NASCAR centerpiece: Last roundup?

Rob Sneddon

Last year Roush Fenway Racing failed to win at Michigan International Speedway for the first time since 2001. And for the first time in the Chase era, RFR also failed to place a car in the top five in the final standings. Suffice to say that Michigan is a significant bellwether of the organization’s competitiveness. With that in mind, here’s what to look for among RFR’s top three teams, all of whom currently are in the top 12, heading into this critical weekend.

Matt Kenseth, No. 17

- Fourth in points

- Two career Cup wins at Michigan

Kenseth’s solid numbers – his eight top-10 finishes trail only Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch – are tricky to interpret. Is he just a tick away from getting back to Victory Lane for the first time since February of ’09? And will the new Ford FR9 engine give him that tick? Or have Kenseth and the No. 17 crew performed beyond the level of Roush Fenway’s equipment all year? And does that leave them susceptible to a significant drop-off while they try to integrate the FR9? “I think it is always a moving target,” Kenseth says of his team’s struggle to find the little extra speed that they need. “Everyone is always getting better. It seems like we have been trying to catch up for a couple of years. Over the winter I feel like we made some big gains and started the year stronger, but we certainly aren’t where we want to be.” Look for Michigan to provide a more definitive answer.

Greg Biffle, No. 16

- 11th in points

- Two career Cup wins at Michigan

If not for a 2010 rule change extending the number of potential green-white-checkered finishes from one to three, Biffle would have won the season-opening Daytona 500. In addition, he strung together a series-best six straight top-10 finishes to start the season. He’s struggled since then, but he thinks the phase-in of the FR9 engine, which began in earnest last weekend at Pocono, could be the difference-maker he needs. Again, Michigan will be a good performance barometer. “At Michigan, we know that (winning) takes a good engine with a lot of power,” Biffle says. “Good fuel mileage is also the key there. You have to have good fuel mileage to be successful.”

Carl Edwards, No. 99

- Ninth in points

- Two career Cup wins at Michigan

Two years ago he won a series-high nine races and was Jimmie Johnson’s stoutest challenger. Now he’s arguably the third-best driver on a struggling team. Edwards is two points ahead of Biffle in the standings, but he’s led just two laps all season – half as many as start-and-parker Dave Blaney. Edwards has had no shortage of distractions, from the birth of his daughter Anne in February to his notorious dust-up with Brad Keselowski at Atlanta in March. But he says his team’s substandard performance comes down to a single, simple reality: “What we need to do is just be faster.” Doug Yates, head engine builder at Roush Yates Engines, knows how that sounds. “The first thing people think is that (the problem) is the engine,” Yates says. “But a lot of it is about corner speed, especially at ovals.” Edwards agrees. He and Yates also agree that for all its struggles, Roush Fenway Racing is in pretty good shape. “The thing that people need to remember is that we have three guys in the top 12 in points,” Yates said, adding that while a win at Michigan would be nice, it’s not the ultimate goal. “We would all love to win a race, don’t get me wrong, but I think people are putting too much pressure on that right now.”

NEXT RACE Heluva Good! 400, Michigan International Speedway

THE LOWDOWN Pocono provided another flurry of late cautions, another overtime finish and another round of bent fenders and frayed tempers. “Restarts were idiotic today,” said Tony Stewart, who finished third. “I’ve seen some of the worst driving I’ve ever seen in my life in a professional series right here today. So for anybody that’s looking for drama for the next couple races, I can promise I’m going to start making the highlight reel the next couple weeks.” Who said Michigan would be a boring fuel-mileage race?


2009 Mark Martin

2008      Dale Earnhardt Jr.

2007      Carl Edwards

2006      Kasey Kahne

2005      Greg Biffle

ABOUT Michigan

TRACK: Michigan International Speedway (Brooklyn, Mich.), 2.0-mile paved oval

RACE LENGTH: 200 laps, 400 miles



Quote of Note

“We know how pro sports are. I’m never confident.” – Joe Gibbs, after his drivers Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch finished 1-2 at Pocono.

Where to Watch

Sunday’s pre-race show on TNT starts at noon EDT, followed by race coverage at 1:00.


Mileage may vary

One reason that Joe Gibbs Racing is now considered the team to beat in Sprint Cup is that Denny Hamlin has won four races, most in the series. Here’s another: Kyle Busch has overhauled his win-or crash style. Busch is still fast, having won twice in 2010. But he’s also done a better job than any other driver of finishing races. He has come within one measly lap at Martinsville – just .526 mile – of completing every one of the 6,201.67 miles run so far in the 2010 Sprint Cup season. Hamlin is second in the miles-completed category (see chart). Meanwhile, Johnson, the four-time, defending champ, isn’t even in the top 20. He’s 26th, behind such pedestrian drivers as Scott Speed and Travis Kvapil.

Planes, trucks and automobiles

This is the most hectic time of year for drivers and teams involved in more than one of NASCAR’s top three series. Last weekend, while the Sprint Cup series was in Pocono, the Camping World Trucks were at Texas Motor Speedway and the Nationwide cars were at Nashville. This weekend the trucks join the Sprint Cup cars at Michigan, but the Nationwide cars are at Kentucky. That makes it tough on Brad Keselowski, Carl Edwards and Paul Menard – all of whom are competing full time in both car series. And it’s not just the races that create a scheduling conflict, it’s the practices. Last week Keselowski was the only Cup driver to make it to Nashville for Friday practice. He thinks that was instrumental in his winning the race on Saturday night.


Last week Texas Motor Speedway held its 25th Camping World Truck series race. For a record sixth time, Todd Bodine was the winner. Meanwhile, at Pocono, Todd’s older brother, Geoffrey Bodine, made his first Sprint Cup start since September of 2004. Bodine, 61, finished 41stin the Tommy Baldwin Racing No. 36.

ONE TO WATCH: Mark Martin

WHY HE MATTERS: He’s the defending Michigan winner.

WHAT HE SAYS: “So many elements have to go right to win a race.”

WHAT THE NUMBERS SAY: Five-time winner in ’09 still looking for first of ’10.


2010 mile leaders

RANK            DRIVER                  MILES COMPLETED           

1            Kyle Busch                  6,201.14

2            Denny Hamlin            6,195.66     

3            Greg Biffle                  6,188.04           

4            Matt Kenseth            6,188.02

5            Jeff Burton                  6,176.22

6             Kurt Busch                  6,174.61

7            Jeff Gordon                  6,173.66

8             Tony Stewart            6,172.99

9            Dale Earnhardt Jr.            6,165.41

10            Scott Speed                  6,156.84

11            Paul Menard                  6,155.41

12            Kevin Harvick            6,149.06

13            Elliott Sadler            6,138.07     

14            Mark Martin                  6,132.45

15            Joey Logano            6,126.38

16            Travis Kvapil            6,089.86

17            Brad Keselowski            6,048.98

18            Jamie McMurray            6,022.61

19            Kasey Kahne            5,983.79       

20            David Ragan                  5,983.64