If Father Time wants to catch up with Mark Martin, he is going to need a pretty fast racecar. For the third race in a row Martin posted the fastest lap in the opening practice session, topping 201 mph on the freshly repaved surface of Michigan International Speedway. Considering Martin's five wins at MIS are his most at any track, there is a good chance that another strong weekend is on tap for the veteran. He finished fourth and ninth at Michigan one year ago, and fantasy owners shouldn't hesitate to add him to their lineups.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. posted the second-fastest lap of the practice, and it was at the June race at Michigan four years ago that he last went to Victory Lane in a Cup Series event. Junior is having by far his best season with Hendrick Motorsports, and for the first time in a long time, he looks like a driver capable of winning races. He leads the series with 11 top-10s in 2012, and even if he doesn't snap his winless drought this weekend, Junior is a safe bet to at least be near the front. He should definitely make a solid addition to fantasy rosters,
Sleeper candidate Trevor Bayne posted the third-fastest lap in the first session, and Tony Stewart and Matt Kenseth rounded out the top five. Bayne finished 16th at MIS last June, and since he will be driving the same Roush Fenway Racing equipment that has been dominant at the track, a top-15 finish is certainly within reach. Meanwhile, Stewart and Kenseth should both be contenders for the win Sunday. Stewart has nine finishes of 12th or better in his last 10 starts at Michigan, including four straight finishes of ninth or better. Kenseth is riding a streak of three straight top-10 finishes at MIS in his own right, and he finished second in the June event one year ago.
Only three drivers ran 10 or more consecutive laps, and Jimmie Johnson was the best of the three. He has never won a race at Michigan, and after a second-place finish at the track last August, it was clear that Johnson and company were focusing on race trim in the first session Friday. His 52 laps run were the most of any driver, and while some of the drivers in qualifying trim were topping 200 mph, Johnson topped out at just shy of 197 mph. Given Michigan's tendency to feature long green flag runs on race day, the strategy might not end up being a bad one for Johnson.
The record-setting speeds only increased during Happy Hour, and Greg Biffle paced the session with a lap of nearly 205 mph. He is a two-time winner at Michigan, and after giving up the points lead last weekend, Biffle will be anxious to regain the top spot. He only has two finishes outside the top 15 all year, and at a track like Michigan that has traditionally been kind to Ford teams, Biffle should rebound nicely from last weekend's engine issues at Pocono.
Marcos Ambrose posted the second-fastest lap of the session, and Kevin Harvick ranked third. Harvick won at the track in August of 2010, but by his standards, MIS hasn't been his most consistent track. Meanwhile, Ambrose has never finished in the top 10 at the track, and he has a dismal 27.0 average finish in seven starts. Based on career numbers, neither driver is an amazing fantasy option. That being said, Ambrose has been enjoying his best stretch of the season the last month, and a top-15 finish isn't out of the question. After his fast practice times, he could be worth the gamble.
Two-time Michigan winner Carl Edwards and Paul Menard rounded out the top 10, and fantasy owners have to make a tough decision with both drivers. In his last 10 starts at the track, Edwards has finished seventh or better eight times and has finished outside the top 12 only once. However, he just can't seem to get on track in 2012. Still, seeing him high on the practice charts at one of his best tracks makes Edwards tough for owners to pass up. Menard, on the other hand, finished fourth in the June race at MIS last year but has finished 24th or worse in six of his last seven starts at the track. Like Ambrose, Menard has been running well lately, and owners willing to gamble a bit could be rewarded.
A few more drivers tried some longer runs in the final session, and Junior posted the best 10-lap average speed among the 14 eligible drivers. Kenseth ranked second, and Martin also cracked the top five. The newcomers to the top of the charts were Hendrick Motorsports teammates Kasey Kahne and Jeff Gordon. Gordon has finished sixth or better in four of his last six starts at Michigan, and Kahne is a former winner at the track and has finished second on three other occasions, as well. More importantly, all four HMS drivers ranked in the top six in terms of 10-lap average speeds. With speeds on the new surface at record highs and tire wear a major concern, drivers that hold up the best on the long runs should have a huge edge. Fantasy owners should strongly consider loading up on Rick Hendrick's guys this weekend.
In addition to Bayne, fantasy owners may want to consider Austin Dillon as a sleeper pick. He is driving for his grandfather Richard Childress this weekend, and he ranked inside the top 15 in both practice sessions. The defending Truck Series champion has been tearing it up in his rookie year in the Nationwide Series, and the talented young driver has future star written all over him. Dillon seemed to handle the high speeds at Michigan just fine in practice, and he could be a surprise source for a top-20 finish in one of his rare Cup starts.
One big name owners may want to avoid is Kyle Busch. Even though he finished third and first at Michigan last season, he didn't seem to have a great handle on the new surface in the practices Friday. He ranked 12th and 30th in the two sessions and was the slowest of 14 cars in terms of 10-lap average speed in Happy Hour. Throw in the fact that he has suffered mechanical issues in each of the past two races, and Busch is a risky option this weekend.
Happy Hour Speeds (sorted by Best Lap)
10-Lap Average Speeds (must run 10 consecutive laps)
First Practice Speeds (sorted by Best Lap)
10-Lap Average Speeds (must run 10 consecutive laps)
About Brian Polking
Racing has been part of Brian's life ever since he can remember, and he spent his childhood at dirt tracks throughout Ohio and Kentucky watching his father race. NASCAR naturally became his favorite sport, and he has been following the Cup, Nationwide and Truck Series for most of his life. Brian majored in journalism and economics at Ohio State University and becoming a sports writer has always been his dream. Although he has covered everything from minor league baseball to the NCAA tournament, his passion has always been NASCAR. Brian has served as a NASCAR writer for a variety of sites, eventually becoming head editor of the NASCAR section for Fanball.com. His knowledge of NASCAR comes from his life-long love of racing, and he tries to add a personal touch to every article he writes. Brian is always up for talking NASCAR with anyone that wants to. Brian joined KFFL's team in 2011.
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