The Irish Hills of Michigan host the 23rd race of the season and the opportunity is there for drivers to start officially stamping their passport into the 2008 championship fight. With just three races remaining before the Chase field is set, a driver can be locked into the playoffs as long as they finish this weekend more than 585 points ahead of the 13th-place driver. With roughly the top half of the Chase field solidly locked in, gamers will have to think about the fact that those drivers will more likely take chances to get a win and the 10 bonus points associated with it for the Chase.
Will Kyle Busch score back to back wins again this year? Can Tony Stewart finally end the winless streak? Will one of the Roushketeers win at Michigan again? Can Kasey Kahne return to his intermediate form? Only this week’s Picks ‘N’ Pans will tell you which ones you should have on your roster – and who should be running at Berlin Raceway.
Bryan’s Race Rewind
Two days of rain couldn’t slow down Kurt Busch and his No. 2 team one year ago at Michigan. After being rained out until Tuesday, Busch and his Penske crew dominated the field, leading 92 laps en route to victory at MIS. It was the second win in three races for Busch, who led much of the race’s second half and easily drove away from runner-up Martin Truex Jr. during a green-white-checkered finish. Matt Kenseth was perhaps the strongest car in the field short of Busch, but late-race contact with the wall left him with a fourth-place run. Toyota enjoyed one of their strongest performances of 2007 in this race, with Dave Blaney and Brian Vickers both scoring top-10 finishes. Jimmie Johnson was the only Hendrick entry to score a top 10.
Mike’s Keys to the Race
Michigan is one of the most drivable tracks on the circuit. It is an ultra-wide, high-speed track that affords the drivers multiple lines and the ability to adjust their driving style to suit what their car gives them. While the track can offer some outstanding racing, it also tends to come down, more often than not, to fuel-mileage strategy. In the race earlier this year, Dale Earnhardt Jr. milked every last fume out of his tank to get the win. When the series heads to Michigan, it is also heading close to the headquarters of Jack Roush, whose organization puts quite a bit of emphasis on winning at the 2-mile oval. Joe Gibbs Racing also has a strong history at the track.
Crank ‘Em Up:
Kenseth has battled from well out of the Chase to 12th in points and continues to look as though he is getting back closer to the form that won his championship in 2003. On top of his return to competitive finishes is the fact that Roush has a long history of success at Michigan, including two victories for Kenseth. His average finish at the speedway is 9.3, and in six of the seven races on intermediate tracks this year he has finished in the top 10. Don’t be surprised to see Kenseth take the checkered flag first this weekend.
Stewart has historically been extremely strong during the summer months, but this year that has not translated into wins yet. Stewart has finished second in the last two races and in the top five in three of the last four. He was also fifth at Michigan earlier this year and his average finish at Michigan is 12.5, fourth best among active drivers. Stewart is looking to solidifying his place in the Chase and a victory this weekend would go a long way in doing that.
Sit ‘Em Down:
Clint Bowyer was the surprise of the series last year, winning a race and finishing third in the season’s points standings. At the beginning of this season he ripped off seven straight top-10 finishes from Atlanta through Richmond, where he scored his only win of the season. Unfortunately for Bowyer, he only has three top-10 finishes in the last 12 races. On top of that, RCR has been struggling mightily on intermediate tracks over the last few races. With those odds stacked against him, a career average finish at Michigan of 26.2, and a best-ever finish of 16th at the track, it doesn’t look like this weekend will be a turnaround for Bowyer.
David Gilliland has done some amazing things this year for his underfunded team, but unfortunately the Cinderella run has derailed over the last few weeks. Since his impressive second-place run at Sonoma, he only has one finish higher than 28th, and that was 20th in the fiasco that was Indianapolis. Additionally his average finish at Michigan is 27.5 and his best finish is a 17th. After starting the melee at the Glen last weekend, don’t think that he’s going to turn things around in the Irish Hills this weekend.
Roll the Dice:
Vickers has been on a rollercoaster all season with impressive finishes and horrendous runs. While Indy and Pocono were poor efforts, 18th at Watkins Glen wasn’t too bad. Added to that is the fact that Vickers was fourth in the spring race at Michigan and his career average finish there is 18.4. Finally, before the disaster at Indy, he had ripped off seven straight top-20 finishes that included three top-10 runs. Look for Vickers to shake off the cobwebs this weekend and finish strong.
Crank ‘Em Up:
Carl Edwards has been money on intermediate tracks all season long, and his previous track record at Michigan is exceptional. In eight Cup starts at the track, Edwards has seven top-10 finishes, including a win, and a career average finish of 7.2. Roush Fenway Racing has all but owned Michigan International Speedway in recent memory, and Edwards this weekend will be supremely motivated. Fellow title contenders Kyle Busch and Johnson have been stealing the headlines of late, and there’s no way that Edwards is going to stand by and let the Chase for the Cup become a two-horse race. Look for Edwards to carry the flag for RFR this weekend.
Kahne’s bread and butter throughout his entire Sprint Cup career has been the intermediate tracks on the circuit, and MIS was no exception earlier this season, as Kahne scored a runner-up finish in the Irish Hills. Kahne is a past winner at Michigan, and his past history bodes for a good finish this weekend… every time Kahne has scored a top five in Michigan’s spring race he has scored a top five in that season’s second race. Since winning the Coca-Cola 600, Kahne has not finished outside the top 15 on an intermediate oval, and that shouldn’t change this weekend.
