Greg Biffle’s most recent top-five finish was a victory in June’s race at Michigan International Speedway.
Welcome home, Greg.
Sunday’s Pure Michigan 400 (noon on ESPN, MRN Radio, SiriusXM Radio) sets up quite nicely for the driver of the No. 16 Roush Fenway Ford. Biffle, the defending winner of the two-mile track’s August event, is in pursuit of his third consecutive victory at MIS and fourth win overall.
Convergence is a wonderful thing. Biffle re-visits one of his best tracks when he most could use some momentum. Ninth in current NASCAR Sprint Cup Series standings, the Vancouver, Wash. native effectively is hanging on to a provisional Chase berth by his fingernails.
Biffle is "in" — but just barely. He’s just four points ahead of 11th-place Kurt Busch, a former Roush Fenway Racing teammate. Provisional Wild Card holder Kasey Kahne, dumped from the top 10 last Sunday by a late-race accident at Watkins Glen International, is another marker back in 12th.
Biffle has insurance. His Michigan victory could translate into a Chase Wild Card entry.
Still, 10th-place Martin Truex Jr., Kahne and Indianapolis winner Ryan Newman aren’t far enough behind to make a Wild Card a sure thing. Another victory, perhaps, would be Biffle’s guarantee of punching his post-season ticket.
Biffle is at the right place at the right time — and in the right seat.
Roush Fenway Racing is the dominant organization in Michigan’s Irish Hills. Biffle’s June victory was the 13th for principal owner Jack Roush, whose headquarters lie less than 100 miles east in the Detroit suburb of Livonia. Roush previously shared the all-time NASCAR Sprint Cup victory record with NASCAR Hall of Fame member Glen Wood and the Wood Brothers before breaking it with Biffle’s win last August.
Biffle, whose 110.0 Driver Rating is tops at the track, isn’t the only contemporary RFR driver with success at MIS. Teammate Carl Edwards owns a pair of victories, in 2007-08 and boasts a series-high average finish of 8.1.
Edwards ranks third in NASCAR Sprint Cup standings finishing eighth in June’s Michigan stop.
RFR’s third driver, Sunoco Rookie of the Year leader Ricky Stenhouse Jr., finished 16th in June. Stenhouse continues to chase his first top-10 finish in NASCAR’s premier series.
Keselowski focuses on victory, not points
Brad Keselowski thrives on pressure and the next four weekends should provide plenty of it.
The reigning NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion continues to pursue his first victory of 2013 and fight for a spot in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. Keselowski has bounced in and out of the top 10, a third consecutive second-place finish at Watkins Glen International boosting the competitor to eighth in the standings – a gain of four positions.
A victory is primary for Keselowski, especially this weekend when the Rochester Hills, Mich. native drives the No. 2 Penske Racing Ford in front of hometown fans. He’s yet to win at Michigan International Speedway finishing second and third in the last two August events at the two-mile track.
"The repaved style of track hasn’t been one of my favorites or go-tos, but we’re very optimistic that we can at least get a solid finish like we did in the spring there," said Keselowski, who finished 12th in Michigan’s June race. "I really see no reason why we can’t sustain our position in the points if not improve it before the Chase starts."
Many would take a Chase berth through any means — race in or qualify with the help of other competitors. Keselowski is not among them, believing his team must show it can be a contender and not just take up post-season real estate.
"I would rather have a win or two and be a Wild Card than finish seventh or eighth and squeak my way in without any wins because the momentum of a win and the confidence builder it instills in both yourself and the fear that it puts in your competition is more than worth it," he said following last Sunday’s runner-up finish.
Still, there’s a matter of pride in qualifying for the Chase as the reigning series champion. Only 2005 champion Tony Stewart has failed to make the following season’s post-season competition during the Chase era.
Johnson clinches, may stand alone
Jimmie Johnson has piled on the superlatives during this 2013 season, which just might go down as one of the all-time best years in NASCAR history (of course, there’s that "championship" thing that still needs winning).
He’s won the Daytona 500. He’s won the NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race. After the second Pocono race, he led the standings by 77 points — the highest ever since NASCAR went to the point-per-position system in 2011.
And at Watkins Glen, he clinched a spot in the 2013 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. He continues to be the only driver to make every single Chase since its inception in 2004. Johnson’s clinch also matched the earliest clinch in Chase history, tying Jeff Gordon who also clinched at The Glen in 2007.
