Will Michigan put a smile back on the face of Dale Earnhardt Jr. after a couple of forgettable finishes? [Jerry Markland / Getty Images for NASCAR]
Mash The Gas - Michigan Preview
by Dan Margetta and John Wiedemann
The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series makes its second and final stop of the season at the 2-mile Michigan International Speedway oval for the Pure Michigan 400. New pavement at the speedway created lightening quick speeds the first time around that were so high, Goodyear was forced to make a tire change the day before the event to slow the cars down. A recently conducted tire test should help to correct those issues this weekend which is shaping up to be a showdown between the powerhouse Roush-Fenway and Hendrick Motorsports teams. Wins are at a premium now for both current Chase contenders and those looking to join the dance via the wildcard option.
Dan Margetta: Kenseth has put together a solid string of strong runs at Michigan in recent years and he finished third here in June. The #17 team turned in a satisfying top ten run on the road course last weekend and Michigan provides a tempting opportunity to ramp up their Chase efforts. Despite racing up front all season long, Kenseth only has a single victory from the Daytona 500 to show for his efforts and Michigan is strong circuit for them to add to that total.
John Wiedemann: The fact that Kenseth is leaving Roush Fenway Racing at the end of the season will continue to be scrutinized and possibly blamed for any poor results. But even though he has had his two worst finishes of the year in the last three races, Kenseth has had seven top ten finishes including three third place runs in the eleven races since the announcement. Returning to the Roush playground of Michigan International Speedway will boost Kenseth who is in third place in the standings and only two points behind the leader.
DM: Biffle owns the best driver rating at Michigan among the active drivers and his Roush-Fenway Ford should have plenty of horsepower to get the job done. He enters Michigan just a single point behind Chase leader Jimmie Johnson but needs to add to his win total as he trails Johnson by two wins and if he can outrun his Roush-Fenway teammates, victory number two could come this weekend.
JW: Just one point out of returning to the point lead and having his most consistent season ever, Biffle is going to be a player this weekend. Battling his own teammates as well as the Hendrick organization, Biffle is likely to come out with a win and shuffle the point standings. Michigan is statistically Biffle's best chance at grabbing another win prior to the start of the Chase, so now is the time.
DM: Almost on cue, when the Chase time begins to roll around, the five-time champ bolts to the top of the standings, entering Michigan as the point leader by one over Greg Biffle and two over Matt Kenseth. The #48 team is back to its dominating ways and it's hard to find a weakness to associate with them. Perhaps the fact they've never won at Michigan could be considered a weakness, but then again, it could just as easily provide them the motivation to grab victory number four of the season.
JW: While being on top of the standings means nothing when the Chase begins, it probably means a little bit to the #48 team. Following a points penalty for body work that NASCAR disapproved and an early crash and exit from the Daytona 500 and some were counting Johnson out of making the Chase this year. Proving that reacting to one race early in the season is ridiculous, Johnson has climbed back to the top of the standings and collected three wins along the way. At this point in the season wins are all that matters to Johnson along with the bonus that they bring.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
DM: Jr. has two wins in the last four years and they've both come here at Michigan. Despite falling from the points lead to fourth place, Earnhardt should play on his popular win here in June to make a strong case to be back in victory lane at the end of the day on Sunday. Like most of the top ten drivers, Earnhardt's Chase place is relatively safe which provides some leeway to focus solely on race wins.
JW: Following his two worst finishes of the season that have dropped him from the top of the standings, Michigan couldn't come at a better time for Earnhardt Jr. Michigan provides racing that suits Junior, wide open racing with the ability to run multiple grooves. Already posting stats that are better than the last seven seasons, Junior will be having fun this weekend enhancing those stats.
DM: In my opinion, Michigan provides the best remaining opportunity for Edwards to score a race victory and put himself back into the wildcard race for the two available Chase slots. Edwards owns two Michigan victories and has the fourth best driver rating here. If Edwards finds himself anywhere other than victory lane at the end of the day on Sunday, his already weakening Chase hopes can be officially put on life support.
