As the season winds down with only four races to the chase remaining, we’re going to start seeing more tracks that we’ve visited already this season. This week it’s off to Michigan where manufacturer pride usually takes center stage, but this year’s second event is more about the Chase and all the scenarios with who will be one of the final 12 drivers to make it.
But just to keep track of where the manufacturers stand lately at Michigan, something the big three from the Motor City may try to down play, Toyota has won three of the last four there.
Denny Hamlin has won two of the last three races and his victory this year remains his only win of the season which has given him a slim lead for the final wild card spot in the chase. Without that win, Hamlin would behind two other drivers for the position. When Hamlin won the Michigan race, the perception among just about everyone was that he was back and the season long slump was over.
Hamlin had always dominated on tracks like Martinsville, Richmond and Pocono over his brief career, but couldn’t get it done in 2011. Winning at Michigan allowed the team to catch their breath and believe they were on the right path to success, but the very next week at Sonoma, Hamlin laid an egg with a 37th-place finish. He’s had only one top-10 finish since Michigan, a span of seven races.
However, things should be different this time around for Hamlin while also remaining the same. The same part lies within Hamlin’s consistency at Michigan. Only Carl Edwards (6.2) and Matt Kenseth (9.5) have a better average finish at Michigan than Hamlin (10.0). Sandwiched in between Hamlin’s two wins was a runner-up finish in this race last season.
Kenseth finished runner-up to Hamlin in June and at times looked to have the best car that day despite Greg Biffle leading the most laps. Kenseth led three times for 17 laps; only third-place finisher Kyle Busch led as times during the race. Over his career, Kenseth is a two-time Michigan winner with the last coming in 2006. He comes from the long line of Ford domination at the track that car owner Jack Roush considers home.
This week, Kenseth will be using his fifth-place Brickyard chassis, the same car that won at Texas and finished runner-up in the June Michigan race.
Roush-Fenway Racing have won 11 times at Michigan, tied for the most with the Wood brothers, but a Ford hasn't won there since 2008 with Edwards.
Edwards, like Kenseth, is also a two-time winner at Michigan and it was track where he made his NASCAR Sprint Cup debut. No matter what type of stretch Edwards is going through, you can pretty much expect a top-five out of him at Michigan. In 14 career starts, Edwards has nine top-five finishes. He'll be using his fifth-place Kentucky chassis this week.
Biffle is the third-stringer in the Roush stable, who is looking for his first win of the year and also sports two Michigan wins like his teammates. He’s in prime position to overtake Hamlin for the final wild card spot should he get a win and you had better believe that Roush will make every attempt to have Biffle‘s car as equally set-up as Edwards and Kenseth for this race because of Biffle‘s situation. This is the perfect place for Biffle to make up ground and get into the Chase.
Although David Ragan doesn’t have the Michigan credentials that his Roush teammates do, he does have something that Biffle doesn’t which is a win. One more win and he’ll pass Hamlin for the wild card with two wins on the season. He’s currently 23rd in points, but a win would move him up rapidly into the top-20 making him eligible. Just like Biffle, expect Roush to make special considerations for Ragan’s car this week in an attempt to push him into the final wild card spot with two wins. Ragan’s best finish at Michigan was third-place in 2008.
The strangest oddity dealing with this track is that Jimmie Johnson has never won on it, one of five on the circuit that the five-time champ has yet to win on. Michigan is so similar to its sister track in Fontana where Johnson dominates at, but Michigan has been barely out of reach. His last top-five at Michigan was third-place in 2007. He'll be trying for his best finish with a pretty good car this week. It last raced at Kansas where he finished third.
Look for a Roush Ford to win the race with Hamlin and the Busch brothers not too far behind. A solid long shot to take notice of is Paul Menard who will be using the same car that finished fourth in the June Michigan race.
Starting position has always been a key to winning at Michigan. Sixty-Five of the 84 races have been won from a top-10 start position with 46 winners coming from the top four spots. The double-file restarts make it easier for drivers to move up the last couple of years, but nevertheless, it does reveal that qualifying well is important, maybe more so than other similar tracks.
Top-5 Finish Prediction:
1) #17 Matt Kenseth (10/1)
2) #16 Greg Biffle (15/1)
3) #11 Denny Hamlin (12/1)
4) #99 Carl Edwards (6/1)
5) #2 Kurt Busch (10/1)