Stat analysis: Has Roush Fenway lost its Michigan Magic?

Once a Roush bastion, the Michigan International Speedway has not favoured the team in the last couple of years - and, if its drivers' Chase hopes are to be kept alive, that would need to change.

Stat analysis: Has Roush Fenway lost its Michigan Magic?
Greg Biffle, Roush Fenway Racing Ford
Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Roush Fenway Racing Ford
Trevor Bayne, Roush Fenway Racing Ford
Trevor Bayne, Roush Fenway Racing Ford
The car of Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Roush Fenway Racing Ford
Greg Biffle, Roush Fenway Racing Ford
Greg Biffle, Roush Fenway Racing Ford
Greg Biffle, Roush Fenway Racing Ford
Race winner Greg Biffle, Roush Fenway Racing Ford
Carl Edwards, Roush Fenway Racing Ford
Race winner Greg Biffle, Roush Fenway Racing Ford
Matt Kenseth, Roush Fenway Racing Ford
David Ragan, Roush Fenway Racing Ford
Trevor Bayne, Roush Fenway Racing Ford
Race winner Matt Kenseth, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota with crew chief Jason Ratcliff
Matt Kenseth, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
Kyle Busch, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
Jimmie Johnson, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Kevin Harvick, Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet
Kyle Larson, Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet
Jimmie Johnson, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Joey Logano, Team Penske Ford
Brad Keselowski, Team Penske Ford
Dale Earnhardt Jr., Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Dale Earnhardt Jr., Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Joey Logano, Team Penske Ford
Greg Biffle, Roush Fenway Racing Ford

The general consensus has been that, after a torrid 2015 season, Roush Fenway Racing is improving.

Two of its relatively young drivers are doing markedly better than last year, the qualifying pace is much improved and there's generally just a better feel about the team's chances.

And yet for all that, there's a very real chance that, for a second consecutive Chase, none of Roush's drivers will find a place among the 16 who make the cut.

Heading into Michigan, Ricky Stenhouse is 13 points below the cut-off, while Trevor Bayne is a further six down. With 12 races to go, that's certainly manageable, but the competition will be stiff.

The closest guys to the cut-off – Jamie McMurray, Ryan Blaney and Ryan Newman will likely continue to score well, and, if he produces a few more Pocono-like performances, Kasey Kahne will waltz in.

And even if AJ Allmendinger, currently right ahead of Blaney and Stenhouse, doesn't make up the points, he'll have two very good chances to lock himself in anyway at Sonoma and Watkins Glen.

But while it's at the very least plausible that one of Roush's younger duo will points-race into the Chase, Greg Biffle – arguably the team's leader – almost certainly cannot.

Roush drivers' Chase targets (points)

Driver Pos. Avg. Fin Pts. Pts.
Needed
Avg. Fin. Needed
Ricky Stenhouse 19th 17.8 325 307 ~15
Trevor Bayne 20th 18.4 319 313 ~14
Greg Biffle 23rd 22.5 245 387 ~8

The exact points cut-off for the Chase is a very nebulous target, but both adjusting last year's number (the points haul of Paul Menard) and extrapolating the points-scoring pace of the current P16 (Ryan Newman) will get you very similar numbers – somewhere around 630 points.

For Biffle, hitting that (probably fairly conservative) target would mean running the rest of the regular season with an average finish of eighth. And while his best-ever 12-race average was 7.2, that was 2012. This year, he's finished no higher than 11th?

And all of those factors should, in theory, be of extra importance at Michigan – the track where the Roush organisation has the most wins, top-5s, top-10s and the best average finish on the calendar.

However, Michigan might no longer be the team's ace in the hole.

The Michigan drop-off

At a cursory glance, the team's paltry results at Michigan in the past two years – no laps led and just two top-10 finishes (a P9 from Bayne and a P10 from Biffle) simply represent the gradual, yet steep dropoff in Roush Fenway's performances in the recent seasons.

But that shouldn't hide the fact that Michigan also appears to have become just another track for the organisation, going not just by the more intuitive metrics like average finish and laps led, but also by driver ratings.

Roush drivers at Michigan (driver rating – median driver rating at other venues)

  2011 2012 2013 2014 2015
David Ragan +0.4        
Matt Kenseth +27.9 +14.8      
Carl Edwards -24.0 +15.2 +6.1 -22.0  
Greg Biffle +31.7 +34.8 +36.1 +6.4 -21.0
Ricky Stenhouse     +0.2 +4.1 -12.5
Trevor Bayne         +13.4
Team +25.2 +24.9 +20.3 -4.7 -7.1

The sample size, admittedly, isn't particularly large, but the numbers are rather damning anyway. And you need to look no further than Biffle's two runs at Michigan last year for proof – he was 36th in the June race (admittedly caught out by the rain call but struggling hard even before that) and a quiet 23rd in August, struggling for grip on both occasions.