But maybe the most astounding part of it all: We might have to wait an entire two weeks before someone else clinches. That’s how dominant Johnson has been compared to the rest of the field.
A few drivers can clinch this Sunday at Michigan, but will need lots of help from others. The magic number for this weekend is 145. Any driver 145 points ahead of 11th place leaving Michigan will clinch a top 10 Chase spot. Clint Bowyer (currently 110 points ahead of 11th) and Carl Edwards (105 points) are in a position to clinch.
Matt Kenseth can clinch at least a Wild Card berth with a win, but it’s not guaranteed, since a win won’t necessarily lock Kenseth into the top 20 – a necessity for a Wild Card spot.
Busch’s ‘good year’ gets even better
Kyle Busch hasn’t clinched a spot in this year’s Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
Not yet, anyway. Math notwithstanding, it’s inevitable Busch will qualify — and likely as a top-10 points finisher during the regular season.
Busch’s Watkins Glen victory was the driver’s third of the 2013 season. He ranks fifth in the standings — his highest since early spring when Busch reached the runner-up spot after winning in Texas. The current campaign is nothing like that of a year ago in which Busch went to Richmond needing to win and fell short.
His No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota has been among the fastest in the field regardless of track configuration. Busch has led 12 of 22 races and is peaking at the right time with four consecutive top-10 finishes that include the Glen victory and a runner-up finish in New Hampshire.
"This has been a good year for us," Busch said in his post-race interview.
Busch won Michigan’s August event in 2011 and finished fourth at MIS in June.
Two other former Michigan winners bear watching on Sunday. Kevin Harvick won in August 2010 and finished second to Greg Biffle in June. Ranked fourth, Harvick appears headed for an eighth Chase appearance in his final season behind the wheel of the No. 29 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet.
A top-10 finish at Watkins Glen moved Kurt Busch closer to the top 10. He trails 10th-ranked Martin Truex Jr. by two points. The elder Busch brother is a two-time Michigan winner, most recently in August 2006.
The injured Tony Stewart likely will miss this year’s Chase, however, his No. 14 Stewart-Haas Chevrolet remains the No. 2 owner Wild Card after Max Papis’ 15th-place finish at Watkins Glen. NASCAR Nationwide Series points leader Austin Dillon will drive the car this Sunday at Michigan where Dillon recorded his best Sprint Cup finish of 11th in June.
Manufacturers vie for pride, hardware
Any trip to Michigan International Speedway inevitably leads to storylines surrounding manufacturer rivalries — and a little more incentive will be added to that competition this weekend.
In the shadows of Detroit, the American automobile capital, MIS will award a Manufacturer’s Trophy to the winning manufacturer — Ford, Chevrolet or Toyota. The winner will take home a trophy for keeps until the next Michigan race, and the manufacturer and MIS also will donate $10,000 that will be given to a youth-related, STEM-related charity in Michigan.
This year’s battles have been intense, and the standings show it — all the standings. In the Manufacturers’ Championship standings, Chevrolet leads Toyota by a scant 12 points (and 10 wins to 9).
In the drivers points, all three manufacturers populate the top 10. Toyota has four drivers in the top 10; and Ford and Chevrolet have three each.
Ford has won two consecutive MIS races (both with driver Greg Biffle), and there has been three different manufacturer winners in the last four races.
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Notes
Last Sunday, Carl Edwards scored a fourth-place finish — his 99th career top-five finish. His next top five would make him the 37th driver to reach 100 top fives and tie him with Geoff Bodine on the all-time list. Edwards has nine top-five finishes in 18 starts at Michigan. … Jamie McMurray will make his 600th NASCAR national series start this weekend at Michigan. … Mark Martin looks to score his 400th NASCAR national series top-five finish this weekend, and become only the second driver to do so. Richard Petty leads all drivers in top fives with 555.
Hornish returns to Ohio
With only 12 races remaining before a new NASCAR Nationwide Series champion is crowned, forecasting the outcome is becoming harder with every passing weekend. After Saturday’s race at Watkins Glen only 74 points separate the top-10 drivers in the standings — a difference that the 10th-place driver (Parker Kligerman) could conceivably make up in only two races, although not likely.
Adding to the uncertainty surrounding predicting a champion is the venue of the next race. The series makes its inaugural trip to the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in Lexington, Ohio, on Saturday for the Nationwide Children’s Hospital 200. The 2.258-mile, 13-turn road course is the second road course in as many weeks and the third and final one of the season.
