The heat is being turned up as we get into the “dog days” of summer, and the competition is becoming even more fierce. With only four races left in the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup (NSC) “regular” season, drivers and teams alike are looking to solidify their standing and chances for the “playoffs” as the Chase for the Sprint Cup nears an end (last ten races). We’ve run twenty-two races thus far, and as the opportunities to get that elusive win begin to wane, so do the chances for teams to get into the Chase. This week, 145 is the magic number; those drivers in the top ten who are 145 points ahead of 11th in the standings will automatically be locked in. As of right now, four drivers have that chance this week: points leader Jimmie Johnson, Greg Biffle, Matt Kenseth, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. The Wild Card positions will likely continue to change, as those drivers on the bubble can either make or break it with a win (or bump out a competitor with a strong finish).
Speaking of finishes, last week’s finish at Watkins Glen was a wild one. With a multitude of beatin’ and bangin’, plus slippin’ and slidin’, an oil-slicked racing surface made drivers think they were in a drift competition rather than a race. But on the last lap, it was Marcos Ambrose repeating his performance from 2011 coming home with the win, leaving many wondering why NASCAR officials didn’t throw a Caution flag to clean up the mess prior the Checkered Flag waving. Brad Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson, Clint Bowyer, and Sam Hornish Jr completed the top five, with Greg Biffle, Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, Regan Smith, and Martin Truex, Jr rounding out the top ten finishers. Jimmie Johnson took possession of first place in the NSC standings with his third-place finish, as Dale Earnhardt Jr slipped to fourth after a last lap spin at WGI that left him finishing twenty-eighth. However, considering we’re back at Michigan International Speedway (MIS) in the Irish Hills southwest of Detroit, a place where Dale Jr broke his four-year winless streak back in June, he’ll be looking to sweep the 2012 Michigan races this weekend.
The Pure Michigan 400 at MIS will be a 200-lap, 400-mile dash on the 2-mile D-shaped oval. This race should give us a glimpse into who’s ready for the Chase, and who’s ready for the garage. Worries about tire wear and tear have been somewhat minimized considering Goodyear held a tire test a few weeks ago. This was due in an effort to find a tire compound that would not be too hard, yet still provide ample grip (remember the initial compound in June put speeds well over 200mph, causing safety concerns with NASCAR officials). This will be the second race on the new asphalt racing surface. Early reviews appear to be positive, and everyone seems to be happy with the speeds and tire wear.
The Pure Michigan 400 broadcast day begins Sunday at 10am EDT with NASCAR Raceday Pre-Race show on SPEED, NASCAR Countdown on ESPN, with the race coverage at 1pm EDT. Detroit-area radio host Paul W. Smith will wave the Green Flag at approximately 1:16pm EDT for Coors Light Pole Award winner Mark Martin, who put up a blistering qualifying run at 199.706 (beat front row starting mate Carl Edwards by .2 seconds). Steve Azar (Ride Records) will perform the National Anthem, with Kid Rock giving the Command to Fire Engines as the race’s Grand Marshal. A formation of U.S. Air Force F-16s are scheduled for the pre-race flyover.
As of right now, three cars will start from the rear of the field. The Penske Racing #12 car will have Sam Hornish Jr at the wheel (driver change), and Jimmie Johnson will give up his spot behind polesitter Mark Martin( a #48) for an engine change. Dale Earnhardt Jr, racing with the car he won in June, smacked the wall during final practice and will have to start from the rear of the field in his backup car.
Best Bets: Two of the three Roush-Fenway Fords have the best chances for Victory Lane Sunday. They will look to finally get Jack Roush back into Victory Lane after a number of Chevys have been victorious.
Greg Biffle (#16 3M Ford)- Greg has won the last two final practice sessions at MIS this year. He finished fourth in June’s race, and has been no worse than twentieth in his last four races in Michigan. In the last four intermediate-length track races, the Biff has had two top fives and finished no worse than twenty-first. With two wins, eight top-five, and eleven top-ten finishes at MIS, Biffle will look to try and reinforce his standings in the Chase. This is important, considering he’s only one point away from current leader Jimmie Johnson. He’ll start thirteenth, and as mentioned, was first in final practice.
Matt Kenseth (#17 Fifth Third Bank Ford)- Matt is only one point behind teammate Greg Biffle, and only two behind Jimmie Johnson for the lead. Last week’s points battle was expected to be jumbled up as soon as Dale Jr spun on the last lap, considering there were only eight points separating the top four drivers. Matt is one of only two drivers (both Roush Fenway) who have averaged finishes in the top ten (Carl Edwards is the other), and is number two in overall points earned in the last four races at Michigan. He’s finished no worse than tenth in the last four MIS outings, and finished third in June. With two wins, twelve top-fives, and seventeen top-tens, Kenseth would appear as a big threat come Sunday. He was fourth in final practice (and will start accordingly), so expect to see him up front early and often.
Probables: Keep an eye on one Toyota, as well as one Chevy, that should be seen running up front Sunday.
Mark Martin (#55 Aaron’s Dream Machine Toyota)- Considering he’s just running a part-time schedule this year for Michael Waltrip Racing, “The Kid” has been showing that he’s still enjoying racing, and has no intent to retire anytime soon. Mark, who is currently in his 50s, has a whopping five wins here, plus eighteen top-five and thirty-one top-ten finishes (yes, he’s been racing a lot of years, so those high numbers aren’t so out of the ordinary). He’s finished fourth in the last two summer MIS races, and won his first Coors Light Pole Award for this race. He’ll lead the field to Green Sunday, and was fifth fastest in Happy Hour.
