Michigan International Speedway is a fast, multi-groove track. The traction compound that officials applied in the high line should only contribute to that.
This is also a course that rewards momentum. Drivers are occasionally able to find something special that allows them to scoot out to a dominant lead. Joey Logano did that this spring; Kevin Harvick was almost unbeatable this season. The trick is going to be in determining who will be this week’s dominator.
Then again there is always the chance that the sticky stuff will sufficiently change the dynamic so there is parity. In that case, fantasy owners can expect the cream to rise to the top and they should look at historic records. It really depends on how one looks at the stats to know which scenario will play out, so take a few moments to of reflection before setting your final roster.
Brad Keselowski was stout on Friday. Posting the second fastest time in the morning session led us to predict he would be a pole contender. He was the last driver to hit the track and made it worthwhile to stick around to the end of the session. With a lap of 190.471 mph, he scored his second career pole on this course. That lifted his spirits and has him thinking he can be the driver to beat this week. Unfortunately, it did not play out that way in August 2017 when he faded from the pole to finish 17th. The following spring, he started on the outside of the front row and finished sixth.
Keselowski beat Harvick’s 190.089 mph lap by .076 seconds. Those were the only two drivers to crack the 190 mark and it should set them apart. If you have a choice of starting Harvick or Keselowski, the decision might not be as simple as it should be. Both have struggled this season. Both have wins – and both have lacked the consistency to make them outright favorites. Harvick was much better on Saturday, however, with the quickest 10-lap average in the morning session and the third-best in Happy Hour.
Hendrick Motorsports was not overly impressive in the Friday morning practice session, but they stepped up their game in time trails. William Byron and Alex Bowman swept the second row. Chase Elliott gained nearly a second over practice and will roll of the grid sixth. Jimmie Johnson gave them a sweep of the top 10 in 10th. This is a track that has been kind in the past and any of these drivers could eke out a top-10.
The two Richard Childress Racing drivers had top-12 speed in qualification, but their times were disallowed for a technical infraction that were only technically an infraction. NASCAR requires cars to have a functional alternator – although it doesn’t need to be functioning at the time they take their laps. Austin Dillon and Daniel Hemric did not and will start the race shotgun on the field.
Erik Jones is a solid dark horse contender this week. Based on his last four races of this season he should be a favorite, but one also has to consider his Michigan record. On this track he has only one top-10 during his career. The good news is that was a third-place finish in his rookie season. He has also come close on three other occasions with top-15s. Jones posted the quickest five- and 10-lap averages in Happy Hour, but he’s going to have to overcome a modest qualification effort that landed him 16th on the grid.
Jones’ teammate Denny Hamlin is another driver hoping for long green flag runs this Sunday. He qualified 14th and will need most of the first stage to find his way to the front, but if the race gets a 20+ lap segment without a caution he should be in the top 10 when points are first awarded. In Practice 2 only four drivers ran 20 or more consecutive laps. Hamlin was the best of them, but the reason that is significant is because the front row starters Harvick and Keselowski came up behind him.
Ten drivers posted 15 or more laps in Happy Hour. Clint Bowyer topped that chart with an elapsed time of 38.332 seconds per lap. He has not exactly burned up the Michigan track in recent seasons despite winning a strategy-aided race there last year. He has also struggled on occasion in 2019 and cannot be considered a favorite, but given the right circumstances he could score a top-10 that allows him to be one of the top values.
On the 15-lap chart, Bowyer was not the only dark horse. Alex Bowman posted the second-quickest time with Kyle Larson third on the chart. In particular, Larson is looking to return to his 2016/2017 form when he won three times and finished second on another occasion.