Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Michigan Preview: New Surface and Father's Day Enough to End Earnhardt Jr Streak?

After falling just short last week, maybe a win on Father's Day? (Getty)
By Micah Roberts

If you were amazed at the speeds obtained last week at Pocono with the new repave, then you’ll be blown away this week at Michigan. 36 drivers beat Pocono’s track record during last Saturday’s qualifying with the pole sitter and eventual winner, Joey Logano, breaking the record by 7 mph.

In April, five drivers did a Goodyear tire test on Michigan’s new surface. Although official speeds weren’t kept, all indications is that we’ll be seeing a track record shattered again this week.

“This place is fast. I mean fast, fast,” Juan Pablo Montoya said during the testing. “Our minimum speed this morning was over 180 mph through the corner when you think about it. We are doing easily over 210 mph at the end of the straight."

With speeds like that, don’t be surprised to see NASCAR implement a restrictor-plate by the time they visit Michigan again in August, especially if it is determined that the quality of racing is diminished and safety is compromised. The April session was just a test for tires and not one where crew chiefs were doing everything they could to maximize speed like they will this week.

Since this is an entirely new ball game for most teams we have to down grade past history at Michigan when formulating a strategy to determine who presents the best opportunity to win this week. We can use a lot of what we saw last week at Pocono as a barometer because of the long straightaway there that required lots of horsepower.

We can also figure in two of the faster tracks on the circuit like Texas and Charlotte, but most of all, this weekend’s practice schedule will be the bulk of the equation.

Or you can simply throw everything out the window and take your chances by picking one of the four Hendrick drivers who all can be expected to have one of the fastest cars on the track. The driver that would be easy to gravitate towards is Jimmie Johnson who has found himself in his patented dominant zone over the last month.

Surprisingly, though, Michigan is one of the few tracks on the circuit that Johnson has never won on. He’s 0-for-20, but he’s been close on several occasions. In 2009 Johnson led 311 of the 400 laps between both races that season and ran out of fuel in both, one of them on the final lap while leading. Last August Johnson was leading with 13 laps to go but fell short as Kyle Busch made the winning pass.

"I've had a few in the bag at Michigan," said Johnson over the weekend. "It's not like I haven't had the speed or been on pace."

Johnson has five wins on Michigan’s sister track at California which is almost identical to Michigan making it odd that the five-time champion wouldn’t have visited the winner’s circle yet, but perhaps the new surface will change his fortune and get Johnson his first win.

Johnson's teammate Jeff Gordon has two wins at Michigan in 38 starts, but says the days of comparing Michigan to California may be over because of the repaving.

“They are both two-mile tracks, but there are not a lot of similarities now between the two,” said Gordon who was one of the five drivers that particpated in the April test session. “I don’t think because you ran well at California translates to running well here."

In addition to Hendrick Motorsports, the teams that looked very strong in the horsepower department last week were Michael Waltrip’s stable and Joe Gibbs’ fleet of cars.

Mark Martin was strong throughout last week's testing and practice and it carried over to a runner-up finish at Pocono. For whatever it’s worth, Martin has five wins on the old surface of Michigan over his career.

A Toyota has won four of the last five Michigan races with a Joe Gibbs driver taking three of the wins, led by Denny Hamlin who won the last two spring races there.

The Jack Roush drivers have traditionally been good Michigan with Greg Biffle, Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards combining for six wins, but none over the last three seasons. Roush has 11 wins as a car-owner at Michigan which is tied for the track record with the Wood brothers. Kenseth took over the season point lead away from Biffle who slipped all the way to third after leading for most of the season.

The driver sitting second in points is Dale Earnhardt Jr. who was very strong last week with the Hendrick backing. This also happens to be the site of his last victory, which came in 2008, 143 races ago. The win also came on fathers day which promted Earnhardt Jr. to reflect after the race on what it meant for him to win on that special day.

"It's special. You know, my daddy, he meant a lot to me," Junior said following his last win. "There's a lot of people that I look up to that just happen to be great fathers themselves, role models for their sons. It means a lot to me to do well on Father's Day. It's a special day for my family, special for my sister. She's very, very happy at home and in tears on the telephone, so it means a lot to her. I'm glad she's as happy as she could possibly be today under circumstances. And it makes me feel good. I know I can't tell my father happy Father's Day, but I get the opportunity to wish it upon all of the other fathers out there, and I genuinely mean that when I say it, because that's what today is all about. It's for all of the fathers out there."

He’s running well enough to win and has the power. It would seem fitting that he end the streak here at a place that is kind of an unknown and have Junior come full circle to get the monkey off his back. One week removed from being very upset after leading 36 laps at Pocono, but blowing a chance at winning after going with the a late stratgey that proved to be wrong, he should be additionally motivated to win.

The schedule of events leading up to the race will be similar to last week. The teams will have two test sessions on Thursday and then have official race practices on Friday before qualifying on Saturday. Each one of those test and practice sessions will be a critical part of the betting equation for Sunday's race. I'll update who looked the best following each of the sessions.

Top-5 Finish Prediction:
1) #88 Dale Earnhardt Jr (14/1)
2) #11 Denny Hamlin (10/1)
3) #48 Jimmie Johnson (5/1)
4) #18 Kyle Busch (8/1)
5) #55 Mark Martin (30/1)

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