This week’s race: Pure Michigan 400
Traditional Name: Yankee 400
Other Notable Names: Champion Spark Plug 400, Carfax 400, 3M Performance 400
With only four races remaining, NASCAR still has an opportunity to make the Chase a winner’s only competition. Last week AJ Allmendinger battled with Marcos Ambrose for the victory during a two-lap shootout till the end, and if one thinks “battled” is a sports’ hyperbole, they should rewind the tape and watch that final lap again. Ambrose bumped Allmendinger out of the groove in the carousel, ‘Dinger doored the Dingo down the backstretch, and entering the final corner Kurt Busch still had a chance to win if those two wrecked one another. The Cheez-it 355k at the Glen was NASCAR road racing at its best.
Now the series rolls into Michigan International Speedway to one of NASCAR’s almost-perfect tracks. This two-mile track is long enough to have blistering speeds but not quite big enough to require restrictor-plates. The track was repaved in 2012, which makes for some fast speeds, but the corners are wide enough for drivers to find a different groove and pass. Two and half years of harsh Michigan winters are just now beginning to take a toll on the surface and add some character.
For a long while, this was the track that Jack built, but tide has turned in recent seasons. Jack Roush’s teams have earned only four top-fives in the past three years, which equals 21 percent of their starts. By comparison, Hendrick Motorsports has earned top-fives in 33 percent of their starts, Penske Racing has top-fives in 31 percent, and even the relatively new Stewart-Haas Racing team has an average of 25 percent. This week’s Pure Michigan 400 will be a Ford versus Chevrolet duel, but the most likely contenders are going to come for Penske and Hendrick.
If NASCAR is going to get their 13th different winner of the 2014 season, it is likely to come from a Hendrick powered car. That organization will put the majority of their effort behind getting Kasey Kahne into the Chase field, but fantasy owners should not overlook either Chip Ganassi Racing driver with motors from the same engine shop.
Toyota might also have a say in the matter. Matt Kenseth has two victories on this track and his teammate Kyle Busch won on the other two-mile track in California, with Kenseth taking home fourth-place money in the Auto Club 400.
However it plays out, look for lightning fast speeds and a quick race. This week’s contest is only 400 mile and it has been five years since a race on this track lasted more than three hours.
10 best drivers at Michigan
Over the past six races, these drivers have the best average finish.
1. Clint Bowyer
Last six races average finish at Michigan: 7.33
Career avg. finish at Michigan: 15.1 in 17 starts
Bowyer has come on strong at Michigan in the past three years, but that was not always the case. His career average finish of 15.1 in 17 starts ranks this track 13th on his personal scale and that is almost perfectly midway among the courses on which NASCAR races. Something clicked for him in 2009; he swept the top 10 that year, struggled slightly in 2010, and has swept the top 10 in the past seven races. And yet, for all his consistency, he has only one career top-five, which came in this race last year.
2. Brad Keselowski
Last six races average finish at Michigan: 7.50
Career avg. finish at Michigan: 15.5 in 10 starts
Keselowski has alternately shown incredible strength or consistency in the past three years. Dating back to the fall 2011 Quicken Loans 400 he finished either second or third in three races and 12th or 13th in the other three. Last year he finished 12th in both events, which could mean that his third-place finish in the June Quicken Loans 400 is predictive of another third-place finish this week. Either way, he will be a solid pick for fantasy players with minimal risk and should grace most rosters.
3. Kevin Harvick
Last six races average finish at Michigan: 9.00
Career avg. finish at Michigan: 13.4 in 27 starts
Harvick must be getting a little tired of finishing second. He was the runner-up to Greg Biffle in spring 2013, Joey Logano in this race last year, and Jimmie Johnson this June. It will not take much to get him that extra burst of speed needed to find Victory Lane, but the entire Stewart-Haas Racing organization is going to have to stop making mistakes before fantasy handicappers declare Harvick a favorite.
4. Greg Biffle
Last six races average finish at Michigan: 9.17
Career avg. finish at Michigan: 12.9 in 24 starts
At another time, Biffle would be one of the favorites to win at Michigan. He’s tasted Victory Lane champagne in two of the last four races with back-to-back wins in 2012/2013. He has another pair of victories in 2004/2005 and Roush-Fenway Racing was once the scourge of this track. His record and Jack’s reputation did not help any this June, however, because he never got out of the gates and finished only 20th after starting 18th.