JW: Carl Edwards needs to look deep into his bag of tricks and find the old magic from last year and years past. Tracks like this weekend at Michigan and two weeks from now at Atlanta used to be locks for #99 and could provide Edwards with two victories and vault him into the Chase. Whatever the reason, Edwards winless season is working at proving the "second place from the previous season hangover" theory.
DM: Busch is another driver smack dab in the wildcard race, currently finding himself on the outside looking in despite leading at the white flag at Watkins Glen last weekend. It's another make or break weekend for this team that is plenty capable of capturing the win on Sunday. If TV should happen to show a close-up of Busch or any of the Gibbs Racing cars at speed, pay attention to how much the front splitter flexes as it drags the racetrack which could be key to outrunning the competition.
DM: Ambrose showed his road racing prowess last week and closed the deal to notch his expected victory which now puts him in the Chase wildcard contender category. While the only right turn at Michigan is on the way from the track to victory lane and Ambrose has never won on an oval, he did score the pole position and finish ninth here in June. He enters the weekend at 100-1 odds in Las Vegas but is riding a wave of momentum from last week's victory and with a little luck on his side could really upset the wildcard apple cart.
JW: A long-shot is probably anyone but a Roush Fenway Racing or Hendrick Motorsports driver this weekend. So, I will take a somewhat Roush driver driving for the Wood Brothers. He doesn't have great results at Michigan in only three runs but did qualify seventh in the first race at Michigan this year. He then ran seven laps, lost his engine and finished 43rd. What's better than a worst to first pick for a long-shot?
DM: There is no such thing as point racing over the next four weeks as The Chase approaches. With the top ten drivers basically set in their position, their main focus will be to add to their win totals in order to earn a favorable seed once the Chase begins. That coupled with the drivers in points positions 11th through 20th needing victories just to get into the Chase, winning will be at a premium which should result in conservative thinking being thrown out the window in favor of chance taking and gambling strategies to secure precious race wins.
Wild Card Watch
by John Wiedemann
Following Watkins Glen the Wild Card standings are:
They are in (for now):
Kasey Kahne, 2 wins, 653 points
Ryan Newman, 1 win, 644 pts
Need points but a win would put them in:
Kyle Busch, 1 win, 638 pts
Jeff Gordon, 1 win, 634 pts
Marcos Ambrose, 1 win, 600 pts
Joey Logano, 1 win, 587 pts
Need a win plus:
Carl Edwards, 0 wins, 650 pts
Paul Menard, 0 wins, 629 pts
Jeff Burton, 0 wins, 541 pts
Jamie McMurray, 0 wins, 541 pts
Kahne continues to be the King of the Wild Cards but following him in the standings, almost everything has changed.
One lap at Watkins Glen was all it took to mix up the wildcard race. Consider the following "ifs".
If Kyle Busch hadn't spun after contact with Brad Keselowski, he could have won the race. If Busch had won, he would be in the second Wild Card position with nine more points than he has right now.
If Jeff Gordon hadn't spun in oil on the last lap, finishing 21st, he still would be in the second wild card position just ahead of the driver that currently occupies that spot, Ryan Newman.
If NASCAR had thrown the caution for oil on the track, who knows what the standings would look like.
If Ambrose wouldn't have won the race, he would be a much longer long shot to make the Chase than he is right now.
If Brad Keselowski would have won, he would be the top seeded driver heading into the Chase.
If, if, if.
Top Ten still possible? Probably not. Kahne closed to within forty points of tenth place in the standings, currently held by the falling Denny Hamlin. That would mean that Kahne has to finish at least ten positions better than Hamlin in each of the next four races. It is not out of the realm of possibility for that to happen but highly unlikely. Even if it did happen, the chances for other drivers to make the chase wouldn't change. Now, if Kevin Harvick would fall out of the top ten, that would make things interesting, but again highly unlikely.