High speeds have been the theme at Michigan International Speedway this weekend as drivers have been routinely shattering the old track record at the 2.0-mile oval. Kevin Harvick eventually set the new record in qualifying, winning the pole with a lap of 204.557 mph. The lap also happened to be the fastest in the series since 1987. Meanwhile, Jimmie Johnson topped 202 mph in race trim during practice Saturday.
Can Harvick do the trick?
While the high speeds are impossible to ignore, the other trend worth paying attention to is that many of the drivers that qualified up front Friday also dominated during practice Saturday. There is a very good chance that there is going to be a torrid pace to this race, and given Michigan's tendency to have races go green for long stretches, drivers that aren't dialed in when the race begins could be in a lot of trouble.
Granted, the track's wide racing does give drivers with fast cars a chance to work their way to the front, but when you finalize your rosters this weekend, you may want to think twice about gambling on a guy starting deep in the field, even if they have been solid at MIS in the past. At the very least, make sure your picks performed well in practice, because with the way things are shaping up, drivers with ill-handling cars could be a lap down before they ever get a chance to make an adjustment.
The top 3
1) Kevin Harvick
He was my top pick to start the week, and after smashing the track record in qualifying en route to the pole and logging the best 10-lap average speed in both Saturday practices, Harvick retains the top spot in the final rankings. His success at Michigan has been a recent development, but he picked up his first win at the track in August of 2010 and just missed out on another win in both races last season, settling for a pair of runner-up finishes. Based on the speed he has shown this weekend, Harvick could easily get over the hump and back to victory lane.
2) Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Junior jumps up to the No. 2 spot in the final driver rankings after a third-place run in qualifying Friday and strong practice times Saturday. His performance so far this weekend has been par for the course for Junior at Michigan since the track was repaved a couple of seasons ago. He leads all drivers with 174 laps led in four races on the new surface, winning the June race in 2012. He should make a strong option in any format.
3) Jeff Gordon
While he has run hot and cold at Michigan in recent years, he does have five top-six finishes in his last 10 races at the track. More importantly, the speed he has shown so far this weekend suggests one of his better showings is on tap. Not only did Gordon run the second-fastest lap in both practices Saturday, but he also logged the second-best 10-lap average speed in Happy Hour. Gordon will start on the front row Sunday, and a trip to victory lane looks like a real possibility.
11) Kyle Larson
The talented rookie is capable of something special whenever he gets behind the wheel, and when he performs well like he has so far this weekend, his potential is tough to pass up. Larson qualified 12th for Sunday's race, and he cracked the top five in both practices Saturday, pacing the field in Happy Hour. Granted, he will be making his first Cup start at Michigan, but he did finish second at Auto Club Speedway earlier this year, and that track shares Michigan's 2.0-mile layout.
13) Brian Vickers
His career numbers at Michigan are solid, and the only real question about Vickers was whether he would be rusty after missing the last four races at the track. Well, a top-10 effort in qualifying and equally impressive practice times should quiet those concerns. Vickers enters Sunday's race with a 7.7 average finish in his last seven starts at MIS, and he looks capable of challenging for a top-10 Sunday.
17) Paul Menard
The new pavement at Michigan has brought out the best in Menard the last couple of years, and the trend is continuing this weekend. He qualified fifth Friday, and he cracked the top 15 in both practices Saturday. Menard owns a 9.0 average finish in his last three starts at MIS, and he finished a career-best fourth in his most recent start at the track. A top-10 finish isn't out of the question.
20) Austin Dillon
Dillon's weekend started with a quiet 19th-place effort in qualifying, but once he switched over to race trim in Saturday's practices, his car came to life. He ranked ninth and 11th in the two sessions, showing the same speed that allowed him to notch a pair of top-15 finishes at Michigan last year for two different teams. At the very least, Dillon should be able to hang in the top 20 all afternoon, and another top-15 is a real possibility, as well.
Big names outside the top 10
15) Carl Edwards
It is hard to write off a driver that owns a series-leading 8.3 average finish at Michigan, but Edwards has shown absolutely no signs of life this weekend. He qualified 22nd Friday, and he was awful in practice Saturday, ranking 29th and 33rd. With just two finishes outside the top 12 in 19 starts at MIS, history says he will find a way to get to the front. However, he is a shaky fantasy play, at best, this weekend.
16) Denny Hamlin
He has been mired in a slump at Michigan since the track was repaved. He has finished outside the top 10 in all four starts on the new surface, posting a dismal 23.8 average finish. Things aren't looking any better for Hamlin this weekend, and after qualifying a dismal 29th Friday, he only ran the 28th-best lap in final practice Saturday. Although he is a two-time winner at Michigan, it's tough to justify taking a chance on him.
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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