Saturday, June 12, 2010

Ford's FR9 Engine and Jimmie Johnson Headline Sunday's Race at Michigan

By Micah Roberts
Las Vegas Review-Journal

So what's the deal with Jimmie Johnson at Michigan? There is no rhyme or reason to why he hasn't won on the 2-mile sister track of California. Even though Michigan is slightly steeper than California in the turns, the D-shaped tracks are almost identical. Yet Johnson has won five times in Fontana with no wins at the Brooklyn, Mich. facility.
Just the fact that Johnson hasn't won on a downforce track that runs on the circuit is somewhat shocking. There are only five tracks that Johnson hasn't won on and, of those, Michigan is the only track that is run twice a year. We wouldn't expect wins on the road courses yet; Miami and Chicago will eventually come. But he's had 16 cracks at Michigan and we're in the midst of his 10th season on tour and the winner's circle keeps eluding him.
In those 16 starts, Johnson has managed an average finish of 16th, but his past performance on paper doesn't tell the whole story. Even though he's only had two top-five finishes at the track over his career, he's still been one of the best there -- especially in recent history. Last season, he dominated at Michigan only to run into fuel problems late in both races -- a common theme with Michigan races. Overall, Johnson has completed 96% of his competition laps at Michigan and has led 510 of them -- many of which came in last season's races.
Since NASCAR started keeping NASCAR loop data in 2004, Carl Edwards has the cumulative best rating in a system that factors in everything such as laps led and quality passes. Edwards' Michigan rating of 112.5 is just barely ahead of Johnson's 111.0 even though Edwards has won twice over that span and has an all-time best career average finish of 6.1. Over the 10 races that the loop data covers, Johnson has managed only one top-five finish, which shows just how good, but unfortunate, he's been at Michigan.
Based on Johnson's practice and qualifying efforts in preparation for this Sunday's Heluva Good! Sour Cream Dips 400, he looks to have perhaps his best run ever at Michigan this week. Beyond all the hype surrounding the coincidence that he hasn't won a race since the new spoiler has been put in place by NASCAR, Johnson should have his best run ever. The chassis he's using this week was runner-up at Texas with the new spoiler and won in its debut at Las Vegas with the older winged spoiler. He's already checked Bristol off his "things to do the list" this season and now it's time for Michigan.
Fuel mileage always plays a big part in the late stages at Michigan and it looks to be the only way to keep Johnson from having his best career run, much to the dismay of the Ford group which was kept winless at Michigan last year for the first time since 2001.
Ford has always dominated Michigan which has kept its executives in Motor City beaming with pride over the years. Last year, a Chevy won this race with, of all dreaded things, a Toyota winning in the fall for the first time ever. Motor City wasn't too excited about the foreigners winning on their playground, but the reality of the deal is that there are more Toyota Camry's manufactured in the United States than all three other models combined that race in the Sprint Cup series.
If the Ford, Dodge, and Chevy executives didn't like what they saw last year with Brian Vickers winning, they may really be in for a treat this week with Joe Gibbs Racing running at peak capacity, coming in with NASCAR's hottest drivers -- Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch. They finished 1-2 last week at Pocono and they each have the look of a champion as it appears only a matter of time before they topple points leader and sitting duck, Kevin Harvick, for the lead heading into the Chase for the Championship.
While Hamlin is sizzling hot with four wins in his last nine starts, Kyle Busch has had eight straight races top-10 finishes, taking him near the top of the leader board, only 19 points from Harvick.
The best chance that Ford has this week lies with its new FR9 engine which will be in each of its cars Sunday. The engine has been used sparingly even though it‘s been ready since last fall at Talladega, but based on practice, the FR9 looks to be just the ticket Ford needs to get back into the winner's circle.
Roush-Fenway Racing has tied for a track-record 11 Sprint Cup wins, but comes in this week without a victory on the season. Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle haven't won since 2008 and Matt Kenseth hasn't won since winning at California last February. Based on practice and the horsepower the new engine is producing, this could be their best chance at winning since Kenseth's wins.
Two other Fords looked strong Saturday in practice as well using the new engine. Kasey Kahne and Paul Menard each put in impressive times with Menard leading the way on single-lap speeds while Kahne was strong in average lap times.
Jeff Gordon has the look of being someone to crash the party this week while searching for his first win since Texas last season. He had a stellar practice Friday and Saturday and has been one of the better drivers on all downforce tracks since last season. On the combined efforts at Michigan and California last season, Gordon finished runner-up in all four races.
Kurt Busch is a two-time Michigan winner, having the distinction of being able to say he's won in both a Dodge and Ford. He'll be starting from the pole and has fared very well on the downforce track this year, which includes wins at Texas and Atlanta.

Check out my Top-10 Rated Drivers For Michigan 

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