2014 NASCAR at Michigan II: Preview, Prediction of Pure Michigan 400

Bob Margolis@BobMargolisContributor IIAugust 16, 2014

2014 NASCAR at Michigan II: Preview, Prediction of Pure Michigan 400

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    NASCAR Sprint Cup Series racing at Michigan International Speedway is a complex mix of high speeds, four- and sometimes five-wide racing, fuel-mileage strategies, tire management and track position.

    In June, the Cup drivers put on one of the more memorable events of the year, with 25 lead changes, despite the drivers' protests that it was difficult to pass.

    Speeds were well over 200 mph for qualifying, with Kevin Harvick capturing the pole with a track-record speed of 204.557 mph. In fact, 28 of the 43 starters in the June race cracked the 200 mph barrier during qualifying.

    Jimmie Johnson was the race winner. He hasn’t won since. Harvick finished second, and the hometown boy, Brad Keselowski, finished third.

    The track should not have changed much from the June race, so conditions will be similar to what drivers experienced a couple of months ago. The teams that were good then will be good once again. And the rest? They’ve had all summer to get better.

    Expect an even closer and more competitive race this time around, as the 31 drivers in the field who haven’t won a race this season will be aiming to do so Sunday.

Key Storylines

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    Lowe's Chevy Team Needs to Get Back to Form

    It’s been a long, hot summer for Jimmie Johnson, who hasn’t been to Victory Lane since June, at Michigan International Speedway. In fact, the No. 48 Lowe’s team hasn’t had a top-10 finish since Kentucky, where it finished 10th.

    It’s not like Johnson and Co. aren't trying. Many of their poor finishes can be attributed to tire failure, mechanical issues or just plain old wrecks, like at Daytona.

    But one would expect that at this point in the season, this squad would be gathering up momentum for the all-important Chase run of 10 races.

    “We have had some really bad luck these past few weeks,” said Johnson in his pre-race media release. “I’m looking forward to getting back on track this weekend. The team needs a good run, and I really like the track in Michigan—it’s in Chevrolet’s backyard—and it would be nice to get a sweep.”

    This team can't afford to waste many more weekends before Chicagoland.


    Stewart Accident Continues to Reverberate Through Racing Community

    As the investigation into the accident that fatally injured a young driver in upstate New York moves forward, the racing community itself is examining how it does business.

    Should there be rules against drivers climbing out of their race cars after an accident? As with any controversial subject, there are two sides to this argument. Some might argue that a driver should be forced to remain inside his vehicle except in cases of fire.

    Others, such as outspoken former Cup champion Brad Keselowski, say otherwise.

    “Whether it’s racing or society, I’m not aware of any rule or law that works without the ability to enforce it, and I don’t know how you can enforce a rule like that, unless you had robot on the track to grab the person and put him back in the car,” he said earlier this week on a national media teleconference. “The only way you can enforce it is with a penalty system afterward, and really, at that point it’s not effective, so it’s a difficult rule to try to make work.”

    Motorsports.com's Nick DeGroot believes that NASCAR's new rules regarding driver behavior after an accident are unenforceable:

    "With this, in my opinion, unnecessary new set of rules, the powers that be have ripped a bit of the essence straight out of the soul of this sport. On-track confrontations have been a part of racing before NASCAR even came into being."

    De Groot may be right, but NASCAR had no choice but to make their decision. It's likely to be a rule that drivers will abide by.


    Race Team Alliance Adds New Members

    The recently formed group of NASCAR team owners now boasts that its membership has grown to 18 full-time NASCAR Sprint Cup teams, comprising 37 full-time entries.

    “One of the early goals of the Race Team Alliance (RTA) was to expand our membership, and after only a month in existence, we have accomplished that goal,” said Rob Kauffman, the RTA’s elected chairman, in a media release from the organization.

    Formed in July, the RTA is a "not-for-profit business league comprised of race teams participating in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series." The stated purpose of the organization "is to create an open forum for the teams to explore areas of common interest and to work collaboratively on initiatives to help preserve, promote and grow the sport of stock car racing."

    The group has been met by mixed reactions from NASCAR execs. Both sides have announced their communications with each other would only be done through attorneys.

    This contentious relationship has gotten off to a rocky start. It will be entertaining to watch how it develops over the next year.


    Major Sponsor News this Week

    Manufacturing giant 3M has decided it is time to move to an organization it feels will give it better success on the race track. Beginning in 2015, the company will jump from Greg Biffle's team and sponsor teams under the Hendrick Motorsports umbrella, with a focus on Jeff Gordon’s No. 24 team for 11 races.

    “At 3M, we play to win, and we push hard every day to do just that,” said Jesse Singh, senior vice president of 3M Global Sales and Marketing, in a press release heralding the agreement. “With this deal, we align with champion driver Jeff Gordon and an organization at the top of its game in Hendrick Motorsports."