5. Matt Kenseth
Last six races average finish at Michigan: 10.83
Career avg. finish at Michigan: 9.8 in 30 starts
It seems that Kenseth traded raw power for consistency when he joining Joe Gibbs Racing. Four of his last five races for Jack Roush ended in top-10s; three of those were top-fives. In three races with Gibbs, he has a best result of sixth and two more finishes in the mid-teens. There is still reason to be hopeful that he might find Victory Lane this week and enter the Chase with some bonus points. He has two previous wins at Michigan with the most recent coming in the 2006 edition of this race.
6. Tony Stewart
Last six races average finish at Michigan: 11.80 (5 starts)
Career avg. finish at Michigan: 11.7 in 30 starts
Stewart missed last year’s Pure Michigan 400 due to a physical injury. Until the weekend starts, it is unclear if he will miss this year’s edition due to an emotional injury. If he shows up to race, he is likely to be distracted at every turn by media in light of his involvement in a tragic accident on a dirt track in New York last week. That makes him a questionable fantasy value.
7. Ryan Newman
Last six races average finish at Michigan: 12.33
Career avg. finish at Michigan: 17.4 in 26 starts
Newman owes his position among the 10 best drivers at Michigan during the past three years to consistency. He swept the top 10 in 2011, but has earned only one more top-10 in the past five races. His worst result in that span was an 18th in June 2013, so there is a strong likelihood that he will finish somewhere in the mid-teens again this week. That degree of predictability will make him a good value in some games.
8. Paul Menard
Last six races average finish at Michigan: 13.17
Career avg. finish at Michigan: 19.3 in 16 starts
Four seems to be a magical number for Menard. He finished fourth in this race last August and again this June. He also has a fourth-place finish to his credit in 2011, but like several drivers in the bottom half of this week’s top-10 he owes a lot to consistency. On the two-mile tracks combined, he has swept the top 15 in the past six races and should be viewed as one of the best dark horses in the Pure Michigan 400.
9. Kasey Kahne
Last six races average finish at Michigan: 15.50
Career avg. finish at Michigan: 15.9 in 21 starts
Since joining Hendrick Motorsports at the beginning of 2012, Kahne has either finished in the top-10 or crashed. This June he accomplished both feats when he overcame crash damage sustained in the opening laps of the Quicken Loans 400 and climbed to fifth at the checkers. If he can keep his car clean, he might have a shot at Victory Lane and keep the conversation alive about just how many regular season winners there will be.
10. Carl Edwards
Last six races average finish at Michigan: 15.67
Career avg. finish at Michigan: 9.1 in 20 starts
Edwards’ performance in the Quicken Loans 400 speaks volumes about how far Roush-Fenway Racing has fallen this year. The two-mile tracks of Michigan and Auto Club were once the playground of this organization, but the No. 99 was so bad in June that Edwards never cracked the top 15. It seems impossible that a driver with top-10s in 75 percent of his starts on a track could go without one this year, but fantasy owners need to exercise caution.
Others of Note
13. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Last six races average finish at Michigan: 16.50
Career avg. finish at Michigan: 16.0 in 30 starts
Earnhardt’s two victories at Michigan were both emotional affairs. He won his first race for Rick Hendrick in 2008 on this fast two-mile track and everyone thought many more would follow. They didn’t, and he was on a long winless streak when he crossed under the checkers first in 2012. This year, he has as many wins in the Cup series as anyone else and no one will be surprised to see him grab the checkers one more time.
14. Jeff Gordon
Last six races average finish at Michigan: 17.00
Career avg. finish at Michigan: 12.3 in 43 starts
Gordon has had a couple of disappointing runs in the past three years. A blown engine in August 2012 and an accident the following June destroyed his six-race average finish, but three of his results in that span of races ended in sixth-place results. He needs to rebound from last week’s electrical problem and should not take too many risks. A top-10 is well within his reach in the Pure Michigan 400 and he will be a very popular driver this week.
15. Jimmie Johnson
Last six races average finish at Michigan: 17.17
Career avg. finish at Michigan: 16.2 in 25 starts
Johnson has been an all-or-nothing driver in the past six races. He won this June after starting seventh and he has a second and fifth in back-to-back races in 2011/2012. The three events in between those strong runs all ended outside the top 25 with a pair of engine failures and a crash-induced disappointment. Fantasy owners do not know if the team is done with their science projects and should stay away from the No. 48 this week.
