June 13, 2013: Weekend Preview
NASCAR Wire Service
Last year it was Batman. This year it's Superman.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. drove the Hendrick Motorsports No. 88 Diet Mountain Dew/Dark Knight Rises Chevrolet, promoting last summer's Batman blockbuster, in the 2012 Quicken Loans 400 at Michigan International Speedway. Earnhardt drove the Caped Crusader-themed race car to Victory Lane, his first trip there in four years.
This Sunday, during the Quicken Loans 400 at Michigan (1 p.m. ET, TNT), Earnhardt's race car will be touting a different superhero -- the "Man of Steel." The North Carolina native's black and steel-colored car promotes Man of Steel, the latest Superman movie, which hits theaters this Friday.
If Earnhardt has a track that is his kryptonite, it definitely isn't the two-mile track nestled in Michigan's Irish Hills a stone's throw away from Detroit. Over the past eight seasons (16 races) at the track, he has the fifth highest average driver rating (97.1), which is his second highest rating among all NASCAR Sprint Cup Series tracks. Earnhardt has a 98.8 rating at Martinsville Speedway.
He ranks in the top 10 in most loop data categories: second -- pass differential (237); third -- green-flag passes (1,313); fourth -- average finish (10.5), fastest laps run (161), fastest late in a run (174.469 mph); fifth -- average running position (12.512), quality passes (697), green-flag speed (175.789 mph), percent of laps led (7.3%, he's tied with Matt Kenseth); sixth -- fastest on restarts (173.013 mph), laps led (229); seventh -- speed in traffic (174.852 mph); eighth -- laps in top 15 (2,083); and ninth -- fastest early in a run (177.910).
Although he has found success at the track, including his last two series wins, his approach won't differ greatly from other weekends.
"I think you approach it like any other race, but we are going in with a lot more confidence because we ran well there last year," Earnhardt said.
Over the past four seasons at Michigan, he only has one start in the top 10 (August 2011). However, he has relied on his pit crew to make adjustments during the race to put him in contention at the end of the race. When he won the race last June, he started 17th. In the second Michigan race last year, he started 22nd and finished fourth.
"You've got to be patient. I looked through the notes from last year, and we didn't unload perfect," said the 10-time Most Popular Driver award winner, who has four top fives and nine top 10s on the year going into the weekend. "We had to work to get it right. You don't go in with confidence that you are going to go there and it will be perfect. You have the confidence to know that we will get it dialed in."
Earnhardt started the 2013 season strong with a streak of five top-10 finishes and led the standings after the fifth race of the season at Auto Club Speedway, where he was runner-up to Kyle Busch. It was the first time in his career that the veteran driver held the top spot in the standings in back-to-back seasons. A 24th-place finish the following week at Martinsville, however, knocked him from the perch back to third.
He arrives in Michigan in fourth place, 82 points behind points leader Jimmie Johnson. Will Earnhardt be able to channel those superpowers in Michigan as he did last year and move up a spot or two in the standings? Only time will tell.
"We got a good package going to Pocono and going to Michigan. Hopefully going to Michigan we got a good package; we'll see when we get there," Earnhardt said.
FANTASY FOCUS: It's fitting that as the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads to Michigan, the home of Ford, the two drivers I'm recommending this weekend are Ford veterans. In 20 starts at the superspeedway, Greg Biffle has three wins, nine top fives and 12 top 10s. He has never posted a DNF at Michigan and has only finished off the lead lap twice. His average finishing position of 11.8 is his second highest among all tracks (10.1 average at Kansas), and he has led more laps (517) here than any other track minus two (Darlington, Texas). Over the past eight years at Michigan, he leads all active drivers in average driver rating (108.9), average running position (8.296), fastest early in run (178.790 mph), fastest late in run (173.746 mph), fastest on restarts (173.762 mph), green-flag speed (176.334 mph) and laps in top 15 (2,677). His teammate at Roush Fenway Racing, Carl Edwards, has won there twice with 13 top 10s in 17 starts. Like Biffle, Edwards has no DNFs in Michigan and has only finished off the lead lap once. His 8.2 average finishing position is his second highest among tracks, behind only Homestead-Miami (6.0). He leads all drivers at the track in quality passes (790) and speed in traffic (175.516 mph). Edwards is second in three different loop data categories, behind Biffle in all: average running position (10.275), fastest late in run (174.681 mph) and laps in top 15 (2,573).
AFTER 200TH FORD WIN, WILL BAYNE DELIVER MANUFACTURER ITS 1,000TH?
Two wins in back-to-back weekends. Two milestones in back-to-back weekends.
At least that's what Trevor Bayne is aiming for this weekend at Michigan in the NASCAR Nationwide Series Alliance Truck Parts 250 (2:15 p.m. ET, ABC).
Last Sunday at Iowa Speedway, Bayne, driving the No. 6 Roush Fenway Racing Ford, won the DuPont Pioneer 250 beating Austin Dillon to the finish line by 2.023 seconds. The win gave the car manufacturer its 200th NASCAR Nationwide victory.
With the series headed to Ford's home state, the manufacturer is seeking its 1,000th victory in NASCAR's three national touring series. Ford drivers have 714 wins in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series (96 wins by Mercury and four wins by Lincoln), 200 in the NASCAR Nationwide Series and 85 in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series.
Bayne's victory in Iowa was his second in 97 career starts in the series. His first came at Texas Motor Speedway in November 2011. In three starts at Michigan, his best finish came in his last series visit to the two-mile track when he finished fifth in June 2011.
"I haven't run a Nationwide car [at Michigan] since they repaved it, but the Sprint Cup cars are unbelievably fast," Bayne said.
In two NASCAR Sprint Cup Series starts there last season, he had rough outings. In the June race, Bayne bowed out after only seven laps with engine problems, finishing 43rd. The second race, he finished two laps off the lead in 24th.
Despite a four-race stretch earlier this season where he averaged an average finishing position of 24.5 (Texas through Darlington), Bayne and his team, headed by crew chief Mike Kelley, have slowly been making their way back up the standings and currently sit ninth, 80 points behind leader Regan Smith.
"We still got a long way to go. I don't know by points, we quit looking at points a few weeks ago," said Kelley, who was Ricky Stenhouse Jr.'s crew chief when he won the 2011 and 2012 NASCAR Nationwide titles. "We know our trailer is getting closer to the front where it's used to being parked. So, that's our goal right now, to keep this thing going in the right direction."
The recent uptick in on-track performance isn't coincidental.
"One of the big things that kind of helped us was about four weeks ago we sat down and looked at some simulation; the first time on track all year long that I could compare anything with Ricky and Trevor was the Texas Cup race," Kelley said.
"I could go home and take the Cup data and run through simulation and find the differences of what Ricky and Trevor had in the same car on the same track on the same day. I started applying that to our Nationwide setups from Ricky before. I don't want to say it was like a light switch, but it started answering a lot of questions and his feedback has been spot on."
This year marks the first year that Bayne has been able to drive a full schedule and make a serious run at the championship since 2010 when he finished seventh in the standings. He recognizes this fact and is ever grateful for the opportunity.
"I get to drive a championship-contending car with a team that doesn't give up," Bayne said. "We've been through some trials this season but the Lord's just made us stronger and now we've come back and fought hard these last three weeks and now we get a win."
Another win this weekend and he'll be celebrating another milestone with Ford.