Wednesday, August 15, 2012

2012 Pure Michigan 400 Preview: Junior Looking for More Wins

Can Junior do it again this week using same winning car? (Getty)
By Micah Roberts

We’ve got four races remaining until NASCAR's Chase for the Championship begins with a couple good battles going on to be one of the final 12 drivers. Jeff Gordon dropped out of the 12th position last week with Ryan Newman holding the final position among drivers that have one win. Kyle Busch is only six points behind Newman, but missed a golden opportunity last week at Watkins Glen to get his second win of the season. He leading on the last lap, but held on to finish seventh.

Carl Edwards has more points than Newman, Busch and Gordon, but doesn’t have a win on the year and isn’t in the top-10 in points. His only chance to make it is by winning one of these next four races. Joey Logano and Marcos Ambrose each have one win and could make the Chase by winning one of these next four races.

We should be in for a treat this week at Michigan, not only because of all the Chase implications making a few drivers a little more aggressive, but because it’s the site of where Dale Earnhardt Jr ended his 144 race winless streak. The June race actually turned out to be one of the more memorable of the season. The Junior storyline was huge, but the newly resurfaced track created great racing at speeds never seen before on the track by stock cars.

Between the test and practice sessions prior to the race, it was kind of easy to tell Junior had his best chance at finally winning. Now that’s he’s got that monkey off his back, all he’s trying to do now is win and gain bonus points for the Chase. The seeding for the Chase is determined by how many wins a driver has on the year. Junior has only one, but he's coming in this week as one of the favorites, something we rarely say about him and considering he's using the same car from June, the favorite status is warranted.

"The track has always been fun for me," Earnhardt Jr. said earlier this week. "It's really wide and up until they repaved it, you really used the whole racetrack in the corner. That's perfect -- you can't ask for any better situation than when cars go through the corner and everybody is sort of using a different line. That's what you want. I think over time the surface will age, and we'll get back to widening up the surface quite a bit. It has the characteristics as far as the way the corners are banked and the way the corners are laid out to widen back out again and be the great racetrack it's always been. So I really enjoy it. Even had I not won any races there, it's just a really fun track."

Jimmie Johnson took the points lead away from Junior last week, but comes to Michigan with it being one of five tracks on the circuit that he’s never won at. There’s no way to explain it. He’s one of the best at the sister track of California, but can’t seem to get it done at Michigan. He was runner-up in last fall and finished fifth in June.

“We had a really strong car there (at the June race) and I’m excited to go back," said Johnson, who will be using that same Michigan chassis this week, a car that also won the All-Star race. "Late in the race, I was running down the leaders and I blistered a right-rear tire. But, I understand that a great tire test took place at the track recently and they didn’t see any issues. So I feel like things are fixed and I’m looking forward to going back because I know we’re going to be strong. The way we’ve been running on the ovals, and also with our performance at Michigan in June, even though we blistered a tire, I really feel like I can win there and make that list one shorter for the tracks we haven’t won on. I really feel this is our best chance ever.”

Like Junior, Johnson is just trying to accumulate more wins for the Chase. He’s currently tied with Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski for the most wins with three each.

Carl Edwards has two career wins at Michigan and on paper, should have his best chance of winning among the four tracks remaining until the Chase. He is one of only two drivers to average a top-10 finish (8.3) throughout his career at Michigan. But based on his performances on horsepower tracks this season, Edwards doesn't look so good this week.

The two other Roush Racing drivers also fare very well at Michigan. Unlike Edwards, Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth were both strong in Michigan testing and practices and each finished with top-5's. Kenseth is the other driver to average a top-10 finish (9.2) in his career at Michigan. As a car owner, Jack Roush has won 11 races at Michigan which ties him for the all-time track lead with the Wood Brothers.

Biffle finished fourth in June at Michigan and has two wins on the 2-mile track over his career and is feeling pretty confident about his chances Sunday.

“We had a really good test at Michigan after Indy and based on how we ran there earlier this year I’m definitely excited about going to Michigan," said Biffle, who will be using his third-place Brickyard chassis this week. "Michigan is home to Roush Industries and Ford, so it’s always fun to race there. We’ll try and get our 3M Ford back in victory lane.”

It’s been a long time since Tony Stewart won at Michigan (2000), but it doesn’t mean he hasn’t performed well. Over his last 20 starts he’s finished with an average of ninth-place, including runner-up on the new fast version of the track in June.

Another star performer from the June test and practice sessions was Mark Martin. He finished 29th in the race, but only Junior was rated higher than him prior to the race. He’ll be fast again this week.

Top-5 Finish Prediction:
1) #14 Tony Stewart (10/1)
2) #48 Jimmie Johnson (6/1)
3) #88 Dale Earnhardt Jr (10/1)
4) #16 Greg Biffle (10/1)
5) #5 Mark Martin (15/1)

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