Granted, Bayne actually did admirably well at Michigan last year, but both him and Stenhouse just need a solid day. Biffle – the very Greg Biffle who leads active Sprint Cup drivers in Michigan wins – needs a remarkable day.

The stats suggest he won't be getting it. But given the new NASCAR package and early signs of a re-birth for Roush, a Biffle resurgence is far from the most outlandish storyline to look out for.

The in-form favourites

If it's a bad day for Roush, however, a good performance for the team's former champion Matt Kenseth would probably make it even worse, given that a win would draw him level with Biffle at the top of the rankings.

And Kenseth, statistically, is probably the odds-on favourite here – Michigan is a near-constant source of good results for the #20 driver and he dominated last year, albeit with the high-drag package in play.

Betting on Kenseth could be enough for JGR to rebound after a predictably quiet run at Pocono, as its other drivers aren't exactly Michigan specialists. Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin both have past wins at the venue but the former's form here has been erratic and the latter has not led a lap at Michigan since 2013.

For Carl Edwards – another driver who had in the past taken a Roush car to Victory Lane here – Michigan is more or less an average venue. And for JGR alliance driver Martin Truex, it's blown hot and cold here, although his pair of third-place finishes from 2015 mark him out as a contender.

On Chevy's side, Kevin Harvick finished runner-up five times in the last six races at the track (in what might be the most Kevin Harvick fact ever), so despite a couple of shaky results earlier in the decade, he'll be a guaranteed threat for victory.

But it's not a very good track for his teammate Kurt Busch – and it's been a very unpleasant track for Jimmie Johnson, even if he finally managed to get a career-first win in 2014.

Finally, Penske - the team that replaced Roush as Ford's main hope – has a lot of reasons to be optimistic. Michigan was the venue of Joey Logano's first win for the organisation in 2013 and, while Brad Keselowski is yet to win at this home track, he is its leading points-scorer of the past five years.

Notable five-year driver rating averages at Michigan

Driver Michigan Other tracks Difference Michigan Max.

Michigan

Min.

Matt Kenseth 107.7 99.9 +7.7 148.8 40.3
Kevin Harvick 103.6 101.3 +2.2 135.1 72.1
Dale Earnhardt Jr. 101.9 94.0 +7.9 138.1 77.3
Brad Keselowski 101.3 96.9 +4.4 117.7 58.6
Greg Biffle 98.3 82.0 +16.3 129.8 39
Joey Logano 97.0 91.4 +5.6 136.3 52.5
Paul Menard 91.5 76.6 +14.9 107.4 62.6
Kasey Kahne 91.4 90.5 +0.9 114.2 65.2
Carl Edwards 90.5 90.9 -0.4 114.9 50.2
Jimmie Johnson 87.2 104.4 -17.2 130.7 45.1
Ryan Newman 86.5 83.7 +2.7 102.3 67.1
Kurt Busch 85.8 89.7 -3.9 122.8 40.3
Tony Stewart 85.4 80.4 +5.0 124.1 54.6
Martin Truex Jr. 84.1 88.4 -4.4 117.8 33.2
Kyle Busch 84.0 101.5 -17.5 126 35.7
Austin Dillon 79.9 70.7 +9.3 112.3 65.1
Denny Hamlin 79.3 92.6 -13.3 107.5 54.6
Kyle Larson 78.9 84.4 -5.5 89.7 53.6
Ricky Stenhouse 63.2 65.1 -1.9 80.7 50.9

New Chase additions?

So close to a breakthrough win at Pocono, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is now in a much more comfortable position in the standings – and this could be conducive to a good run at Michigan, a track that has favoured him.

On the other hand, Logano is obviously overdue a win and remains the last driver to take Ford to Victory Lane in a Cup race at the track.

Finally, as far as fun outside bets are concerned, it's a very good track for both Paul Menard and Austin Dillon, although expecting them to be contenders is a massive stretch – and, as noted before, Biffle should be an interesting one to watch.

But all in all, given the record of Harvick and Kenseth - as well as the form of Truex - the streak of three first-time (for 2016) winners should snap here.

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