With every passing week, the drivers and teams of the Sprint Cup Series lose one more shot at getting that elusive win that will lock them into the Chase.
Michigan International Speedway is the site of Round 15 of the 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season. After this week, only 11 races will remain until the Chase cutoff. That means the intensity will be ratcheting up all through the garage, as teams try to position themselves for the playoffs. That intensity will likely spill onto the racetrack.
What better place to kick off that run for the postseason than Michigan, the fastest circuit on the Cup schedule? Speeds are expected to be incredible this weekend, with many in the garage predicting that the drivers will be able to drive wide-open for much of the race due to the track’s silky-smooth surface. With speeds approaching 218 mph on what is projected to be a hot summer Sunday afternoon, could this be a wildcard weekend for the series? I answer that question and more in this week’s edition of Four Burning Questions.
1. How will high speeds affect the racing?
Michigan is one of the more unique tracks on the Sprint Cup circuit. The Cup Series cars have been able to go nearly wide open at Michigan ever since the track was repaved in 2012. This obviously means that the drivers usually carry major speed through the corners. Speeds at Michigan have reached as high as 220-plus mph on corner entry in recent years, and with the new 2015 rules package, those speeds have potential to grow even larger this weekend.
There is a great deal of silent trepidation about this weekend, as many in the industry have privately expressed concerns over the massive corner speeds that are expected for this race. Drivers will likely be able to go full-throttle all the way around the track for many laps in a fuel run, at speeds ranging from 215-220 mph. This could lead to problems if the tires don’t hold up, or a bad accident happens.
Could this mean restrictor plates find their way onto the cars this weekend? It nearly happened when the track was first repaved in 2012, and it could happen this weekend.
2. Could this be a last hurrah for the 2015 rules package?
The much-criticized 2015 intermediate-track aero package was a major point of discussion once again this week, as NASCAR VP Steve O’Donnell revealed that in-season aerodynamic changes could be implemented before the end of 2015. If such a thing were to happen, it would not be without precedent. Similar mid-season aero changes were made in both 2010 and 2012. The result in those years? A significant shift in the performance of the drivers and teams.
Industry sources claim that a massive downforce reduction could be coming to the cars as early as Indianapolis in July. If that turns out to be true, that would mean this weekend’s race at Michigan would be the second to last intermediate track race with the current rules package. As such, teams that have been performing well with this package may have limited time to capitalize on the current package, with sweeping changes likely causing a seismic shift in the Sprint Cup pecking order.
If I were a betting man (spoiler alert: I am), I’d wager that a midseason aero adjustment will in fact be happening at some point in the next two months. That means this weekend’s race will have even greater importance than previously thought. For those whom the 2015 package has favored, the time to strike is now, while the iron remains hot, because that iron will likely go ice cold in the next few months.
3. Can Furniture Row go 2 for 2 and turn heads in the Motor City?
By now, you’re probably aware of how strong the Furniture Row Racing (FRR) team has been in 2015. The No. 78 group has been one of the best teams in the garage area, and a legitimate threat to win this year’s championship. But what you may not know is that behind closed doors, FRR has been actively seeking out a new manufacturer for 2016 and beyond.
According to a report yesterday by NBC Sports, FRR is allegedly displeased with the lack of financial support provided by the team’s manufacturer, General Motors, and is apparently is in the process of finding a new partner for 2016. How convenient it is, then, that this weekend’s race is at Michigan, the home track for all of the Detroit’s major automakers? Could Sunday’s race be an audition of sorts for the Furniture Row squad? I’d say that the answer to that is a resounding “yes.”
Assuming the No. 78 team delivers another strong run on Sunday, such a performance could be the kickstart needed to spur negotiations with a new manufacturer. Could that mean FRR would head to Ford or Toyota? Would this be Dodge’s chance to get back in the sport? With how hot of a property the No. 78 team is right now, I’d say that any one of those possibilities is realistic.
4. Can the Fords turn things around at a track they once dominated?
For many years, Michigan was understood to be the domain of Ford-backed NASCAR teams. When the series rolled onto the 2-mile superspeedway, a Ford (usually one driven by Mark Martin, Dale Jarrett or someone of that ilk) was expected to roll into victory lane after the race. But recently? That has not been the case at all.
Ever since Michigan was repaved in 2012, the facility has been utterly dominated by Chevrolet teams, specifically those of Hendrick Motorsports. Hendrick (and by extension Chevrolet) have led more laps, won more races, and collected more top fives at Michigan than any other team since the repave, and all signs seem to point to that trend continuing this weekend.
Meanwhile, the Ford teams have struggled to remain relevant in 2015. Even the vaunted Team Penske Fords of Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski have had a difficult time keeping up with the Chevrolets. And of course, don’t get me started on the woes faced by Roush Fenway Racing…
With all of the automakers sure to be watching this Sunday’s race in the Motor City intently, the timing is perfect for the Ford teams to step up their game. A strong performance by the Fords at such an engineering-intensive track would be a good omen for the rest of the season, and a sign that the Blue Ovals have turned things around. It will be interesting to see if such a result will come to fruition, because it could have a big effect on backdoor team-to-manufacturer negotiations if it does.
Matt Stallknecht’s Fantasy Picks for the 2015 Quicken Loans 400
This year on Four Burning Questions, I will share my fantasy picks from the Frontstretch Fantasy NASCAR League, located here on NASCAR.com. Here are my picks from this week. Join the league and see if you can beat me!
- Kurt Busch ($26.50) – He’s been incredibly consistent as of late and has been great at Michigan since the repave. Hendrick power won’t hurt either.
- Martin Truex Jr. ($23.75) – He’s still an incredible value at $23.75. Scoop him up now before he becomes too expensive.
- Dale Earnhardt Jr. ($27.50) – He’s been money at Michigan since the repave, and is about as safe of a pick as you’ll get this week.
- David Ragan ($11.75) – See last week’s post. I’m riding this one until the end of the season for monetary reasons
- Ryan Blaney ($13.25) – He doesn’t have the finishes to show for it, but he’s run incredibly well and had lots of speed in the races he’s been in this year, especially fast intermediates. He’s as good of a long shot pick as you’ll find.