Pure Michigan 400

Michigan International Speedway’s Pure Michigan 400 is part of a wide-ranging period in NASCAR’s schedule.

Following the three-race, flat track streak from New Hampshire Motor Speedway’s New Hampshire 301 through the Pennsylvania 400 at Pocono Raceway, NASCAR visited a road course, short track, and now a two-mile course. Next up is the incomparable Darlington Raceway, then another short track of Richmond International Raceway, and the Chase’s kickoff at Chicagoland Speedway.

Despite that, Michigan stands alone in the midst of several wild card races.  The road course of Watkins Glen International, Bristol Motor Speedway, and Darlington Raceway were and are unpredictable. Richmond has the added benefit of being both a short track with heavy traffic and a race with something at stake for more than half the field. That makes it incredibly difficult to place-and-hold drivers.

In order to win one’s league, players have to spread the wealth around various teams.

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Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race

It seems disingenuous to call the Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race a wild card. Lately, the majority of weekends have been unpredictable affairs from the road courses of Sonoma Raceway and Watkins Glen International, the restrictor-plate Daytona International Speedway, the reconfigured/repaved Kentucky Speedway, and the fog-shortened Pocono Raceway Pennsylvania 400. New Hampshire Motor Speedway and Indianapolis Motor Speedway are the closest fantasy owners have had to a predictable affair.

There is no reason to think Bristol Motor Speedway is going to be any different. Short tracks are inherently unpredictable because heavy traffic and 20 second laps are hard to navigate.

With four races remaining, there is still the potential for a Chase field filled with winners.

It is unlikely that all four races will go to unique winners, but that will not change to dynamic among the favorable four. Kyle Larson’s spin at the Glen dropped him 30 points behind Jamie McMurray, but if there is another winner and just three points’ producers get locked in, only 12 markers separate Ryan Newman from Jamie McMurray. And since the total number of winners will not be known until Richmond, no one is safe.

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Cheez-it 355k at the Glen

Fans of road course racing have only one more opportunity to watch cars turn right and left.

Only five races have been run since the series rolled out of Sonoma, Calif. and the West Coast. One of these came on the restrictor-plate Daytona International Speedway and can virtually be ignored from a handicapping standpoint. One was on the repaved and reconfigured Kentucky Speedway that inserted another Joker in the deck. The last three have been notable.

The New Hampshire 301, Brickyard 400, and Pennsylvania 400 have all been run on flat tracks. While they do not have all the same characteristics as a road course, some of the same skills apply. In order to go fast on minimally-banked courses, drivers have to ease into the corner and perfectly time their acceleration at the apex; the same is true of the twisty tracks.

Pocono Raceway’s event was rain delayed, which shortened up the week by one day. Now the drivers roll straight to the Watkins Glen International with very little rest. Still, they have momentum on their side after contesting events at New Hampshire Motor Speedway and Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

And with New Hampshire being just a short jaunt up the highway a lot of the same fans and families will be in attendance.

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Pennsylvania 400

The Pennsylvania 400 rounds out three consecutive flat track races.

Half of last week’s top-10 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway finished that well at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Three of them were coming off sub-10th-place results the previous week at Kentucky Speedway—a newly paved and reconfigured track that threw a lot of curve balls—and were able to regain a little momentum.

That will now get carried over to the tricky triangle of Pocono Raceway. At 2.5 miles in length with one corner inspired by Indy, these two tracks (and specifically these two races) are among the closest comparatives on the circuit. The one-mile track in New Hampshire, Phoenix International Raceway, the three-quarter-mile Richmond International Raceway, and half-mile Martinsville Speedway can also be used to deepen the data pool.

For the moment, ignore the New Hampshire 301 and focus on the Axalta 400 that was run at Pocono seven weeks ago. Only three drivers have top-10s to their credit in the two latest 2.5-mile, flat track races and they should be considered favorites. Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth, and Joey Logano have emerged as flat track aces. Several others have sweeps of the top 15, or a legitimate reason they stumbled in one of the two races, and they could be good differentiators for players who are in leagues with competitors slavishly devoted to statistics.

