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Pure Michigan 400

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Things are getting pretty intense with only four races to until the 16-drivers are announced for the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Playoffs, but I'm looking ahead to 2018 right now and the climate of the Cup Series.

Hendrick Motorsports is losing Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne and will replace them with two very young drivers, Alex Bowman and William Byron. They'll join Chase Elliott in his third year and then of course there's the anchor, seven-time champ Jimmie Johnson.

That's a new look, a new flavor, and a new taste for NASCAR. But there's lots more.

Kurt Busch likely won't return to the No. 41 and Matt Kenseth won't be back in the No. 20 as Erik Jones takes over. Paul Menard will leave the No. 27 and drive the No. 21 after Ryan Blaney accepted the Team Penske offer to drive a third car -- the No. 12. Danica Patrick may be a sitting duck as well in the No. 10. She barely found enough sponsorship coming into 2017. At some point Tony Stewart is going to want to see that division of his team win some races; the sponsors too. That's why she may be out.

With Stewart, Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards and Earnhardt Jr. gone, can the series survive? The stands have been empty everywhere with the exception of Watkins Glen being sold out last week for the third straight year.

I hate to be that crusty old man who can't move on and lives in yesterday's world -- I don't apologize for feeling the same way with music. I think I just see some reluctance from the drivers this season to show some emotion. Kyle Busch exploded in Las Vegas while chasing Joey Logano on pit row, and got bloodied in the process, but it was awesome. And that was it. Las Vegas was race No. 3 and we're at No. 23 now. Snooze....

I don't want wrecks. I want personality conflicts and these guys all seem too chummy in the garage for that to happen.

Alright, enough whining already, let's talk about this week's race.

Sunday's Pure Michigan 400 will be the second visit to Michigan International Speedway this season. The first visit was June 18 with Kyle Larson picking up his second straight win on the 2-mile layout. All three of his career wins have been on 2-mile tracks and they've all been in a row. His other win this season came in March at California Speedway, the sister-track to Michigan.

Though the two tracks are almost identical from afar, they race very differently. But let's take a look at who has been the best combined at these 2-mile tracks. Chase Elliott has a 4.4 average finish in five career starts, including runner-up at Michigan in June. Elliott has three starts at Michigan and he's finished in second-place in all three.

“It’s great," said Chase Elliott of racing at Michigan. "It’s also frustrating to have run second every time we have been there. It’s good I guess that we are inside the top five the past few times we have been there, but at the same time that is frustrating to have been pretty close to having a shot to win there, which would have been very big if we could have pulled that out. I like Michigan. I’ve always liked going up there. I really love that area. It’s just a cool part of the United States to go to. I like it up there – it’s a nice area and that is kind of why I like going.”

The last two races at Michigan had a Larson-Elliott exacta, which can actually be wagered upon weekly at Nevada sports books that offer U.S. Fantasy Sports. It's just like the horses, except with NASCAR saddle numbers. Having exotic wagers like a daily double and different exacta pools to bet upon, it really adds another element to watching the race.

Joey Logano has a 5.2 average finish, a win and a series leading five top-5s on the two 2-mile tracks over the last eight races, then it's his teammate Brad Keselowski next with 6.2 average finish that includes a win. Logano has two Michigan wins (2013, 2015) and was third in the June race. He's outside looking in on the playoffs and is going to need a win to qualify. This seems like his best chance to get it of the four tracks remaining before judgment day and he's being offered at 20/1 odds at the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook.

Unfortunately for Michigan native Keselowski, his win on 2-mile track came at Fontana in 2015. He's been giving everything he has in all 16 career starts at his home track, but has yet to take the checkers. However, he's been so close on several occasions with a best of runner-up in the fall of 2012. He's also been third three times, including this race last season. The Westgate is giving him 18/1 odds because they're so top heavy with Busch, Larson and Truex probabilities.

A desperate driver who is barely hanging on to that 16th and final slot in the playoffs is Matt Kenseth, who is the active leader -- among drivers with at least four starts -- at Michigan with a 10.3 average finish, three wins and 14 top-5s in 36 starts. His last win there was this race in 2015. Kenseth is 18/1 to win this week.

It's worth noting that from the June race Kenseth finished 11th and his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates were even better. Kyle Busch led the third most laps (40) and finished seventh and Denny Hamlin finished fourth. It's safe to say that JGR horsepower power struggle on big tracks is a thing of the past and they're ready for the playoffs -- with five 1.5-mile tracks among the 10 playoff tracks.

One driver that disproves any theory suggesting California and Michigan are similar is Jimmie Johnson. He's won six times at California, but a 2014 Michigan win was his first there. He's had several instances there where he had the best car on the track and issues arose -- and they a wide-array of weird things keeping him from getting a Michigan trophy; fuel, gremlins, tires. He's the active leader with 674 laps led between 31 starts. He was 10th in June and sixth in this race last season.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. has two wins at Michigan and I'd love to see him get one here, but I still can't take the 60/1 odds offered. He's got four whacks to make the playoffs and I'm not optimistic.

“It’s been a struggle, but we have faced worse seasons," Earnhardt said. "We can’t wait to be back to work at Michigan. It’s typically a really good track for us.”

I don't want to see Junior go down like this so I'll be rooting for No. 88 loudly, but let it be noted I'm not spending any cash on him to win if that tells you anything about my confidence level.

Top-5 Finish Prediction:

1) #2 Brad Keselowski (18/1)
2) #20 Matt Kenseth (18/1)
3) #42 Kyle Larson (3/1)
4) #22 Joey Logano (20/1)
5) #18 Kyle Busch (3/1)

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