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Start your engines
Nobody's talking about Ford these days.
General Motors and Chrysler have dominated the front page for months, filing for bankruptcy protection, laying off workers by the thousands and shuttering dealerships.
As expected, those developments have trickled down to NASCAR, where owners Rick Hendrick and Roger Penske recently expressed their continued loyalty to Chevrolet and Dodge, respectively. Richard Petty Motorsports, anticipating cutbacks from Dodge, has laid off crew members and cut salaries.
With news like that, Ford has all but been forgotten. That's not a bad thing when talking about Chapter 11. But when the subject is Sprint Cup near the midpoint of the season, that's not good.
There hasn't been much buzz about the blue oval stock car brigade in nearly four months, since Matt Kenseth got off to a quick start with back-to-back wins at Daytona and California in his Roush Fenway Racing Fords. Since then a Ford hasn't sniffed Victory Lane, while Chevrolet, Toyota and Dodge all have.
If championship contenders were listed today, the front-runners would be Hendrick Chevys (Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson), quasi-Hendrick Chevys (Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman, who have Hendrick engines in their Stewart-Haas cars) and Toyota (Kyle Busch).
Fords are in the heart of the Chase mix -- RFR teammates Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth hold spots six through eight in the standings -- but without wins in the past dozen races, it's hard to consider them favorites.
That could change after Sunday. Ford, and Roush in particular, has a home game.
The LifeLock 400 at Michigan International Speedway in Michigan's Irish Hills isn't far from Livonia, where Jack Roush's companies are based. MIS races are a big deal to RFR, and its drivers rise to the occasion, collecting five wins in the past nine Cup races, 11 wins in all and 19 wins overall with Nationwide and Truck races included.
"Michigan is kind of a bragging-rights track," said Edwards, a winner in August's race and the 2007 June race (MIS' dates are nine weeks apart). "Those wins are special because of the looks on Jack's face and the Ford guys' when you get out of the car in Victory Lane."
It's rare for Chevrolet to come to a track where it only has one win in 15 races (Dale Earnhardt Jr. last June), but that's how dominant Roush's Fords and, to a lesser extent, Penske Dodges have been. Newman won twice for Penske before moving to Stewart-Haas this season, and Kurt Busch won in 2007.
But Roush, especially, has the 2-mile track figured out. Take Biffle, a back-to-back winner in the second 2004 race and first of '05, or Kenseth, who has two wins and a 9.1 average finish in 19 starts.
"We've had some really good cars there in the past. Like any track, success there is about having a good car," said Kenseth, the 2003 series champion. "It's not a super-difficult track to drive if you have a car that handles. It's a big old sweeping track with plenty of room to pass. If you can get your car to handle the right way, you can have a lot of fun racing there."
Don't just take a Roush driver's word for it. Four-time champion Gordon, though eight years removed from his last MIS win, says it's his favorite track on the circuit.
"You would think my favorite track would be one where I've won more times, but I love Michigan," said Gordon, also a winner in 1998. "The track is big, wide and it's fast. The corners have multiple grooves, so you can run from the white line all the way to the wall. And you can change your angles in and off the corners.
"It's just an all-around great track because the drivers can do so much here to change their racing line."
For the Roush Fords, it might be the place to change their spot in the pecking order of title contenders.
Tony Stewart: This is serious stuff, Smoke leading the points. He doesn't do it annually; in 10 previous years of Cup racing he has only done it twice -- the title years of 2002 and 2005. Since '02, he has either won it all or finished outside the top five. And even in his one runner-up season, 2001, he was well back of champion Jeff Gordon. There are no near-misses.
Stewart's not into much reminiscing about how special this season has been already with new Stewart-Haas Racing, including the landmark win at Pocono -- "You don't bask in the glory the time you spend doing that, there's somebody else back at [a] shop working on a way to beat you" -- he's got too much momentum toward a possible third title. And if the past is any indication, he'll either get it or blow up trying.
John Schwarb is a motorsports contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
You Gotta See This
Marcos Ambrose: The Aussie had concerns about Pocono. Though Ambrose is in his third NASCAR year, he never visited the big triangle while in the Nationwide Series (it doesn't race there) or in his part-time Cup deal last season.
Could have fooled us. The JTG-Daugherty Racing Toyota finished sixth, its third top-10 of the season.
"I was a little daunted coming here. I quickly learned where to put my car and what I should do," said Ambrose, who moved up two spots in points to 18th. "I'm just really proud that I adapted so fast, and I'm pleased with my team."
Off the Pace
Scott Speed: He was fifth in that wacky race at Talladega and 18th in the Coca-Cola not-quite 600. That's your highlight reel of the season for the No. 82 Red Bull Toyota. In 11 other starts, the rookie hasn't finished on the lead lap.
Worst of all, Speed is 36th in owner's points. He failed to qualify in the Red Bull Toyota for Texas and Darlington (though at the latter he drove for Joe Nemechek), and will be on pins and needles again for qualifying this week at Michigan.
Inside the Numbers
4: Races won this season by cars starting in rear
41: Years since No. 14 car won (Bobby Allison, 1968) before Tony Stewart last Sunday
34: Cup wins for Stewart
30: Stewart wins in June or later
67: Laps led by Jeff Burton, fewest among top-12 drivers
145: Points separating sixth from 15th in standings