The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads to Michigan International Speedway this weekend, which means the teams will be racing in the backyard of some of the series' leading manufacturers (Ford, Chevy, etc.). Meanwhile, Toyota is attempting to steal the show for the third race in a row. With the schedule sliding ever closer to the start of the Chase for the Sprint Cup, intensity is picking up with every lap.
Here are some questions on my mind heading into the weekend …
Will Roush Fenway Racing continue to improve? … With Biffle’s win at Pocono a couple of weeks ago and Carl Edwards finishing in the top five the last two races, Michigan would be the perfect time for RFR to show continued improvement. Three of their drivers have multiple victories at MIS and only one DNF across all four drivers. Even David Ragan, who is not typically a front-runner, has a couple of top 10s and has led a few laps. The last time RFR won at MIS was back in 2008 in the 3M Performance 400 presented by Bondo. Will we see an RFR driver in victory lane come Sunday?
Will we see a big shakeup in the top 12? … Three drivers are within 100 points of 12th-place Mark Martin this weekend, which means one wrong move and Martin could easily fall out of the Chase. None would be more ready to capitalize on Martin’s misfortune than Clint Bowyer, who fell out of the top 12 in points after a mechanical malfunction at Watkins Glen. Bowyer is only 10 points away from Mark Martin, which is really only the difference between not leading a lap and leading the most laps. However, Martin’s statistics at MIS are much more impressive than Bowyer’s. Martin has 5 wins and has led nearly 1,000 laps to Bowyer’s zero wins and only 7 laps led. Granted, Martin has 40 more starts at MIS than Bowyer, but MIS has not typically been a good racetrack for Bowyer. He’ll have to step it up to compete with the likes of Martin.
Will we see another fuel mileage race? … Let’s be honest. MIS isn’t necessarily a race that fans circle on their calendar. Racing has a tendency to get strung out, with clean air usually proving to be more important than track position. The most memorable races (finishes) at MIS are usually the races where drivers, fans and especially crew chiefs are holding their collective breaths, waiting to see if their driver will be able to coast to the finish. Last season, Brian Vickers capitalized on Jimmie Johnson’s empty tank when the No. 48 ran out of fuel with just a couple of laps remaining. Mark Martin won in similar fashion in the spring race at MIS, coincidentally also passing Johnson after he ran out of fuel. Maybe Johnson and Chad Knaus need to try a different strategy this time around.
Can Dale Earnhardt Jr. pick it up this weekend? … I’d kind of be beating a dead horse by saying Dale Earnhardt Jr. is struggling this season, so I’ll refrain from making such an obvious statement. However, MIS has typically been a kind weekend to Earnhardt Jr. Earnhardt has only finished outside the top 15 once since 2005 and even has a victory here in 2008 (and don’t start the griping about it being a fuel mileage race. A win is a win). Another promising statistic for Jr. Nation is that Earnhardt Jr. has finished 99% of the laps he has run at the racetrack. So even in the midst of a gloomy season for the No. 88, MIS is definitely a race that Earnhardt Jr. and his fans can look forward to every season.
Will we see another streak broken this weekend? … Several big name and very talented drivers have been shut out of victory lane for a very long time. And many of them have good records at this racetrack. The last few races have showcased some underdog stories, with drivers who were facing long losing streaks breaking into victory lane. It’s been fun to see some fresh faces in the winner’s circle, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it continue this weekend.
Bonus questions: Can Kurt Busch and Jimmie Johnson cool their feud by this weekend? … Anyone glad that we aren’t talking about Denny Hamlin’s knee as much as we were the last time we raced here? … Anyone think Brian Pattie will make a call for two tires if it comes time to make the decision?
Photo courtesy of NASCAR Media. Opinions expressed are solely those of the author.