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Fantasy Preview: New pavement at Michigan creates opportunities

June 13, 2012, Dan Beaver, Special to NASCAR.COM, NASCAR.com

Michigan International Speedway is one of NASCAR's perfect tracks. The 2-mile length is great enough to allow for fast speeds and the wide corners are conducive to side-by-side racing. So why mess with perfection and repave the place? Because eventually trees would be growing through cracks in the asphalt without a little tender, loving care.

Michigan held off as long as it could. The track was repaved most recently in 1995; before that, it got a new surface about every decade. There really was no hurry this time; the race action on this track was among the best on the schedule and the odds are good that with a little weathering, that is going to continue.

Before starting work on the track, officials completed a laser survey that collected 100 million data points to allow them to perfectly replicate the layout. The emphasis was on smoothing out bumps and providing extra grip. That means faster speeds and in a tire test this past April, Jeff Gordon reportedly hit an unofficial high of 215 mph and the cars maintained speeds of 180 through the corners. This week, another qualification track record is going to fall to accompany last week's milestone on the recently repaved Pocono Raceway and it is a fair bet that the entire field will shatter the old mark.

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Speed or relativity

Speed is only half the equation in NASCAR, however. Races are most interesting when there is plenty of passing going on during the afternoon and Michigan traditionally has had multiple lanes to encourage that action. Historically, newly paved tracks devolve into one-groove affairs immediately because the preferred groove has not worn to the point of being treacherous. That tendency certainly will play a part this week, but Michigan is somewhat unique.

The bottom groove has never been the only way around this track. Drivers who like to race on the white line have success, but their car scrubs off speed in the tighter radius of the corner. Racers who like to rim-ride keep their momentum by running next to the wall and these two grooves have a way of leveling the playing field. Because this track is so wide, there is often a third lane in the middle of the track, which might take a little while to work in this year. Each groove should keep its personality and the only thing that will be different is that speeds are going to climb.

New pavement also will create opportunities for some fresh faces at the front of the pack. Last week, Joey Logano earned his second Cup victory and was strong all afternoon. He spent more time in the top five than any other driver in the field, and while he had experience on that course already, his three years of notes left him unencumbered with preconceptions about the quickest way around the course. Given the strength of Joe Gibbs Racing at Michigan in recent seasons and Logano's three-race streak of top-10s in 2009 and '10, he will be a factor once more.

Drivers with even less experience like Aric Almirola, Trevor Bayne and Austin Dillon could be among the most pleasant surprises this week and teams like those belonging to Paul Menard, AJ Allmendinger and Marcos Ambrose should provide some interesting choices in the mid-cap range.

The Favorites

For another driver, blowing engines in back-to-back weeks could be a momentum killer. That spate of bad luck definitely came at a bad time for Kyle Busch because he entered Dover with four consecutive top-fives and another top-10 to his credit in the most recent races of 2012, but Michigan should be a good place for him to rebound. He hasn't always been great on the 2-mile track, but he found the right setup last year and finished third in the June race and won the August event. Those back-to-back top-fives will give him confidence, but he should not be as well-entrenched in some of his setups as traditionally great drivers such as Matt Kenseth or Jimmie Johnson.

The new pavement is going to elevate some new drivers into the top 15, but the problem for fantasy owners is that it will be difficult to know who they are ahead of time. It is much safer to anchor the roster with veterans who have a long history of success at Michigan, and that is where Kenseth comes in this week. The new pavement will change the running order somewhat, but not completely. Kenseth has five top-fives and only one finish worse than 14th in his past nine Michigan attempts and he is the points leader, which gives him current momentum. Last week, he was uncharacteristically strong at Pocono and part of the reason may have been the new asphalt. Those factors could create the perfect storm and usher him into Victory Lane this week for the first time since the season-opening race at Daytona.

Ryan Newman could easily be either a dark horse or a favorite. He won back-to-back races in 2003 and '04, but then suffered through 12 attempts without another top-10. Last year, he was back in the groove and finished sixth and fifth. Adding the other 2-mile track to his data pool provides even more impressive numbers. He finished fifth at the end of 2010, which was the last year two races were held at Fontana, was fifth there again the following spring, and seventh this spring. That gives him a five-race streak of results seventh or better on this track type and makes him one of the best picks at his salary-cap level.

