Watch the telecast of this weekend’s race at Michigan International Speedway and you will hear it referred to as “the sister track” to Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. While that’s true in some ways — both are two-mile D-shaped tracks and the latter was built by Roger Penske to resemble the former — the two surfaces have now created two completely different styles of racing.
The weather-beaten surface in Fontana created a manic multiple-groove free-for-all earlier this year. Michigan, which was repaved prior to its two race dates in 2012, is speedy, stretches out the field and welcomes savvy pit strategy. It won’t provide the action that Fontana had, but it will create an atmosphere that allows the smartest race teams in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series to prevail.
In just two events last season, we caught a glimpse of what future races at MIS might entail. It favors some of the usual suspects.
195 Not a statistic, but the lap (out of a scheduled 200) on which Jimmie Johnson’s motor blew while leading the race at Michigan last summer.
Johnson’s detractors might have blacked this out, but the No. 48 was dangerously close to scoring the win in the most recent race at MIS (and the only race run on the current Goodyear tire compound). He led 23 laps in a heated battle with Brad Keselowski and Greg Biffle before his Hendrick motor popped, saddling him with a 27th-place result and forcing a green-white-checker finish. If not for the malfunction, Johnson would have likely joined Biffle and Dale Earnhardt Jr. in finishing inside the top 5 in both 2012 Michigan races.
99.5% Keselowski spent a race-high 99.5 percent of all laps in the top 15 during last summer’s race at Michigan.
He led 17 laps and averaged a running position of 6.95 before finishing second to Biffle. The Michigan native has been knocking on the door to Cup Series victory lane at MIS ever since he collected back-to-back wins in the Nationwide Series races in 2009 and 2010. Really, a win this weekend would be the official break in a rare Keselowski slump. In six races dating back to Kansas, he and the No. 2 Penske Racing team have averaged a finish of 22.8 and seen their Chase-making probability drop by 22.67 percent.
54.8% Johnson (55.9 percent) and Keselowski (53.3 percent) combined for a 54.8 percent passing efficiency on 336 total encounters in the most recent race at MIS.
Despite two different pit strategies, the two eventual title contenders had no trouble moving through traffic before sizing up one another. The race was an early sign that the two drivers were destined to duel for a championship, even though neither was the day’s victor.