The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series returns to Michigan International Speedway for the second time this season to contest the Pure Michigan 400. Six-time champion Jimmie Johnson won the Quicken Loans 400 at the track back in June.
Only four races remain before the Chase begins. That puts a lot of pressure on drivers without a win so far in 2014 as the number of at-large bids through points continues to shrink. Teams will need to start becoming far more aggressive in search of a victory over the next month.
At the very least, it should lead to some unique strategies and plenty of close-quartered racing. So let's check out all of the important information for Sunday's race, followed by the starting grid and a look at some drivers to keep tabs on this week.
Where: Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn, Michigan
When: Sunday, Aug. 17 at 1 p.m. ET
Live Stream: WatchESPN
Radio: Motor Racing Network
|10||17||Ricky Stenhouse Jr.||Ford||204.174|
|25||88||Dale Earnhardt Jr.||Chevrolet||202.885|
|39||78||Martin Truex Jr.||Chevrolet||197.466|
Drivers To Watch
Joey Logano and Carl Edwards would have probably been surprised if you told them they would both top 206 mph and not get the pole. That's exactly what happened, as Gordon edged them both. By comparison, only one driver was faster than 204 mph during the first Michigan qualifying in June.
Who's your pick in win the second Michigan race?
The effort was good enough to set the new track record and puts the No. 24 team in perfect shape as it seeks a third win of the season. Mike Brudenell of the Detroit Free Press passed along comments from the fan favorite after the run, and he thought the car was virtually perfect.
"Obviously a great car," Gordon said. "The car was phenomenal. What an awesome job by the team. I don't know how to make it much better than that."
He's enjoyed limited success at Michigan over the years with just two wins in 43 starts. He did lead 36 laps and finish sixth in the first race this year, though. Combined with his outstanding qualifying run, the Hendrick driver is seemingly finding a comfort zone at the venue.
Now they just have to find a way to make sure the car is as effective on race day. As long as the 24 car is able to maintain that grip throughout the afternoon, Gordon will be the driver to beat. It's not a guarantee that's going to happen, though.
Johnson had a poor qualifying run that will see him start 30th. Still, his win at the track a couple of months ago, which was his first in 25 tries, ensures he'll remain on the radar. He should be able to make steady progress through the field and into contention.
That's the hope for the 48 team, anyway. It's been a rough stretch for the dominant driver as of late, with his last top-10 finish coming at Kentucky six races ago. Jordan McAbee of IFantasyRace thinks the results are part of looking toward the bigger picture:
Is Jimmie Johnson in 'test mode' for the Chase? Qualifies 30th at Michigan, average finish of 29.2 over last 6 Cup races. #NASCAR— Jordan McAbee (@FanRacingOnline) August 15, 2014
While that would certainly make sense, Johnson doesn't want the wave of bad finishes to continue right into the Chase. He wants to start building up some positive momentum so he can make a serious push for yet another title.
Expect him to start that effort with a strong showing at Michigan. He might not have the car necessary to complete the Michigan sweep, but a top-10 finish is definitely within reach despite the poor starting spot. He just needs to avoid any crashes near the back early on.
Biffle is one of the veteran drivers feeling the heat with the Chase right around the corner. The win by AJ Allmendinger last week at Watkins Glen bumped the No. 16 car out of the top 16, leaving him outside the cut line with a month to go.
Do you think Biffle will make the Chase?
Michigan probably represents his best chance to get in the Chase with a win. His four victories at the track are his most at any stop on the schedule. He talked about that success and trying to rediscover top speed with Jared Turner of Fox Sports.
"It's been a good track for us," Biffle said. "We've been really competitive there with four wins, but in the spring we weren't very fast there, and that is some concern going back there, although we did test there (recently) and found a lot of speed."
He's one of those drivers who's reached a point where he must take some chances. Whether it's using a riskier pit strategy with hope of everything falling perfectly or making a move earlier in the race than he normally would, the time for waiting is gone.
Biffle is slated to start 11th, so there's obviously some work to do. But when you consider his past success at Michigan and the need for a win, it wouldn't be a shock to see him in the mix during the final laps. It's desperation time for "The Biff."