who to avoid at Michigan
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This week we’re heading to Michigan International Speedway for the Quicken Loans 400, meaning we will get to see the cars go around this D-shaped oval 200 times to determine the winner. For the second week in a row, though, the track has been re-paved from the last time that the series was here. Let’s just hope there isn’t as much drama as we saw in Pocono. MIS is one of just two 2-mile race tracks on the circuit for the Sprint Cup Series, with the other being Auto Club Speedway. In case you forgot, Tony Stewart won the rain-shortened race there earlier this season. Full results of the Auto Club 400 in March can be found by clicking here.
During the Last Race at Michigan: Kyle Busch grabbed his first victory at the track despite the fact that pole-sitter Greg Biffle was out front the most that day (he ended up finishing 20th–the story of his season). Jimmie Johnson, Brad Keselowski, Mark Martin, and Ryan Newman rounded out the top 5 that day. Jeff Gordon, who led 50 laps that day, finished 6th.
Practice Schedule: We’re looking at pretty much the same schedule for three weeks in a row, which is good for Yahoo! Auto Racing players because you get to see the cars on the track before locking in your rosters. On Friday there will be two practice sessions: the first one starting at 12:30 pm and then “Happy Hour” beginning at 3:30 pm. Qualifying will then be held on Saturday afternoon (1 pm start) with the 2012 Quicken Loans 400 scheduled to begin around 1:15 pm on Sunday.
Top Fifteen Ranking Entering The Quicken Loans 400:
1. Jimmie Johnson – No surprise here. It’s crazy how bad fast this #48 Chevrolet has been over the last month of Sprint Cup Series action, and it’s even crazier that this team overcame starting 24th and two pit road speeding penalties in Pocono to finish 4th. There’s no doubt in my mind that Chad Knaus will have this car hooked up once again this weekend in Michigan and Johnson should have a chance at grabbing his first career victory at this track (crazy to think he hasn’t won here, isn’t it?). As I said before, Five Time finished runner-up here last fall, and this #48 was a top 5 car all race back in March in Fontana but had engine problems (I think that’s what it was) and was saved by the rain and salvaged a 10th-place finish (here’s the Yahoo! chart). Johnson’s history at this track leaves much to be desired–15.2 average finish over twenty career starts–but can you really go against a team this hot right now? I did last week and that didn’t turn out so well. Johnson has been the man on the intermediate tracks this season and that shouldn’t change on Sunday. Sorry to sound like a broken record over the last month and a half or so, but Jimmie Johnson is my early pick to win at Michigan on Sunday. He leads all active drivers (those with 20 starts or less here) in laps led at this track.
2. Greg Biffle – With his lost cylinder in Pocono, that makes four disappointing finishes out of the Biff over the last six Sprint Cup races. Will that continue this weekend in Michigan? I wouldn’t count on it. This if Biffle’s fourth-best track on the circuit and he has recorded ten top 10s in eighteen career starts, seven of which were top 5s, and two of them being victories (in 2004 and 2005). He really had awesome cars in both races here last season, but if you remember anything about The Biff’s 2011 campaign, you know why his finishes were 15th and 20th. He led 68 and 86 laps in those two races, though, and had driver ratings of 121.5 and 112.5. As you can probably imagine, Biffle has had the best driver rating over the last two years at Michigan (114.2) and his 6th-place finish in the rain-shortened race at Fontana back in March was no fluke (Yahoo! chart here). Will we see a second win by the #16 crew on Sunday? I wouldn’t rule it out, as I think Biffle will be in the top 5 all day. If the car looks off to me on Friday, though, I may stay away from Biffle due to his less-than-stellar finishes here as of late (although it would be a really difficult thing for me to do here at Michigan).
