This week’s NASCAR Nextel Cup series race at Michigan International Speedway can be called in some ways the manufacturers Super Bowl.
The Motor City has all their high ranking executives sitting high atop the track simply rooting for their make of vehicle to win. They do have an official manufacturers championship at the end of the season, but this race allows them a chance to be seen showing their pride in front of their competitors.
Since 1984, Ford has done most of the celebrating. That was the year Bill Elliott started an amazing stretch of wins, taking the checkers in 6-of-8 Michigan races. Since Elliott started Ford’s dominance at the track, a Ford has won at Michigan 25 times compared to the combined efforts of General Motors (Chevy, Pontiac, and Oldsmobile) entries with 13 wins. Dodge has managed two wins in the last five races.
The layout of the Michigan track is almost identical to its sister track in California, both built by Roger Penske. Both are wide and spacious two-mile D shaped ovals. Michigan is slightly more banked than California, but at a minimal to make preparation relatively the same for the two tracks.
Jeff Gordon (8-1) won the California race two months ago with his teammate Jimmie Johnson (9-1), a 2002 California champ, right behind him in second. Gordon is a two-time winner at Michigan with the last time being in 2001. His ratio of victories is small compared to most of the tracks on the circuit. Gordon has 14 top 5 finishes in his 22 starts. Add that to his three wins in seven races at California and its safe to say Gordon is dialed in at Penske tracks.
Johnson on the other hand hasn’t had very much success during his brief career at Michigan despite having great results at California. Johnson’s best Michigan run was seventh during his rookie year mixed in with three other very average finishes. However, with the way Johnson and his team are running right now, it wouldn’t be wise to count him out entirely. He has three wins on the season and leads the series with nine top 5 finishes.
Michigan has had different winners the past nine years. Dale Jarrett (18-1) is the last multiple winner (spring 1999, fall 2002) at the track. In that ’99 race, Jarrett thoroughly abused the competition putting 38 drivers a lap down as he led almost all the way. Last week was the debut of the new joint engine program for Ford car owners Jack Roush and Robert Yates.
Of the four cars that used the engines last week, Jarrett was the most noticeable beneficiary of the change. He ran near or in the top 5 for most of the later stages in the race. That Pocono performance was the most competitive Jarrett has been since his Rockingham win in the second race of last season. Jarrett also has nine other top 5 finishes there.
Roush racing has won the last two spring Michigan races. The two drivers that won fall right into the category of drivers that do well at both California and Michigan. Kurt Busch (10/1) won at both California and Michigan last year. Matt Kenseth (12/1), who won this race in ’02, finished fourth this year in California.
The driver to watch this week from the Roush stable may be Mark Martin (14-1). Martin is a four-time winner at Michigan, the last in 1998. His most recent Michigan top 5 was in the fall of ’02. In line with the rest of the Roush gang, Martin also has had very good runs at California, including a win in ’98 and an 11th this year.
The DEI Chevy team of Dale Earnhardt Jr (10-1) and Michael Waltrip (20-1) have been pretty good at Michigan, but accolades go to Waltrip for carrying the team. Waltrip has surprisingly done well at Michigan while Junior has been rather mediocre. In Waltrip’s last four races he’s come in with a fourth, 15th, fifth, and seventh. Those are numbers more expected of him carrying a restrictor plate.
The Gibbs Chevy team of Tony Stewart (9-1) and Bobby Labonte (14-1) have been very good at Michigan. Labonte had much of his early success early in his career beginning with a sweep of the ’95 season. He won his third and last Michigan race in the fall of ’99 and has a total of nine top 5 finishes in 22 starts. Stewart won this race in 2000 and has three other top 5 finishes in his 10 career starts including a third last August. At California this year, Labonte came in fifth while Stewart finished a lap down at 16th.
Ryan Newman was the last Michigan winner, beating Kevin Harvick (16-1) by almost two seconds. Newman hasn’t had the best of luck this year and is on the verge of looking at the top 10 from the outside. Only two points separate Jeremy Mayfield (25-1) and Newman. If the chase for the championship started this week, Newman would barely make it. Newman was considered one of the favorites to win the whole thing.
This type of track could be exactly what Newman needs to get his season going and get a win. While Newman has grown tremendously as a driver on all types of tracks, the wide open speedways allow him to just mash the pedal where he does his best.
Newman’s teammate Rusty Wallace (18-1) has one more win this season than Newman and four more career wins there. Wallace’s last Michigan win was in 2000.
Sterling Marlin (18-1) took Dodge into the Michigan winner’s circle in 2001 for the first time since Richard Petty did it in 1975. Since then, Marlin has continued to be very competitive. Last season in this race, Marlin finished sixth but had a great opportunity to win. His odds will surely vary and are likely to resemble odds for a driver sitting 20th in points.
The other Dodge entries with a great shot this week are Jeremy Mayfield (25-1) and Kasey Kahne (10-1). Kahne resembles Newman a bit, being very good and fast on these type of tracks. One of these weeks, the kid is going to win. Last week, he was the most heavily bet driver on the odds to win index.
As for the manufacturers battle, despite Chevy having only one win in the last 10 Michigan races, Chevy is still a —120 favorite because of Gordon and Johnson.