Roush lining up to storm Michigan
Not many places where you can make that statement. Chicagoland Speedway is the only other track where that applies.
The Michigan win was a long three years ago for Earnhardt, the last time he visited Victory Lane in a Sprint Cup race. Johnson? He's done that 20 times since June 2008, just not on this track.
Either of them could win Sunday, mainly due to three dreaded words that often come into play at Michigan: fuel-mileage race. Like it or dislike it, running on fumes at this track can make a winner or loser out of almost any driver.
But one team clearly stands out. Roger Penske built the place, but the big oval in the Irish Hills is Jack Roush's house now.
A Roush driver has won 11 times at Michigan International Speedway since 1990. No other team comes close to that number over the last two decades.
Penske drivers have six wins, as did the former team of Robert Yates. Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing have five victories each at MIS since 1990.
The Brooklyn, Mich., track is special for Roush. His engineering business is headquartered in the Detroit suburb of Livonia. He earned his master's degree in mathematics at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti and worked for Ford before starting his own company.
"I wish I could drive a car on the track and bring my personal emotions to bear," Roush said on a conference call Wednesday. "It's good to race in front of the home crowd, but there is some anxiety whenever I go to Michigan.
"We have been so successful [at MIS], it is almost like you are expected to win. Emotions are very high. There will be a lot of people that have sleepless nights through enthusiasm and anticipation. The stakes are really high for me."
Five drivers have won Cup races at MIS for Roush Fenway Racing, including three who will compete Sunday: points leader Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle. They each have two victories on the 2-mile oval.
The last one was Edwards in August 2008, but Roush feels his team is stronger today than it has been in a long time.
"We are certainly in the best shape we have ever been in performance-wise," Roush said. "We have no weakness in our program that I have identified. This has been the best start to any year we have had in my 24 years, and I hope to keep it going."
This also is the best start for Earnhardt since his victory at Michigan in 2008. He was third in the standings heading to MIS that season, and things were looking good.
Little did he know it would be all downhill for the next 2½ years. He made the 2008 Chase, but finished last. The next two seasons were the worst of his career -- 25th in 2009 and 21st last year.
Now, two crew chiefs later, Earnhardt is back where he was in June 2008. He ranks third in the standings, only 10 points behind No. 1 Edwards and four behind Johnson. Earnhardt already has as many top-5s and top-10s (three and eight) as he had all last season.
"I really like Michigan," Earnhardt said. "I feel like we've run pretty good the last few times we've raced there. It's a wide racetrack and has a lot of different grooves.
"You do need a lot of motor, too, and we're pretty good in that department. But you can't use a lot of gasoline. Go too fast and you end up running short on the fuel mileage."
Therein lies the problem. Teams need a lot of horsepower for the 400-mile event at MIS, but they also need to play the fuel-strategy game. Earnhardt's 2008 victory at MIS was a fuel-mileage win, not unusual on a track that has long green-flag runs, as Johnson knows all too well.
"We've been close at Michigan," Johnson said. "But fuel mileage has been our nemesis two or three times. We've led a fair amount of laps [at MIS] over the years and just kind of haven't had the luck or the mileage at the end of the race.
We've been close at Michigan. But fuel mileage has been our nemesis two or three times.” -- Jimmie Johnson
"But I'm looking forward to it. We've been making a lot of progress on our intermediate setups, and I think this could be a win for the 48 this weekend."
That's as close to a prediction as you'll ever get from JJ. Of the 13 tracks that have two Cup events a year, Michigan is the only one where Johnson is winless.
Kurt Busch could give Johnson a few pointers. Busch won at Michigan in 2003 when he was driving for Roush and in 2007 while driving for Penske, who also makes his home in the Detroit area.
Busch was asked if Sunday will be a fuel-mileage race.
"That's a no-brainer," he said. "Of course it will. Michigan is one track where you always come in there planning on fuel mileage being involved in the equation."
Busch and the No. 22 Dodge team are bringing the car that sat on the pole and led 152 laps at Kansas two weeks ago.
Oh, the irony. Busch finished ninth at Kansas because he had to pit for fuel with 10 laps to go.
Maybe the gas plan will pan out this time for Busch. Maybe Earnhardt will end his losing streak at the last place where he won. Maybe Johnson will add MIS to his win column.
Or maybe the Roush boys (using Jack's mathematical genius for calculations on fuel) will continue to show everyone how it's done at Michigan.
Here's a little message for all of them: Be fast, but save the gas.
Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at email@example.com.
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