    Biffle has been winless since Michigan in June 2013. It was his sole victory of the year. He won twice in 2012. Will he give the company a win before it leaves RFR at the end of the year?

    In addition, Mars announced that it has signed new multiyear deals with Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR) and NASCAR.

    The renewed contract with the sanctioning body will designate Mars as the “official chocolate of NASCAR.”

    Although Kyle Busch has driven the No. 18 M&M’s Toyota Camry to Victory Lane 20 times since coming to JGR in 2008, there was no specific mention of any contractual connection to Busch in this new deal.

Drivers to Watch

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    Kevin Harvick

    The runner-up at Michigan in June has had a good summer. His No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing team has finished in the top 10 four of the seven races since the Michigan race.

    Harvick started on the pole in June and led a race-high 63 of 200 laps. He made the final 20 laps of the race exciting as he muscled his way through the field after a pit stop in an entertaining battle to catch eventual race winner Jimmie Johnson. However, he fell 1.2 seconds short.


    Jimmie Johnson

    The defending race winner has been on a downswing this summer, and a return to Michigan might just be the right medicine for this team.

    A top-10 finish would be tantamount to a win at this stage for the No. 48 team. Maybe this team has been taking it easy now that it’s made it to the postseason.

    Or not.


    Brad Keselowski

    This Team Penske squad is another group that may be taking it easy now that it's won three races this season and has nine top-five finishes. Keselowski hasn't scored a top 10 since Loudon, when he swept both races. The No. 22 team finished 35th at Watkins Glen.

    Michigan International Speedway (MIS) is Keselowski’s home track. He used to come to the track as a small child when his father, Bob Keselowski, was racing.

    Nothing would be sweeter than a victory in front of friends and family.


    Jeff Gordon

    Gordon celebrated his 43rd birthday last week, but you’d never know it the way he’s driving a race car.

    Last week’s electrical issue that sidelined the 24 team for several laps was a rare misstep for this group. Gordon’s win at Indianapolis wasn't that long ago, and the aura of that victory still surrounds this team.

    Expect Gordon to be back in race- and championship-winning form at Michigan, where he finished sixth in June.


    Paul Menard

    Yes, Paul Menard.

    The Richard Childress Racing driver finished fourth at MIS in June, but since his fifth-place finish the following week at Sonoma, he has had a difficult summer.

    However, MIS is just the right place for this team to get back on the right road and turn the season around. Menard sits 17th in driver points but well outside of the Chase field due to wins by drivers with fewer points.

    It will take a win for this team to make the Chase. With the right race strategy and a little luck, Menard can do it this weekend.


    Joey Logano

    Three straight top-10 finishes has this team Chase-ready. Logano finished ninth at MIS in June, and he led 29 laps

    Logano and teammate Keselowski have been the dynamic duo this summer, dominating qualifying and scoring top-10 finishes.

    One question remains: Will the Roush Yates horsepower in the Team Penske Ford Fusions have enough muscle to outperform the Hendrick-powered Chevrolets?

Quick Picks

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    Kurt Busch

    His 13th-place finish in June at MIS was not indicative of how well Busch ran that afternoon. This Stewart-Haas Racing driver led 16 laps and could well be the car to beat.


    Kyle Busch

    The younger Busch brother had a forgettable weekend in June. While MIS isn’t one of this Joe Gibbs Racing driver’s better tracks, he needs to get the No. 18 train back on the rails.


    Matt Kenseth

    This JGR driver isn’t sweating the big stuff (like making the Chase) right now. He’s in on points, as long as each of the next four races don’t have a non-winner win them.


    Greg Biffle

    The longtime Roush Fenway Racing driver has four wins at MIS, the most of any active driver. He lost his sponsor, 3M, this week. Think he’ll be in the mood to show the company it made a mistake?


    Dale Earnhardt Jr.

    NASCAR’s most popular driver finished seventh at MIS in June. He has two wins and six top-fives at the two-mile track in the Irish Hills. It’s a good bet he will add to those totals this weekend.


    Kasey Kahne

    A fifth-place finish in June should help this team to unload Friday in an optimistic mood. Kahne likes fast tracks, and MIS suits his style.


    Kyle Larson

    This rookie phenom finished eighth in June, and since then, he’s finished in the top 10 three out of his last four outings. If this young man has a good car, he may be unstoppable.

Dark-Horse Driver

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    A talented driver who worked his way up through NASCAR's Drive for Diversity program, Aric Almirola has "The King" Richard Petty in his corner, giving him advice. How much more encouragement (or could it be pressure) does one driver need in order to win?

    Some may question the legitimacy of his Chase ticket, won in a race-shortened race at Daytona in July, but there is no doubt that Almirola has the talent (the equipment) to win more races.

    He had a fast car at MIS in June, starting fourth after a tough qualifying session. He finished a disappointing 31st, three laps off the pace.

    In June, his Roush Yates horsepower was no match for the army of Hendrick-powered Chevrolets.

