has been ninth or better in his past six Michigan races, including a 2013 win. Surprisingly, he's still winless this season after having a series high six wins in 2015. He made the transition to the new package nicely last season being the only non-JGR driver to crack the top-5 at Kentucky.
 
Penske teammate Keselowski could be a nice look this week as he wants to win on his home track more than any other. He had a career-best third-place in 2011 and 2014 and is on a run of finishing 13th or better in nine straight there. He's already got two wins this season and he'll be excited about the new package.
 
Kurt Busch won this race last season (rain shortened), his third at Michigan. It was his last win until Monday at Pocono. He has been amazing example of consistency this season with a series leading 12 top-10s. I expect his teammate Harvick to be very good Sunday and Busch to be almost as sharp.
 
The final piece of the handicapping equation won't come until Saturday's final two practices, but I'm feeling good early on about Harvick to finally crack the win column after so many second-place finishes.         
 
Top-5 Finish Prediction:

1) #4 Kevin Harvick (7/1)
2) #20 Matt Kenseth (8/1)
3) #78 Martin Truex Jr. (8/1)
4) #2 Brad Keselowski (10/1)
5) #20 Joey Logano (10/1)

  
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