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CUP: Earnhardt Jr., Ambrose In MIS Spotlight

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The driver who won the most recent race at Michigan International Speedway and the driver who roared to a track-record pole at the two-mile track are likely to be topics of discussion prior to Sunday’s Pure Michigan 400 at the track.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. ended a monstrous winless streak by finishing first in the mid-June race at MIS after Marcos Ambrose had blistered the new track surface for a pole-winning speed of 203.241 miles per hour.

Both drivers remain in the hunt for spots in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, Earnhardt Jr. virtually assured of a Chase position (he’s now fourth in points) and Ambrose one victory away from a solid position after driving to a win Sunday at Watkins Glen, NY.

Junior is one of four drivers in the Sprint Cup top 10 with two wins at MIS. The others are Greg Biffle, Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin. Oddly, five-time champion and current point leader Jimmie Johnson hasn’t won at Michigan.

“The track has always been fun for me,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “It’s really wide, and up until they repaved it you really used the whole race track in the corner. That’s perfect. You can’t ask for any better situation than when cars go through the corner and everybody is sort of using a different line. That’s what you want.

“That’s the kind of race track you hope and pray to build. I think over time the surface will age and we’ll get back to widening up the surface quite a bit. It has the characteristics as far as the way the corners are banked and the way the corners are laid out to widen back out again and be the great race track it’s always been. So, I really enjoy it. Even had I not won any races there, it’s just a really fun track.”

The new surface was so good in June that remarkable speeds were produced, leading Goodyear to make a left-side tire change the night before the race. A recent tire test at the track confirmed a new tire selection for this weekend. Speeds are expected to remain high.

“I think Goodyear did a good job,” said Greg Biffle. “They had a little bit harder tire, maybe a little bit thinner on the right side so it doesn’t get as hot. They seem like they ran really good.

“The speeds were down just a little bit, but not much. I think it’s going to be good. I don’t think it’ll be a lot different than when we were there before, and I thought it put on a pretty good race.”

The race will be another important event for Carl Edwards, mainly because he’s running out of time to make a run toward Chase qualification but also because Michigan weekends are always big events for Ford Motor Co. and team owner Jack Roush.

“Any time you win at Michigan it’s big, and it’s big especially for the guys who race for Jack,” Edwards, twice a winner at MIS, said. “Jack’s business is based in Michigan. Ford Motor Company, everything they’ve done for our sport and for Jack and everyone at Roush Fenway – myself included – we really appreciate everything they’ve done, and it’s a very special place to win.

“Victory lane takes a long time there because of all the photos, and it’s neat to have guys like Edsel (Ford) and Jack and his family and all the folks that support us from a technical standpoint and a financial standpoint so much that it’s a special place to win. I think everyone in the garage feels that way. It’s a good place to win a race and the fans there are great.”

Sprint Cup practice (12:30 to 2 p.m. ET) and qualifying (4 p.m.) are scheduled at MIS Friday. Two practice sessions are scheduled Saturday, and the race is set for 1 p.m. Sunday.

Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 30 years. He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.