Drivers look at Michigan as critical to momentum

Updated: June 15, 2006, 6:34 PM ET
By Mark Ashenfelter | Special to ESPN.com

So who will be this year's Tony Stewart? A year ago, Stewart headed to Michigan International Speedway in the midst of -- by his lofty standards -- a mediocre campaign.

Jimmie Johnson
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images Jimmie Johnson is hoping he can be an even stronger finisher this season than he has been a starter.

Stewart left the 2-mile facility still without his first win of the season, but he carried something much more important, even if he was too cranky to realize it at the time.

But with him leading 97 of the 200 laps, signs of things to come were evident for those paying close attention. What it was from a technical perspective might still be truly known only to crew chief Greg Zipadelli and others within Joe Gibbs Racing.

But in layman's terms, Stewart left with an on-track edge and a burst of momentum that carried him through to the Nextel Cup championship.

Stewart won the next week on the road course at Sonoma, then at the restrictor-plate race at Daytona. Finishing fifth at Chicago broke the win streak, but he rebounded to win at New Hampshire before finishing seventh at Pocono.

Wins at Indianapolis and Watkins Glen followed, giving him five wins in seven races and the points lead. He carried that into the Chase for the Nextel Cup and, although he never won after the Glen, he did take his second championship in four years.

So although Stewart already has won this year, and sits a comfortable fourth in the standings, that doesn't mean he wouldn't like to go on a roll again. Then again, there are nearly 20 other drivers who hold semirealistic dreams of doing something similar.

It probably won't happen, but at least the likes of Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon or one of Roush Racing's drivers can feel good just thinking about it.

But they might just have to get past Stewart, first.

"I'm really excited. That's where the run really started," Stewart said of heading to Michigan. "It's just one of those tracks in a string of tracks where we started running well. I can't think of a better place to go back to as we head into the summer."

A previous winner at Michigan, he finds the wide, D-shaped oval to his liking.

"There are so many lines that you can run -- that's what makes Michigan fun for drivers," Stewart said. "You have to figure out how to gauge your momentum and know where you want to be on that racetrack when you enter those corners. Michigan's layout gives the drivers the flexibility to really make a difference in their car's handling."

With Johnson's three wins and 11 top-10 finishes in the year's first 14 races, it's hard to say he needs momentum. But despite leading the standings, he and crew chief Chad Knaus have said the Hendrick Motorsports cars still are lacking just a little something at intermediate-style tracks such as Michigan.

The fact Johnson has yet to win at the track is also something of a motivating factor. He and Knaus pinpoint a track or two per year where they want to break through, and Michigan is on the 2006 list.

"It's one of the tracks were we haven't been 'with it' in a way," Johnson said. "& We've had some decent, competitive runs, but nothing where we've been battling for the win. Hopefully, we can change that. But it's been a track that has challenged us a little bit. We've had a lot of success at Fontana, but haven't been able to have the same success at Michigan. It's one of the tracks that we really want to improve on and we're focusing a lot on and putting a lot of effort on it."

Noted for fast starts in seasons past, Johnson's team is determined to focus on steady improvements this year. Where Stewart's team gained its momentum in June and rode it to the title, the knock on Johnson's team has been that it has peaked too early in the season.

A 10th-place finish at Pocono wasn't great; he said it's all part of the learning curve the team is going through.

"We're really targeting Michigan, Pocono and Indy. Those types of tracks fall in the same category for us," he said. "We're trying to get those tracks sorted out. And if I look back at what Tony Stewart spoke about last year when he won the championship, he said at Michigan they finally hit on some things and they were able to improve on those tracks and also take that technology to other tracks. So I think Michigan has a little bit more weight on it than people give it credit for. You can learn some things that really apply on all tracks -- especially critical tracks leading into the Chase."

At the moment, every track looms large for Gordon, who has just four top-five finishes and only one more top-10, this season. A vicious crash attributed to a failed brake rotor at Pocono knocked him to 11th in points.

Gordon said that it was one of the hardest hits of his career but that he's fine. As for his team, he knew it wouldn't hit the ground at full speed as he began his first full year working with crew chief Steve Letarte.

Still, he predicts better times ahead. He hopes they start at Michigan, where he struggled a bit last year.

"We've learned a lot since we raced here last year, and hopefully it will pay off for us this weekend," Gordon said. "We have some tracks after Michigan, like Infineon and Daytona, that we have to take advantage of [too]. Taking advantage of those tracks while making improvements to other areas of our program can put us in the Chase. We can make the Chase, but we're looking for so much more than that."

Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at NASCAR Scene magazine, which has a Web site at www.scenedaily.com

• Ashenfelter is an Event News Editor at ESPN.
• Worked at NASCAR Scene for eight years.
• Has covered NASCAR since 1999.