by M Roberts
The final two practice sessions run Saturday as a prep for Sunday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Michigan International Speedway gave somewhat of a preview of who will do well in the race. Most of the drivers who ran well in the first Michigan race in June had a good showing, with a couple shining much brighter than they did then.
One of the surprises from all the teams that ran well in June was that other than Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle, most have brought different chassis’ than they ran then. A portion of the teams have brought their Chicago chassis from the July race. Though the tracks are different in length, the banking in and out of the turns are similar. Others have either brought brand new rides and in a few cases, some have their Indy or Pocono cars.
The star of the day was Brian Vickers who has had some success on these type of horsepower tracks this year, but yet the team still opted to go with a brand new chassis in hopes of attacking the last four races in the race to the chase a bettering their current status of 14th and 96 points behind.
The decision looks to have paid off because if just comparing the June practice times to this weekends. Vickers was fast throughout the June Michigan practices, netted the pole, but finished only ninth, which is the main statistic they look to improve upon this week.
This week, Vickers looks much faster and better suited to captured Red Bull Racing’s first win and more importantly, chop their deficit in the Chase.
In the first session Vickers ran the quickest lap early on and went on to have the second best average speeds among drivers running at least 15 laps. He ended up getting 27 laps in and showed that he should be really good in the critical Michigan long runs.
During Happy Hour, Vickers laid down his quickest lap early which was second fastest overall. Overall, Vickers ran the most laps combined between the two sessions and was consistently fast throughout.
Mark Martin was fastest at Michigan in June’s Happy Hour and won the race. This week, Martin is once again fastest in Happy Hour as he’ll be attempting to win the sixth Michigan race of his career. Martin, surprisingly, didn’t bring his winning chassis from June, but rather his Indy chassis that finished second. For whatever reason that caused the change, this team is dialed in once again and will contend for the win.
Jimmie Johnson had the best car in June’s race leading the most laps, but his team brought his eighth place Chicagoland chassis. He was a faster in practice this time around, but equally good in average times. Michigan has seen Johnson have the best car on a few occasions, but can never seal the deal. It remains one of the few tracks Johnson has yet to win at.
While Johnson will be running hard for win to get bonus points in the Chase, Juan Pablo Montoya will be taking it easy and keeping his goals modest with gaining a high top-10 finish. However, his car looks good enough to contend for the win this week.
Montoya was third fastest in the first session, but the most attractive stat of all in practice was his average times and Montoya was faster than anyone in all combined average laps from both practices. He brought his second place finishing Pocono chassis and used notes from their sixth place Michigan finish in June to re-set it. Should Montoya win, it would be his second career Michigan win, with the other coming in Champ Cars.
Carl Edwards has the best average finish at Michigan among all divers, but his speeds were less than what he did in June when he finished fourth. Happy Birthday Carl!
Greg Biffle looked to have one of the best cars in June when he battled Johnson for the win for the final 10 laps, but struggled in both sessions today despite bringing the exact same chassis. Chances are based on their past at Michigan, Biffle’s team will make the needed changes to be better as the race goes on.
Jeff Gordon had a strong final practice in average laps times between both sessions where he came close to Montoya’s times. The most consistent area of Gordon’s 2009 campaign has been on the 1.5-mile and two-mile tracks. At Michigan in June, Gordon didn’t lead a lap, but he did finish second. He’s in that comfortable mode right now where he could let it all hang out for bonus Chase points and go for the win.
Dale Earnhardt Jr brought the chassis he ran at Indy and Pocono this week to Michigan and had a great Happy Hour with the eighth quickest lap. He ran 36 laps and was very competitive with the leaders in average lap speeds.
Kyle Busch is starting 39th and needs to have a good run to help erase his 56 point deficit in the Race to the Chase where he sits in 13th. Busch brought himself a chassis for this race in hopes of breathing some fresh air into the garage, but unlike Vickers, Busch’s practice times Saturday didn’t show much improvement from their June Michigan practice.
This may be a race where Busch has to bite the bullet and shoot for a top-15 finish rather than push the car more than it can do. He still has Bristol and Richmond coming up where he should run well considering he won their in the spring, so the best thing to do right now is points race, stay out of trouble, and stay out on a caution to lead a lap gaining five points.
Saturday Happy Hour: Top 5 Speeds
1) Mark Martin 181.717 mph - AVG 37 laps @ 175.414
2) Brian Vickers 181.621 mph - AVG 46 laps @ 176.653
3) David Ragan 180.519 mph - AVG 39 laps @ 175.650
4) David Stremme 180.451 mph - AVG 30 laps @ 175.286
5) Jimmie Johnson 180.419 mph - AVG 38 laps @ 176.650
Saturday’s First Practice: Top 5 Speeds
1) Brian Vickers 184.909 mph - AVG 27 laps @ 178.063
2) Tony Stewart 184.838 mph - AVG 18 laps @ 177.364
3) Juan Pablo Montoya 184.696 mph - AVG 13 laps @ 179.395
4) Joey Logano 184.544 mph - AVG 22 laps @ 177.939
5) Mark Martin 184.488 mph - AVG 22 laps @ 175.202
Top 10 Driver Rating for this weeks Michigan race following all practice and qualifying sessions with a slight mix of June’s Michigan race, current team situation, and overall Michigan track history.
1) Jimmie Johnson
2) Mark Martin
3) Brian Vickers
4) Juan Pablo Montoya
5) Jeff Gordon
6) Carl Edwards
7) Kurt Busch
8) Tony Stewart
9) Clint Bowyer
10) Greg Biffle