The NASCAR Sprint Cup series comes to Michigan International Speedway on Sunday (Noon ET, ESPN) for the Pure Michigan 400, as four more races remain for drivers to position themselves for, or qualify for, the Sprint For The Cup that concludes the season.
Jimmie Johnson is now the points leader for the first time this season, quite a turnaround from the points penalty he took in February for essentially driving a car on steroids. JJ only leads Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth by one and two points respectively, although as we’ve discussed in previous race previews, the scoring system for the playoffs make the standings cosmetic and total wins more important. In that area, Johnson, Brad Keselowski and Tony Stewart continue to lead the field with three outright wins and if the Sprint For The Cup started today these three drivers would be tied for first when the standings get the re-set button hit.
Denny Hamlin has two wins this year and he’s got a record of success in Michigan, with victories here each of the last two years. This race is one of two held at Michigan International Speedway each year, and Dale Earnhardt Junior won the earlier one. Junior is in fourth place, a playoff lock, but that’s his only victory and only with Kenseth, Biffle and Clint Bowyer, he could use another victory to position himself for the Sprint. Carl Edwards, who must win one of the next four races to make the playoffs as a wild-card, got wins here in 2007 and 2008.
Wins by Edwards, Marcos Ambrose or Joey Logano would be game-changers in the playoff race, as each would join Kasey Kahne as wild-card leaders with an outright win. But more realistically, the big battle going on right now is between Ryan Newman, Kyle Busch and Jeff Gordon for the last wild-card spot. Each has one win, so that’s a wash, and the drivers are packed within ten points of each other. The odds are that the less glamorous jousting for position, rather than grabbing the checkered flag, will swing who qualifies to drive for the sport’s top prize starting in late September.
Michigan International Speedway is a unique course, and TheSportsNotebook’s NASCAR consultant, my brother Bill, shed light on what will key success on Sunday. “It’s a high-speed track, with very few cautions and it gets stretched out,” Bill said. “It comes down to fuel mileage, especially at the end. It’s also more important than normal to have a good-handling car. The track is so fast that if you don’t, you can get lapped and find yourself in a big hole.”
Hamlin has shown in the past he can handle the fast track of Michigan. Edwards has as well. For very different reasons, each could really use making Sunday another demonstration of that ability.