NASCAR: Live from Michigan

Close call for Carl

A midafternoon run almost cost Carl Edwards a run at the pole for Sunday's Sprint Cup race at Michigan International Speedway.

Here's what happened: About an hour and a half before Friday's qualifying, the Roush Fenway Racing driver drove his rental car to a nearby school to jog around the track.

Unfortunately, he locked his keys in the car.

Fortunately, he had his cellphone and was able to get his faithful PR guy, Randy Fuller, to come to the rescue. To make a long story short, there was a crowbar, a couple of coat hangers and a used car lot involved.

And Edwards arrived at the track 10 minutes before qualifying began.

"I'm just furthering the belief drivers can't take care of themselves,'' said Edwards, who went out fifth.

If you think that is crazy, earlier in the week officials from RFR and Penske Racing met to discuss how the two organizations could help Ford teams find more speed. That's crazy, because both organizations treat every ounce of information like top-secret government plans.

So Edwards winning the pole -- Ford's first of the year and his first since the 2012 Daytona 500 -- was almost as ironic as a race car driver losing his keys.

"I'm real happy,'' Edwards said. "The process that's going to put us out in front of Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing and the rest of these guys we're going to race against, that process is just starting.

"If Roush Fenway Racing and Penske, if we can work together to be better than we individually can be, then that is exactly what we should be doing. Ford wants us to do it. We just have to figure out how to do it the right way so we can respect everyone's proprietary information and hard work -- I am 100 percent for it.''

While Ford took the top spot, the next three went to the Chevrolets of Kurt Busch, Kasey Kahne and Paul Menard. For Busch, it marks his fourth time on the front row since Texas on April 13. He was second at Texas, first at Darlington and second at Charlotte.

But nobody was more excited than Edwards, not only because he made it to qualifying but also because he's guaranteed a spot in next year's non-points Sprint Unlimited race featuring pole winners.

"I was about to lobby to see if you'd let me drive the pace car, something in that race,'' Edwards said.

That has keys, right?

-- David Newton




Coach Gordon?

Jeff Gordon couldn't help but laugh when asked why drivers don't become crew chiefs when they retire like athletes in other sports become coaches.

"That's funny,'' the four-time champion said. "Let's see. Where do I begin? One is race car drivers don't work hard enough to be crew chiefs. We don't get up early enough to be crew chiefs. I definitely think there are some drivers out there that could be crew chiefs. I do. I wouldn't say it's any of the top drivers though.

"There are very few drivers that I know that have that kind of understanding that it takes to sit in a room with other engineers and aero guys and all these computers that are giving you a lot of information. There are very few drivers that I know at the highest level that could pull that off.''

He puts himself at the top of the list.

-- David Newton



Labonte faster than Dinger

Bobby Labonte wasn't exactly pleased when JTG-Daugherty Racing announced that AJ Allmendinger would replace him this week at Michigan and possibly four other races in which the No. 47 car isn't sponsored.

"I was about 3 foot tall all week,'' the 2000 Sprint Cup champion said. "You try hard to do whatever.''

Labonte, 49, landed on his feet, replacing Allmendinger in the No. 51 at Phoenix Racing. He out-qualified him as well -- considerably. Labonte will start Sunday's race from the 20th position, Allmendinger the 32nd.

Might be an indicator that the problem in the No. 47 wasn't Labonte, but the No. 47.

"One lap, who knows,'' Labonte said.

As for next year, Labonte believes he'll be in the 47 -- if he wants to be.

"My handshake agreement was to do it as long as I wanted to,'' he said. "We don't have a contract. It's all good. If the situation is right, I'd love to help people out. I'd love to go out here and freaking win a race.''

-- David Newton



Missing Jason Leffler

Tony Stewart was in a somber mood on Friday, and it had little to do with wrecking during the first practice session.

It had a lot to do with the subject -- Jason Leffler's death.

The three-time Sprint Cup champion was as close to the 37-year-old Leffler, killed in a Wednesday night sprint car race in New Jersey, as almost anybody in the garage. When Leffler made the move from California to Indiana, he lived with Stewart for a while.

"I knew him as a friend, roommate, teammate,'' Stewart said. "I got to be around him a lot. I was shocked to hear what happened. Obviously, just a reminder of how dangerous our sport is.''

