By Jared Turner
From the “Tricky Triangle” of Pocono Raceway it’s on to fast and furious Michigan International Speedway, where manufacturer bragging rights are the highest they will be all season and time is running out on drivers trying to win their way into the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
A two-mile oval known for blazing speeds, multiple grooves and finishes dictated by fuel mileage, MIS is a driver’s track in every sense of the term.
But with racing at Michigan comes the added pressure of competing just down the road from the headquarters for Chevrolet (Detroit) and Ford (Dearborn) – two of the Sprint Cup Series’ three automakers.
Toyota, with its corporate headquarters in Japan, meanwhile, always likes to play the role of spoiler when the time comes to race at MIS. The last time a non-Chevy or Ford driver prevailed at Michigan was August 2011, however, when Kyle Busch took his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota to Victory Lane. Since then, it’s been the Ford-Chevy show, as each of the manufacturers has triumphed three times.
The past 10 races at MIS have produced two repeat winners – Denny Hamlin and Greg Biffle – but neither of those drivers has performed well enough on the intermediate tracks this year to be considered a favorite to win Sunday’s Quicken Loans 400.
The bottom line?
Sunday’s race in the Irish Hills seems to be about anyone’s for the taking. And, it’s no wonder when considering the challenges that Michigan presents, despite being one of the series’ most driver-friendly tracks.
“Michigan is its own unique two-mile track,” said Richard Childress Racing’s Ryan Newman, a two-time winner at MIS during his days with Team Penske. “You really can’t compare it to places like (Auto Club) Speedway anymore. They’ve kind of flip flopped. Before, (Auto Club Speedway) was the new pavement and Michigan was old. Now, it’s the opposite. I look forward to going back up to Michigan.”
Points leader and reigning Sprint Cup Series champion Kevin Harvick has just one win at Michigan – in August 2010 – and is quick to point out some of the difficulties that come with getting a car to Victory Lane.
“It depends on how your day is going,” said Harvick, a Chevrolet driver for Stewart-Haas Racing. “If you’re having a good day, it’s not really hard to tell your guys what you need and everyone is in a good mood. If you’re having a bad day, you can get behind at Michigan really fast. Usually, when you’re hooked up at Michigan, the leaders have clean air and move through traffic pretty well, but if you’re in the middle of the pack, you find yourself getting behind and going a lap down pretty quick.
“You’re going to end up with a green flag pit stop and a whole bunch of green flag laps. You just have to be going from the time the green flag drops and keep yourself in position at the end.”
Long green-flag runs, of course, tend to breed fuel-mileage races and, Michigan, as much as any track on the schedule, is known for dramatic finishes where one driver manages to stretch his last tank of fuel while others don’t have enough in the tank.
“Michigan is a fun place to race, but it is completely different since the repave a couple of years ago,” said Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates driver Jamie McMurray, who is still seeking his first victory at Michigan. “It is especially fun because you have guys that run the bottom and others that are way up by the fence all day. The track is really fast and has a ton of grip. It seems that this always comes down to being a fuel-mileage race, so pit strategy will come into play on Sunday.”