Dropping the Hammer: A Preview of the LifeLock 400 at Michigan

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Dropping the Hammer: A Preview of the LifeLock 400 at Michigan
(Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

When one thinks about the racing action at Michigan International Speedway, they usually consider the sweeping corners, spacious straights, and the fuel mileage game.

Such was the case in last year's spring 400-miler at the two-mile facility, when Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and his No. 88 AMP Energy Chevrolet crew parlayed fuel conservation en route to their only victory of the 2008 season.

Could we see another dramatic race at Brooklyn, Michigan, determined by each precious gallon of gasoline?

Based on what happened in last Sunday's Pocono 500, where we saw three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson sputter to the stripe in seventh position, it's almost as certain as the throng of jeers for Kyle Busch in virtually every driver's introduction (minus Las Vegas).

Gas, handling, tires, and some Blue Oval drivers will be the determining factors for Sunday's LifeLock 400 at Michigan, which will be broadcasted live on TNT at 2 p.m.

Among Michigan's memorable moments include the photo finish, debut win of Dale Jarrett over fan-favorite Davey Allison in the 1991 Champion Spark Plugs 400, Mark Martin's amazing comeback win in August of '97, Hendrick Motorsports' 100th Cup win via Jeff Gordon in June of 2001, and Carl Edwards' return to Victory Lane (after a 1.5-year winless drought) in the spring, 2007 event.

Although its days of four and five-wide racing formations are extinct, MIS still produces rather competitive events, promoting double-file action nearly all race long.

Unfortunately, as the cars have advanced in design and with the current configuration of the Car of Tomorrow, the two-wide racing usually happens well behind the leader.

While qualifying toward the front of the field is always a must at each of the 36 races for the Cup gang, Michigan has been forgivable to those starting in the middle to rear of the 43-car pack.

Can I Get A Witness?:

Edwards' victories have happened with starting spots outside the top 10, including his '07 triumph, in which he started from 12th position, as well as MIS' most recent race last August, when he qualified in 27th.

The balance between horsepower and fuel economy will once again be an issue at hand, much like the race at Pocono. Boasting far less banking than most super-speedways, Michigan additionally places an emphasis on handling and tire camber adjustments.

Snakebitten:

Gordon may be a two-time winner at this track, but the 37-year-old and his No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet team were smitten by a tire problem in last August's 3M Performance 400.

Fighting handling problems and an aggressive camber set-up, the potent combination for disaster struck on the "Rainbow Warriors," as Gordon smacked the SAFER barrier of turn two and took a DNF trip in the garage area.

Sure, it pays to go fast and lead by several seconds early on. However, much like the oft-told fable of the hare and tortoise, a fast car doesn't necessarily translate into the big check and trophy.

If you have the handling down pat on your car and a tire set-up that is just aggressive enough, you'll most likely have good-to-superior fuel mileage, which means, yep, a shot at victory.

Now, here's a look at some of the drivers who'll duke it out for the checkers and cash at Michigan.

The Contenders

Ford has claimed nine victories in the past 18 races held at MIS, while Dodge has logged in six wins. Chevrolet trails greatly in trips to VL this decade with just two triumphs.

What does this mean? It means your money should be on the Fords, especially from Roush Fenway Racing.

RFR has won three of the last five races held at MIS, with Edwards' pair of "W's" and Matt Kenseth's victory in August of 2006 aiding in their cause.

Of Jack Roush's army, Carl Edwards is a definite pick for the win on Sunday. Having made his Cup debut at this track in August of '04, the Missourian impressed critics and fans with his 10th place finish for the then-transitioning No. 99 team.

His impressive win in June of '07 carried significance, because it was his 100th career start in the Cup series, and the victory ended a dry-spell from owning a checkered flag since 2005.

Jeff Gordon may not be a certain selection for the checkers at Michigan, but based on his performances at the intermediate speedways in 2009, the No. 24 Chevrolet has to be considered a force to be reckoned with.

With wins in August of 1998 and June of 2001, if Gordon wants the proper medicine for his ailing back, a return back to Michigan's Victory Lane may be in the cards.

Elliott Sadler, David Ragan, and Jamie McMurray are some potential dark horse drivers to keep an eye on for the LifeLock 400. All three drivers placed in the top 10 in both races last season, and the wide, high-speed brand of racing at MIS certainly suits these leadfooters.

Last week, I was somewhat burned by this pick on this particular column. I caught a "Lucky Dog" pass in the Creature vs. Creature competition for Pocono by choosing Tony Stewart, who probably heard I had chosen him for the win there.

Well if he did, let's hope he didn't see that I went with Brian Vickers in the Pocono edition of DTH.

This time around, I'll go with BV for the win at MIS. Finishing fourth and seventh last season, Michigan has been relatively kind to Vickers, at least since joining Team Red Bull Racing.

With time running out in cracking the top 12, Vickers sorely needs a great finish—a win on Sunday might give the Tar Heel some wings of confidence and momentum in the summer races ahead.

 

Keys to Victory

1) Handling—A tight car will generally translate into poor tire wear, which might mean a visit to the outside retaining walls. You can pretty much guess what happens if the car has a tremendous amount of oversteer.

Finding the edge between speed and grip will aid in the efforts to conserve fuel late in the race.

2) Got Gas?—If you have amazing fuel mileage, you'll probably embrace the possibility of the long, green-flag runs that are such a facet with Michigan International Speedway. Or, if a caution comes out on the edge of a pit window, having superior mileage with fuel just may offer, at the very least, an opportunity to gamble and stay out while the rest of the lead-lap cars pit for tires and gas.

3) Having a leadfoot—Yes, this sounds rather redundant, but with NASCAR implementing the double-file, shootout style restarts, being mired behind a car that's not as competitive as the leaders may just prove costly.

As it is a super-speedway, aerodynamics play a pivotal role when cars pull up behind and beside another, which triggers that old, despicable racing factor in the form of "dity air." Gordon made a comment last Sunday at Pocono about how his car's handling was horrible when he was stuck behind slower, lead-lap cars.

And, oh by the way...

Yes, I can understand how Kyle Busch was probably excited to finally win his first race at Nashville. And yes, the sport truly needs character, and is Shrub ever the villain this sport needs.

However, smashing the trophy for winning at Nashville, or in this case, a beautiful guitar with artwork by longtime NASCAR fixture Sam Bass, and claiming that pieces of the guitar would then go to his crew members seems a bit sour to the mouth.

Many fans and writers have pointed out how Busch could have easily bought guitars for every member of his crew.

After all, he makes millions upon millions of dollars and could honestly buy a guitar easily, even by not competing at Nashville in last Saturday night's Federated Auto Parts 300 for the Nationwide Series.

It was just simply wrong to do—emotions can be shown without destroying the prize that, supposedly, drivers vie for, not the hundreds of thousands of dollars they receive in Victory Lane.

There was a time when raw emotion could be depicted just by facial expression or by being silly without crossing the line of extreme tomfoolery. Some fans may recall Darrell Waltrip's 1989 Daytona 500 celebration when he finally won the Great American Race.

DW spiked his helmet and did the Icky Shuffle. With his gratitude and appreciation for the win so poignant, he didn't have to destroy the Harley J. Earl Trophy to prove his point.

Just when we fans, or perhaps even Busch himself, think they've seen a change in Shrub, an act of immaturity follows.

The desire to win a race is never a bad thing—after all, who shows up to the track to finish in second place?

Busch must learn to harness that raw talent and desire for victories with a bit of grace and sportsmanship which would go a long way's for NASCAR's ultimate bad boy.

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