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NASCAR Sprint Cup at Michigan: Denny Hamlin and 10 Top Contenders to Win

Paul CarreauAnalyst IJune 16, 2011

NASCAR Sprint Cup at Michigan: Denny Hamlin and 10 Top Contenders to Win

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    CHARLOTTE, NC - MAY 26:  Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Express Toyota, stands on the grid during qualifying for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway on May 26, 2011 in Charlotte, North Carolina.  (Photo by Geoff B
    Geoff Burke/Getty Images

    The 15th race of the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup season gets under way this Sunday in the Black Hills of Michigan. This two-mile oval is similar to Kansas, the track that the series just ran on two weeks ago.

    In a season that has seen multiple races come down to fuel mileage, Michigan could be a track that produces a similar finish. A long and wide track, cautions can be few and far between, making green flag pit stops the order of the day.

    Denny Hamlin is the defending winner of this race. While this season, he has yet to produce a win, he still has to be considered one of the favorites. But he isn't the only one. Here are the 10 drivers who have the best chance at scoring a win on Sunday.

1. Denny Hamlin

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    BROOKLYN, MI - JUNE 13:  Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Ground Toyota, celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Heluva Good! Sour Cream Dips 400 at Michigan International Speedway on June 13, 2010 in Brooklyn, Michigan.
    Jason Smith/Getty Images

    Denny Hamlin won this race a season ago. The win was already his fifth of the season. Fast forward one year, and Hamlin is still in search of his first win of 2011. We thought it would happen at Richmond and when it didn't happen there, it had to happen at Pocono.

    Hamlin was clearly the car to beat until a cut tire put an end to that. Now, with Michigan on the schedule, we have yet another strong track for the driver of the No. 11 Toyota.

    In 10 starts at the two-mile track, Hamlin has six top-10s, including a win. Only one time has Hamlin finished a race in Michigan worse than 14th.

    Three of his last four races here have resulted in top-three finishes, including a win and a runner up finish one year ago.

2. Jimmie Johnson

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    LONG POND, PA - JUNE 11: Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe's Chevrolet waits on pit road during qualifying for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series 5-Hour Energy 500 at Pocono Raceway on June 11, 2011 in Long Pond, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jerry Markland/Get
    Jerry Markland/Getty Images

    Michigan is one of just four tracks the Sprint Cup Series currently races on that Jimmie Johnson has failed to record a win at. That doesn't mean he shouldn't be considered a favorite. That is just how good he and his team are.

    In 18 starts, Johnson has scored just seven top-10s, but he does have one that got away. It was one of the wilder finishes in recent memory. In the spring race of 2009, Johnson dominated the race and was leading as the field came to the white flag.

    Just prior to taking the flag, Johnson ran out of fuel. That handed the lead to Greg Biffle, who then proceeded to run out of fuel going down the back stretch. That gave the lead to Mark Martin, who ran out of fuel just after taking the checkered flag.

    Johnson would love nothing more than to finally get that win in the Black Hills that should have been his two seasons ago.

3. Greg Biffle

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    LONG POND, PA - JUNE 10:  Greg Biffle, driver of the #16 3M Ford, climbs into his car in the garage area during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series 5-Hour Energy 500 at Pocono Raceway on June 10, 2011 in Long Pond, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Drew Hall
    Drew Hallowell/Getty Images

    Greg Biffle has found plenty of success in Michigan. He has made 16 starts here and posted 10 top-10s in those races. He is a two-time winner at this track, having won consecutively in 2004 and 2005.

    Biffle has posted a top-10 finish in four out his last five trips to the two-mile oval, including a pair of those finishes one season ago.

    Biffle comes in to this race 14th in the points and is in desperate need of a strong finish. He would currently be on the outside looking in if the Chase were to start today. However, a win would put him right back in the thick of things, and in prime position for one of the two wild-card spots.

4. Carl Edwards

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    LONG POND, PA - JUNE 11:  Carl Edwards, driver of the #99 Kellogg / Cheez-it Ford waits on pit road during qualifying for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series 5-Hour Energy 500 at Pocono Raceway on June 11, 2011 in Long Pond, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jerry Markla
    Jerry Markland/Getty Images

    While it may not be a guarantee that Edwards will win at Michigan, it is almost certainly a guarantee that he will at least post a top-10 finish. He done just that in 11 of 13 career races at this track, including a 10th place finish here in 2004, his first start in the Sprint Cup Series.

    Edwards is a two-time winner at this track, and only one of his 13 starts have resulted in a finish outside the top dozen. Five out of the last eight times the Sprint Cup cars have visited Michigan, Edwards has finished inside the top five.

    One week after having engine issues at Pocono and seeing his points lead shrink to a mere six points, Edwards couldn't have picked a better track to try and rebound at.

    While Edwards is sure to finish 10th or better, don't expect him to start there. He only averages a 21st place start at Michigan.

5. Jeff Gordon

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    LONG POND, PA - JUNE 12:  Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 DuPont Chevrolet, celebrates with the trophy after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series 5-Hour Energy 500 at Pocono Raceway on June 12, 2011 in Long Pond, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Geoff Burke/Getty
    Geoff Burke/Getty Images

    Jeff Gordon is the series most recent winner, having taken the checkers last weekend in Pocono. While the win didn't get him in to the top-10 in points, it did move him up to 11th, and almost guarantees him a spot in the Chase, as it was his second win of 2011.