16. Joey Logano
Last six races average finish at Michigan: 17.67
Career avg. finish at Michigan: 16.0 in 11 starts
Logano’s stats are deceiving. In order to have a common snapshot of results, it is helpful to look at a driver’s last three years, but this Young Gun switched teams at the beginning of the 2013 season. Since leaving Joe Gibbs Racing to join Penske Racing, Logano has been perfect in regard to top-10 finishes. Last year, he was simply perfect overall by grabbing the pole, leading the most laps, and winning the Pure Michigan 400.
18. AJ Allmendinger
Last six races average finish at Michigan: 17.75 (4 starts)
Career avg. finish at Michigan: 23.0 in 13 starts
Allmendinger was expected to run strong last week at Watkins Glen and he did not disappoint. He showed determination and held off Ambrose to give JTG / Daugherty Racing their first career win and made sure they are at the front of mind for the next seven races. After the final four regular season races are in the books as well as the first three playoff events, he might slide back into relative obscurity for the remainder of the season, but for now his results will be scrutinized. Allmendinger has shown some promise at Michigan, but he has not yet cracked the top 10. He does have two 11ths, however, with the most recent of these coming in 2011.
21. Kyle Busch
Last six races average finish at Michigan: 20.33
Career avg. finish at Michigan: 16.0 in 11 starts
There is no doubt that Busch is a talented driver. His 29 Cup victories did not come by accident and when he stays out of trouble, he is incredibly hard to beat. Last week’s performance at the Glen showed why he is such a risky proposition for fantasy players, however. He was unable to keep his emotions in check after incurring a penalty and damaged his car enough to spend the first half of the race behind the wall. A driver simply cannot get a good finish that way—and in last year’s edition of this race he also sustained crash damage and finished 31st.
22. Aric Almirola
Last six races average finish at Michigan: 20.60 (5 starts)
Career avg. finish at Michigan: 20.6 in 5 starts
Perhaps the worst thing to happen to Almirola last week did not happen to him at all. When teammate Ambrose failed to win the Cheez-it 355k at the Glen, it insured that the focus would remain on the No. 9 for the next several weeks as they try to get both Richard Petty Motorsports drivers in the Chase. Almirola has shown a little promise at Michigan in his brief five-race career, but it has all come in qualification with a pair of top-five starts. His best finish was a pair of 17ths earned in the June 2012 and 2013 races.
25. Kurt Busch
Last six races average finish at Michigan: 24.17
Career avg. finish at Michigan: 20.9 in 27 starts
Last week Busch did what he had to do at Michigan. He showed remarkable patience and kept the pressure on Allmendinger and Ambrose while hoping they got so involved with one another that they opened a lane for him to drive through. They did not make that mistake and Busch finished third, but if he would show that level of restraint each week he would be a much better fantasy value.
27. Denny Hamlin
Last six races average finish at Michigan: 26.50
Career avg. finish at Michigan: 15.8 in 17 starts
Hamlin is an example of how quickly and completely momentum can shift. He scored five consecutive top-10s from 2009 to 2011 at Michigan—winning two of those events, finishing second in another, and third once. He has not cracked the top 10 and came close only once with an 11th in 2012. It is difficult to imagine the No. 11 being a good fantasy value this week.
NR. Kyle Larson
Last six races average finish at Michigan: 8.00 (1 start)
Career avg. finish at Michigan: 8.0 in 1 start
Larson has only one start at Michigan, so it is impossible to rank him this week. That does not mean fantasy players have nothing to go on when deciding his handicap, however. Larson battled Kyle Busch to the checkers on the other two-mile track in California, which combines with his strong Quicken Loans 400 performance to make him one of the best values in most fantasy games this week.
