Even though long streaks have been difficult to maintain, drivers were very reliable last year in Michigan’s two races. Five drivers finished in precisely the same position in the Quicken Loans 400 and Pure Michigan 400, with Clint Bowyer recording the best result of seventh. Notably, he finished 2011’s pair of races in eighth and is the only driver with more than two consecutive top-10s. In total, half of the field finished the summer race within six positions of how they ran in the spring and this week’s list of favorites will come from last year’s success stories.
Greg Biffle limped into Pocono Raceway last week with six consecutive results of 13th or worse. His average finish of 25th in that span of races virtually ensured that few players had him active on their NASCAR Fantasy Live roster, but he raced among the top 10 for most of the day. That was a great time to develop some momentum because he heads to a track where he was almost perfect last year. He finished fourth in the spring race and won the Pure Michigan 400. Fords have not been particularly strong in the first 14 races of the season, but this is the track on which they will rebound.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. had an identical record to Biffle at Michigan last year and he is also coming off a strong Pocono run. The No. 88 captured the Quicken Loans 400 trophy to snap a long winless streak and he did it without the aid of fuel mileage or a risky pit strategy. Last week, Biffle finished second in the Party in the Poconos 400, but Earnhardt had the second-best average running position and was Jimmie Johnson’s competition for most of the afternoon. Like Biffle, he struggled with inconsistent results for several weeks, but he enters Michigan with back-to-back top-10s for the first time since he finished second on the other two-mile track of in California.
Last week Tony Stewart was listed only as a dark horse because it was too soon to know if back-to-back top-10s signaled a momentum shift. He had not been dominant in either the Coke 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway or the FedEx 400 at Dover International Speedway, but last week’s performance answered a lot of questions. He spent 153 of the 160 laps inside the top 15 and half of those were also inside the top 10. Equally important, his teammate Ryan Newman had a solid performance as well and that was the first time this season two Stewart-Haas Racing drivers earned top-fives. All of their performance issues may not have been fixed yet, but the organization is certainly making strides in the right direction.
Jack Roush ruled Michigan in the past and Carl Edwards is a big part of that dominance. His first 14 races on this track featured two wins, nine top-fives, and only one result outside the top 12. He blew an engine in the 2011 Pure Michigan 400 to snap a long top-15 streak and he blew his qualification lap in this race last year, but after starting 42nd he earned a lot of place differential points to finish 11th. Edwards should be a favorite, but this team is lacking confidence at the moment after a disappointing 18th-place finish with what the driver described as an 18th-place car.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. also performed badly at Pocono to finish 26th. That was his worst result in the past seven races and the first time he finished outside the top 20 in that span. Rookies cannot afford to have consecutive bad races because it takes a toll on their self-assurance and this is a great time to visit a track that has been kind to the organization. Former Roushketeer David Ragan had some of his best runs on this track and fantasy owners can expect the same level of performance from Stenhouse. He is much cheaper than either Biffle or Edwards and fits nearly any salary cap consideration.
In order to improve their reliability Toyota has detuned their engines slightly, but a small lack of horsepower could mean the difference between battling for a win and struggling to stay in the top 10. This is also one of the tracks on which they suffered last year; Kyle Busch and Mark Martin both experienced engine trouble in June, which might not be a huge concern if not for the current situation. Bowyer is the only Toyota driver who swept the top 10 last year, so the manufacturer does not have very much momentum on their side and players will want to take a cautious approach on tracks that require a lot of horsepower.
Last week, Jeff Gordon was listed as a favorite and he failed to live up to expectations on a course he once dominated. His average running position of about 14th meant that he spent as much time outside the top 15 as in it. He ran just well enough to maintain his 11th-place position in the standings and is currently only two points outside of Chase contention. This week, the No. 24 team will probably race conservatively again to make up the necessary ground, and that is going to keep them from challenging for a top-five finish. The good news is that the series rolls onto a road course in two weeks and Gordon is a master of that track type.