    Gordon has found success at Michigan. The four-time series champion has made 36 starts at the two-mile track and has posted 23 top-10 finishes, with two of those being wins.

    While many of his best finishes here came earlier in his career, he has done just fine in the recent years as well. From 1995 through 1999 Gordon had a worst finish of sixth in 10 races at Michigan.

    More recently, driver No. 24 has posted top-five finishes in three of the last four races here, including two runner up finishes. Look for Gordon to ride a wave of momentum to another solid Michigan finish.

6. Tony Stewart

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    KANSAS CITY, KS - JUNE 03:  Tony Stewart, driver of the #14 The Glades/Office Depot Chevrolet, stands in the garage area during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series STP 400 at Kansas Speedway on June 3, 2011 in Kansas City, Kansas.  (Photo by Tim Ump
    Tim Umphrey/Getty Images

    Tony Stewart is still in search of his first win of the season. Michigan is a track that he has tasted victory at before, and this is typically the time of year when Stewart really sees his race finishes improve.

    In 24 starts here, Smoke has posted 16 top-10s, with 10 of those ending in the top five. He has six top-10s in his last nine starts here, and the worst of all of those finishes was a 17th place effort.

    Stewart needs a strong finish this weekend as he finds himself in 10th place in the standings, which is the last guaranteed Chase spot. He has posted just five top-10s in the seasons first 14 races. A strong finish would go a long way in solidifying his Chase hopes.

7. Kurt Busch

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    LONG POND, PA - JUNE 12:  Kurt Busch, driver of the #22 Shell/Pennzoil Dodge, stands on the grid prior to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series 5-Hour Energy 500 at Pocono Raceway on June 12, 2011 in Long Pond, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Geoff Burke/Getty Images for
    Geoff Burke/Getty Images

    Michigan has been a feast or famine track for Kurt Busch. When it's good, it's good, but when it's bad, it's real bad for the elder Busch brother.

    In 20 starts, he has eight top-10s, with two wins. Conversely, Busch has posted seven finishes of 35th or worse at Michigan. His track record at this track is similar to how his 2011 season has gone.

    Busch started the season red hot. He won the Bud Shootout and one of the Gatorade Duals. Then, he was the points leader four races in to the season.

    Then things went downhill in a hurry for Busch. Six out of his next seven races resulted in finishes outside the top-10. During that stretch, he verbally blasted his team and their performance multiple times. Now, he is back to running well. He has three consecutive top-10s, including a runner up a week ago.

    He has also won each of the last two poles. Look for Busch to keep his momentum going this weekend.

8. Matt Kenseth

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    LONG POND, PA - JUNE 11:  Matt Kenseth, driver of the #17 Affliction Clothing: Live Fast Ford, looks on during qualifying for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series 5-Hour Energy 500 at Pocono Raceway on June 11, 2011 in Long Pond, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jerry Ma
    Jerry Markland/Getty Images

    After a few years with mediocre results, Matt Kenseth is in a bounce-back season. Through 14 races, he has scored two wins, seven top-10s and sits seventh in the points.

    He goes to Michigan this weekend with a stellar record at this track. Kenseth has made 23 starts at the two-mile speedway. He has posted 14 top-10s, and only one time has he finished outside of the top-20.

    Kenseth is a former winner in Michigan, and of his 14 top-10s, 10 of them ended up in fifth place or better. While Kenseth is good for a strong finish, much like his teammate Carl Edwards, don't expect him to start up front. He only averages a 20th place start.

9. Kevin Harvick

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    CHARLOTTE, NC - MAY 28:  Kevin Harvick, driver of the #33 Rheem Tankless Water Heaters Chevrolet, stands on the grid during qualifying for the NASCAR Nationwide Series Top Gear 300 at Charlotte Motor Speedway on May 28, 2011 in Charlotte, North Carolina.
    Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

    Kevin Harvick is the most recent winner at Michigan, having won there last fall. He also is the series leader in wins this season, having earned three of them thus far. Harvick sits fourth in points, and with his three wins, is already all but assured of a spot in the Chase.

    His career at Michigan has been mired with more mediocre finishes than great finishes. In 20 starts, he has amassed just seven top-10s, with only three of those ending in a top-five finish.

    Harvick to his credit has at least been consistent at Michigan. In his last 10 starts, he has four top-10s, but each of those 10 finishes have resulted in a finish inside the top-20.

    Harvick may not get his fourth win this weekend, but a good finish is surely in order.

10. Joey Logano

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    LONG POND, PA - JUNE 12:  Joey Logano, driver of the #20 The Home Depot Toyota, stands on the grid prior to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series 5-Hour Energy 500 at Pocono Raceway on June 12, 2011 in Long Pond, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Image
    Jerry Markland/Getty Images

    Joey Logano hasn't made many starts at Michigan at the Sprint Cup level, but in the few that he has made, he has made the most of them.

    Logano has four starts under his belt in Michigan. After finishing 25th in his first start there, he has scored three consecutive top-10s, including a pair of 10th place finishes a year ago.

    Logano has had a sub-par campaign in 2011. Through 14 races, he has only managed two top-10s, in a season that a lot of people expected him to contend for a Chase spot.

    Coming off a decent finish a week ago at Pocono, Logano would love nothing more than to get his season turned around with another strong run in Michigan.

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