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Dark Horses

One reason Newman isn't a dark horse this week despite his dramatic reversal of fortune is there are some other great choices that will not break the bank. It is rare in the NASCAR Fantasy Live game that players get a chance to snap up a driver for $3 who is capable of running in the top 20, but they have just such an opportunity this week. Dillon will need to qualify the No. 33 on time, so players should wait until after qualification to place him on their rosters, but if he makes the show, he is liable to have some powerful equipment at his disposal. This will not be the same car that Stephen Leicht, Hermie Sadler and Jeff Green drove earlier this season. It may look the same on paper, but Childress is going to make certain it has one of his best engines under the hood and he will be paying the team that services the car. Dillon already has one Cup start to his credit; last year he finished 26th at Kansas.

Bayne will be a little more expensive, but well worth the $12 it will take to acquire him. The Wood Brothers are not attempting very many races, so it is able to put a lot of effort into the ones it starts. Bayne has been great on unrestricted, intermediate speedways in the past and he already has a top-10 on the 1.5-mile Las Vegas Motor Speedway. In that race, Bayne also earned more than 15 points for finishing better than he started in the NASCAR Fantasy Live game, so if he qualifies in the mid- to high-20s, he should be on any player's roster who is willing to make some salary-cap moves.

Underdogs

Several weeks ago, Gordon was listed as a driver who fantasy owners shouldn't even consider starting until he posted back-to-back top-10s. He was so tempting at Pocono, however, that it was impossible to avoid making him a favorite. Reversing opinions about him proved disastrous to anyone who spent their hard-earned money on the No. 24. Another race featured another problem. Two weeks ago a mistake by the pit crew robbed Gordon of a probable victory and last week at Pocono, he leveled the field by speeding on pit road after charging into the top 10. Until the team stops making those mistakes, Gordon should be avoided -- and this time, we mean it.

Fantasy Power Ranking

Two-mile tracks (past three years)
Pos.DriverPA* Pos.DriverPA* Pos.DriverPA*
2.Tony Stewart8.38 17.Jeff Burton19.87 32.Ken Schrader33.59
3.Jeff Gordon9.46 18.Joey Logano20.62 33.Landon Cassill34.05
4.Kyle Busch10.76 19.Martin Truex Jr.20.83 34.Bobby Labonte34.10
5.Mark Martin10.85 20.David Reutimann21.56  35.David Gilliland35.00
6.Denny Hamlin10.92 21.David Ragan22.19 36.David Stremme35.28
7.Matt Kenseth11.19 22.AJ Allmendinger24.22 37.Aric Almirola35.39
8.Greg Biffle11.65 23.Brad Keselowski24.91 38.Mike Bliss36.11
9.Kevin Harvick11.96 24.Jamie McMurray25.26 39.Michael McDowell37.16
10.Clint Bowyer12.21 25.Paul Menard25.53 40.JJ Yeley37.67
11.Carl Edwards13.03 26.Regan Smith26.82 41.Dave Blaney37.78
12.Kasey Kahne13.68 27.Trevor Bayne28.54 42.Josh Wise37.90
13.Kurt Busch14.51 28.Marcos Ambrose28.66 43.Joe Nemechek38.18
14.Juan Montoya16.04 29.Casey Mears29.76 44.Scott Riggs41.50
15.Ryan Newman16.71 30.Austin Dillon32.01 

Last week, Keselowski was one of the two underdogs in the Fantasy Preview. He entered Pocono as the most recent winner on that track, but it also was noted that he struggled most of his career on the Tricky Triangle. He faces an almost identical scenario this week because he is going to tempt a lot of players on the heels of his third-place finish at Michigan this past August. He failed to crack the top 20 in four previous events there, however, and that is the statistic that should stick in their minds. Of course, the other underdog listed last week was Logano, and everyone knows how that played out.