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Race Day: Michigan Means Miles Of Fun – For Drivers

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Sunday, August 16 2009
Jimmie Johnson will slide into his car this afternoon at a track which most NASCAR drivers seem to love. (Photo by Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Jimmie Johnson will slide into his car this afternoon at a track which most NASCAR drivers seem to love. (Photo by Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for NASCAR)

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor
RacinToday.com

Michigan International Speedway has the power to do something which not many other race tracks on the Sprint Cup schedule can do – silence complaints from the garage areas. Not all of them, but a lot of them. It’s magic.

Well, perhaps not magic. It’s probably the result of the racing surface at MIS being so wide and racy and enjoyable to drive.

Mark Martin was asked this week what he thinks when he thinks about racing at the 2.0-mile MIS tri-oval.

“I think about Michigan and I think: ‘Ahhhhh, that will be fun’,” Martin said.

Here is what some other drivers had to say about the site of today’s Carfax 400:

Matt Kenseth: “Well, there’s probably a little more room for error – some room to look around a little bit, depending on how your car is running, but, really, your car has got to handle pretty reasonable to work in any of the groves. It’s not like you can be off on the bottom and run really good on the top or vice versa. So, you’ve still got a handle on getting around there. There’s a lot of corner here, but it’s nice that there’s a lot of room to move around and be able to pass.

“Michigan is a great race track. It has a lot of different grooves and we can move around and find places to run on the track which makes it pretty enjoyable. We like coming here because it’s in the backyard of the manufacturers. But I like the race track because it’s so wide. It’s really a well-built race track.”

Juan Pablo Montoya: “Well, if you think about Michigan and the No. 42 car, normally we really suck here. We do! But this year, for some reason we seem to be running good everywhere. We ran good here. We actually had a really good car, we were running third and I think the last restart, Mark Martin had a pretty bad start and I gave him a big push and actually pushed the front of the car back and we lost a ton of downforce and we finished like sixth or seventh or something like that. You, know, our plan is to continue to do what we have been doing, play it smart and see where it leads us. Last week was a little frustrating because at the beginning of the race, we had a really fast car and we just really lost it there at the end. It just got really tight. We never really adjusted it that much so we stayed behind people I think.”

Mark Martin: “You know the deal is that it’s nice to start in the front, but you don’t have to. You do the best you can with what you have to work with. Last time here we qualified 32nd. We didn’t want to, but we did and we worked with what we had to work with.

CLINCH TIME

Any driver 586 points ahead of 13th place leaving Michigan clinches a spot in the Chase, which will then be three races away.

All Tony Stewart has to do is start today’s race.

Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet), 496 points ahead of 13th-place Kyle Busch (No. 18 Interstate Batteries Toyota), needs at least a 90-point gain on 13th to secure a place in the Chase. Johnson – who is second in points – has made every Chase since its inception in 2004. Only one other driver has qualified for every Chase: Matt Kenseth (No. 17 DEWALT Ford), currently 12th in points.

The battle to make the Chase is heating up just behind Kenseth.

A few drivers just outside the top 12 not only want to make the Chase, but are looking for their first trip to Victory Lane this season. Those just below the “Chase bubble” include:

* Kyle Busch, 13th in points. Busch has one second-place finish (August 2008) at MIS.

* Brian Vickers (No. 83 Red Bull Toyota), 14th in points. Vickers earned his first pole of the season at Michigan last summer and followed with a pole at Michigan in June. On the other hand, he has only had one top-five finish at the track, a fourth in June 2008.

* Clint Bowyer (No. 33 Cheerios/Hamburger Helper Chevrolet), 15th in points. Bowyer’s best finish at Michigan in seven NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races is his solo top-10 finish (10th in June 2009).

