NASCAR At Michigan 2012: Starting Lineup And Race Preview

The starting grid for today's NASCAR race at Michigan International Speedway is below, but first, here are some storylines, notes and drivers to watch for this afternoon:

Storylines

Track Position Is Everything

With its wide straightaways and sweeping corners, if there was ever a track where drivers should be able to pass and race side-by-side, you would think Michigan would be the place. However, with relatively new pavement, drivers are leery that today's race is going to feature few passing opportunities, as the track has little grip, is slick and there is essentially just one groove around the 2-mile oval.

This puts the onus on crew chiefs to help their drivers gain valuable track position. Expect them to do this by calling for plenty of two-tire stops throughout the afternoon, as there is little wear on the left-side tires.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. Slump?

The last two weeks haven't been kind to Dale Earnhardt Jr. First, there were the transmission issues at Pocono which sent him to the garage while he was leading. This was followed by a late-race spin last week at Watkins Glen which cost him a top-10 finish. Combined, these back-to-back subpar weeks have cost Earnhardt Jr. his points lead, and he now resides fourth overall.

The good news for NASCAR's most popular driver and his legion of supporters is a return trip to Michigan. It's the very track where in June, Earnhardt Jr. snapped his four-year winless drought in dominant fashion by leading 95 of 200 laps and easily scoring the victory by an impressive five-second margin.

But that optimism vanished when Earnhardt Jr. backed his race-winning Chevrolet into the Turn 2 wall during the final practice. The damage was such that the 88 team had to roll out a backup car, which will force Earnhardt Jr. to start at the rear of the field.

The Bullseye Is Now On Jimmie Johnson

To the chagrin of many, Jimmie Johnson is atop the standings. Even worse, the 48 team doesn't appear to be relinquishing its hold on the points lead anytime soon. Hendrick Motorsports has hit on something with its setups, and with the Chase quickly approaching, Johnson is peaking at the optimal time with eight top-10s in his last 10 starts.

Although Johnson has never won at Michigan, he has been close, including a runner-up finish in this race a year ago. But that first win might have to wait. Johnson hit a snag in practice yesterday when motor issues necessitated a change to backup engine, requiring him start at the rear today along with his teammate.

Ford Famine

For a long time, Michigan was regarded as Jack Roush's own personal playground, as from 2003-08 the flag-bearer for Ford won six of 12 races. But remarkably, it's been four years since a Roush-owned car went to Victory Lane. That streak, however, could easily come to an end this afternoon as all three Roush Fords were fast in practice – especially Greg Biffle. But to do that, the trio is going to have to likely outmuscle the Hendrick boys, something the Roush armada has struggled with this season as they haven't won a Cup since April.

Worth Noting

• As noted above, Michigan represents one of just five tracks where Jimmie Johnson has yet to win. The others are Watkins Glen, Kentucky, Chicagoland and Homestead.

• Prior to this weekend, Mark Martin had made 53 Michigan starts, yet before today he had never started a race on the 2-mile track from the pole. Martin's pole-winning run was the 55th of his career and moved him into a tie with Bill Elliott for seventh all-time.

• After qualifying ninth yesterday, today will mark just the second time Landon Cassill has started a Sprint Cup race inside the top 10.

Favorites

1. Jimmie Johnson

Yes, Jimmie Johnson will be starting from the rear and it will be a challenge to claw his way through the field. But the thinking is Chad Knaus will come up with some wise pit strategy to help his driver recoup some of that lost track position. And once Johnson gets to the front, he certainly has more than enough speed to factor into the outcome.

2. Greg Biffle

This is the spot Dale Earnhardt Jr. would have been if he hadn't wrecked his primary car in practice. Instead, it's Greg Biffle, who is a two-time Michigan winner and was fastest driver in the second and final rounds of practice.

3. Brad Keselowski

Jimmie Johnson may have the championship lead and the headlines that go with it, but the fact is that over the last six weeks no one has scored more points than Brad Keselowski. And with the intermediate track program an area of strength for this team, there is little reason to think the Blue Deuce won't be up among the leaders again today.

Starting lineup for today's NASCAR Michigan race:

  1. Mark Martin
  2. Carl Edwards
  3. Jimmie Johnson (will start in the back due to engine change)
  4. Matt Kenseth
  5. Kasey Kahne
  6. Trevor Bayne
  7. Martin Truex Jr.
  8. Marcos Ambrose
  9. Landon Cassill
  10. Paul Menard
  11. Jeff Gordon
  12. Clint Bowyer
  13. Greg Biffle
  14. Tony Stewart
  15. Ryan Newman
  16. Joey Logano
  17. Parker Kligerman
  18. Regan Smith
  19. Brad Keselowski
  20. Kevin Harvick
  21. Denny Hamlin
  22. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (will start in the back due to practice crash/backup car)
  23. Kyle Busch
  24. Jamie McMurray
  25. Juan Pablo Montoya
  26. Kurt Busch
  27. Reed Sorenson
  28. Bobby Labonte
  29. Casey Mears
  30. Travis Kvapil
  31. David Stremme
  32. Jeff Burton
  33. Jason Leffler
  34. Josh Wise
  35. Joe Nemechek
  36. David Gilliland
  37. David Ragan
  38. Scott Riggs
  39. David Reutimann
  40. TJ Bell
  41. Aric Almirola
  42. Dave Blaney
  43. Mike Skinner
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