Amid the tumultuous economy the major auto manufacturers are struggling through, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, a proud showcase of the American auto industry, heads to the carmakers' backyard.
Michigan International Speedway is similar to Auto Club Speedway in many respects. They are two-mile, tri-oval sister tracks, but each is unique. The Michigan track is tough on engines, and attrition can often become a factor. Drivers tend to like the track because there is a lot of room to pass in the wide corners. Three-wide, and even four-wide, racing is commonplace, and drivers can pass just about anywhere, assuming their cars work in the particular groove.
Long green runs are the norm, so fuel strategy often comes into play. Wrecks are most common coming out of the corners, as it is easy for drivers to carry too much speed out of the turns and slide toward the wall. The race surface is NASCAR's first to be made of polymer-enhanced asphalt, which protects the track from Michigan's cold winters.
Location: Brooklyn, Mich.
Length: 2.00 miles
Turns 1-2: 18 degrees
Turns 3-4: 18 degrees
Front stretch: 12 degrees
Back stretch: 5 degrees
Drivers to keep an eye on
Carl Edwards | No. 99 Aflac Ford | Roush Fenway Racing
Edwards is on a run of four straight top-10 finishes, three of which were top-fives. The team seems to have found the consistency it lacked in the first part of the season. At Michigan International Speedway Edwards is special. His record at the track is nothing short of outstanding. His average finish in his last five starts there is 7.6, with two wins and four top-10 finishes. His career average finish at the track is 6.6 in nine total starts. Edwards and most of the Roush Fenway drivers are ones to start with confidence in the LifeLock 400.
Matt Kenseth | No. 17 Carhartt Ford | Roush Fenway Racing
Kenseth hasn't been as consistent in the last few races as teammate Carl Edwards, but he has certainly stepped up his results. Four of his last five races have ended with top-10 finishes, and two were top-fives. Like Edwards, Kenseth has a stellar Michigan record. His average finish in his last five starts there is 11.0, but one of those was a 42nd-place DNF. That result was the only one of the five that wasn't a top-five, and he even notched win in the 2006 GFS Marketplace 400. With Roush's return to form in the past few races, you can't ignore Kenseth in the LifeLock 400.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. | No. 88 AMP/National Guard Chevrolet | Hendrick Motorsports
What some hailed as a turnaround with a new crew chief resulted in a return to more of the same in the Pocono 500 for Earnhardt. He finished the race 27th and only spent 34 of 200 laps in the top 15. Michigan International Speedway however is a good place to showcase the steps that Earnhardt and Lance McGrew have taken. Earnhardt has performed fairly well at the track in the past. His average finish in 16 career starts is 15.6, and he won last year's LifeLock 400. Earnhardt should show progress this weekend, if not because of the team changes, at least as a result of his abilities at the wide Michigan tri-oval.
Martin Truex Jr. | No. 1 GE Reveal Light Bulbs Chevrolet | Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing
It is no secret that Truex and Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing have struggled. Truex has only scored three top-10 finishes. Michigan could make for a slightly different story for the driver, though. He scored back-to-back second-place finishes there in 2007 and followed with two top-20 results in 2008. Truex's average finish in six career starts at the track is 13.8. While Truex has been somewhat of a disappointment, he has the opportunity to hit some paydirt in Sunday's race at Michigan International Raceway. He should be considered for fantasy rosters as a possible starter.
David Ragan | No. 6 UPS Ford | Roush Fenway Racing
The backing from Ragan's big new sponsor hasn't translated into strong finishes. In fact, Ragan has been somewhat of a bust compared to his preseason expectations. With just one top-10 finish, Ragan is in territory he should be scared of when looking at his future with Roush. Michigan International Speedway is a strong track for the Roush organization, though. Ragan has taken some direction from his teammates. He turned his rough first two starts at the track into a top-five and a top-10 finish there in 2008. Look for Ragan to do more of the same. A rising tide lifts all ships.
Temper your expectations
Ryan Newman | No. 39 U.S. Army Chevrolet | Stewart-Haas Racing
In its first season Stewart-Haas Racing has already exceeded expectations. In the past three races Newman earned two top-fives and three top-10s. Unfortunately, Newman's Michigan resume is not strong at all. His average finish in his last five starts at the track is 28.2. While all of Newman's previous Michigan starts were for Penske Racing, fantasy owners should wait to make sure Newman's past Michigan struggles were the team's and not his. Fantasy players shouldn't necessarily sit Newman, but they should make sure they stock their lineups with some other more likely candidates for a win.
Jeff Burton | No. 31 Caterpillar Chevrolet | Richard Childress Racing
Burton scored his sixth top-10 finish of the season in last weekend's Pocono 500. Regardless, Richard Childress Racing has struggled somewhat in 2009. Additionally, Burton has historically failed to achieve much at Michigan. The signs don't look good in the LifeLock 400. Burton's average finish in the last five Michigan races is 21.2, although one of them was a DNF for engine problems. He hasn't scored a top-10 result at the track since his fourth-place finish in 2002. Fantasy players may want to avoid Burton this weekend.
Kasey Kahne | No. 9 Budweiser Dodge | Richard Petty Motorsports
While 2009 hasn't been a stellar year for Kahne, it hasn't been a complete loss. He scored two top-10 finishes in the last three races. Kahne failed to finish the 2008 3M Performance 400 due to an engine failure, which continued his inconsistent tally at Michigan. His average finish in the last five races there is 21.8, and that includes two top-five finishes. Kahne won from the pole in the shortened 3M Performance 400 in 2006 but has notched three finishes worse than 30th at the track since. Fantasy owners shouldn't pin their hopes on Kahne due to his inconsistency.
Mark Martin | No. 5 Kelloggs/CARQUEST Chevrolet | Hendrick Motorsports
After a strong start to the Pocono 500, Martin faded and ended the day in 19th place. It was an atypical result for him at Pocono International Raceway. The Michigan circuit once was a great place for Martin but recently has not been kind to the 50-year-old. At one point in his career Martin tallied 12 straight top-10 finishes at MIS, but his average finish in his last five tries is a meager 21.4. While he did score two top-10s in those past five, Martin may be too inconsistent to use this weekend.
Jeff Gordon | No. 24 National Guard/DuPont Chevrolet | Hendrick Motorsports
Gordon has been suffering from intensifying back pain recently. How much that is affecting his results is inconclusive, but every accident he has only makes the situation worse. He had a very strong run at Long Pond last weekend but has struggled in the last few seasons at Michigan. His average finish in his last five tries at the track is 19.6, with a top-five and another top-10. Fantasy players will want to watch Gordon with interest. It's important to gauge Gordon's results over the course of the remaining season given the back pain. You may start him this weekend, but monitor his progress.