TODAY’S FAST FACTS

The Race: Carfax 400

The Place: Michigan International Speedway (2-mile oval)

The Date: Sunday, Aug. 16

The Time: 2 p.m. ET

Race Distance: 400 miles/200 laps

TV: ESPN, 1 p.m. ET

Radio: MRN and Sirius Satellite

2008 Polesitter: Brian Vickers

2008 Winner: Carl Edwards

Today’s Polesitter: Brian Vickers

QUICK LOOK

2009 Top 12 Drivers

Driver                                 Points

1 Tony Stewart                 3,383

2 Jimmie Johnson         3,123

3 Jeff Gordon                   3,041

4 Kurt Busch                    2,902

5 Denny Hamlin            2,847

6 Carl Edwards               2,830

7 Juan Montoya             2,781

8 Kasey Kahne               2,754

9 Ryan Newman            2,727

10 Greg Biffle                  2,718

11 Mark Martin              2,716

12 Matt Kenseth             2,685

BACK TO FUTURE?

Heading back to the track where he had his most recent win, Dale Earnhardt Jr. (No. 88 National Guard/AMP Energy Chevrolet) will mark his 350th NASCAR Sprint Cup Series start.

Earnhardt’s first (and only) trip to Victory Lane at Michigan International Speedway came in June 2008, breaking a 76-race winless streak.

Here are some interesting firsts associated with the NASCAR Sprint Cup series six-time “Most Popular Driver”:

* Beyond Earnhardt’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series success, he was a back-to-back NASCAR Nationwide Series champion (1998 and 1999) who battled fiercely for the titles with rival Matt Kenseth. His first title in 1998 made him NASCAR’s first third-generation champion coupled with his father Dale Earnhardt’s record-tying seven NASCAR Sprint Cup titles and grandfather Ralph Earnhardt’s 1956 NASCAR Sportsman Division title.

* The site of his first NASCAR Nationwide Series victory – Texas – also was the track where he earned his first NASCAR Sprint Cup victory (April 2, 2000).

* In 2000, he became the first rookie to win the NASCAR Sprint Cup All-Star Race. That same year, he came up only 42 points shy of winning the Raybestos Rookie of the Year title behind former NASCAR Nationwide series foe Kenseth.

* First win of 2001 – and arguably the biggest win of his career – was the emotional July 2001 win at Daytona International Speedway, just under five months after the death of his father, following an accident in the Daytona 500.

* He first earned the title of NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver in 2003, marking the first time a father and son received the award (Dale Earnhardt won posthumously in 2001).

MICHIGAN MONSTERS

Folks can debate indefinitely that Michigan International Speedway is Jack Roush territory or Woods Brothers stomping ground – that’s a given with both team owners chalking up 11 wins at the Brooklyn, Mich. 2-mile-oval.

And while both are worthy of the title of most winning team owner there, they had a little help from some talented drivers to get those record-setting wins. Here’s a look at some facts about the current drivers and famed ones of the past that have helped bring team owners Jack Roush and the Woods Brothers to MIS’s Victory Lane:

* Cale Yarborough captured the track’s inaugural checkered flag in 1969, earning the Wood Brothers the first of two wins there with him as driver.

* David Pearson dominated the track in the 1970s, bringing the Wood Brothers to Victory Lane eight times between 1972 and 1978. Three of those wins came from the pole.

* Pearson’s last win at MIS for the Wood Brothers was the Champion Spark Plug 400 in 1978. The team then went through a winless 1980s. A first-winner – Dale Jarrett – broke the streak at the 1991 Champion Spark Plug 400.

* Drivers in the Roush Fenway Racing stable to win at MIS? Mark Martin gave Roush his first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Michigan checkered flag in 1993, and continued to bring home the wins two more times in 1997 and 1998. Kurt Busch (No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge) has given Roush a win, and Greg Biffle, Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards each have earned two.

* In the field for today’s CARFAX 400 at Michigan for the Wood Brothers will be Bill Elliott (No. 21 Motorcraft Ford). Two Roush Fenway drivers,  Edwards and Biffle, will vie for a third win at MIS and their first wins of 2009.

UP NEXT

The chase to the Chase moves to the Bristol Motor Speedway short track.

Last year’s Sharpie 500 provided both as Kyle Busch led 415 of 500 laps only to get the “bump” from Carl Edwards who went on to win. Tempers flared afterwards, and Busch retaliated after the checkered flag with a bump of his own – on Edwards.

Going into next weekend’s Sharpie 500, be sure to keep an eye on Edwards to go for his third consecutive Sharpie 500 win.

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Sunday, August 16 2009
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