This Sunday the Sprint Cup circuit stops at Michigan International Speedway for the second time in two months. Because the two-mile oval at MIS is wide with multiple grooves, the drivers typically have plenty of space, which usually produces long stretches of green flag runs. This, in turn, has frequently caused Michigan to devolve into a game of fuel mileage. Sexy, raise-your-heartbeat racing, this is not.
Yet for Denny Hamlin, Michigan could be the key race of his season. Why? Because for the first time in his No. 11 Toyota, he'll have a Toyota Racing Development (TRD) engine under his hood instead of an engine built by his team, Joe Gibbs Racing. JGR has had reliability problems with its engines this season, and this merger could not only circumvent that issue, but also propel Hamlin -- currently 12th in the standings and owner of the last wild-card slot -- back into being a legitimate championship contender by providing him with added horsepower.
Last year in the Chase, Hamlin -- not eventually winner Jimmie Johnson -- had the fastest car week in and week out during the 10-race playoff. Yet Johnson hoisted the big trophy at Homestead-Miami Speedway because he was smarter at avoiding problems and never lost his cool behind the wheel -- two things Hamlin didn't do. But Hamlin believes he learned some hard lessons last fall and contends if he has the same caliber of car for this year's Chase as he did in 2010, he'll end Johnson's five-year championship reign.
So watch Hamlin closely on Sunday. He won at Michigan in June -- his only victory of 2011 -- and how he performs once the green flag drops may foreshadow the rest of his season. And if this gamble by Gibbs doesn't pay off and Hamlin struggles at MIS? He could miss the Chase. So for Hamlin and his No. 11 team, the stakes on Sunday couldn't be much higher.
Here are four other drivers who should have a shot at the checkers on Sunday:
1. Matt Kenseth
Because MIS is in Ford's backyard, Roush-Fenway Racing -- Ford's flagship team in NASCAR -- has always viewed this as one of the most significant races of the season. For most of the June event in the Irish Hills of Michigan, the Roush Fords were clearly the class of the field, leading 115 of the 200 laps.
In his last eight starts at MIS, Kenseth has five top-five finishes. Currently fifth in the standings with two wins this season, Kenseth is a lock to advance to the Chase. That means he can do the one thing he rarely does during races: take chances. If this race boils down to fuel mileage -- and it probably will -- Kenseth is one of a handful of drivers who can roll the dice and see just how far he can stretch a tank of gas.
2. Carl Edwards
Though Edwards is second in the Cup standings, he hasn't won a race since March (at Las Vegas) and hasn't finished in the top-five since early July. So he's not exactly peaking as the Chase nears.
That's why this is such an important race for Edwards, who is Kenseth's teammate at Roush-Fenway. Michigan is his best track on the circuit; his 6.2 career average finish is tops in the Cup series. And as Jimmie Johnson has consistently shown over the last five years, a driver needs to take checkered flags to win the title. So far this season, Edwards simply hasn't shown he can do that. He finished fifth at MIS in June and led 30 laps.
3. Kyle Busch
Ever since the second half of the season began at Daytona in early July, Busch has been the top driver in the series. Aside from a 36th-place finish at New Hampshire, Busch has been in the top 10 every week and has been in the top five in four of the six races. Not surprisingly, over this stretch he's moved from third to first in the standings.
Expect more of the same this weekend at MIS. In 13 career starts on the two-mile flat track he's never won, but he did finish third here in June.
4. Jimmie Johnson
Everyone in the garage is watching the No. 48 team with scrutinizing eyes, wondering which weekend the seemingly inevitable will happen, when Johnson flashes the kind of speed and moxie on the track that has pushed him to five straight titles. In his last eight starts, he hasn't come in higher than third and has two finishes of 20th or worse. Most worrisome for Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus, they only have one win this season -- the fewest through 22 races since Johnson's rookie year of 2002.
In June, Johnson struggled at MIS, limping to a 27th-place finish. Michigan is one of five tracks on the Cup schedule where Johnson has never won. On Sunday he'll be driving a Chevy that he last piloted to a third-place run at Kansas in July.
Can he take the checkers? If he does, it would send a powerful message to the garage.
But my pick is Kenseth. And the more I watch him this season, the more I think the 2003 champ -- the driver whose relentless consistency prompted NASCAR to adopt the Chase format in 2004 -- may be the driver to beat for the title this fall.