Sit ‘Em Down:
Bobby Labonte has enjoyed past success on intermediate ovals and at MIS with his Petty Enterprises team, but this year has not been so generous to the No. 43 team. Labonte scored a distant 31st-place finish in the spring, two laps off the pace, and of late the No. 43 has been unable to find the setup on longer tracks, with a 29th-place run at Chicago and a 33rd at Pocono in August coming to mind. Labonte is also coming off one of the hardest wrecks in recent memory at Watkins Glen, and judging from his grimace as he left his wrecked car he’ll likely be feeling it come Sunday. Don’t let your fantasy roster share in the soreness.
Juan Pablo Montoya is coming off his best run since April, but Montoya’s prowess on road courses has been well known for a while. On ovals, Montoya and the No. 42 team have not been all that stout, especially on the longer ones. In the last six intermediate races, Montoya has cracked the top 30 only once, with four finishes of 38th or worse. For another indicator, minus road courses Montoya has not scored a top 10 since April. Many people had Montoya activated for the Glen last weekend… make sure to update that and get him back on the pine.
Roll the Dice:
Roush Fenway Racing has been synonymous with success at Michigan, and there is one RFR team that has more riding on this weekend than any other. David Ragan, easily one of the most improved drivers anywhere in NASCAR, finds himself less than 100 points out of Chase contention with only four races to go. With Watkins Glen out of the way, Ragan is still in the hunt, and if his eighth-place run at Michigan in the spring is any indication the No. 6 team is ready to run with RFR’s top guns and challenge for the win this weekend. Prior to the Glen, Ragan had posted four consecutive top-15 finishes, and with the series returning to the ovals look for Ragan to shine brightly this weekend. MIS may well see a first-time winner on Sunday.
Bryan: Well Mike, Kyle Busch must be rubbing off on you… you picked him at the Glen, making two straight wins for you, congrats.
Mike: Thanks man. He was getting a lot of grief about being in some sort of slump with two bad finishes in a row, so it seemed like it would be a good time for him to get back to form. Not exactly a bad weekend for you with Stewart coming home second and Denny Hamlin finishing eighth.
Bryan: JGR was money all weekend at the Glen… and I see you’re staying on their bandwagon and going with Stewart at MIS… why will Smoke get off the snide this weekend?
Mike: Summertime is Smoke time, and he ran fifth there in the fuel-mileage extravaganza this spring. He has to break the winless streak at some point, and his strength at Michigan makes it a likely place. I see you drank the Roush Kool-Aid thinking Edwards is going to continue his intermediate strength this year, but what makes you think Kahne can right the ship after his recent average performances?
Bryan: Kahne’s scored five consecutive top 15s, was runner-up at MIS earlier this season, and has two wins this season on intermediate tracks… there really isn’t a ship to right for the No. 9 right now; they’re right on the cusp of more victories. I can’t argue with benching Gilliland in the midst of Yates Racing’s slump, but why don’t you think Bowyer is going to come out guns blazing to get back in the top 12?
Mike: Bowyer, and RCR in general, have really been struggling on the intermediate tracks this year. Additionally, Bowyer has been sliding for quite some time and the team just doesn’t seem poised to make a good run this weekend. I’m surprised you’re dissing on Labonte. He’s a former winner at this track and his average finish is 15.4 which is 11th among active drivers. Why don’t you have any faith in the Pettys rebounding after that horrific crash last weekend?
Bryan: Same reason you don’t have faith in the RCR guys this weekend… the Petty cars just aren’t posting good numbers on intermediate tracks this year, especially recently. You’re rolling the dice on Vickers, another driver that has cooled in recent weeks… why Vickers when his teammate AJ Allmendinger has been running better of late?
Mike: I thought long and hard about putting AJ in there, but I just feel like Brian is due for a good run. He was doing well at Indy and Pocono before mechanical stuff got in the way. Add to that an odd little numerology thing, he had a fourth in the spring race, followed by three double-digit finishes, then a sixth followed by three more double-digit finishes. So believing in the power of patterns, he’s due for a single-digit finish again. Aren’t you thinking that Ragan is going to buckle under the pressure of trying to make the Chase with the number of races running out?
Bryan: Absolutely not. Ragan’s consistency this season shows a driver that has greatly improved and matured over last season, and the Roush equipment he’s got is outperforming that of his RCR competitors in recent weeks. The No. 6, mark my words, will be Chase bound this season
Mike: I am sure I’ll remember it, especially if he is out of the running after Richmond. We’re probably going to be sorry that we didn’t pick Kyle Busch this weekend. I think he’s going to be on an all out assault to break Jeff Gordon and Richard Petty‘s modern-era record for wins.
Bryan: Well Mike, while this week’s Full Throttle definitely throws some stats that suggest that out there, I’m not convinced that on the ovals the No. 18 is that much farther ahead of the No. 48 and No. 99 anymore. We’ll see how it pans out.
The following are the guidelines that Bryan and Mike follow in making their picks each week: Crank ‘Em Up drivers can be in any position in the driver standings, Sit ‘Em Down drivers must be in the current top 25 of the driver standings and Roll the Dice drivers can not be in the top 12 of the current week’s driver standings.
Crank – 14.7
Sit – 18.9
Roll – 24.9
Crank – 11.7
Sit – 21.7
Roll – 19.0