Matt Stallknecht · Friday August 16, 2013
After a sizzler of a race in Watkins Glen, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads to the Midwest this week for the Pure Michigan 400 at Michigan International Speedway. No, the race probably won’t be a classic, but it is without question a very important event for the drivers and teams on the Chase bubble, as their chances of getting wins dwindles by the week. In fact, with as many as 14 drivers still very much in the hunt for Chase spots, this is by far the deepest and most unpredictable Race for the Wildcard we’ve ever had. Seeing how the Chase standings shake out will be the primary item to watch this weekend in Michigan, and as such, it leads our slate of questions this week.
1. How will Michigan affect the Race to the Chase?
There’s a lot of hyperbole thrown around in the NASCAR world. Phrases like “this is going to be the best Daytona 500 ever!” (direct quote from Darrell Waltrip before this year’s snooze-inducing Daytona 500) or “(insert race here) is going to be incredible!” are uttered a lot more than they probably should by members of the NASCAR media.
That being said, I am absolutely not being hyperbolic when I say that this year’s Race to the Chase has the potential of being the most exciting one yet. I know I am essentially violating my own rule by writing that, but one look at the standings will make you a believer. Only the top 7 drivers (Johnson, Bowyer, Edwards, Harvick, Ky. Busch, Junior, and Kenseth) can comfortably say that they are locked in. Everyone from 8th on back to 23rd still has a legitimate shot at making the Chase, which is a far larger range than that of any previous years. This thing is wide open, and it is going to come down to who can capitalize in the next four races.
As for Michigan, a few “Chase bubble” guys come to mind who are capable of elevating their probability of making the big show. The most obvious member of this group is Greg Biffle. Biffle has won the last two races at Michigan, and has an absolutely absurd 2.0 average finish on the newly repaved Michigan surface. Kasey Kahne is another driver who could potentially lock himself into the Chase with a strong Michigan performance. Kahne has had more speed than anyone not named Jimmie Johnson on the 2.0 mile tracks this year, and pretty much had the June race wrapped up before his RF tire exploded. Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski, Jeff Gordon, and Ryan Newman are all “bubble drivers” who figure to be strong this weekend as well.
All told, any one of these guys could win the race and boost their Chase status. On the flip side, any one of them could blow a RF tire like others did in the June race and see their Chase chances evaporate. Either way, the race will certainly bear watching if for no reason other than its Chase implications.
2. Will anyone be able to pass?
If nothing else, the Gen 6 car has proven to be an unusual car in terms of its week-to-week raciness. Take Pocono for example. In the June event, seemingly no one other than the No. 48 car could pass, leading to a wave of complaints from NASCAR fans about the car’s ability to race effectively. Contrast that with the August Pocono event, however, and you will see something unusual. Unlike the June race, the August event was incredibly racy, with cars able to pass much more effectively, leading to a genuinely action-packed and exciting event. The lead change stat was perhaps the most telling. The June race had only 12 lead changes, which was the least for a race at Pocono since 2005. The August event, on the other hand, had 27 lead changes, which was the most for a race at Pocono since 2004.
I expect the passing situation at Michigan to be similarly hard to predict. The raciness of the Gen 6 has ebbed and flowed throughout the year as the team’s have learned more and more about the cars. Some week’s the cars are racy, other week’s they are not. It’s a simple result of a car that hasn’t been fully developed by the teams yet.
As for what this means for Michigan, my best guess is that it will be a racier event. The teams learned a lot in the June race about what it will take to pass in traffic, and that will certainly be applied to their notebooks for this weekend’s race. The same principles applied in the above-mentioned Pocono situation, and as we all saw, the year’s second event there was much racier. Could Michigan see a similar situation occur? It’s quite possible.
3. Will Austin Dillon step up in his role of relief driver?
One of the big stories in NASCAR this week was the revelation that Richard Childress Racing development driver Austin Dillon would be taking over the reins of Tony Stewart’s vacated #14 car for this weekend’s event in Michigan (and possibly for more races after that). As I’ve pointed out in this column before, Dillon’s few Cup starts have been hit or miss, to say the least. Some of that can be blamed on Dillon’s sheer lack of experience, another part can be blamed on subpar R&D equipment. To give you an idea of what Dillon’s Cup performance has entailed thus far, his average finish in his (limited) Cup series career is an underwhelming 24.2.
This is not to say that Dillon is a lost cause in the Cup Series, however. In fact, this weekend’s race at Michigan could be Dillon’s best opportunity to deliver a good finish. Dillon has raced on eight tracks over nine races in his limited Cup Series slate thus far. Of the eight tracks that Dillon has raced on, Michigan (the site of this weekend’s race) just so happens to be the one where Dillon has performed best. Dillon’s first ever Cup start took place in this very race last year, and he was largely invisible for most of the event and wound up finishing 24th. Dillon’s second Michigan outing (the 2013 June event), however, was much better. Dillon started an impressive 7th, floated in and around the top 10 all day long, and wound up a solid 11th. This is noteworthy considering that Michigan is the only Cup track that Dillon has visited more than once, and as such, the race-to-race improvement is indicative of a driver who perhaps can get it done on this level after all.
I would expect a similar performance out of Dillon this weekend in his one-off outing in the Stewart Haas Racing No. 14 car. Not only is the No. 14 a much better ride than the No. 33 RCR R&D car that Dillon piloted back in June, it is the flagship car of the team and the one that will receive the most attention given its high position in owner’s points. Thus, Dillon figures to be a factor this weekend, and despite a rocky start to his Cup career, this could be yet another opportunity for the young driver to prove he is Cup material after all.
4. Who is the favorite to win?
This one is pretty easy. If a Hendrick car does not win this weekend, I think I speak for everyone when I say it would be genuinely shocking. The real question is…which of the Hendrick cars is the favorite to win this weekend? Spoiler alert: it’s not Jimmie Johnson.
Kasey Kahne is your favorite to win the Pure Michigan 400. Realistically, Kahne should have about 5 or 6 wins this year. For as fast as Jimmie Johnson has been all year long, Kahne has been equally as fast with about half the amount of luck. The June event at Michigan was a perfect example of this. Kahne will likely be about equal to Johnson this weekend in terms of pure speed, but I believe the No. 5 team’s need to get back into the top 10 in points will provide the motivation needed to push their way to the top of the pile on Sunday.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., a 2 time Michigan winner and yet another Hendrick stalwart, also figures to have speed on par with his Hendrick teammates. Earnhardt Jr. has the most Michigan wins of anyone on his team in the COT/Gen-6 era, and looked primed for a top 3 run in June before his engine went kaboom. Look for the #88 to fight with his Hendrick teammates for the victory on Sunday as well.
Matt Stallknecht’s Pre-Race Predictions for the 2013 Pure Michigan 400:
1. 5-Kasey Kahne
2. 48-Jimmie Johnson
3. 88-Dale Earnhardt Jr.
4. 16-Greg Biffle
5. 22-Joey Logano
6. 2-Brad Keselowski
7. 18-Kyle Busch
8. 99-Carl Edwards
9. 39-Ryan Newman
10. 78-Kurt Busch
+ Kahne takes the win after outdueling Johnson for 200 grueling laps. The Penske and Roush cars will show strength early, but the Hendrick cars will ultimately rise to the top at the end.
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