All three of NASCAR's national touring series are in action this weekend. Sprint Cup and Camping World Truck compete at Michigan International Speedway, while Nationwide runs its final road- course event of the season at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal.
Sprint Cup Series
Pure Michigan 400 - Michigan International Speedway - Brooklyn, Mich.
The battle for the wild card spots in the Chase for the Sprint Cup title is getting more intense with the regular season fast approaching its conclusion.
With four races remaining before the Chase cut-off, seven drivers are duking it out for the two wild card positions in the playoffs. Marcos Ambrose added his name in the mix after winning last Sunday's road-course event in Watkins Glen, N.Y.
Kasey Kahne currently holds the top spot in the wild card rankings by virtue of his two wins this season. Ryan Newman finished 11th at Watkins Glen and moved up to the second wild card position, while Jeff Gordon fell from second to fourth after his 21st-place run there. Kyle Busch is third in the rankings. Ambrose is fifth and Joey Logano sixth.
Newman, Busch, Gordon, Ambrose and Logano have one victory each. All of those drivers are presently outside the top-10 in points.
Carl Edwards ranks seventh in the wild card contest, even though he sits 12th in the point standings. Edwards has not won in Sprint Cup since March 2011 (55 races ago). A win at Michigan would elevate him to the second wild card spot.
After the conclusion of the Sept. 8 race at Richmond, the 12-member field for the Chase will be decided, with the top-10 drivers in points and the wild cards making the show. The wild cards will go to the drivers outside the top-10 with the most wins, as long as they are ranked in the top-20. If multiple competitors outside the top-10 tie for victories, the tie-breaker will go to the race winner with the highest point standings position.
Heading into Michigan, the separation between 10th-place Denny Hamlin and 11th-place Kahne is 40 points. Hamlin is in pretty good shape to make the Chase, since he has two victories. He fell two spots in the standings after his 34th-place finish due to engine failure.
Busch, who is Hamlin's teammate at Joe Gibbs Racing, was on his way to a victory at Watkins Glen and therefore would have joined Kahne as those wild card contenders with two wins, but Busch unfortunately spun out while leading on the final lap, thanks to oil on the track and a bump from behind by second- place runner Brad Keselowski. He ended up finishing seventh.
"I thought that maybe (the next win) was going to be last weekend, but that wasn't meant to be," Busch said. "We still have some good tracks coming up. Hopefully, we can get our (car) to victory lane this weekend. If we do that, we'll have that second win for the wild card, and we'll go on into the last three races and see if we can't either keep ourselves in front of the 24 (Gordon) and the 39 (Newman) in points, in case one of them does get another win, or maybe even get ourselves another win."
Busch won at Michigan one year ago but finished 32nd there in June.
"For me, coming to Michigan, I tend to run well there," he said. "For whatever reason, I haven't had too many great finishes to show for it until last year, and then we had a great year there and got our first win last August."
Kahne and Busch have one victory each at Michigan, while Newman, Gordon and Edwards have two wins there apiece.
"We're just focused on doing the best we possibly can each week," Newman said. "We want to win. That's our goal this weekend. We have the wild card right now, but that can change after the first lap. So I'm just staying focused on being the best driver I can be and doing what we have to do to get to victory lane. Performance will take care of itself if we perform, especially if we outperform the wild card contenders."
After the Aug. 2011 race, the two-mile Michigan track received a new coat of asphalt, which led to record speeds when the series competed there two months ago. Ambrose not only claimed his first career Sprint Cup pole but also became the fastest driver in NASCAR qualifications in a quarter of a century. Ambrose's qualifying lap around the newly repaved track was clocked at 203.241 mph. He became the fourth different driver in NASCAR history to win a pole with a lap more than 200 mph. Bill Elliott had last done it in July 1987 at Talladega.
The new track surface created major issues with the tires used for this year's spring race at Michigan. After several teams experienced tire blistering during Thursday and Friday's practice sessions, NASCAR and Goodyear made the decision to use a tougher left-side tire for the race. The higher than expected speeds in practice at Michigan caused significantly higher left-side tire temperatures and therefore blistering.
An additional Sprint Cup practice session was held the evening before the race, allowing teams to familiarize themselves with the new tires and make further adjustments to their race setups.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. went on to take the checkered flag at Michigan, snapping a four-year, 143-race winless streak in Sprint Cup.
Several weeks ago, 28 Sprint Cup teams participated in a tire test at Michigan. Goodyear has selected a new combination for this Sunday's race. It will be a combination of the original tires from the April test and a slightly softer version of the harder tires used during the June event.
"That (July 30) test didn't go spectacularly well for us, but we knew it was just more of a test to try and learn things," said Gordon, who started 28th and finished sixth at Michigan earlier this year.
Forty-five teams are on the preliminary entry list for the Pure Michigan 400.
Camping World Truck Series
VFW 200 - Michigan International Speedway - Brooklyn, Mich.
Kurt Busch is doing something this weekend at Michigan International Speedway that he hasn't done in quite some time - competing in a Camping World Truck Series race.