Of the 42 drivers currently vying for a spot in the race, none are looking forward to the green flag more than Sam Hornish Jr., who grew up about 2-1/2 hours west of the track in Defiance, Ohio.
A win for Hornish, who is currently second in points three markers behind Austin Dillon, at Mid-Ohio in front of a hometown crowd would mean more to the 34-year-old driver than winning at any other track and would most likely return him to the points lead. In addition to having a home-field advantage, Hornish is also the only driver in the top 10 that has competed in a major national series motorsports event at the track. He finished 14th in the IndyCar Series race in 2007, a year prior to joining NASCAR fulltime.
In seven road-course races in the NNS, he has five consecutive top-five finishes and two poles, including a fifth-place finish at Road America in June and a runner-up performance last weekend at The Glen. This season, Hornish has one victory and five second-place showings in which he was the highest-finishing points-eligible series regular.
Dillon holds the points lead for the third week in a row, but his lead has shrunk to only three over Hornish. Two markers back is Regan Smith (-5) followed by Elliott Sadler (-12) and Brian Vickers (-18).
Road-course ‘ringers’ converge
Racing on road courses requires a unique set of skills that don’t always translate well into for a driver groomed on the oval tracks common throughout North America. While some drivers competing fulltime in NASCAR’s three national series have proven they have the chops for both, others are what one would describe as road-racing specialists or "ringers."
When the NASCAR Nationwide Series arrives at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in Lexington, for the Nationwide Children’s Hospital 200 on Saturday afternoon, there will be plenty of road-course ringers on hand.
The road-racing specialists currently entered in the race are Ron Fellows, Stanton Barrett, Michael McDowell, AJ Allmendinger, Max Papis, Owen Kelly, Tomy Drissi and Marcos Ambrose. Ambrose is the only driver in the group currently competing fulltime in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
The eight have a combined nine victories, 27 top fives, 34 top 10s and seven poles at road courses on the NNS schedule. Ambrose and Fellows lead the way with four victories apiece, followed by Allmendinger, who posted his only NNS road-course victory earlier this season at Road America.
Patients at children’s hospital have day in sun
The Nationwide Children’s Hospital 200 at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course this Saturday will have a special meaning for 10 children who will see their faces and names navigating the track’s 13 turns.
That’s because 10 patient champions from the Nationwide Children’s Hospital in nearby Columbus, Ohio, were paired with drivers who are from or currently live near a participating patient’s hometown. Each patient and race team has collaborated to create a paint scheme depicting that child’s likeness or name.
The 10 patients and the race cars they will appear are Peyton Ostrowsky of Winston-Salem, N.C., and the No. 2 Chevrolet of Brian Scott; Noah Nickodemus of Raleigh, N.C., and the No. 3 Chevrolet of Austin Dillon; Gage Williams of Sevierville, Tenn., and the No. 6 Ford of Trevor Bayne; Hannah Hiller of Guilford, N.C., and the No. 7 Chevrolet of Regan Smith; Caden Bowers of Yorktown, Va., and the No. 11 Toyota of Elliott Sadler; Grant Reed of Mansfield, Ohio, and the No. 12 Ford of Sam Hornish Jr., Marcus Harris of Carolina Shores, N.C., and the No. 31 Chevrolet of Justin Allgaier; Ryan Katz of Reistertown, Md., and the No. 60 Ford of Travis Pastrana; Payton Julian of Mansfield, Ohio, and the No. 77 Toyota of Parker Kligerman; and Janet Gregory of Granville, Ohio, and the No. 99 Toyota of Alex Bowman. Thirteen-year-old cancer survivor and Ohio State fan Grant Reed, who successfully battled a brain tumor he nicknamed "Michigan," has been selected to preside over the race as Grand Marshal.
NASCAR Nationwide Series Notes
Chad Hackenbracht, who will be driving the No. 44 Tastee Apple Inc. Toyota this weekend, will have the opportunity to drive in front of family and friends at Mid-Ohio. His hometown of New Philadelphia, Ohio, is about two hours away from the road course. … Tim Cowen of nearby Ashland, Ohio, is also entered in the race. If he’s makes the field, it will be his inaugural start in the series. … NASCAR Whelen Euro Series driver Anthony Gandon of Bayonne, France, will attempt to make his second national series start this Saturday.
