NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Fantasy Friday: Junior is going to win, it’s just a matter of when

There’s really only one question to be asked this week. OK, well, there’s more than one, but the main one that many are talking about: Can Dale Earnhardt, Jr. win at Michigan on Father’s Day? The reason it’s such a big deal is that the last time Junior won it was at Michigan … on Father’s Day … four years and 143 races ago.

And it became a bigger question after last week’s race at Pocono, where Junior finished eighth, but led 36 laps, including 16 late in the race where he appeared to have the strongest car. But with Junior being second in the points standings, and fuel being an issue, crew chief Steve Letarte made the call to bring him in, rather than going for the win and risk running out of fuel and finishing somewhere in the 20s.

Another factor is that Junior has 11 top-10 finishes this season, the most of any driver. Along with not getting a win, of course, the one black eye on Junior’s record has been his inability to lead leaps. He has led 123 laps this season, the fewest of any driver in the top 12, with the exception of Clint Bowyer, who has just led five laps.

If Junior fans want more encouraging numbers, there are more. He is the only driver to complete every lap this season and he is also third, behind Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch, in quality passes, which are defined by passing cars in the top 15 during a green flag.

Unlike before Talladega this year, I’m not guaranteeing that Junior will win. However, all of these factors just can’t be ignored. The fact is, Junior is going to win sometime this year. He’s run too strong for too long in too many races not to find Victory Lane. Whether it happens at Michigan Sunday on Father’s Day remains to be seen.

Top 5 Picks

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. – In 25 starts at Michigan, Junior has started on the pole twice, has the one victory, and has eight top-10 finishes. Those aren’t the best numbers at Michigan, but they do offer hope. Plus Junior and Letarte figured out Pocono pretty easily, so it’s easy to think they’ll do the same this weekend.

Matt Kenseth – He leads the points standings, has two wins at Michigan and an impressive 11 top-5 finishes in 25 starts there.

Greg Biffle – He’s also got two wins and 10 top 10s and has been strong most of the season before engine woes dropped him to 24th last week at Pocono.

Tony Stewart – The defending champion has always been strong at Michigan with one win and 10 tops 5s in 26 starts and it’s about time for his usual summertime surge, which may have started with a third last week at Pocono.

Denny Hamlin – He has just 12 starts at Michigan, but there are two wins, five top 5s and seven top 10s on his record already.

Shoulda, woulda, coulda – My inability to not pick Jimmie Johnson here is scary. There’s no doubt he could end up in Victory Lane. He hasn’t won at Michigan yet, which means he might be destined and even more determined to win there.

Here’s a look at how last week’s picks fared in the first 400-mile race at Pocono.

Jimmie Johnson: 4th. Caught speeding on pit road twice and still fourth. Not bad.

Carl Edwards: 11th. Not a terrible day, but not a factor to win either.

Jeff Gordon: 19th. Another difficult day for Wonder Boy, or Underdog, or whomever.

Denny Hamlin: 5tth. The “Tricky Triangle” has never been too tricky for him.

Brad Keselowski: 18th. Last year’s fall winner was not a factor Sunday.

Here’s a look at my results after 14 races and 70 picks.

7 wins

24 top fives

31 top 10s

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