    Almirola has a win under his belt at the two-mile track, his best finish in eight NASCAR starts at MIS. He visited Victory Lane in 2010 in the Truck Series race.

    Crew chief Trent Owens had a lot of success in his seven Nationwide starts at Michigan, where he has a 4.1-average finish.

Qualifying Report

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    The fast pace and rapidly changing track conditions during Friday's qualifying session for the Pure Michigan 400 provided exactly the kind of show that NASCAR executives had in mind when they went to knockout qualifying rules this season.

    Jeff Gordon won the pole for the 45th annual Pure Michigan 400 with a blistering lap of 34.857 seconds, 206.558 mph. The time and speed were a new track record. The previous record lasted only two months. It was set by Kevin Harvick in June of this year, 204.557 mph, 35.198 seconds. Harvick tried to mirror his feat but could only muster a lap of 205.438 mph, 35.047 seconds.

    “I knew that we were really strong here the last time we were here, and what our team is doing right now, it’s just phenomenal how they continue to improve race cars and just the whole effort," said pole winner Gordon.

    The speeds seen in qualifying for this season's Sprint Cup races have been electrifying. This was the 17th track qualifying record set this season. Much of this new speed is attributable to the elimination of the ride-height rules before the start of the season.

    This permits crew chiefs to set their race cars extremely low to the track surface, producing the maximum amount of downforce and allowing drivers to feel more comfortable as they muscle their Gen 6 cars into Turn 1 at Michigan International Speedway at nearly 215 mph.

    Joey Logano will start alongside Gordon after he posted a lap of 206.381 mph, 34.887 seconds. Carl Edwards will start third, Brian Vickers fourth and Brad Keselowski fifth.

    Because the sun beat down on the track for the first two of three knockout sessions, many of the sport's biggest names could not advance past the second round and will start in the back half of the field.

    Austin Dillon was the highest qualifying rookie. He'll start eighth.

    Notable starts: Kyle Larson, 13th; Danica Patrick, 14th; Kasey Kahne, 15th; Kurt Busch, 16th; Matt Kenseth, 18th; Kyle Busch, 24th; Dale Earnhardt Jr., 25th; and Jimmie Johnson, 30th.

    Jeff Burton, who is driving for Tony Stewart this weekend, will start 27th.

And the Winner Is

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    Race winner: Kevin Harvick

    Kevin Harvick clearly had the fastest (if not the best) car in the June race, leading 63 of 200 laps. Race strategy had him pitting later in the race than eventual winner Johnson.

    In the final 10 laps of the Quicken Loans 400 in June, Harvick ran quicker laps than Johnson, but time (and laps) ran out, and he finished just over a second after the 48.

    It was the start of a string of five top-10 finishes in eight races for the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing team.

    A good finish at MIS will get the Big Mo started for Harvick and Co. and should stay with them right into the Chase, which starts in a month.

Nationwide Snapshot

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    The NASCAR Nationwide Series will be on the twists and turns of Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course for the final road-course race of the season this Saturday.

    The track is a 13-turn, 2.258-mile natural road course located in Lexington, Ohio, about an hour north of Columbus.

    It will be the second time the series will race on the Mid-Ohio road course but the first time for current series points leader Chase Elliott. The Sunoco Rookie of the Year candidate holds a 12-point lead over his JR Motorsports teammate Regan Smith in the championship battle.

    “I’ve felt comfortable with our cars at the road races this year,” said Smith in a pre-race media release. “I truly thought we had a car that could have won at Road America and Watkins Glen. Unfortunately the results don’t show it.”

    Sam Hornish Jr., although not in the title hunt since he’s running a part-time schedule for Joe Gibbs Racing, is maximizing his opportunities. He returns behind the wheel of the No. 54 Monster Energy Camry at his home track.

    Hornish has three NNS wins under his belt, but he has yet to win on a road course. The Defiance, Ohio, native finished third in this race last year.

    “Having the opportunity to race in my home state really means a lot to me,” said Hornish in a pre-race media release. “I've got so many great memories at Mid-Ohio from my childhood, as a fan. I've raced five or six different levels of motorsports there, and I look forward to racing there every chance I get."

    The green flag waves Saturday, August 16, at 3:10 p.m. ET. You can watch the race on ESPN or listen to it on Motor Racing Network (MRN) and Sirius/XM Ch. 90.


    NNS Points

    1. Chase Elliott (R)

    2. Regan Smith -12

    3. Elliott Sadler -13

    4. Ty Dillon (R) -13

    5. Brian Scott -45


    *Track statistics and race information from official NASCAR media release. All quotes are taken from official NASCAR, team and/or manufacturer media releases unless otherwise stated.

    Bob Margolis is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association and has covered NASCAR, IndyCar, the NHRA and Sports Cars for more than two decades as a writer, television producer and on-air talent. Follow him on Twitter @BobMargolis.