NASCAR at Michigan 2016: Preview, Prediction for the Pure Michigan 400

Brendan O'Meara@@BrendanOMearaFeatured ColumnistAugust 24, 2016

NASCAR at Michigan 2016: Preview, Prediction for the Pure Michigan 400

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    Jerry Markland/Getty Images

    And then there were three.

    Three races remain in the regular season before the Chase for the Sprint Cup. The series heads back to Michigan International Speedway for the Pure Michigan 400—400 laps and 200 miles of low downforce racing.

    This didn’t result in a great race two months ago. Joey Logano dominated, leading 138 of the 200 laps.

    Perhaps the race was best remembered for how two winless drivers—Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson—dueled for second place. Elliott edged Larson while Logano, presumably, snickered like an old-timey bank robber from a silent movie, all the while twirling an invisible mustache on his way to Victory Lane.

    So, yes, three weeks remain, and many drivers are pinned into a corner, desperate for access to the playoffs.

    Where will they stand? That, and more, in this week’s preview and prediction from Michigan.

By the Numbers: Michigan International Speedway

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    Pure Michigan 400

    Place: Michigan International Speedway; Brooklyn, Michigan

    Date: Sunday, August 28

    TV Coverage: 2:16 p.m. (ET), NBCSN

    Distance: 400 miles, 200 laps

    Defending Champion: Joey Logano

The Chase Grid

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    Mel Evans/Associated Press

    1. Brad Keselowski

    2. Kyle Busch

    3. Kevin Harvick

    4. Carl Edwards

    5. Denny Hamlin

    6. Jimmie Johnson

    7. Matt Kenseth

    8. Kurt Busch

    9. Joey Logano

    10. Martin Truex Jr.

    11. Tony Stewart

    12. Chris Buescher

    13. Austin Dillon

    14. Chase Elliott

    15. Jamie McMurray

    16. Ryan Newman

    Bold equals non-winners.

The Chase Bubble Watch

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    Dillon, +55

    Elliott, +47

    McMurray, +42

    Newman, +35

    Trevor Bayne, -35

    Kyle Larson, -39

    Kasey Kahne, -39

    A.J. Allmendinger, -58

Biggest Storylines

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    Jim Cole/Associated Press

    Should Alex Bowman Drive the No. 88 Car the Rest of the Season?

    It’s obvious why Jeff Gordon is the understudy to this car, and it has little to do with his driving talent. After all, he came off the bench without doing any warm-ups at the Brickyard.

    Gordon’s only purpose in that No. 88 car is name recognition and sponsor appeasement. Dale Earnhardt Jr., racing’s most popular driver, commands a certain degree of attention. Nationwide/Axalta/Diet Mountain Dew (Pepsi Co.) no doubt pay a hefty sum for their brands to be seen on that car and on that fire suit.

    Alex Bowman, a talented young driver who needs reps, doesn’t move the meter the way an out-of-retirement Gordon does, even though Gordon isn’t capable of driving that No. 88 to the front any more than Bowman can.

    This is the perfect time to develop a budding talent in Bowman, yet the economic pressures of keeping business partners happy must be the only reason why Rick Hendrick phoned Gordon on his Parisian vacay.

    Bowman is the answer long term, but it’s hard to imagine Hendrick Motorsports opting for Bowman over Gordon since it’s Gordon’s profile that keeps the No. 88 attractive to outsiders.

    Winless Drivers Running Out of Time

    That sense of urgency is upon them.

    Dillon, Elliott, McMurray and Newman are winless above the line. Bayne, Larson and Kahne are winless below the line.

    Obviously, all of them are inside the top 30 in points, so a win by any of them will clinch a playoff spot.

    Bayne has done little to inspire in terms of driving a winning car.

    Larson, at times, looks like a monster, then he invariably ends up in a wreck. This isn’t just bad luck. He’s pushing the limit of that No. 42 car, and that will place him closer to the edge and make the margin for error that much narrower.

    Larson will be driving these next three races with desperation. He must, and finishing third to Logano two months ago at this track will give him confidence, but he might also get too aggressive when he doesn’t need to be.

    Which leaves Kahne, a winner of a single race at Michigan and Richmond. He also has eight top-fives at MIS, three top fives at Darlington and five top fives at Richmond.

    Kahne sits 39 points back of Newman, and Kahne’s entirely capable of winning at one of these tracks.

    If he—or any other driver on this list—plans on reaching the playoffs, it’s time to open that throttle and close.

Dark-Horse Pick: Chase Elliott

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    Jim Cole/Associated Press

    For Elliott, most would agree: It’s not a matter of if but when he wins a race, several races actually.

    After winning the pole for the Daytona 500 to open the season, many thought he’d win a race this year. He had Rookie of the Year in the bag. He quelled any Gordon-esque nostalgia. The No. 24 became Elliott’s number, not Gordon’s former car.

    After Sonoma, Elliott was as high as sixth in the driver standings, albeit not the Chase Grid, but sixth in points is, on its face, amazing.

    Every week since he slipped further down the standings: seventh, to eighth, to 11th, to 13th, now back up to 12th.

    Michigan was his best finish as a pro. He dueled Larson for second and won out.

    Elliott will arrive at MIS with that confidence securely riding shotgun. He has a chance to lock down a Chase spot, and if he gets a green-flag victory, he can get ready to buff a nice shine on the Rookie of the Year trophy.

And the Winner Is...Carl Edwards

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    Jim Cole/Associated Press

    What should you do if you picked Edwards the prior week and he lost? Pick him again!

    Here’s the thing: He races fast and races qualifiers faster. Edwards had a series-high five poles and will likely qualify inside the top five at Michigan.

    "Michigan is a place that really tests every part of your team," Edwards said, per's Chase Wilhelm. "You have to have great engines, which we do. You have to have great cars and bodies, which we do. The pit crew has to be on their game. My guys have been doing great lately. You have to make good calls the whole day."

    Last week at Bristol, Edwards found himself toward the back of the field midway through the race. He has a way of doing this. Whether he gets involved in a minor wreck or incurs a bad pit stop, Edwards manages to weave his way back through the field. He got up for sixth at Bristol when he was essentially left for dead.

    NBC puts up the results and you do a double-take. Edwards got up for sixth?

    The Joe Gibbs cars can only be counted out when parked in the garage. Expect a typical day for Edwards where he’s up front early, then trails before finding a way into the top five by the end.