In addition to his Sprint Cup Series duties, Busch is expected to make his first Truck Series appearance in 11 years. He is scheduled to drive the No. 18 Toyota for Kyle Busch Motorsports. His younger brother, Kyle, will not be at Michigan for the race on Saturday, since he is competing in the Nationwide Series event at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal.
Jason Leffler had been driving the No. 18 truck this season, but earlier this week, KBM announced that Leffler and the team have parted ways. Brian Scott will drive for the team in next week's race at Bristol, and Drew Herring will take over the wheel in the Sept. 15 event at Iowa.
Kurt Busch finished second in points and earned rookie-of-the-year honors in the Truck Series in 2000. He also collected four wins and four poles that season. Busch graduated to NASCAR's premier series the following year.
"This is exactly what having fun means to me - driving different vehicles in different situations," Busch said. "Kyle came to me and asked for my help this weekend. It comes from my heart to be able to do this, and I'm thankful for the opportunity with his team. It's been 11 years since I've been in a truck, but hopefully, it will be like riding a bike."
Busch and Brad Keselowski are those Sprint Cup regulars competing in this race. Keselowski, who hails from nearby Rochester Hills, Mich., is driving his own No. 29 RAM. Parker Kligerman was relieved of his driving duties with the No. 29 Brad Keselowski Racing team as of last week, but Kligerman has since secured a ride with Red Horse Racing in its No. 7 Toyota.
"When you look at Truck Series teams right now, there's no doubt Red Horse Racing is definitely one of the top organizations," Kligerman said. "I feel like Red Horse gives you the best equipment they can, and at the end of the day, that's all you look for as a driver, the actual chance to win, not just the trophy. So it's our job now to go out there and get the trophy, and I feel like this is a place I can do that."
This will be the first time the Truck Series runs on the newly repaved surface at Michigan. Busch and Keselowski will have an advantage over the other truck drivers, since they competed in the Sprint Cup and Nationwide races there in June.
"I think that having raced in both the Nationwide Series and the Cup race in June will give me an advantage early on, but those guys will catch up to us," Busch said. "We will have to keep working hard throughout the three practice sessions to find speed in the truck and then be able keep the speed in it that will allow us to compete for a victory in the race."
Timothy Peters comes to Michigan with an eight-point lead over rookie Ty Dillon, while James Buescher, who is the only repeat race winner this season, is 15 points behind. Justin Lofton trails Peters by 18 markers.
After claiming his first truck win two weeks ago at Pocono, Joey Coulter moved to within 49 points of the lead. Coulter's maiden win in the series came in his 36th start.
"I feel like the monkey is off my back, and I'm ready to go get the next win," he said. "Everyone said once you win the first race, the next ones are easier. I'm ready to make a charge for the championship by collecting a couple more wins."
Thirty-five teams are on the preliminary entry list for the VFW 200.
NAPA Auto Parts 200 - Circuit Gilles Villeneuve - Montreal, Quebec, Canada
While the Sprint Cup and Camping World Truck Series compete at Michigan, the Nationwide Series will make its annual trip to Canada for the road-course race at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal.
This will be the third and final course event in Nationwide this season. Nelson Piquet Jr. won in June at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wis., while Carl Edwards, in his first series start this year, took the checkered flag this past Saturday at Watkins Glen, N.Y.
The 74-lap race at Montreal will of course feature its share of Canadian drivers. Patrick Carpentier, Louis-Phillipe Dumoulin, Kenny Habul, Daryl Harr, Dexter Stacey, Alex Tagliani, Jacques Villeneuve and Derek White are scheduled to compete in front of their home crowd.
Tagliani is a full-time competitor in the IndyCar Series this year. IndyCar was scheduled to compete in China for the first time this weekend, but race promoters recently canceled the event there. That allowed Tagliani to secure a ride in Turner Motorsports' No. 30 car for Montreal.
"I'm always proud to come back to Montreal and to be able to race on this fantastic road course named after one of my all-time racing heroes, Gilles Villeneuve," Tagliani said. "I really wanted to race here again, so when the opportunity presented itself with Turner Motorsports and we were no longer scheduled to be overseas (for the IndyCar race in China), I was pretty excited."
Tagliani started and finished second in last year's Nationwide race at Montreal. He led 11 laps before Marcos Ambrose passed him for the top spot following a restart with 10 laps to go. Ambrose beat him to the finish line by 1.1 seconds for the win. Ambrose is not entered in this year's event.
"Montreal has been good to me to date, and I'm hoping to better my race history here," Tagliani added.
Villeneuve is slated to drive the No. 22 Dodge for Penske Racing. The 2.71- mile, 14-turn Montreal circuit is named after his late father. He started on the pole but finished 27th in the 2011 race there.
"I feel, after winning the pole last year at Montreal, that we can have a lot of success," Villeneuve said. "A NASCAR victory is something I want."
Kyle Busch and Sam Hornish Jr. are those drivers attempting the Michigan- Montreal combo this weekend.
"One of the reasons I wanted to run this race is to win in three different countries," Busch said. "I am not sure, but I don't think any other NASCAR driver has done that before, so it would be really cool."
Busch won in Mexico City in 2008. He has yet to compete in a Nationwide race in Montreal.
Forty-four drivers are on the preliminary entry list for the NAPA Auto Parts 200.