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Mash The Gas: NASCAR Michigan Preview

Kyle Larson and Martin Truex Jr. lead a pack of cars during at Michigan International Speedway. [Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images]

Kyle Larson and Martin Truex Jr. lead a pack of cars during at Michigan International Speedway. [Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images]

by Dan Margetta and John Wiedemann

The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series rolls into the Irish Hills of Michigan for the second time in 2017 as the Michigan International Speedway hosts the Pure Michigan 400 Sunday afternoon.

Pure Michigan 400
Michigan International Speedway
400 miles (200 laps)
Sunday, August 13
3 p.m. ET
NBCSN, 2:30 p.m. ET
MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Stage 1 (Ends on lap 60),
Stage 2 (Ends on lap 120)
Final Stage (Ends on lap 200)
Michigan is a wide two mile oval that provides many racing grooves and it’s getting to be crunch time for drivers who have yet to qualify for the playoffs. With 14 different winners this season and 13 of the 16 spots available already occupied by winners (Joey Logano’s Richmond win was encumbered) the importance of getting to victory lane has never been greater. Right now just three drivers will qualify for the playoffs on points and should another different winner emerge this weekend, the battle for the final playoff spots really intensifies.

With its fairly new smooth surface, Michigan is currently the fastest track the series competes at as the cars are allowed to run unrestricted and the two mile oval’s wide design offers multiple options for drivers to find the fast way around. Throw in the potential for lengthy green flag runs and suddenly fuel mileage becomes a factor as well, even with stage racing.

A multitude of story lines await the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series drivers as the Michigan International Speedway hosts the Pure Michigan 400 Sunday and here are some drivers to watch…

Kyle Larson (Dan Margetta)
Kyle Larson has won the last three races held on two mile high banked ovals as he was the victor at California earlier this year and has won this race the last two years in a row. That makes him an easy 3-1 favorite this weekend as he has pretty much been good just about everywhere in 2017. Michgian’s wide track fits Kyle Larson’s style perfectly as he is known to use every inch of a racetrack in search of the fastest groove. A possible side trip on Saturday night to Knoxville, Iowa to race in the Knoxville Nationals sprint car event could provide extra motivation or could become a distraction. With Martin Truex Jr. and the #78 team stealing some of Larson and the #42 team’s thunder in recent weeks, Michigan represents a prime opportunity to re-establish themselves as the top team on the circuit. Look for Kyle Larson to be one of the drivers to beat on Sunday in the Pure Michigan 400.

Martin Truex Jr. (John Wiedemann)
With four wins this season, Martin Truex Jr. is taking the series by storm. Truex has been adding up the playoff points and after his victory at Watkins Glen, he has a series leading 34. With those points, Truex could skate through to the season ending championship race at Homestead. Still looking to find victory lane at Michigan, Truex has eight top ten and five top five finishes at the two mile oval. Back in June Truex led 62 laps and finished sixth at Michigan. Once again, just like everywhere this season, Truex will be a threat to win and a threat to take home all the playoff points and not share with anyone else.

Chase Elliott (DM)
In the beginning of the year it was a question of “when” Chase Elliott would get his first victory, but summer slump has taken him out of the limelight a bit. Last week at Watkins Glen was a prime example of how Elliott’s fortunes have been the last few weeks, as he qualified fourth, led laps, but faded to a 13th place finish at the end. Elliott is qualified for the playoffs by points at the moment but is by no means safe as there are a lot of good drivers still searching for their first victory this season. Elliott’s record at Michigan is outstanding as he has finished second in all three races he has run here (the last two to eventual winner Kyle Larson). Ellliott is listed at 10-1 odds this weekend and he will be looking to unseat Kyle Larson to get that elusive first Monster Energy Cup Series victory on Sunday.

Dale Earnhardt Jr (JW)
Buried back in 23rd in the point standings, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has one opportunity to save a disappointing final season in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. Junior needs a win. Could that happen this weekend at Michigan? Other than a restrictor plate track, Michigan would be the track that Earnhardt can make that happen. Junior has two wins, eight top fives, fifteen top tens and two poles at the big oval. His average finish of 13th is seventh best amongst the current drivers. But of all those stats, the only one that matters is wins. This isn’t the end of the line if Junior doesn’t win, there are three more races after Michigan and Dale has won at two of those Bristol and Richmond. Plus a Darlington win would be the storybook finish that NASCAR is looking for. But why wait? Michigan is the place to get it done.

Matt Kenseth (DM)
Matt Kenseth is one of the desperate drivers without a win this season to date and currently sitting on the edge of making the playoff cut. He’s come close to winning this season, including an unlikely second place finish on the road course last week, and his Michigan track record is pretty good as well with three victories and fourteen top five finishes. Kenseth also doesn’t have a job lined up for next season and without a major sponsor in his pocket, he’ll have to rely on performance to obtain a competitive ride Kenseth averages a tenth place finish at Michigan and he was 11th here in the spring but that was before the recent Toyota speed resurgence which should put him in a favorable spot on Sunday. Matt Kenseth is listed at attractive 18-1 odds this weekend and should not be forgotten when looking for favorites for the Pure Michigan 400.

Joey Logano (JW)
The bad luck and bad finishes just seems to keep piling up on Joey Logano this season. Since his “encumbered” win at Richmond, it has been pretty much a downhill ride. Logano has three top ten finishes in the thirteen races since Richmond and has an average finish this season of 16th, his worst since 2012. Now for the good news. In 17 races at Michigan, Logano has two wins, five top five and 12 top ten finishes with an average finish of 12.1. Logano scored his best finish of the summer with a third place run at Michigan in June. If he can’t get the win this weekend, the next three races prior to the playoffs are pretty good tracks for him as well. But this is the place to get it done, of course the same can be said for Earnhardt, Kenseth and Bowyer.

Brad Keselowski (DM)
Brad Keselowski returns to Michigan still searching for his first win at his hometown track. Michigan is extra special to Keselowski and he has had five top five finishes and eight top tens here despite not having a victory. Keselowski is already qualified for the playoffs and is listed at 18-1 odds this weekend. The motivation with wanting to score the hometown victory should give both driver and team a boost this weekend and he should be considered a favorite. With his contract extension now finalized and behind him, the focus on the #2 team is to begin a strong run well into the playoffs and it could start with a coveted hometown victory at Michigan this weekend.

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Dan Margetta

Dan Margetta