Occasionally, racetracks must be repaved; either to cover over a deteriorating surface or to increase competition. It is inevitable, and although most drivers hate it, speeds are often increased and grip is decreased. Last week, we were at Pocono Raceway, and it's new asphalt surface brought up the speeds and created more passing. For race #15 out of 36 on the season, we are at Michigan International Speedway, another repaved speedway that we are visiting for the first time. Most drivers have tested here before for Goodyear, but testing cannot come close to simulating an actual race. It will without doubt be a learning process throughout the week for drivers and teams, and on race day it's anyone's guess what will happen.
Michigan International Speedway is a 2.0-mile D-shaped oval located just outside of the Motor City, Detroit. Needless to say, manufacturers compete for more than just the win here - bragging rights are at stake. MIS is one of the widest and fastest tracks on the circuit, and horsepower is everything on the 3,600 foot-long front straightaway. It is without doubt a battle of equipment in the races here. Banking in the turns is a fairly low 18 degrees, which provides for anywhere from 4 to 5 lanes of racing. At 2,242 feet long, the back straightaway is much shorter than the front straight but is still very long. Pit road speed limit here is 45mph, but the pace car will lead the field at about 10mph higher than that. This speedway is almost identical to the Auto Club Speedway out in California, the only difference is the surface. in fact, Auto Club was designed after the blueprint of this facility back in the late 1990s.
As I said before, horsepower is the name of the game this week, perhaps more than ever. The repave of the speedway will create higher speeds than ever seen before, and until the new surface gets a permanent layer of rubber on it (likely a year or two down the road), handling will not be very important. As is the case with many tracks, overheating issues are something that drivers and crew chiefs must also keep a very close eye on. The front straightaway here is well over 3,000 feet long, which will be complete torment on the cars as they thunder down into Turn 1. Drivers must not only keep their engine/brakes/etc. good until the end of 400 miles, but still have enough power left to challenge for position in the closing circuits. Engines are likely to overheat, brakes may just get too worn, and tires could be pushed to their limit if the driver can't take care or them and nurse their equipment to the finish.
Most of the time, repaves are not very popular with drivers. Most claim that it takes away the character of the track and makes it harder to drive, although there are a few exceptions to that rule: "I am not a big fan of repaves, so the fact that I am talking positive about it -- and still enjoying the race track as much as I always have -- is a sign that I think they did a great job," says Jeff Gordon, who participated in the Goodyear tire test I mentioned here in April. "Whatever it is about this track, it has always had a great feel to it. And, instead of having to go in and 'recreate' that feel like some tracks have had to do, they were basically able to pave over the top of what they had - and fix whatever they could - to keep it lasting as long as possible."
As for your Yahoo! Fantasy team, there are plenty of fantastic picks in group A, perhaps more so than any of the other tracks we visit each year. Matt Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin, Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon, and even Brad Keselowski are great picks. You honestly can't go wrong with any of them. So the hard part is choosing two drivers, and only one gets to be my actual starter. For those roles, I am taking Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin. Roush-Fenway Racing has long been king here, and leading that charge is Matt Kenseth. Last June Kenseth finished 2nd, led 17 laps and had the best driver rating (130.1). In the August race he finished 10th, but he did start second and had a 3rd-place average running position. He's had much luck over his entire career, and other than an accident in 2007, has never finished outside the top 17. Kenseth is my pick to win Sunday. Denny Hamlin has won the last two spring races at Michigan, so he has had previous success here. Last August he finished 35th due to hitting the wall and damaging his car, but before that he had a five race top ten streak at MIS. During that span, he also had three top 3 finishes and was 2nd in the series in laps led (134). I feel that he'll overcome last year's fall race and he’ll be a tough competitor for the the Roush Fords. I think he'll lead many laps and compete for the win. As I said before, nearly everyone else is a good pick; you really can't go wrong with any of them.
With Group B, there are less good picks, but those who have been successful at this 2-mile oval before have been great. Greg Biffle, Kasey Kahne, Joey Logano, and A.J. Allmendinger. The Biff is easily the best pick in this group, and must be placed as a starter. Prior to a dismal 2011, he had a streak of 3 top 5s in the past five races, with a 9th in the other race. He has visited victory lane twice, and has led nearly 400 laps over his career. Biffle will without doubt contend for the win and will finish in the top 5, not to mention he will likely lead several dozen laps. Kasey Kahne has a so-so track history at MIS, but the last time we visited a high-speed intermediate track he emerged victorious. He’s a former winner here (2006), has finished 2nd a total of three times, and last August he got 7th. KK also is a great qualifier, having qualified in the top 10 in seven of the past nine races at MIS. He should be good for a top 15, and I think he will contend for a top 5 qualifying spot. Joey Logano is on my team solely because of his momentum from last week's win at Pocono. If there's anything I've learned as a Fantasy owner, it's that momentum is often more important than past stats. Not that Logano has been terrible, because he's finished in the top 10 in half of his career starts, including a 7th in 2009. He'll contend for a top 10, but even going higher won't be much of a surprise to me. For the final spot on my B group, A.J. Allmendinger will be on. He’s never finished in the top ten here, but his four most recent finishes are 11th, 17th, 13th and 11th. But I mostly am including him for his qualifying effort. the Dinger is a good qualifier and I think he has a chance at competing for the pole. He won the pole at Kansas this year (1.5 mile version of Michigan) and Kurt Busch in the #22 car won the last two June poles at Michigan. The 10 bonus points for getting the pole is huge, and he has the potential to get a top 15 as well. Other good picks include Ryan Newman, Martin Truex Jr., and Mark Martin.
I am taking underdogs for the C group, with Austin Dillon and Trevor Bayne. Dillon isn't making very many starts this year, and likely won't make many, if any, more. This will help me use my starts more efficiently, and I'll be able to take a driver who without doubt will be in top-line Richard Childress Racing equipment. Horsepower is everything, and I believe that will push Dillon to a top 20 or better finish. Trevor Bayne also has great equipment, and should qualify rather well, probably top 15 or better. For the actual race, he has made two career starts here, finishing 16th and 24th in them. This will likely stay true this week, and a top 20 finish should be expected from him. Other good picks include, as usual, Aric Almirola, and also Bobby Labonte and Casey Mears will be decent.
For my NASCAR.com Fantasy Live team, I am going with Jimmie Johnson ($28.00), Matt Kenseth($27.75), Greg Biffle ($26.25), Trevor Bayne ($12.00), and Austin Dillon ($3.00). You can feel free to choose other great drivers like Carl Edwards, Dale Jr., and Martin Truex Jr., but the only driver that needs to be on every one of your teams is Dillon, who at $3 is a steal.
The weekend, drivers will have two practice sessions to get used to the new surface. The first is at 12:30pm Friday on Speed, with the second following it at 3:30pm on the same channel. Qualifying, when 45 drivers will go for the 43 spots, is at 1:00pm Saturday, also on Speed. TNT's broadcast of the Quicken Loans 400 (400 miles/200 laps) begins at 12:30pm Sunday, and the green flag is scheduled to drop at approximately 1:19pm. All times ET.