Wednesday, August 12, 2009

CarFax 400 Michigan Preview

by Micah Roberts

The last time the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series visited Michigan in June, the fans were treated to a fun-filled fuel conservation victory by Mark Martin in one of the better endings of the season that didn’t involve a crash.

Just as Jimmie Johnson was about to take the white flag signaling one lap to go, he ran out of fuel. Just as he started to slow, Greg Biffle sitting in second at the time, must have had his eyes light up in eagerness with the possibility of winning his first race of the season.

Just as Biffle was beginning orchestrate his burn-out and victory lap celebration, he too ran out of fuel with less than a lap to go. Cherry picking just behind Biffle, was the elder statesman of the series, Mark Martin, who went on to win his third race of the season.

Most of the drivers knew that they were going to be short on fuel and went into a cruise control mode in order to save fuel without racing too hard, but Johnson and Biffle battled for the lead with five laps to go and all calculations of making 46 laps till the end of the race, when the fuel window is about 40 to 44 laps, went out the window.

The culprit of the attempting to go so long for the drivers were cautions, and lack of them, which seems to be the case at Michigan because of the 2-mile tracks configuration that has lots of room for drivers to maneuver. Only three cautions occurred that day, and the last came on lap 150.

This years race may, or may not come down to fuel mileage, but what we should do when considering the top candidates to win is analyze the June race and determine just who was the best on that day.

Prior to that race, Martin had the best car in Happy Hour, but during the race was maybe the third best car as he ran in the top-5 for much of the day. During the Race Jimmie Johnson led the most laps, but was beaten off pit road in the last stop by Greg Biffle. Johnson reeled in Biffle with five laps remaining, but could that have been only because Biffle was in conservation mode?

How would have Biffle done in the late stages had he been able to go all out with no worries of fuel strategy? It’s likely that he could have just based on Biffle’s history at Michigan where he owns two wins.

Johnson, for all his greatness on just about every track on the circuit, has never won at Michigan. In 15 career races, Johnson has been able to muster only two top-5 finishes which is amazing considering how good he has been at Michigan‘s nearly identical sister track of California over the same span.

Even though this weeks Michigan race and the one in June are only two months apart, there is nothing set that says those who did well in that race will do equally as good this week. However, in last seasons two races, five drivers finished in the top-10 for each race.

The Fenway-Roush stable of drivers le the charge in 2008 with three of those drivers excelling in both races, and in this race last season, the team was able to place all five of their drivers within the top-10.

This time around in 2009’s June race, only Biffle and Carl Edwards cracked the top-10 with Jamie McMurray in toe in 11th. One of the track’s best performers ever Matt Kenseth struggled with a 20th and David Ragan in 15th. It’s still not bad, but it’s not a top-10 for sure.

Along with Biffle, Edwards should be one to key on the this week because of his dominance on the track over his entire career. He leads all drivers with an average finish of fifth over his career. In June’s race, finished fourth, but wasn’t really a factor or in contention to win.

Towards the end of the June race, Jeff Gordon’s car really came around to being one of the best on the track, nearly as good as his teammates Johnson and Martin. He finished second in that race, which might have been a fourth if not for a few drops of fuel.

Gordon, like Johnson, hasn’t had the type of success he’s had in California as far as wins go. In 33 races, Gordon only has two wins, but does have 16 top-five finishes. His last win came in 2001 which was the last Chevy win at Michigan until Dale Earnhardt Jr won on fumes last season. He has been very happy about his cars for the 1.5 and 2-mile tracks this season, so he should be considered a contender again.

Brian Vickers comes in with four straight top-10 finishes at Michigan dating back to 2007. He sat on the pole in June’s race, but failed to lead a lap giving way to Kyle Busch. He feels confident his team will race a race before the seasons out and this is the type of track where he can let his horses under the hood run full throttle, which is an ideal situation for him.

Top 5 Finish Prediction:
1) #16 Greg Biffle (12/1)
2) #24 Jeff Gordon (10/1)
3) #99 Carl Edwards (7/1)
4) #5 Mark Martin (10/1)
5) #48 Jimmie Johnson (6/1)

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