No one in NASCAR -- not the drivers who have walked away from harrowing crashes, not the pit crew members who have been hit by a race car on pit road and lived to tell about it -- is luckier than team owner Jack Roush.
Last month the 68-year-old Roush was behind the controls of a small twin-engine business jet he owns when he crashed upon landing at a private airport in Oshkosh, Wis. This wasn't the first time that Roush had tumbled from the sky. Back in 2002 he survived a seemingly fatal plane wreck into a small Alabama lake. He surely would have drowned if not for a retired Navy seal who just happened to live nearby and who dove into the water to pull Roush to safety.
On Thursday Roush was released from the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., where he was treated for facial injuries. Once again, even though his plane nearly shattered in the hard landing, Roush walked away from what could have been a tragedy. He made a surprise return to the track on Friday, and I expect his motivated lineup of drivers to be the ones to beat.
After all, Michigan is Roush's backyard track. He lives in nearby Livonia, Mich., and is backed by Ford, whose headquarters are only an hour's drive from MIS. So it's really no coincidence that Roush has dominated this place in years past. From the summer of 2002 to the summer of '08, Roush's drivers won seven of the 12 races at MIS.
Here are the five drivers -- two in Roush's stable -- who I think will be in contention for the checkers as the laps wind down in the Irish Hills of Michigan.
1. Greg Biffle
Like all the Roush-Fenway drivers, Biffle is enjoying the fruits of the new FR9 engine. Now possessing a little more power under the hood, he has been able to run nose-to-nose with the elite cars in the field in recent weeks. He won at Pocono on Aug. 1 to end a 64-race winless streak and I would argue that in the last month he's been the top driver in the Cup series.
It says here he'll win again on Sunday. Biffle is a boom or bust driver at Michigan -- in 15 starts at the track he has two wins, six top-fives, and five finishes of 20th or worse -- and I think he'll boom this weekend. Currently 11th in the standings, Biffle is very much a threat to dethrone the four-time defending Cup champion Jimmie Johnson in the Chase this fall.
2. Carl Edwards
MIS has been one of Edwards' best tracks. In his last seven starts at the two-miler, he's finished seventh or better six times, including notching a win in 2008.
Edwards, like his Roush teammate Biffle, has surged in the last two months. In his last five starts he hasn't finished lower than seventh. Though he's only ninth in the standings, he's also a legitimate title contender. In fact, it certainly appears that Roush Fenway could be the organization to beat once the green flag drops on the Chase -- a stunning development considering this team has won a grand total of one race in 2010.
3. Jimmie Johnson
Is it time to start worrying if you're Johnson? In a word: yes.
This is typically the time of the season in which Johnson begins to heat up and pulls away from the rest of the field. Well, it's not happening this year. After winning back-to-back races at Sonoma and Loudon earlier this summer, Johnson has slumped mightily. In his last five starts he's only cracked the top 10 once (a tenth place at Pocono) and his average finish over that stretch is a woeful 23.2 -- hardly the stuff of a driver who's peaking.
Nonetheless, I think Johnson will be fast on Sunday. Though he's never won at MIS, he's led a lot of laps at the track (510) and he's had the best car in the field several times. If this race doesn't come down to a game of fuel mileage -- and it often does -- Johnson should be in the lead pack late.
4. Denny Hamlin
Hamlin is tied with Johnson for most wins (five) in 2010. But like the four-time champ, Hamlin has slowed in recent weeks. Since winning at Michigan in June, he hasn't finished in the top five and has only two top-10s in seven starts.
It's hard to pinpoint what has caused Hamlin's recent mediocrity. The best explanation appears to be that several drivers -- namely, those from Roush Fenway Racing and Richard Childress Racing -- have found something in their setups that has given them an extra tick of speed, while Hamlin has simply plateaued. This is a troubling development if you're Hamlin, who no longer appears to be the favorite heading into the Chase.
5. Kurt Busch
Busch won the pole at Michigan earlier this year and finished third in that race. His team owner, Roger Penske, once owned MIS. I'll be spending the entire weekend embedded with the No. 2 Dodge team for an upcoming feature in SI. Busch, who has two career victories at Michigan and is currently fourth in the standings, should be one of the dominant drivers on Sunday. Go ahead and pencil him in for a top-five run.