After another long race in the Pocono Mountains which featured Jeff Gordon earning an insurance policy by winning his second race of the 2011 Sprint Cup season and essentially punching a ticket into the Chase in the process, NASCAR's premier touring series heads to another romantic destination this weekend—the Irish Hills of Michigan.
The region known for long periods of daylight is also known for fast, clean races at the two-mile oval. Denny Hamlin took last June's race which featured just four cautions for 14 laps, while Kevin Harvick used fuel mileage to his advantage to win last August.
What will happen this time around at Michigan International Speedway? Here are 10 bold predictions.
We'll use four cautions as the over/under here, as both last June's race at Michigan and last weekend's race at Pocono featured just a quartet of yellow flags. It's worth noting all four cautions at Pocono were for debris, meaning the race could have gone caution-free without objects on the track.
As I noted in the previous slide, Michigan has a reputation for providing good, clean racing without an abundance of incidents. In fact, 24 of 83 Sprint Cup races at the track have had less than four cautions.
Yes, I do realize that my picture is from the 2010 Daytona 500.
I realize this isn't particularly a bold prediction, but a race with less than four cautions means this will be a given, with extraordinarily long green-flag runs likely to occur.
It's common knowledge that Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s last win came in a fuel-mileage race at Michigan in June 2008, but Jeremy Mayfield's Evernham Motorsports teams also used it to race safely into the Chase by winning in August 2005.
I apologize for the lame music video here, but it's all I could find.
Last weekend at Pocono, we saw what appears to be the start of a midseason charge for Denny Hamlin, the man everyone expected to be in the thick of the Chase hunt at the start of the season.
Currently running 12th in the Sprint Cup standings, Hamlin led 32 laps and ran in the top 10 for most of the afternoon, but brake issues late in the race forced the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota onto pit road and an eventual 19th-place finish.
However, it was a promising sign for the Virginian entering a race in which he led 123 of 200 laps en route to a win last season. He's certainly due for a victory, obviously without one in the 2011 campaign.
For some strange reason, future Chasers have had issues with engines at Michigan International Speedway, meaning that we may see a failure occur that could shake up the points standings this Sunday.
Here's a list for good measure: Jeff Gordon (June 2004), Jimmie Johnson (August 2004), Jeff Burton (August 2006), Denny Hamlin (August 2008) and Kurt Busch (August 2010).
This is almost certainly the greatest finish in NASCAR's run at Michigan.
By the way, it's amazing how time has forgotten this finish. I realize I was quite young when this actually occurred, but this is a true thrilling run to the line.
It took a bit, but this young Georgian is having another breakout season in the No. 6 Roush Fenway Racing Ford.
After recording a career-best second-place finish at the Coke 600 in Charlotte, Ragan has had solid top-20 runs with a 13th at Kansas and a 17th at Pocono. He's had past success at the two-mile oval in Brooklyn, finishing in the top 10 in both races during the 2008 season.
In a season of first-time winners, Ragan is certainly due.
According to Racing-Reference.info, 65 of 83 races at Michigan have been won by a driver inside the top 10 starting positions.
In fact, the last driver to win from outside the top 10 was Mark Martin, who came from 32nd position to win in June 2009 after Greg Biffle ran out of gas on the final lap.
Last August, only one driver (Kurt Busch) failed to finish the race that originally didn't plan to start and park early. In the race prior, Casey Mears—driving for Red Bull Racing at the time—was the only non-start-and-parker to register a did not finish (DNF).
With this in mind, it's completely possible that everyone who plans to run the entire race will do so this weekend.
At the surface this seems absurd, but this is a legitimate gripe for many watching at home.
Last weekend's race at Pocono ended about 40 minutes before TNT's NASCAR coverage was supposed to go off the air at 5:30 p.m. Instead of going through and providing a brief interview for everyone who finished in the top 10, TNT signed off after interviewing the top three or four with over 20 minutes to spare.
It's not like the 3,000th repeat of Gran Torino this month needs to start early, so please throw NASCAR fans a bone and give us some post-race coverage. After all, we've had to deal with Fox all year.
There will be jubilation in Junior Nation Sunday afternoon, as Dale Earnhardt Jr. will finally return to Victory Lane after what seems like an eons-long winless streak at this point.
In just 14 races, Steve Letarte and Dale Earnhardt Jr. have proven to become the crew chief-driver tandem that may pull off a Sprint Cup title run this season. Junior hasn't been flashy, but he's been remarkably consistent, building up great finishes in a similar fashion to Matt Kenseth's 2003 season.
He's registered a top-20 finish for the past 13 races, a streak no one else on the circuit can claim. With that type of consistency, any historical statistic can be thrown out the window.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. will win this Sunday.
Thoughts? Comment below.