To help guide you through the 2013 Fantasy NASCAR season, Athlon Sports contributor Geoffrey Miller will be offering his best predictions for each race. And because Yahoo's Fantasy Auto Racing game is arguably the most popular, he’ll break down the picks according to its NASCAR driver classes — A-List, B-List, C-List. The main picks are designed to make optimal use of Yahoo!’s 9-start maximum rule over the course of the season. The “also consider” section ranks unmentioned drivers strictly by expected result without consideration of start limitations.
Next up: Pure Michigan 400 (Michigan International Speedway)
Race: 400 miles/200 laps (Track: 2-mile D-shaped oval)
June 2013 Winner: Greg Biffle
A-List (Pick two, start one)
If we're using the June Michigan race as any predictor — and we definitely should, based on the increased speeds of the Gen-6 car — then Jimmie Johnson is a pick more solid than Brian France’s unswayable stance on adding more road courses to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series calendar. Johnson didn’t win back in June for two reasons: The right front tire blew as he was chasing Greg Biffle for the lead, and crew chief Chad Knaus made a poor call on the second-to-last pit stop that hurt Johnson’s track position. Other than those faults, Johnson would have likely drove to his first Michigan win on a day when three of the four Hendrick Motorsports cars looked primed to win.
That Johnson has yet to win at MIS shouldn’t be a concern this weekend. He owns Michigan’s fourth-best average running position among all drivers, the series lead in most fastest laps in-race and nine career top-10 finishes. Oh, and that four-race “losing skid” he’s on? Yeah, that’s a real drought.
Yes, we’re going with two Hendrick Motorsports drivers as the picks for the A-List. And yes, it’s a really good idea. In June, the organization was looking at a race shaping up to be a battle among three of its teams in Johnson, Kahne and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Kahne was leading the race and pulling away after the halfway point when he lost a right front tire and careened off the Turn 1 wall, catching his car on fire in progress. He finished 38th.
Kahne, of course, has won since then and figures to be just as strong on Sunday. If anything, Hendrick Motorsports has improved from the Michigan weekend that could-have-been. In the last two oval races, the worst finish for an HMS car was Johnson's 13th-place run at Pocono.
Also consider: Matt Kenseth, Kevin Harvick
B-List (Pick four, start two)
The Hendrick Motorsports struggles in June may have gifted a win to Greg Biffle, but his solid run at the southeastern Michigan track wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. Biffle has four wins, 10 top 5s and 13 top-10 finishes in his Cup career at MIS. He’s also the fastest active driver during green flag racing in the Irish Hills with an average lap speed of 177.096 mph. The accolades also include a series-best average running position (8.2) and the most laps raced in the top 15 (2,862). If immediate results are more important to your picks, consider that Biffle was plenty strong at the MIS sister track, Auto Club Speedway, when he finished sixth in the spring.
A running gag this season for observers of Kurt Busch’s first full-time effort in the Furniture Row Racing No. 78 has been predicting when or why a strong run would fall apart. Busch was plenty strong in June at Michigan when he started second and leap-frogged pole sitter Carl Edwards on the first lap and led the first 21 circuits. Less than nine laps later, though, Busch had stuffed his Chevy in the wall exiting Turn 2. He finished 35th.
It was an accident that looked and felt like Busch was pushing the car too hard after a pit stop sequence didn’t go to plan. That accident has appeared to be a bit of a turning point for Busch, as he’s nabbed five top-10 finishes in the last seven races. A two-time Michigan winner, Busch hasn’t scored a top 5 at the track since 2010. However, with a dose of patience, that could change Sunday.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
The race that most eats at Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 2013 remains his result from Michigan in June. The pre-race talk centered around the event being the one-year anniversary of Earnhardt's last win in the Cup Series. By Lap 120, he appeared to have as good of a shot as anyone. Junior was stretching his lead in the race’s middle parts and felt no pressure when something happened in the engine. Five laps after losing the lead on Lap 126, the No. 88 was in the garage and done for the day.
Earnhardt is typically one of the more collected and reserved drivers in the field, especially in his tenure under crew chief Steve Letarte. Sunday, with the pressure of qualifying for the Chase pretty much gone, we may see a no-holds-barred approach from Driver 88.
Carl Edwards left Michigan in June gritting his teeth in frustration. Teammate and eventual race winner Greg Biffle had opted not to fall back and help Edwards clean trash from his car’s front grille during the event, leading to an untimely pit stop. Edwards still managed to finish eighth, but felt a little bit of help could have meant more. That Edwards was able to rally to a top-10 finish shows he’ll likely again be a solid competitor on Sunday.
Edwards owns a pair of victories at the track and 10 career top-10 finishes. Aside from troubles that caught him in the August 2011 race, Edwards has finished on the lead lap in every other Michigan start.
Also consider: Kyle Busch, Joey Logano
C-List (Pick two, start one)
One of Bass Pro Shops’ “minor league” NASCAR drivers — let’s be honest, that’s a big reason why he’s racing for Stewart-Haas Racing this weekend in Tony Stewart's No. 14 — gets his best opportunity to date in a Sprint Cup car at a track where he has more Cup Series starts than any other. In two races, Dillon’s average Michigan finish is 17.5. Dillon was nothing short of impressive for a rookie in his most recent race at MIS in June. Driving a Joe Falk-owned, Richard Childress Racing-built No. 33, Dillon started seventh and finished 11th. The day before, he led 61 laps in the Nationwide race before he slapped the wall late in the event.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Stenhouse looked plenty ready for his step up to NASCAR’s big leagues after scoring consecutive Nationwide Series titles in 2011 and 2012. Amazingly, through 22 races in his full-time Roush Fenway Racing Sprint Cup ride, Stenhouse doesn’t have a single top 10. But that’s a bit of a misleading stat: Stenhouse's six top-15 finishes show he’s been steadily competitive. Driver No. 17 was 16th at Michigan in June.
Also consider: Danica Patrick, Trevor Bayne