Race Weekend Central

Four Burning Questions in Michigan: High Speeds, Stakes & Attrition

Do you like speed? Do you like it when race car drivers pilot their beastly machines on the very limit of traction?

If you answered yes to the above questions, this weekend’s Quicken Loans 400 from Michigan International Speedway will likely be of interest to you. Record speeds have been the big story of the weekend, with Stewart-Haas Racing driver Kevin Harvick blistering the track record in qualifying with a lap of 204.557 mph.

The speeds are faster than ever, but will the racing be just as hot and heavy? That’s the question on most people’s minds as we head into what could very well be one of the more unpredictable races of the year.

1. Will the high speeds lead to excitement or boredom?

Necessary opinion: Sunday’s Quicken Loans 400 should be a restrictor plate race. It obviously is not a plate race at this time, but it absolutely should be for a variety of reasons. With the way the track is configured, the current tire compound is not well-suited for the track, because it is too hard to put on competitive racing and there is risk for blistering as a result. The risk is not as great as it was in 2012, when the track was first repaved, but the risk is there nonetheless. Then of course you have the safety debate of what would happen if a car going 215 mph somehow ended up in the stands.

On top of all of that, the high speeds exacerbate the aero-push situation to an extreme degree under the current aero configuration, which only makes passing more difficult. With all of these factors at play, I’m really not sure why NASCAR chose not to slow the cars down, either with a tapered spacer or with a restrictor plate. The racing would undoubtedly have been much better, drafting would be in play to a greater effect and the race would be safer. Oh, well.

Jimmie Johnson does a burnout after winning at Dover. (Don Grassmann/CIA STOCK PHOTO)
Jimmie Johnson does a burnout after winning at Dover. (Don Grassmann/CIA STOCK PHOTO)

Speeds are going to be a major discussion point tomorrow, and one would be wise to pay attention to how those high speeds affect the on-track product. Spoiler alert: they won’t have a positive effect.

2.Will the Hendrick-powered cars make a mockery of the field?

A quick survey of the garage area knowledge base will tell you one thing: Hendrick Motorsports-powered cars have a distinct horsepower advantage at the moment. We saw it last weekend at Pocono, as the Hendrick and Stewart-Haas cars (who all sport Hendrick engines) were dominant, and Michigan is a similarly horsepower-intensive racetrack.

In last year’s running of the event, the Hendrick cars of Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. were all in a class of their own, but each fell by the wayside due to poor luck and mechanical issues. Despite this, their sheer advantage was impossible to ignore, and practice times from this weekend are telling a similar story heading into Sunday: Hendrick Motorsports and Stewart-Haas Racing cars will be difficult to beat, especially those of Johnson (Hendrick) and Harvick (SHR).

Of course, those advantages in horsepower could also be a curse. Many times in the past at Michigan, we have seen cars with horsepower advantages experience mechanical problems due to the stress caused by cars that push the envelope too much on a track that is hard on parts. The same thing could happen this year, and it will be a big story to watch.

3.Will Kyle and Kasey collide again?

I never imagined that I would be writing a question about a driver seeking revenge against another driver in a column, but alas.

I’m sure we all remember that Kyle Busch-Kasey Kahne feud that started sizzling last year. The feud largely involved five or six instances of Busch or another Joe Gibbs Racing driver running Kahne over while he did nothing about it. The feud reignited last week at Pocono in a very similar manner: Busch completely used up Kahne towards the end of the race, taking out both cars, which ultimately resulted in a whole lot of nothing in the way of reaction from Kahne other than something akin to an “I’m sick of this” kind of remark.

Nothing’s going to change; there will be no retribution and no fireworks out of either of these two drivers this week. Very few (if any) would be willing to issue payback at a track as fast and dangerous as Michigan, and considering the fact that Kahne is probably the least fiery driver in the garage, I am quite confident that he will not be retaliating, no matter what the talking heads want you to think.

4.Who’s gonna grab the the win?

As stated earlier, the Hendrick-powered cars will almost certainly be the class of the field. Their horsepower advantage is massive and they have all been fast throughout the weekend. The only real question is this: which one is the favorite?

The smart money is on Kevin Harvick. Harvick won all three rounds of qualifying, and he’s been one of the most consistently fast drivers in practice as well. Of course, Harvick has also had major reliability problems in 2014, and this is a track that has been known to be difficult on teams reliability-wise. My guess is that is the only thing that would stop the No. 4 team today, as it has truly just been that strong.

The Hendrick Motorsports cars will be strong as well, with Jimmie Johnson looking to be the fastest of the group, followed closely by Jeff Gordon.

If a Hendrick-powered car doesn’t win today, it would be a colossal upset.

Matt Stallknecht’s Pre-Race Predictions for the 2014 Quicken Loans 400:

  1.  4-Kevin Harvick
  2. 48-Jimmie Johnson
  3. 24-Jeff Gordon
  4. 22-Joey Logano
  5.  2-Brad Keselowski
  6. 14-Tony Stewart
  7. 88-Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
  8. 41-Kurt Busch
  9.  5-Kasey Kahne
  10. 16-Greg Biffle
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