Michigan turning up Cup heat
BROOKLYN, Mich. -- Brad Keselowski is your 2012 Sprint Cup champion, but the Michigan native hasn't won a race since and has never won at his so-called home track.
Jimmie Johnson is your five-time Sprint Cup champion, but he hasn't won at Michigan International Speedway, either.
The Roush Fenway Racing crew -- Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle and rookie Ricky Stenhouse Jr. -- has been the team to beat here for years, and Biffle won the race in June at the home track for the U.S. auto industry. That makes a win at Michigan feel a little more special for the Ford and Chevrolet drivers, and team owner Jack Roush -- a Ford man through and through -- puts a serious emphasis on this race.
So, does something have to give Sunday in the Pure Michigan 400 (1 p.m. ET, ESPN and WatchESPN)?
Hardly. But if you want to pick drivers to watch Sunday, this bunch has to be near the top of the list, for very different reasons.
"… this is a great racetrack for Roush Fenway as a whole," said Biffle, who has won here four times in his Cup career, including the past two races. "Going back to Jeff Burton, Mark Martin and Matt Kenseth, all of us have had a lot of success here and Carl has won here a few times. This has been a good track for us.
"I was worried about when they repaved it [after the 2011 races] what would transpire, but we have been really good since the repave and the track is really coming back in and racing a lot like it used to race. I really love this place. It is one of my favorite places to come, and you can run two- and three-wide through the corner in a downforce situation where you normally can't do that at most racetracks."
Edwards is also partial to Michigan, and to giving Biffle a hard time about his latest victory here.
"We hope that we can get another win for Ford," said Edwards, who has won twice at MIS. "That 1,000th win for Ford here in June was really neat. I actually got a watch the other day that said, 'Congratulations Greg Biffle on your 1,000th win.'
I don't know, maybe Greg sent that over to my hauler. We are hoping to get another win here and we have run really well. I love this racetrack. This will be a lot of fun."
Keselowski -- also a Ford driver -- told reporters last week at Watkins Glen he would rather enter the Chase as a wild card with a victory or two than get in via being in the top 10 in points but winless.
"The feeling you get as a team from a win can't be replaced," he said. "The momentum you build and the confidence can make all the difference in the world."
Mark Garrow has a preview of Michigan, where Austin Dillon subs for the injured Tony Stewart. Plus, Dale Jr., Keselowski and Danica.
He could use that confidence now. He's sitting eighth in points, but only 11 ahead of 11th-place Kurt Busch. If he falls three spots and doesn't have a victory, he could easily miss the playoffs. Now it's just a question of execution, starting Sunday and through the Chase cutoff four races from now at Richmond.
"It isn't like we weren't trying before, it is just obviously we are down to the wire," he said Friday before qualifying ninth for the race. "You don't have a lot of opportunities or wiggle room to screw up and recover from it. I think that is the biggest difference.
"I am not going to approach it any differently. You know your mistakes are magnified at this point in the season."
For Johnson -- who will have to start at the back Sunday because he wrecked his car in Saturday's final practice and has to switch to a backup car when he was originally supposed to line up third behind pole-winner and Keselowski teammate Joey Logano -- this race is about extending a season-long dominance that has seen him win four times and post a 75-point lead in the standings.
"… The Chase is right around the corner," he said. "We're excited to be here. The way the No. 48 ran and all of Hendrick Motorsports ran here in the spring, we've all been excited to come back and hopefully have that pace and lead the race and hopefully get one of the [four HMS] cars in Victory Lane.
"I certainly want to get the No. 48 to Victory Lane. We've tried a lot of years now and have been very close here, but haven't been able to pull that off. And we had issues that kept all four cars out of great finishes in the spring race, and if we can avoid the varying issues that took place, I think we stand a really good chance of getting into Victory Lane.
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There's a lot at stake for many other drivers. Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth are in the same boat as Johnson, with three wins and four wins, respectively, searching for bonus points to start a Chase they will make. Each victory is worth three extra points to start the playoffs, but only for drivers in the top 10 after Richmond. Those two who get in on wild cards because of their regular-season wins and being 11th-20th in the points -- with the most wins and then ranking determining who makes it -- get no bonus points when the Chase begins.
Kasey Kahne needs some good points days and more wins to take advantage of the two he has this season, because losing those six (or more) bonus points could prove critical. Ryan Newman is on that list as well, ranked 14th after his lone win at the Brickyard.
And then there's winless Kurt Busch (11th), Jeff Gordon (13th), Jamie McMurray (15th) and Logano (16th), all looking for a way into the postseason and still with realistic chances -- whether it's getting in the top 10 or winning a race or two -- depending on how things unfold.
"I was at the shop all this week and everybody is pumped up and pushing hard," said Kurt Busch, who will start outside Logano on the front row Sunday. "We've got four races to go to lock ourselves in this Chase."
So for drivers trying to get in or stay in Chase contention, not to mention those with no shot, Sunday is an opportunity to help make or break a season.
And even knowing how important a good finish is to him at this point, Keselowski is clearly on the make-or-break bandwagon.
"I won't leave here ashamed if I don't win," he said, "but for me to feel successful, it would be a win."
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