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Crown Royal 400 at the Brickyard

The Brickyard 400 may not be the longest race of the season. It may not even be the one everyone wants to win; after all, the Daytona 500 and Southern 500 are much richer in history. But this race quickly grabbed the attention of drivers whose career path led them away from possible participation in the Indy 500.

Jeff Gordon won the inaugural Brickyard 400 in 1994, followed by Dale Earnhardt Sr., Dale Jarrett, and Ricky Rudd in the following years. Gordon became the first two-time winner in 1998.

One would be tempted to say this race has never been won by a dark horse, but Gordon’s victory in ’94 was only the second in his career. Jarrett’s 1996 win was the seventh of his career. Kevin Harvick scored his fourth Cup victory in this race in 2003, Jamie McMurray scored his fifth win in 2010, and Paul Menard got his first taste of NASCAR Big League victory in 2011.

It is possible for a surprise winner to take the checkers. Then again, the average on this track is for the winner to score about his 31st career victory.

Experience counts much more than enthusiasm.

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New Hampshire 301

The similarly-configured, 1.5- and two-mile tracks dominate the schedule, but close on their heels are flat tracks.

With two races held each year at Phoenix International Raceway, Martinsville Speedway, Pocono Raceway, and this week’s venue New Hampshire Motor Speedway—plus a single event at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and two on a short track that could be considered among many track types (Richmond International Raceway) there are plenty of comparative stats to consider.

New Hampshire, Pocono, and Indy line up in single file—which is actually quite similar to how drivers have to go through the minimally banked corners.

Flat tracks are rhythm courses. Drivers have to hit very precise marks in order to get around the track with maximum speed. On the surface, New Hampshire would not seem to have much in common with the 2.5-mile courses of Pocono and Indy, but they require the same general skill. Drivers have to enter the turns gently and time their acceleration so they get the most velocity exiting the turns. This is the same tactic used on the short frontstretch in Loudon, NH, the short chutes at either end of Indianapolis, or the longest straight in NASCAR in Long Pond, PA.

The best thing about the coming weeks is flat track masters have a chance to establish some domination and separate from the crowd. This also gives fantasy owners an opportunity to differentiate their lineup and lessen some of the reliance on traditionally strong unrestricted, intermediate speedway drivers.

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Quaker State 400 by Advance Auto Parts

That huge sigh at the end of the Coke Zero 400 was the collective breath of millions of fantasy NASCAR players who survived back-to-back wild card races.

Now it’s time to get back to racing and a cookie never tasted so sweet.

Along with Atlanta Motor Speedway, Charlotte Motor Speedway, Texas Motor Speedway, Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Kansas Speedway, and Chicagoland Speedway, Kentucky Speedway is one of the similarly-configured, 1.5-mile tracks. But instead of decrying the lack of originality in a course that looks like so many others, now is the time to appreciate what one has.

The last time NASCAR hosted a Cup race on this track type was the Coke 600 in May and another will not be held until the Chase begins in September at Chicagoland. That is, unless one counts the two-mile Michigan International Speedway as part of this course type because the FireKeepers Casino 400 was run three weeks ago with that track’s second race coming up in August.

Considering that the similarly-configured, 1.5- and two-mile tracks make up more than a third of the schedule, this is remarkable. One reason for the break from cookies is that NASCAR will get their sustenance from flat bread instead. After Kentucky, the series rolls into New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Pocono Raceway, and Indianapolis Motor Speedway for three straight weeks of flat track racing.

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Coke Zero 400

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Plate races are rarely more than lotteries, but fantasy owners now have the added stress of buying their ticket in a high-crime area where muggers lurk outside a poorly-lit convenience store.

The Coke Zero 400 is the final restrictor-plate, superspeedway regular season race. For many of the drivers outside the top 16 in points it represents the best opportunity to qualify for the playoffs, so at a conservative estimate 38 percent of the field will be hanging out the rear end of their cars to try and get to the checkers first.

