As the Sprint Cup Series streaks into its summer stretch, the mountains of Pocono have been left behind in favor of Motor City, Mich. And the racing may be more joyous in the automakers' backyard as the American car market has markedly improved since NASCAR's last visit. There also has been a shift of power in the last few weeks in Sprint Cup dominance.
Joe Gibbs Racing has emerged as the greatest threat to Hendrick Motorsports' stranglehold on competition in the Cup Series. JGR drivers Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin have won four of the last five points races and sit second and third in the points standings, respectively. But does this success translate well for the prolific pair at the two-mile tri-oval at Michigan? From a fantasy perspective...not necessarily.
Hamlin is solid at Michigan International Speedway, but has only led five laps in eight career starts and has an average finish of 13.2 at the track. Busch has a similar track record, with only three top 10s and an average finish of 17.5 in 10 career starts. He has only led laps in six of those races. If Hamlin and Busch are the only possible contenders available for you to pick from this week, they are not bad bets, but expect their foes at Hendrick Motorsports to fare better. If you have a limit on the number of times you can pick a driver, save Hamlin and Busch for later this summer when they will compete at tracks where they historically perform better.
Yeah, way to go out on a limb, right? Well, after a sluggish month, the No. 48 team finished fifth last week at Pocono Raceway and seems to have regained some of the magic lost in the last couple of weeks. Johnson also has not had the best numbers at Michigan. In fact, his 16.0 average finish there in 16 career races ranks sixth worst out of every track at which he has competed. But a deeper look into the numbers wrapped in some context may quiet the doubters of Johnson's chances this Sunday.
While finishes of 22nd and 33rd in both Michigan races last year look paltry, Johnson's 279 laps led out of 400 in the two races is worth noting. Johnson had last year's Michigan race in the bag, before a miscalculation on fuel caused him to run empty on the last lap and hand the win to teammate Mark Martin. Johnson led a race-high 133 laps in the August 2009 race, but issues trapped him a lap down and saddled the Lowe's team with another poor finish. This strength, combined with some momentum leaving Pocono make Johnson a threat to run well and possibly win Sunday's Heluva Good! Sour Cream and Dips 400.
By the numbers: The majority of Johnson's 510 career laps led were at Michigan in the last two races and he has six top 10s at the track.
Both Michigan races ran last year were decided by fuel mileage and Jeff Gordon was the bridesmaid in both, notching runner-up finishes -- that has also been the four-time champ's M.O. this season. Gordon has won only twice in 34 career starts in Motor City, but has run consistently and led a whole slew of laps, when he hasn't been caught in a crash or mechanical failure. Having almost won races at Texas and Las Vegas this year (both pushing the horsepower limits like Michigan does), Sunday's race may be a great time for Gordon to break through and ding up the Joe Gibbs Racing armor that has been shining bright for the last several weeks.
By the numbers: Gordon has 22 top 10s in 34 career starts at Michigan and has an average finish of 11.2.
Bowyer is another driver whose numbers at Michigan are not overly impressive. But the driver of the No. 33 did finish 10th and eight in both races there last year, while Richard Childress Racing was in the midst of its worst slump in several years, meaning those top 10s were more like top 5 runs. Bowyer has been part of RCR's resurgence this season, but has been noticeably behind teammates' Jeff Burton and Kevin Harvick. His 59 laps led early in last Sunday's Pocono race and some strong runs the week before in the Coca-Cola 600 are proof that the Cheerios team is on the rebound from a recent slump.
By the numbers: Bowyer's two top 10s last season were his only two in eight career Michigan starts. He has the 12th most points of all drivers in the last five races there.
Not only did Mark Martin win last June's Michigan race, but he led 26 laps in August and was poised for a good finish before a similar fate as his teammate Johnson relegated him to a 31st place finish. In 2008, Martin ran out of fuel and finished 25th in the June race and then placed sixth in the August race. Hendrick performance has been down lately, but Martin usually finds a way toward the front of the pack by the end of races and has a track record of doing so at MIS. This means he is a solid pick work adding to your fantasy roster this week.
By the numbers: In 48 career Michigan starts, Martin has five wins, 17 top 5s, and 29 top 10s.
The youngster's rookie Michigan results last season mirrored his record at other tracks: run poorly in the first race and then finish well in the second. After finishing 25th in the June race, he steered the No. 20 Toyota to seventh place in August. Logano has been in a slump of late, but still finds himself in Chase contention after a strong start to the season. The x-factor here, of course, is the fire the 20-year-old likely has lit under the Home Depot team after the statement he made to Kevin Harvick for ruining his top 5 last week at Pocono. If Logano indeed has driven extra motivation into himself and his team, he can turn the lemon that was his sour puss at Pocono into lemonade at Michigan.
By the numbers: In the 13 tracks that Logano visited twice last season, the rookie improved his finishing position by an average of 6.2 after the second race.
On the opposite side of the momentum pendulum, David Ragan has not had much to smile about this season. The driver of the No. 6 UPS Ford has struggled mightily since his breakout year in 2008, so much so, that rumors have cropped up about the 24-year-old's future on the Roush Fenway team. Though he has been inconsistent, he has a knack for tracks two or more miles in length, like Michigan, where he notched top 10s in both races in 2008 and finished 15th there a year ago. A top 10 run is not out of the question for Ragan this week, especially if he and crew chief Donnie Wingo play the fuel mileage card toward the end of Sunday's race. If you are playing in a budget league, Ragan could garner your team a good finish at minimal cost.
By the numbers: Ragan has an average finish of 15.8 at Michigan, behind only Daytona and Talladega in his career.
Jimmie Johnson: While Roush Fenway Racing has the best numbers overall at Michigan (Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth all rank in the top seven in points in the last five Michigan races) and Joe Gibbs Racing carries all of the momentum in the Sprint Cup Series, Johnson is poised best to lift Hendrick Motorsports from the late spring doldrums it has been mired in. Do not be surprised to see a No. 48 cutting some burnouts and getting booed late Sunday afternoon. No doubt there will be some smiling members of the Chevrolet Bowtie Brigade if that happens in their company's hometown.
Up Next: The snaking twists and turns of Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, Calif. await the Sprint Cup Series next week. Road course racing always brings life to some normally non-contenders. Turn here next week to see how this impacts your fantasy roster.
Participate in the Frontstretch.com live race blog during every Sprint Cup race and get expert opinions, stats, and insight from the Frontstretch staff. Sunday's Michigan blog starts at 1 p.m.
Contact Doug Turnbull: email@example.com