By Brian Wiggins
Normally when the Cup Series visits Michigan International Speedway, you can count on certain drivers to contend for the win that have had success at the track in the past.
That’s the same at about every track on the circuit, but when you came to Michigan, you knew drivers like Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth were going to be among the drivers to beat almost each and every time.
But this year at Michigan is different. A $7 million repave job on the two-mile oval has not only sent speeds soaring higher than they’ve been since the late 80’s, but may have changed the entire dynamic of the 400-mile race.
NASCAR held an open test session for teams on Thursday in order to prepare for the race on the new surface, much like they did one week ago on Pocono’s freshly paved track.
With speeds up over 200 mph as the session went further into the day, the challenge was on to compensate the speed of the car, without giving up the all important handling.
As teams began to prepare for Sunday’s Quicken Loans 400, issues with the tires blistering on the new surface posed safety concerns.
Late Friday, Goodyear and NASCAR announced a change in the left-side tire for the Cup cars as well as a final practice session after Saturday’s Nationwide Series race.
During the practice session, teams had to adjust their cars to the new tires and slower speeds, but also preserve their engine for the 400-miles on Sunday.
“It kind of threw us for a loop – the engine guys mostly. They have set amount of miles we can put on the engines and we are a little over this weekend. We are on the throttle so much around here that we are a little concerned with the engine package anyway. This is a little added blood pressure for them all day tomorrow,” said two-time Michigan winner, Greg Biffle.
“The tires are really hard, you can tell. It is giving up a lot of grip. It is kind of funny, you can hear the tires squealing when you first go out, before it builds temperature, you can feel it sliding on the race track. It slows the cars down and as it builds heat it actually starts to gain some of that grip back.”
So, you may want to look towards a driver with not only past success at Michigan, but someone who has been fast over the course of the weekend for who may roll into victory lane.
When looking at past success at Michigan and who has been consistently fast over the past three days, you can’t look past Mark Martin.
A five-time Michigan winner, Martin was the fastest car in not only the opening test session at the track Thursday morning, but also the fastest car in the first practice Friday afternoon.
Not to mention, he was ninth fastest in Saturday evening’s practice with the new tire compound.
After last weekend’s race at Pocono where Martin finished second due to a late bump-and-run by Joey Logano late in the going, Martin heads into one of his best tracks in what he admittedly claims are some of the best cars he’s driven in his entire Cup Series career that stretches back to the 80’s.
Four of those wins for Martin came when he was racing for Jack Roush’s team during the days when the duo was nearly unbeatable at MIS.
Roush’s drivers of today are no strangers to success like Martin at MIS. Each of Roush’s drivers have two victories at the track, with the most recent of them being claimed by Carl Edwards in 2008.
But, maybe the most shocking statistic regarding the past trend of races at MIS is the recent domination by the Toyota bunch.
In four of the past five races at MIS, the car in victory lane was sporting the Toyota emblem on their car. That includes last August’s race won by Kyle Busch, and the two previous June races won by Denny Hamlin.
When looking for a favorite to win, there’s really no consensus pick, especially after the recent tire change.
It goes without saying, Sunday’s Quicken Loans 400 truly is “wide open”.
Quicken Loans 400 Starting Lineup
1- Marcos Ambrose
2- Kevin Harvick
3- Greg Biffle
4- Kasey Kahne
5- Ryan Newman
6- Matt Kenseth
7- Trevor Bayne
8- Tony Stewart
9- Joey Logano
10- Jimmie Johnson
11- Denny Hamlin
12- Regan Smith
13- Clint Bowyer
14- Mark Martin
15- Aric Almirola
16- Martin Truex Jr.
17- Dale Earnhardt Jr.
18- Paul Menard
19- Jamie McMurray
20- A.J. Allmendinger
21- Juan Pablo Montoya
22- Austin Dillon
23- Scott Riggs
24- Casey Mears
25- Brad Keselowski
26- Kurt Busch
27- Michael McDowell
28- Jeff Gordon
29- Mike Bliss
30- Josh Wise
31- Bobby Labonte
32- Landon Cassill
33- Jeff Burton
34- Kyle Busch
35- David Gilliland
36- Dave Blaney
37- Joe Nemechek
38- David Ragan
39- Travis Kvapil
40- Ken Schrader
41- Tony Raines
42- Carl Edwards
43- J.J. Yeley