3. Denny Hamlin – Even though he disappointed in Dover, Denny Hamlin does have five top 5 finishes in the last seven Sprint Cup races, and he’s coming into a track that he has won at twice (most recently in this race last season). In fact, over the last two years here (four total races), nobody has notched more top 5s here at Michigan than Hamlin, and that is due to his string of 1st-2nd-1st finishes in 2010 and the summer race of 2011. He finished 35th here last fall, but if you check out the Yahoo! chart you’ll see that the #11 was pretty much a solid top 10 car before Hamlin put it into the wall. Another thing I like about Denny this weekend is how his car was back at Auto Club Speedway in March: Hamlin won the pole and was in the position to win when the rain came, but Darian Grubb made an idiotic move and brought the #11 down pit road thinking that the precipitation would clear out (here’s a picture of what the radar looked like that day–basically, there was no chance in hell they were restarting that race). For that reason, and that reason alone, Hamlin was bumped down to 3rd in my pre-weekend rankings this weekend. In other words, he’ll be a good pick.
4. Matt Kenseth – Kenseth really struggled at Auto Club Speedway earlier this season and I truly don’t know (or remember, I guess) why. When you look at his Yahoo! chart from that race, he really never moved too far above or below his 15th-place starting spot, and ended up finishing 16th once the rain ended the race. I’m expecting a good showing out of the #17 team this weekend, though, and that should be expected at Michigan–Kenseth’s second-best on the circuit. He has visited victory lane twice here in his twenty-five career starts and has just ONE finish outside of the top 20. Talk about consistency. Getting to the stats that matter, Kenseth has recorded sixteen top 10s in those twenty-five starts, eleven of them being top 5s. Only teammate Greg Biffle has recorded a better average driver rating than Kenseth over the last two years at Michigan, and despite the fact that he finished 10th here last fall, the #17 was awesome in both 2011 events at this track. In June, Kenseth started 3rd and led 17 laps en-route to a 2nd–place finish with a driver rating of 130.1; in August, the #17 started on the outside pole, and like I said before, finished 10th after leading 15 laps and having a driver rating of 120.5. Over the last nine races here, Kenseth owns six top 10 finishes, and five of those were also top 5s. I didn’t notice this until now, but Matt hasn’t finished worse than 11th in the last nine Sprint Cup series races. I don’t expect that to change on Sunday.
5. Tony Stewart – This team really tends to go in spurts, so the time to pick Smoke is when he’s coming off a good finish. Nobody in the series has been better than Tony over the last two years at Michigan, and the fact that he has finished between 5th and 9th in all four races is the reason for that. As I said earlier in this article, Stewart won at Auto Club Speedway back in March, and although he got some help from the rain, he did lead almost one-third of that race so it’s not like he had a bad car. Despite only having one victory here at MIS, Stewart has been quite consistent on this 2-mile race track and has recorded eighteen top 10 finishes over his span of twenty-six starts. In the last fifteen, in fact, Smoke has just three finishes outside of the top 10, and one of those was a 12th-place effort back in 2008. The #14 was the best on intermediate tracks earlier on in the season and this is the time of year that Stewart generally goes on a run of good finishes…not that I had to remind you that. However, with this team’s recent struggles, if the #14 looks a little off in practice on Friday, expect Tony to tumble in my final rankings that go out after qualifying on ifantasyrace.com.
6. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. – One thing that I can absolutely guarantee you is that the most-heard statistic this weekend is going to be that Junior’s last victory came here at Michigan back in 2008. Now that he looked like he had a real good chance to win in Pocono, announcers everywhere will use that to drool over NASCAR’s favorite driver even more and contemplate the chances of him winning the Quicken Loans 400. I don’t see that happening, but there’s no doubt in my mind that the #88 will churn out another top 10 finish on Sunday–exactly what Earnhardt has been doing nearly every race this season (yes, I respect that, in case you were wondering). Since jumping into the #88 back in 2008, Junior has had his share of ups and downs (somewhat) at this track, but he’s been consistent. His worst finish over those eight races has been 23rd, and he has recorded three top 10s, including that win I talked about earlier. Looking back at Fontana in March, the #88 grabbed a 3rd-place finish in the rain-shortened event, but when you look at their Yahoo! chart that race, they really weren’t there until the rain was almost there. I’m not trying to persuade you against Junior this week (obviously, I have him ranked 6th), I’m just not buying into the hype yet. He should at least be top 10 material on Sunday with a good shot at a top 5.