Taking chances is always dangerous. Driving a loose car can be critical and it bit a driver with the undeniable skill of Dale Earnhardt Jr. in both plate races this year. Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Trevor Bayne, and Danica Patrick have far less in their personal arsenal and they are going to be in the middle of a frantic pack along with all of the relevant racers.

Every desperate driver will have had six days to fantasize about Stewart’s’ success. They will have visualized their duties in promoting the Chase, basked in the coming adulation of the crowd, spent the bonus checks that undoubtedly come with a berth, and whipped themselves into a frenzy.

Then they will climb behind the wheel of a 3,500-pound stock car and wield it like an angry sword.

There is no strategy this week that will protect your lineup. Spread the money around—avoid the very bottom of the grid because they will have shown that their engines are not as strong as the competition’s—and do not exhaust racers in Pick ‘Em games who will be more predictable later in the season.

Good luck and may God Bless.

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Toyota / Save Mart 350k

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Road course racing is perhaps the purest discipline drivers face. Each corner of every track is nuanced. That is true of ovals, of course, but even more so for road courses.

Entry, apex, elevation change, paving, even which turn one is approaching from the total number on the course—all of these factors go into determining how to approach a corner. Each turn feels different. Each has a unique challenge. It is as difficult to get every corner correct at Sonoma or Watkins Glen International, just as it was Pocono Raceway a few weeks ago so drivers have to decide where to compromise.

Drivers can give up a little on tighter corners because the trailing competition may have difficulty out-braking them to overtake. Blocking is allowed and even common in NASCAR. It is not in open wheel series. And there is an easy explanation for this: fenders.

Drivers are paid a lot of money to keep their opponents behind them. They are also paid to pass the competition and one’s attitude toward the fairness of blocking depends entirely on whether one is the leading or trailing driver. Block the wrong person or too much, and one nudge at the right part of the corner can result in an off-road excursion.

Sonoma is a much more technical course than Watkins Glen. The overall speed is a little slower and corner exit is more important than entry. For students of the discipline, that makes a big difference, but NASCAR is made up of a herd of bulls and a very small china shop. “Discipline” is a relative terms when a victory is on the line. The Toyota / Save Mart 350k, all three regular season restrictor-plate, superspeedway events, and the upcoming contest at the Glen carry the same berth into the Chase and full time drivers will take whatever risks they need to get to the checkers first.

The same is true of part time drivers, of course. And also of drivers who already have a victory to their credit. Basically, anyone in the top five can be counted on to do whatever is necessary to win.

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Firekeepers Casino 400

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Long time readers of this preview will probably remember this quote from a time or two throughout the last 14 seasons: “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men | Gang aft a-gley.”

And so with a tip of the hat and a kiss my butt to Robert Burns, we turn our attention from Pocono Raceway to Michigan International Speedway.

There is no reason to dwell on the past.

Well, maybe just one little shanty shack: May your fire suit be eaten by moths Jimmie Johnson for screwing up so many fantasy rosters in a multitude of ways in the Axalta We Paint Winners 400. When the No. 48 broke loose on new tires underneath Casey Mears to bring out the final caution of the afternoon, Johnson not only wrecked the rosters he was on, but turned the Axalta 400 on its head. Most of the field was already committed to stretching their fuel, but the extra laps under yellow gave them increased confidence they could do so.

The final 33 green flag laps were certainly interesting. Drivers jockeyed to see who could go the fastest under the conditions they faced.

Draft from the lead or follow.

Keep cars behind you, but don’t go too fast.

Coast into the corners and take a line that stalls the trailing car.

Honestly, the end of the Axalta 400 might have been one of the more interesting fans have seen in quite some while—but fuel mileage races tend to play havoc with fantasy rosters.

So it’s time to move on.

“Really, this time,” he said, muttering under his breath.

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