Kasey Kahne (#5 Farmers Insurance Chevy)- Kasey has come on strong in the last few races, earning the third-highest number of points of any of the top twenty-five drivers. He’s finished no worse than eighth in the last four Intermediate-length track races, including a win at Charlotte back in May. Kahne has won here before, had six top-five and seven top-ten finishes, and two Pole Awards. He was sixth-fastest in final practice, and rolls off fifth.
Dark Horses: The other powerhouse stable, Hendrick Motorsports, should have a total of three high finishers. Unfortunately, since these two will be starting from the rear of the field, they’ve got their work cut out for them.
Jimmie Johnson (#48 Lowe’s Chevy)- Jimmie’s back on the top of the NSC points battle, even though it’s only by one point. But remember, one point is what lost Carl Edwards the title last year to Tony Stewart. Jimmie is still winless here in the Irish Hills, but has scored four top-five and nine top-ten finishes. He’s the second-highest points earner within the last four Cup races, has finished no worse than twelfth in three of the last four outings here( and no worst than eleventh in the last four Intermediate-length track races). He, like Dale Jr, will start from the rear of the field due to an engine change, but was second-fastest in final practice. Don’t expect Jimmie to stay in the rear of the field for very long. He and crew chief Chad Knaus will work their strategy to get to the front, and will likely do it in record time.
Dale Earnhardt, Jr (#88 National Guard/Diet Mt Dew Chevy)- Dale Jr was in fact Batman here in June, snapping his long-standing winless streak. He had brought the same chassis for this race, but got himself turned loose during final practice and put himself into the wall. He will be in his backup car, which he has yet to run a lap on. But Jr Nation is not worried, considering he ran this backup car here at MIS in the tire test that Goodyear hosted a few weeks ago. Jr’s got a new confidence about himself, so I think he and his crew chief Stevie Letarte will have their act together come Sunday. If Dale Jr leads a lap Sunday (even if it’s the final lap), he will have led 7,000 laps in his career so far. Not to shabby. With two wins, five top-fives, and nine top-tens, Jr definitely knows his way around the D-shaped oval. Let’s see if he can find his way from the back and end up in Victory Lane come Sunday.
As for others to keep an eye on, be on the lookout for Carl Edwards and his #99 Geek Squad Ford. In addition, Brad Keselowski and the “Blue Deuce”, and Jeff Gordon’s #24. Carl will start on the outside of the front row and was eighth-fastest in final practice (average finish of 8.4 here). Brad’s on the hunt for another win that will solidify his standing in the Chase, and hopes to make up some of the 44 point deficit he’s currently in. Gordo’s had two wins here, and with his momentum of late, desperately needs a second win to propel him into Wild Car contention.
A good week for Dale Jr: Despite his poor finish last Sunday at Watkins Glen, Dale Jr has a couple things to be happy about. First, Dale Earnhardt Jr has joined a number of his fellow drivers in the car dealership business. Junior, in conjunction with team owner Rick Hendrick, has purchased ownership in two Tallahassee Florida dealerships, Dale Earnhardt Jr Chevrolet, and Dale Earnhardt Jr Buick GMC Cadillac. Junior was recently quoted, “This is something Rick and I have talked about doing ever since I came to Hendrick Motorsports, but we agreed it had to be the right situation.” I guess the time is finally right, as he joins the other 82 dealerships managed by the Hendrick Automotive Group. They’ll manage the stores for Jr. (Hendrick Automotive Group) In addition, also announced was the extension of Dale Jr’s National Guard sponsorship for the 2013 season, who will be the title sponsor for twenty of next year’s races.
JoLo’s new ride: Considering that Joey Logano is searching for a team next year, the newest bit of gossip is that he will take the #22 Penske Ford (remember they’re switching from Dodge next year), the same vehicle that was vacated when AJ Allmendinger was discovered to have a banned substance in his system back in July. While it sounds like AJ will likely be completed with NASCAR’s “Road to Recovery” program, he’ll likely have a tough road back to get back into a race car. While Roger Penske hasn’t made it official just yet, Joey’s not likely to remain with Joe Gibbs Racing in the 2013 season, unless he managed to find a title sponsor. The NASCAR world is still awaiting JGR’s announcement that Matt Kenseth will take the #20 car next year as he moves from Roush Fenway Racing. Penske is still pretty optimistic, though, commenting recently, “We must be a pretty good-looking girl, we’re getting a lot of people calling for dates,” he said Sunday. “At this point, we haven’t made any decisions.” Definitely more to follow on this one. (Sporting News)
It’s race number two at MIS and number twenty-three for the 2012 season; every position counts. Brooklyn, MI only has a 30% chance of rain Sunday, so hopefully we won’t need the Jet Dryers to dry things off. Tune in to your local Motor Racing Network affiliate, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio (Channel 90), or to ESPN for all the action. . And as always, follow me on Twitter (@speedglutton) for race updates, who’s gone to the garage, and who got caught speeding on Pit Road. Of course, I may have an occasional rant as well.
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