Streak of recent winners continue
With Brendan Gaughan the only previous NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race winner at Michigan entered in Saturday’s Michigan National Guard 200 it means the streak of new winners over the past eight races will continue.
Gaughan, who enters this weekend looking for his first win of the season, won in 2003 at the track. There have been eight different winners beginning with Dennis Setzer’s 2005 victory.
Greg Biffle and Travis Kvapil are the only two-time Michigan winners but neither is entered in this week’s race.
One driver who could continue the streak of different winners is Miguel Paludo. Paludo looks to continue his impressive run to a first NCWTS victory at Michigan International Speedway and also set a new personal record.
In his two previous starts at MIS, the Brazilian native has enjoyed success with a pair of top 10s highlighted by a third-place finish in 2011. Paludo has already equaled his career-best season total of seven top-10 finishes and can set a new career mark if he keeps his streak alive at MIS.
While Ryan Blaney doesn’t have any previous starts at Michigan in a truck, he enters this weekend on a roll after his win at Pocono. The 19-year old driver also has some experience at the two-mile oval finishing second in an ARCA race earlier this year.
In fact, Blaney could be a part of two streaks this weekend at the track. He would be the ninth consecutive different winner at MIS and also the first driver win back-to-back races since Johnny Sauter did it to open the 2013 campaign.
Armstrong returns with new crew chief
Dakoda Armstrong returns to Michigan, site of his career-best NCWTS finish of third last season. His No. 60 Turn One Racing Chevrolet team will be accompanied by a new crew chief, someone who knows how to put winning trucks in Victory Lane.
Joe Shear Jr., a nine-time series winner, recently was named Armstrong’s crew chief and Michigan will be the first race for the duo.
Shear long has enjoyed success in the truck series, and turned the wrenches earlier this season in helping Johnny Sauter pick up a pair of wins (Daytona International Speedway & Martinsville Speedway) before deciding to step down at ThorSport Racing back in July. Shear and Sauter combined for seven victories during their ThorSport tenure.
Shear’s first series victory came in 1997 with Sauter’s older brother Jay. The Richard Childress Racing pair won at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
Shear also was the overseer of trucks driven by the late Tony Roper and Kevin Cywinski, which recorded top-20 championship finishes in 1998-99.
NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Notes
Two NASCAR Sprint Cup competitors — Kyle Busch and Joey Logano — will compete in the Michigan National Guard 200. Busch attempts to add Michigan to the list of nine tracks on which he has won in all three NASCAR national series. With a victory on Saturday, Logano becomes the 24th driver to post victories in NASCAR Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Camping World Truck series. … Saturday’s race will mark the debut of the series on the new FOX Sports 1.
Kennington, Vences score international wins
With no domestic NASCAR touring series in action last week, the NASCAR Canadian Tire Series presented by Mobil 1 and NASCAR Toyota Series stepped into the spotlight.
D.J. Kennington won the JuliaWine.com 100 in NASCAR Canadian Tire Series presented by Mobil 1 action on Sunday at the 44th Grand Prix de Trois-Rivieres after holding off road-course specialists Andrew Ranger and Jacques Villeneuve in a harried green-white-checkered finish in Quebec. It was the 19th career victory for the reigning series champion, but his first at Circuit de Trois-Rivieres, an 11-turn temporary street course. In his bid for a third Canadian Tire Series crown, Kennington now trails Scott Steckly by just four tallies with four events remaining on the schedule.
South of the border, Irwin Vences captured his first career NASCAR Toyota Series victory on Sunday in the Mexico Fest 240 at Autodrome Hermanos Rodrigues in Mexico City. Sunday’s race concluded the first part of the season’s championship and the top eight drivers in the point standings - plus two wild-card drivers - now advance to the Desafío, the final phase of the championship which will take part over the remaining five races. The participants in the Desafío are Antonio Pérez, Rubén García Jr, Rubén Pardo, Rubén Rovelo, Rafael Martínez, Hugo Oliveras, José Luis Ramírez and Rodrigo Peralta. NASCAR Next driver Daniel Suárez and Homero Richards claimed the two wild-card spots.
This week will see the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour at Thompson (Conn.) Speedway, the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West at Evergreen Speedway in Monroe, Wash., and the NASCAR Canadian Tire Series presented by Mobil 1 at Riverside International Speedway in Antigonish, Nova Scotia.