7. Carl Edwards – If Cousin Carl looks good in practice on Friday, he’s going to be a lock for my roster this weekend. This is his second-best track on the circuit and one of his two top 5s this season came back at Fontana. I still think this team just needs a top 5 to really break out, but the question is when that is going to happen. The #99 had engine problems in the series’ last visit to this track, but before that Edwards rattled off eight finishes of 7th or better over a nine-race span. His average finish of 8.2 here is no joke, and it’s not surprise that it’s the best in the series. Just don’t be surprised if Carl qualifies bad on Saturday: in fifteen career starts here at Michigan, he averages a starting position right around 20th and has qualified in the top 10 just once (a 4th-place effort back in 2008).
8. Kyle Busch – That’s two weeks in a row that the #18 team has had engine woes, which is a little worrisome. However, the rest of the cars in the Gibbs stable have been strong and reliable, so hopefully Rowdy will get the finish he deserves in Michigan this weekend. Kyle started on the outside pole back in March at Fontana and also finished 2nd in that rain-shortened event. He led the most laps that day, by the way. At Michigan specifically, Busch hasn’t been great (15.5) but he was great here last season: over the two races he led a combined 81 laps and had driver ratings of 124.3 and 126.0. He finished 3rd and then, as I said before, won the second event. In terms of intermediate track finishes overall this season, when you take out Las Vegas, Kyle Busch hasn’t finished worse than 11th on them (chart here) and he has the fourth-best average driver rating over all of the six races (chart here). Barring an engine problem again, I expect Busch to challenge for a top 10 and possibly a top 5, but are you willing to take the risk? I think there are too many other options this week to do so.
9. Kasey Kahne – And the good run comes to an end. What’s good is that the #5 Chevy was a top 10 car before the incident at Pocono, and I’m expecting the car to be fast once again in Michigan this weekend. Kahne has been great at the last three intermediate track races (chart here) and it’s no secret that these tracks are the ones he truly excels at. In sixteen career starts at Michigan, Kasey has posted seven top 10 finishes (six of them being top 5s) and he won from the pole here back in 2006. At Fontana, Kahne finished 14th after starting 5th. It wouldn’t surprise me to see him start up there on Sunday as well, but I’m expecting a better finish. Kahne started 14th in the August race at this track last season and ended up finishing 14th after leading three laps. His average driver rating of 105.1 over the past two years at this track is fourth-best in the series.
10. Mark Martin – It would only be fitting that the weekend that I completely write off Mark Martin because of his disappointing race-day runs is the one that he almost goes out and wins the race. You got me good, Mark! Although I was a little glad to see Joey bump you out of the way . Anyway, the #55 lined up 3rd to start the race back at Fontana earlier this year and ended up finishing 12th. I think we’ll see something similar out of Mark Martin this weekend in Michigan. As I said before, he grabbed a top 5 finish here last August while driving for Hendrick Motorsports, and he also finished 9th in the summer event earlier in the year. However, that was with Hendrick equipment, and I’m still not sold on these Michael Waltrip Racing Toyotas being uber-strong on these big intermediate tracks yet. Still, Martin should be a threat for the pole on Saturday (his qualifying this season has been ridiculous) and will probably fade by the end of the race on Sunday. A finish between 10th and 12th is to be expected, but that’s not too bad now, is it?
11. Martin Truex, Jr. – Well, we had our week of from using Martin Truex, Jr. last weekend in Pocono, but don’t let their struggles–if you can call it that, they finished 15th, which is a lot better than I expected–make you turn your back on them this weekend. Crew chief Chad Johnston should be back for this week’s race and should have the #56 Toyota in position to get another top 10 finish. When you look at this chart, you will see that Truex has the fifth-best average finish on the intermediate tracks this season, and is ranked 3rd over those races in terms of average driver rating (chart here). At Michigan specifically, Martin’s 17.5 average finish is nothing to get excited about, but he does tend to qualify well here (has started 13th or better in the last five events) and the story of this season has been if he qualifies good, he’ll run good. Truex actually finished 2nd here in both races during the 2007 while running for Dale Earnhardt, Inc.
