Michigan mix of desperation and speed could make for volatile race

By Jeff Cogliandro  (Point Spread Weekly) 

August 11, 2018 05:30 PM

When the NASCAR series takes the green flag at Michigan International Speedway on Sunday (2:30 p.m. ET), it will mark the 24th race of the year with only three more left before the playoffs. If there was any question about the desire to win, it was quickly answered last week at Watkins Glen as drivers jostled for position. The racing was aggressive as the thought of getting “what you can, while you can” seems to be the prevailing garage mentality. This is not new, or incorrect, but it is amplified with the playoffs approaching rapidly. 

Combining increased driver desperation and the fastest speeds on the circuit could spell trouble Sunday. Daniel Suarez hit the wall in qualifying and will have to start in 40th place. Suarez is one of the drivers who must win to have a chance to make the playoffs. He has been running well, but starting in the back of the field will not help his cause. 

With the exception of Suarez, Joe Gibbs Racing supplied the best group of qualifiers with Denny Hamlin winning the pole followed by Kyle Busch, and Erik Jones starting fourth. Although the speeds at Michigan are known to be the fastest on the circuit, the track has a recent history of yielding winners that start relatively high. Below are some of the relevant Michigan statistics for consideration when handicapping the race.

  • Combined avg. winning starting position of eighth in the last 10 races at MIS
  • 51 of 97 won from top 4 (52.5%)
  • 74 of 97 won from top 10 (76.2%)
  • 80 of 97 won from top 12 (82.4%) including 6 straight
  • 83 of 97 won from top 15 (85.5%)
  • 89 of 97 won from top 20 (91.7%)
  • 87 career starts at Michigan, the Big Three have only 2 combined wins (in danger this weekend)

Due to dense fog in the area, the first practice on Saturday was only about 15 minutes, which did not give the drivers and teams time to make longer runs. The bulk of the post qualifying practice was held during happy hour, which is helpful, but having a practice session cut short does limit what can be learned as the race approaches. The decrease in post qualifying practice time will play a role in our handicapping security. Below are the main contenders and their weekly wagering profile.

Kevin Harvick (plus 200): Of the “Big 3,” Harvick was the happiest with his car. Starting in the third spot, he is the deserving favorite. With three top-5 finishes in the last five races at Michigan, there is ample reason to support the #4 car this weekend. If I were picking one driver to win, Harvick would be the choice.

Kyle Busch (3-1): Starting on the outside of the front row, Busch has been critical of both his car and the track since it was last repaved. Coming from the overly honest Busch, these words really should be taken with a grain of salt. He is in a great spot to get the win this weekend, but still he is not thrilled with the performance of his car as of final practice, and in this case the numbers back it up.

Martin Truex Jr. (5-1): In final practice, Truex was complaining about the car mishandling. As the session came to a close, there was not clear resolve to the situation. While he is well-positioned by starting in the seventh spot, Truex appears to be third among the “Big 3” in terms of pre-race car comfort. I would not count Truex out as this weekend could be the race where they all square off for a possible win.

Kyle Larson (6-1): Please shop. Larson is starting deeper than preferred, as he will roll off in 17th place. Larson was one of the fastest cars in happy hour over the long run and that bodes well for him to rapidly move up. However, at such short odds, this is really a play where I encourage shopping the price as much as possible. There is a big difference between 6-1 and 8-1 over the course of the season. The former three-time winner at Michigan has a lot on his side, but he will have to pass each of the “big 3” in order to get his first win of the year. That alone is worth more than 6-1.

Brad Keselowski (8-1): Starting one spot behind Larson is Keselowski. He was solid in the happy hour over the long run, but it will be a tall order for him to get the win this weekend. Larson has been faster and has had more success than Keselowski at the 2-mile superspeedway. At this point in the season and the weekend, other than Keselowski’s desire to win at Michigan, he does not stand out at current odds. Keselowski has an average finish of 9.2 in the last five races at Michigan, which gives him a neutral adjusted plus/minus. 

Denny Hamlin (10-1): Starting from the pole, Hamlin looks to rebound from his poor performance last week at Watkins Glen. Pit road was once again the source of disaster last weekend, as Hamlin was penalized for running over an air hose. This effectively took him out contention for the win. We have seen this happen several times this season already. and it’s really hard to back a driver who has this many unforced errors. 

Ryan Blaney (15-1): Very fast over the long run in happy hour, Blaney could be a dark horse winner this weekend. Starting from the eighth spot, Blaney looks to be amongst the top 4 or 5 fastest cars at this point in the weekend. At current odds, Blaney hits the threshold for a possible win wager but he will a lot to overcome to get to Victory lane. 

Clint Bowyer (15-1): Looking better as the weekend progresses, Bowyer is hoping to recapture the magic that guided him to a win at Michigan in June. While it is unlikely that he will have the aid of Mother Nature, he showed increased speed during happy hour, and could be in the thick of things. Michigan has not been one of Bowyer’s best tracks. In the last five races at Michigan, his average finish is 22.6. 

Chase Elliott (15-1): Spinning in practice on Saturday left last week’s winner with little time to dial in his car. While Elliott has been very strong at Michigan, there is a possibility that he is still a bit consumed by his win last week. After a poor qualifying effort, a truncated second practice, and a spin in happy hour, it’s hard to imagine that Elliott is prepared for his standard Michigan success.

Erik Jones (15-1): Lined up in the fourth position, Jones appears to be strong this weekend. He was the fastest car during happy hour over an extended run, and by the numbers he has progressed better than teammates Hamlin and Kyle Busch so far. In terms of the starting top 4, Jones carries the best value by a solid margin. 

Joey Logano (15-1): Another “Big 3” buster is Logano, who will be lined-up in the ninth position. Logano has led the most laps of in driver in the last five races at Michigan. At this point, he looks like a top-8 car or better.

Aric Almirola (50-1): If you are playing the longshots, Almirola should be included. He has progressed to show the qualities of a top-10 car, and according to his progression he should beat several drivers with shorter odds.

Daniel Suarez (70-1): Starting from the back of the field will be the fast moving Suarez. He will likely bolt his way into the top 20 early in the race, and try to make himself a contender. Suarez, who was top 5 fastest in happy hour, makes for an excellent match-up play if one can be located.

Below are the matchups that made the cut this weekend.

Joey Logano (-110) over Chase Elliott (-110)

Logano has been stronger this weekend, while Elliott has been busy celebrating after his first career win. While they both have a good history at Michigan, I think the focus of Logano pays off in this matchup. Additionally, Penske has had a better weekend evolution when compared to Hendrick. 

Erik Jones (-120): over Kurt Busch (even):

This matchup was much more appealing until I heard the news of Kurt Busch possibly leaving Stewart-Haas racing at the end of the year. It seems this development would propel Busch to perform better than expected, as he is a hard competitor. I still like Jones because he is just better suited in this matchup, both by progression and team. Watch the odds closely here please as it could lose value quickly.

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