NASCAR At Michigan 2012: A Viewer's Guide For Today's Race

Here's a look at some of the top storylines, notable statistics and favorites for today's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Michigan International Speedway:

Storylines

Speed and The Consequences That Come With It

With Michigan International Speedway recently having been repaved, speeds as expected have jumped up dramatically with drivers easily averaging over 200 mph in practice and hitting anywhere between 215-220 mph heading into Turn 1. And yesterday, Marcos Ambrose rocketed to the pole with a 203 mph lap – the first time in history a driver has qualified over 200 mph on a track other than Daytona or Talladega.

But how fast is too fast considering NASCAR hasn't seen speed like this since the late-80s and the current car has never been tested safety-wise under these conditions?

One huge area of concern is that some teams were experiencing blisters on their tires, some as soon as 15 laps into a run. If excessive tire wear holds true today, it's not unfathomable to think we're going to see a couple of drivers have a tire explode on them as they race into a corner.

All these concerns necessitated NASCAR issuing a different left side tire to teams Saturday, one with a much harder compound which slowed speeds and helped do away with the blistering many were experiencing.

But again, under race conditions no one knows what to expect.

With minimal practice time on this new compound as well as more stress on the engines due to Saturday's unscheduled practice, there is great apprehension among teams.

Throughout the afternoon, expect crew chiefs to play it conservatively and not waver on whether they should call their driver to pit road, and if they do, don't be at all surprised to see most go with four tires just to play it safe.

Gibbs vs. Roush

For a long time Michigan was regarded as Jack Roush's own personal playground as his fleet of Fords frequently dominated anytime the series visited the two-mile track located in the Irish Hills of Michigan. Lately though, with three wins in the last four races on the high-speed oval, the Toyotas of Joe Gibbs have been the cars to beat.

Expect that rivalry to continue today as Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch should again carry the banner for JGR as both were quick in practice, and as they typically do at Michigan, Matt Kenseth, Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards should be expected to be among the contenders.

Not to mention there is extra incentive for the Roush bunch, as another victory will break the tie Roush Fenway Racing shares with the Wood Brothers for most Michigan wins among car owners.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

It's well-documented how this weekend marks the four year anniversary of the last time Dale Earnhardt Jr. won a Sprint Cup points race. But wouldn't it be something if NASCAR's most popular driver resumed his winning ways almost to the day and on the same track as his last win. And this isn't a unlikely proposition considering how consistent he's been this season, not to mention the speed he's shown since hitting the track Thursday.

Worth Noting

• Michigan is one of five tracks where Jimmie Johnson has failed to win a Cup race; the others are Homestead, Chicago, Kentucky and Watkins Glen.

• After racing his way into the field via a lap that puts him 22nd on the grid, Austin Dillon will be making his second career Sprint Cup start this afternoon.

• His pole-winning run yesterday marked the first time Marcos Ambrose has won a pole at the Sprint Cup level.

Favorites

1. Carl Edwards

Yeah, I know Carl Edwards hasn't won in over a year and he's had his fair share of issues this year, but the fact is no one in today's field has a better average finish (8.2) than last year's championship runner-up. And remember, Edwards has a history of snapping long winless streaks at Michigan, as his victory in 2007 was his first in 52 starts.

2. Greg Biffle

"The Biff" was the only driver to top 204 mph in Friday's twin practice sessions – albeit in qualifying trim. Regardless, this is the kind of track Greg Biffle typically excels on, having won here twice and having led double-digit laps in his last three starts on the D-shaped oval.

3. Mark Martin

Mark Martin has everything I look for in a potential Michigan winner: He's smooth, fast on the long runs, easy on his equipment, knows how to handle a car that wants to jump sideways and, maybe most important, knows how to save fuel with the best of them – always a prerequisite for doing well on a track notorious for having races turn into fuel mileage affairs.

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