And on this day, Stewart was missing Leffler like a lot of drivers were.

"So sad,'' Clint Bowyer said. "Jason was such a good guy. He was fun to be around. It's weird to think he's not around anymore.''

-- David Newton



'Misinformed' -- again

Brad Keselowski was fairly outspoken when he said Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing "stole" talent from Penske Racing and Roush Fenway Racing during a Thursday appearance at Ford's world headquarters in nearby Dearborn, Mich.

He backed off a bit on Friday at MIS when asked to elaborate.

"We were just talking about Ford and specifically the relationship between Penske and Roush, and how strong it was, and I just commented on there will always be limitations to our relationships company to company because of those transactions," the Penske Racing driver said.

HMS owner Rick Hendrick didn't back off, calling the driver who once drove for him at JR Motorsports misinformed about the hiring of three members of Keselowski's championship team.

"The truth is that we hired one tire changer, who was a backup for Penske and whose contract was up," Hendrick said. "We also brought over one mechanic from their Nationwide program and, when the Penske engine shop was closing, added a few of those people.

"What Brad left out was that his organization also hired one of our tire changers."

This isn't the first time Keselowski has been called "misinformed." NASCAR chairman Brian France used the same term before the season regarding comments Keselowski made in a USA Today article on the state of the sport.

"Brad misrepresents the facts and spends a lot of time making insinuations and accusations about other teams when he should be focused on his own program and competing at a high level," Hendrick said. "I hope he figures that out and begins representing himself and the sport with more class."

-- David Newton




Hometown advantage?

Nobody wants to win more on Sunday than Brad Keselowski.

As a native of Rochester Hills, located about 90 miles northeast of Michigan International Speedway, this is as close to a home track as it can get for the reigning Sprint Cup champion.

"This is, to me, one of my personal biggest races of the year," Keselowski said. "For any driver, when they go to their home racetrack, it's kind of the equivalent to them of going to Daytona or going to the Brickyard or any of those other really large races, and that's certainly the case for me.

"Coming back home to Michigan, a win here would mean the world to me."

Keselowski has been close the past two years. He was second here in August and third in the 2011 August race.

"You're just close enough to where you know you can do it, but feel so far away," Keselowski said. "I would like to figure out that last spot, but I think we've got a good shot at that."

-- David Newton



Faster than a speeding bullet?

When it comes to paint schemes, Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s "Man of Steel" design promoting the just-released Superman movie will be tough to beat this weekend at Michigan International Speedway.

Earnhardt just hopes the car runs as well as it looks.

"We're excited about the car," NASCAR's most popular driver said Friday as he returned to the site of his last victory a year ago. "The car looks great. It's not difficult to come up with a paint scheme when you're working with Superman like we did last year with Batman."

Earnhardt led 95 of the 200 laps and won by five seconds a year ago, ending a four-year, 143-race losing streak that dated back to the 2008 race at MIS.

While encouraged that he can repeat after last week's third-place finish at Pocono, Earnhardt said the No. 88 team has "some holes to fill."

"We're like a lot of teams trying to find that extra step [to win]," Earnhardt said. "It's difficult to win in this sport, man."

Having an "S" on the hood can't hurt, though.

-- David Newton



Hard-luck JJ

BROOKLYN, Mich. -- Michigan is one of five tracks -- the others are Watkins Glen, Chicago, Kentucky and Homestead-Miami -- where five-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson hasn't won. But he's been close.

Here's a look:

• June 2009 -- Johnson led with two laps to go when he ran out of fuel, finishing 22nd despite leading 146 of 200 laps.

• August 2009 -- Johnson led 133 of 200 laps and was leading with three laps to go when ran out of fuel; he finished 33rd.

• August 2012 -- Johnson passed Brad Keselowski with 10 laps to go and looked prime for the win on his 22nd attempt, but four laps later his engine expired. He finished 27th.

"I've been ready for a long time," Johnson said of getting his first MIS win. "We've been so close here. But when it happens, it will make it all that sweeter for us.

"The exciting thing is we've been plenty fast here over the years. But getting to the final lap and seeing that checkered flag has been a little more difficult than I could imagine."

-- David Newton