12. Clint Bowyer – Statistically, this is Clint Bowyer’s third-worst track on the circuit, but you wouldn’t think that by looking at his finishes here last season. In both races, Bowyer finished 8th, and what’s even more impressive is that he started 27th and 35th. Even better is that over the last three years here at Michigan (six races), Clint has finished 13th or better five times, and four of them were top 10s as well. When the #15 team doesn’t run into some sort of problem, they tend to be good for a teens finish (chart here) and that’s what I’m expecting out of Bowyer this weekend as well. At Fontana back in March, Clint posted the 11th-fastest lap in qualifying and ended up 13th once the rain came. I’m expecting a day similar to that out of Bowyer on Sunday, although hopefully we don’t get any rain. In case you didn’t know, the #15 hasn’t finished worse than 13th in the last six Sprint Cup Series races.
13. Joey Logano – You know I don’t like going against the most-recent winner. With that win, though, it got me thinking: now that all three of the drivers at Joe Gibbs Racing have won this season, is JGR the top organization? I put a poll together on that, and you can vote by clicking here. Back in March at Fontana, Logano started 8th and looked to be a decent pick but really disappointed fantasy owners with his 24th-place finish. Hopefully that doesn’t happen this weekend, but you never know with this team, as they’re really hit or miss. At Michigan, Joey has made six career starts and has finished inside the top 10 in half of them. He finished 18th and 21st in the two events here during the 2011 season, but all three of his top 10s came in his three previous starts. I’m hoping that this team can use the momentum from their win to get a solid finish at MIS on Sunday, but their performance on the intermediate tracks thus far in 2012 really isn’t that great (chart here). I’ll be watching the #20 Toyota closely in practice.
14. Kevin Harvick – Happy Harvick hasn’t finished worse than 16th on the intermediate tracks this season (chart here) and I wouldn’t expect that to change this weekend in Michigan. His record here isn’t great, but it’s not terrible, either: in twenty-two career starts here, Harvick has ended up with seven top 10s and averaged a finish of 15.0. He has just five finishes outside of the top 20 so it’s not like he’s inconsistent. The thing is that Kevin tends to run a little better in the August race here at Michigan compared to the June race. As far as Yahoo! goes, I don’t see any reason to take the #29 this weekend unless he looks really fast in practice, which is possible I guess. I just don’t see it happening. Harvick did finish 4th in Fontana earlier this year…
15. Ryan Newman – This ranking is sort of just putting some hope into Newman because of his performance here last season, because his results at Michigan over his entire career really aren’t that great: 18.2 average finish with just six top 10s in twenty-one career attempts. As I said before, though, Michigan was kind to The Rocketman in 2011: he finished 6th and 5th in the two events and had a driver rating of at least 100 in each of them. On the intermediate tracks this season, Newman was good earlier on in the season, just like Tony Stewart (chart here). I do think that Stewart-Haas is getting thing turned around, though, so the #39 could be a nice pick this weekend. We’ll have to see how Newman looks during practice on Friday.
Those To Avoid Entering The Quicken Loans 400:
A.J. Allmendinger – His recent finishes at Michigan would probably qualify him as a sleeper in my books (11th, 13th, 17th, and 11th) but can you say bad luck? This team is more unlucky right now than even Jeff Gordon, it’s crazy. There’s no doubt in my mind that they’ll turn it around soon but there’s really no reason to take a chance with A.J. this weekend. His last two years at Michigan may look inciting but let’s not forget that in nine career starts here, Allmendinger has yet to crack the top 10 once and owns an average finish of 21.2.
Paul Menard – I’m glad Menard got me a top 10 finish in Pocono last weekend, but that won’t make me pick him again this weekend in Michigan. It will be interesting to see how the #27 team looks on Friday because they haven’t been great here at all. Menard finished 4th here in this event last season but that is his only finish better than 24th in the last seven races here. He got back to his “normal” self in the fall race, finishing 26th despite starting the race in 11th. Paul has been decent on the intermediates thus far (chart here) in 2012, though, so he may get off of my Avoid list once I update my rankings on Saturday.