The lengthy and eventful NASCAR Sprint Cup regular season is nearing its conclusion, but even the most down-and-out drivers have a chance to reverse their fortunes and make the Chase with a win at Michigan Sunday.
The Pure Michigan 400 marks the second race of the year at Michigan International Speedway, so most of the drivers involved should have a good feel for the track. They're going to need it because there are just four more opportunities left to win before the start of the Chase.
A.J. Allmendinger raced his way in with a victory at Watkins Glen last week, and several drivers will look to do the same this week. Those who have already won surely won't back down, though, as they would love to improve their positioning in the standings.
Here is everything you need to know about Sunday's vital race at Michigan, along with a look at which drivers stand the best chance of taking the checkered flag.
Where: Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn, Michigan
When: Sunday, Aug. 17 at 1 p.m. ET
Live Steam: WatchESPN
Radio: Motor Racing Network
|Pure Michigan 400 Starting Order|
|10||Ricky Stenhouse Jr.||17|
|25||Dale Earnhardt Jr.||88|
|39||Martin Truex Jr.||78|
Drivers to Watch
Nobody is on the brink right now as it relates to the Chase more so than Greg Biffle. He trails Clint Bowyer by eight points for the 16th and final position, so while Biffle could still make the Chase without winning, finding his way to Victory Lane is the only foolproof way to guarantee it.
Luckily for the No. 16 team, Michigan happens to be Biffle's best track. He has had more success at Michigan than any other active driver with four wins. That fact unquestionably gives Biffle some confidence, but he is also a bit wary after running poorly at Michigan earlier in the season, according to Jared Turner of FoxSports.com:
It's been a good track for us. 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. Now, is a lot of speed enough to beat the other guys? We won't know until we get there. But we took that speed to Pocono – or some of what we thought we found – and we were certainly faster at Pocono than we were the last time we were there, but still not as fast as the guys we needed to race for the win. So I don't know until we get (to Michigan) how far we've closed in on them, but we certainly picked up speed.
Biffle wasn't necessarily among the fastest during qualifying, but he did make the final round and will start in the 11th position. Even if The Biff doesn't come away victorious this weekend, a top-five finish would be huge for his confidence and his placement in the standings.
With 10 top-five finishes in 23 career starts at Michigan, Biffle certainly knows how to get to the front and stay there. Now that desperation is setting in, he needs to turn in his best performance of what has been a difficult 2014 season.
It wasn't long ago that observers thought Jeff Gordon was in the twilight of his career, but the four-time Sprint Cup champion is enjoying a resurgent campaign. The driver of the famous No. 24 car has two wins and is second overall in points behind Dale Earnhardt Jr. In addition to his great performances on race day, he is getting the job done in qualifying as well.
One week after taking the pole at Watkins Glen, Gordon repeated the feat at Michigan. In fact, he came through with one of the greatest qualifying runs in the history of NASCAR, according to NASCAR Stats on Twitter:
As important as qualifying can be, it doesn't tell the entire story. Wiring issues cost Gordon a good finish at Watkins Glen, but he was running up front and had arguably the best car in the field before those problems came about. From a consistency standpoint, nobody can touch him this year.
Gordon has two career wins and 26 top-10 finishes at Michigan, which makes him an obvious threat to have another excellent run. One more win would tie Gordon with Earnhardt, Brad Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson for the season, so don't be surprised if he takes some risks and goes for the gusto Sunday.
This season is Carl Edwards' last hurrah with Roush Fenway Racing, but he is making it count. With two wins to his credit along with the No. 6 spot in the standings, Edwards has positioned himself to make a true run at his first Sprint Cup title.
Moving even further up the standings prior to the Chase would certainly help the cause, and Michigan provides him with a great opportunity. Among drivers with more than one career start at the track, nobody has a better average finish than Edwards. His average finish at Michigan is ninth place, and he has logged a top-10 result in 15 of his 20 career starts.
Edwards has also won twice, and there is no question that he is among the top contenders to prevail after qualifying fourth. In fact, Edwards was extremely impressed with the speed of the No. 99 car during his qualifying runs, per ESPN's Marty Smith:
While Edwards doesn't necessarily need the win like Roush Fenway teammate Greg Biffle does, that won't stop him from going for it. Edwards is among the most aggressive drivers in NASCAR, and he will jump at the chance to register his third win of the season if it is there for the taking.
The great thing about Michigan is that there is no shortage of potential contenders. Most of the heavy hitters have won at this track at least once, and the fact that fuel strategy often comes into play makes things quite unpredictable.
In addition to the aforementioned drivers who are in the mix to win, Matt Kenseth has to be mentioned. He isn't far behind Edwards in terms of his consistency at Michigan, and he has two career wins to his credit as well. Kenseth is 13th in the Chase standings, which is the best among drivers who have yet to win. He's somewhat safe for now, but a win would remove any doubt.
Drivers who have already won this season are always in search of another victory, so guys like Kevin Harvick, Joey Logano, and Earnhardt are worth watching. All of them have won here before, and there is no question that they could do it again.
Johnson won the previous Michigan race this season, but he hasn't been particularly good at this track and qualified a disappointing 30th. Even so, No. 48 can never be counted out.
Among potential dark horses, look for Kasey Kahne and Brian Vickers to make some noise. Both would miss the Chase if it started today, but they are perfectly capable of winning this race, as they have done so before.
When push comes to shove, look for desperation to rule the day, as Kahne will pick up the victory and take away one more valuable Chase spot.
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