Mash The Gas: Michigan Preview

NASCAR visits the Michigan International Speedway which has become one of the fastest tracks on the circuit. [credit Robert Laberge/Getty Images]

by Dan Margetta and John Wiedemann

The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series makes its first stop in the Irish Hills of Michigan as the Michigan International Speedway hosts the Firekeepers Casino 400 on Sunday afternoon.

Michigan is a two mile oval that traditionally features four and at times five abreast racing due to its wide configuration which opens up multiple lanes to race in. A recent repave has brought increased speeds at Michigan and this will be the first race with the tweaked aerodynamic rules that will reduce downforce and sideforce significantly. Teams will no longer be able to skew the cars over to the right side and a reduction on the front splitter will mean the drivers will barrel into the corners at 190+ mph without any aerodynamic safety net which should bring driving talent to the forefront.

Also, the Michigan International Speedway is located in the heart of the U.S. auto industry and car manufacturer victories are bragging rights which brings extra attention on the Michigan event and here are some drivers to watch…

Kevin Harvick (Dan Margetta)

Kevin Harvick already owns a victory at Michigan but it is his recent record here that stands out as he has finished second in five of the last six races held at Michigan. Throw in the fact the chassis he will be driving on Sunday has finished in the top two in five of its eight starts and Kevin Harvick immediately becomes a favorite to win on Sunday. He is listed at 5-1 odds and should adapt quite well to the tweaked aerodynamic rules as well. Plus, Kevin Harvick has Rodney Childers calling the shots from the pits who has been one of the most successful at adapting to rules changes. Kevin Harvick has to be getting tired of being the bridesmaid at Michigan and Sunday presents a great opportunity to finish one position higher and grab another win for 2016.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. (John Wiedemann)

Nine drivers have now won in the Sprint Cup Series in 2016, leaving seven spots available in the Chase. There are still 12 races to go before the Chase and Dale Earnhardt Jr is third among drivers yet to win this year. Normally, Michigan is a track that you expect Junior to be in contention for a win but this is a different place to race with the new aero rules. Earnhardt has shown to handle the new rules well and has been close to winning with four runner-up finishes including last weekend. I expect Earnhardt to continue to adapt well to the rules package and return to victory lane this weekend at Michigan. One thing to watch for is how well the 88 team unloads and runs early in the weekend. With the new rules and limited practice, teams that are quick early should be at the front on Sunday.

Matt Kenseth (DM)

Matt Kenseth is another driver with an impressive Michigan streak going as he has finished seventh or better in his last four races here including capturing a victory in the August race last year. Overall Kenseth has three Michigan victories to go along with a whopping fourteen top five finishes and twenty top ten results. He also owns the best Driver Rating at the 2-mile oval and is listed at 7-1 odds to win this weekend. Also, Matt Kenseth is another driver who stands to benefit from the rules adjustments which puts more emphasis on input and talent from the seat where he is one of the best at communicating what the car needs. Matt Kenseth and the #20 team have been among the players to win the last few weeks and the strong runs should continue this week at Michigan.

Joey Logano (JW)

Still looking for that first 2016 win is Joey Logano. Last week seemed to be a possibility after qualifying on the front row. Logano ran well early and led laps, eventually ending up with a fifth place finish – is fourth top five of the season. Since the his All-Star race win, Logano stayed hot with two top ten runs. Logano has a win, a pole, three top five and nine top ten finishes in fourteen races at Michigan so he has no problem running up front on the two mile oval. Look for another top five this weekend and a shot at the win for the Team Penske driver.

Kurt Busch (DM)

Last week’s Pocono winner, Kurt Busch, is currently riding a streak of eight straight top ten finishes and has a series leading twelve top ten finishes in the fourteen races completed in 2016. Busch is listed at 12-1 odds this weekend at Michigan where he owns three victories to go along with five top five finishes and ten top ten results. Also, Kurt Busch is the defending champion of this race, having taken the victory here at Michigan last June. Kurt Busch and the #41 team have been strong all season to date and their win last weekend gives them even more momentum heading into Michigan. Plus, Kurt Busch is a wheelman who thrives on conditions that should arise from the decreased downforce and sideforce on the cars. Don’t be surprised if Kurt Busch pulls off back to back victories on Sunday.

Carl Edwards (JW)

Carl Edwards has two wins at Michigan International Speedway and a series leading average finish of 9.636. The Joe Gibbs Racing team has been quiet for a while now being missing from victory lane for two points paying races and the All-Star race. Michigan could be the return to grabbing the checkered flag for JGR and Edwards is just the driver to do it. His teammates are no slouches either with another six victories at Michigan between them. But, I think it is going to be Edwards leading the pack in his #19 Toyota. If I wasn’t already picking Dale Jr., Carl Edwards would be my pick for the win – and he just may be the one in victory lane on Sunday.

Chase Elliott (DM)

Through the first fourteen races of 2016 it has become clear that Chase Elliott’s first victory is a matter of ‘when’ and not ‘if.’ Elliott has posted top ten finishes in ten of the fourteen races this season and was in strong contention to win last weekend at Pocono. Elliott is also riding a streak of five consecutive top ten finishes and finished sixth in California, a track somewhat similar to Michigan. Elliott’s Xfinity Series races at Michigan were pretty good as well as he finished sixth and second last year. Elliott is listed at enticing 18-1 odds to win at Michigan. With everyone pretty much even this weekend with the new rules, Chase Elliott has a great opportunity to break through for his first victory on Sunday.

Austin Dillon (JW)

Austin Dillon kicked off the 2016 campaign with six top ten finishes in the first eleven races. Since then the results haven’t been very good, including his meeting with the wall last weekend. If there is a track for Dillon to turn things around, it is the Michigan International Speedway. Michigan is one of the tracks, Texas being the other, where Dillon has the most experience with seven starts. Michigan is also one of the best tracks for Dillon for qualifying and he has his third best average starting position at the big track. I predict a turnaround for Dillon this weekend and a solid top ten finish. Dillon is in the middle of the pack of seven drivers currently in the Chase but without a win. Even though he is in the middle, Dillon is just 14 points ahead of AJ Allmendinger who is in 17th, one position out of the Chase. Now is the time for Dillon to return to early season success.

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