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Michigan 400 Preview

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After 14 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series races, I can say with a joyful happiness that I have absolutely loved the way this season is going. Between more competitive cars in the mix, the stages making all portions of the race important and then amazing storylines being built weekly that daisy-chains into each race, we've got some compelling television happening an its easy to follow like a primetime soap opera.

I can't say that it's been my most profitable betting year so far and part of that is because it's so competitive. But I don't mind because I'm still enjoying the races.

For instance, I love the fact that Ryan Newman broke a slump by winning at Phoenix. I also like the superstars like Jimmie Johnson getting his three wins. Most of all, I like seeing first-time winners. We've had three in the past five races -- Ricky Stenhouse Jr at Talladega, Austin Dillon at Charlotte and Ryan Blaney last week at Pocono.

Joe Gibbs Racing still doesn't have a win, nor does Kevin Harvick who is in a Ford for the first time in his career.

All those storylines tie into Sunday's FireKeepers Casino 400 at Michigan International Speedway. What's accentuated even more here is the manufacturer battle since Motown is right over the Irish Hills where this 2-mile D-Shaped oval rests. All the executives from Ford, Chevrolet and Toyota are on hand for their own little battle and the brands.

And Yes, Toyota is an American brand with the Camry made in Georgetown, KY where $1.3 billion was just reinvested by the company. However, thy newcomers are way down the list on the manufacturer winners board that has been updated twice a year since the former Penske track debuted in 1969. Ford leads all with 35 wins, including one by Joey Logano in this race last season. Chevrolet has 24 wins, including Kyle Larson's first career win in the fall last season. Toyota has five wins.

Let's take a look at each of the manufacturers chances to win Sunday's race.

CHEVROLET: Even though Jimmie Johnson is a seven-time champion which the Chevy executives regularly brag about, the best guy in a bow-tie this week is expected to be Kyle Larson has has won the last two races on 2-mile layouts. Penske also built California Speedway and Larson grabbed his only win of the season there in March. He deserves to be the lone favorite here because he obviously loves this type of track with the wide sweeping turns and lots of room.

The funny thing about Larson winning at Michigan and California is the appearance of a correlation hasn't been the case with Johnson, who has six wins on his home track in Fontana but only one victory at Michigan (2014). That's 30 starts and only one win for Johnson. Dale Earnhardt Jr. has traditionally liked this track over his career with two wins, but after his emotional meltdown on camera last week at Pocono I'm rethinking my position on him winning any race this season. However, his teammate Chase Elliott is another story. He finished second in both Michigan races last season. Chevrolet has six of the 14 wins this season.

TOYOTA: All is going well for Martin Truex Jr. in a Toyota developed by Joe Gibbs Racing. He's had the most consistent horsepower this season and should give Larson his biggest test. Truex has two wins this season, and has the most series points (584) and most playoff points (18). He's had five top-five finishes in 22 starts. The crazy part is that those two wins this season by Truex are the only wins for Toyota. Joe Gibbs Racing's main four drivers have yet to take a checkered flag. They're expecting to get their new package dialed in by the time the playoffs start, but there are signs of being much better lately, especially Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth.

Busch's lone Michigan win came in 2011, but he hasn't had a top-10 there in his last seven starts. In five of those seven starts he's finished 31st of worse. It's been a rough stretch for him there and much of the blame he places on the resurfacing of the asphalt in 2012.

“Regardless of new pavement or not, it’s wide-open racing, and you can run from top to bottom more and more every race there as the groove widens out," Kyle Busch said earlier this week. "The biggest thing used to be to find grip there. But with the new surface, there is a ton of grip now. Before, you had grip for maybe five laps, and then you’d just be out to lunch. But now, the tire wear is all out the window and the racetrack is very fast. And the wide racetrack is good. That’s what makes Michigan so exciting and so fun. That’s the biggest deal about it.”

It's kind of funny because this Michigan pavement has really gotten into Busch's head. I've forgotten that it's been 10 races since the repave, which should be more than enough time for a great driver like Busch to acclimate.

Kenseth is the last Toyota driver to win at Michigan. He did it in the fall of 2015 giving him three wins in 35 starts. His 10.3 average finish is tops among all active drivers with at least three starts. Denny Hamlin is also a two-time winner at Michigan.

FORD: These guys have had a rebirth this season with Jack Roush getting a win, Stewart Haas Racing being competitive; winning the Daytona 500 and Penske Racing getting three wins out of Michigan native Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano while also providing the same equipment for the Wood Brothers famed No. 21 that went to the winners circle last week at Pocono with Ryan Blaney getting his first career win. All this and Kevin Harvick still doesn't have a win yet.

Harvick's only Michigan win came in 2010 while he drove an RCR Chevy, but his current Michigan run has been incredible with five runner-ups in his last eight starts. Last season he was fifth in both races. His teammate, Kurt Busch, has three Michigan wins with the last coming in the spring of 2015. Another SHR Ford to keep tabs on is Clint Bowyer who raced his tail off at Fontana to finish third.

Keselowski has been so close to wining at his home track. It's one of the top items on his career bucket list to check off. His best finish was runner-up in 2012. He's finished ninth or better in his last six starts, including fourth and third last season. Logano has been on a similarly great Michigan run with a top-10 in eight straight races, which also includes two wins. His current form is a bit puzzling, though. Both these guys have excelled in the 10 races since the repave.

If Blaney's speed on the longest straightaway in NASCAR at Pocono was good enough to win there then it's only going to help here. With the win and the team feeling confident, this really is a car as good as the two Penske cars.

Happy Father's Day to all the Dad's out there. Have your boys grab you a cold one and watch the Michigan race together.

Top-5 Finish Prediction:

1) #42 Kyle Larson (6/1)
2) #2 Brad Keselowski (8/1)
3) #78 Martin Truex Jr. (7/1)
4) #20 Matt Kenseth (12/1)
5) #4 Kevin Harvick (8/1)

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