Driver: 3-Yr Avg. / Starts
1. Clint Bowyer: 7.33 / 6
2. Brad Keselowski: 7.50 / 6
3. Kevin Harvick: 9.00 / 6
4. Greg Biffle: 9.17 / 6
5. Matt Kenseth: 10.83 / 6
6. Tony Stewart: 11.80 / 5
7. Ryan Newman: 12.33 / 6
8. Paul Menard: 13.17 / 6
9. Kasey Kahne: 15.50 / 6
10. Carl Edwards: 15.67 / 6
11. Marcos Ambrose: 15.83 / 6
12. Martin Truex Jr.: 16.17 / 6
13. Dale Earnhardt Jr.: 16.50 / 6
14. Jeff Gordon: 17.00 / 6
15. Jimmie Johnson: 17.17 / 6
16. Joey Logano: 17.67 / 6
16. Danica Patrick: 17.67 / 3
18. AJ Allmendinger: 17.75 / 4
19. Jamie McMurray: 19.67 / 6
20. Austin Dillon: 19.75 / 4
21. Kyle Busch: 20.33 / 6
22. Aric Almirola: 20.60 / 5
23. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.: 20.67 / 3
24. David Ragan: 24.17 / 6
25. Kurt Busch: 24.17 / 6
26. Trevor Bayne: 24.33 / 6
27. Denny Hamlin: 26.50 / 6
28. David Gilliland: 27.00 / 6
29. Casey Mears: 27.33 / 6
30. Travis Kvapil: 27.83 / 6
31. Landon Cassill: 28.20 / 5
32. Brian Vickers: 29.00 / 2
33. Dave Blaney: 31.40 / 5
34. Reed Sorenson: 37.00 / 2
35. Joe Nemechek: 37.40 / 5
36. Josh Wise: 38.80 / 5
Most caution flags: 10, 2006 GFS Marketplace 400
Fewest caution flags: (0 three times), 1999 Kmart 400 by Castrol Super Clean, 1984 Champion Spark Plug 400, 1973 Motor State 400
Average number of caution flags per race: 5.1
Final Caution, last five races:
June 2014: Lap 149 of 200: debris in turn 2
August 2013: Lap 174 of 200: spin in turn 4 (Kyle Busch)
June 2013: Lap 168 of 200: 1-car accident in turn 1 (Jamie McMurray)
August 2012: Lap 197 of 201 to set up green-white-checkered finish: oil on track (Jimmie Johnson)
June 2012: 134 of 200: 2-car accident in turn 4 (Denny Hamlin and Ryan Newman)
Most caution laps: 78, 1969 Yankee 600
Fewest caution laps: 0 three times, 1999 Kmart 400 by Castrol Super Clean, 1984 Champion Spark Plug 400, 1973 Motor State 400
Average number of caution laps per race: 26.5
Leading the way
Most leaders: 15, 1982 Gabriel 400
Fewest leaders: 5 (5 times), 1984 Champion Spark Plug 400, 1980 Gabriel 400, 1973 Motor State 400, 1971 Yankee 400, 1971 Motor State 400
Average number of leaders: 9.4
Most lead changes: 65, 1981 Champion Spark Plug 400
Fewest lead changes: 7, 1984 Champion Spark Plug 400
Average number of lead changes: 22.7
Last five winners at Michigan (starting position):
June 2014: Jimmie Johnson (7)
August 2013: Joey Logano (1)
June 2013: Greg Biffle (19)
August 2012: Greg Biffle (13)
June 2012: Dale Earnhardt Jr. (17)
Worst starting position for race winner: Mark Martin 32nd 2009 LifeLock 400 (second-place Jeff Gordon started 27th and fourth-place Carl Edwards started 29th)
A race at Michigan has been won by the pole sitter 17 times and from the front row 25 times in 90 races.
Active winners at Michigan:
Greg Biffle: 4
Kurt Busch: 2
Dale Earnhardt Jr.: 2
Carl Edwards: 2
Jeff Gordon: 2
Denny Hamlin: 2
Matt Kenseth: 2
Ryan Newman: 2
Kyle Busch: 1
Kevin Harvick: 1
Jimmie Johnson: 1
Kasey Kahne: 1
Joey Logano: 1
Tony Stewart: 1
Brian Vickers: 1
First time winners at Michigan:
1991: Dale Jarrett, Champion Spark Plug 400
Running at the End
The following active drivers have been running at the end of every Michigan race they started:
Greg Biffle (23)
Carl Edwards (20)
Martin Truex Jr. (17)
David Ragan (15)
Brian Vickers (15)
AJ Allmendinger (12)
Brad Keselowski (10)
Regan Smith (8)
Aric Almirola (5)
Austin Dillon (4)
Danica Patrick (3)
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (3)
Justin Allgaier (1)
Michael Annett (1)
Kyle Larson (1)
Cole Whitt (1)