After finishing third in last Sunday's race at Pocono Raceway, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is hoping his momentum continues this weekend at Michigan International Speedway.
Michigan has perhaps been Earnhardt's best racetrack since he joined Hendrick Motorsports for the start of the 2008 season. In fact, it's the only track on the Sprint Cup Series schedule where he's won a race in the past seven years. Earnhardt picked up his first victory with Hendrick in the June '08 event at Michigan, but it took him 144 races to get back into victory lane when he won here one year ago.
Richmond is the last track other than Michigan where Earnhardt has won. He claimed the victory there in the spring of 2006.
Earnhardt's latest winless streak now stands at 33 races. He started this season by finishing seventh or better, including second-place runs at Daytona and California, in the first five races. But it's been a bit of roller-coaster ride for him since then. Earnhardt finished a season-worst 39th in last month's race at Charlotte after suffering engine failure in the late going.
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"We are going (to Michigan) with a lot more confidence, because we ran well there last year," Earnhardt said. "I looked through the notes from last year, and we didn't unload perfect. We had to work to get it right. You don't go in with confidence that you are going to go there, and it will be perfect. You have the confidence to know that we will get it dialed in."
When the series competed at Michigan in June 2012, it was the first time on the track's new pavement. The repaving began after the August 2011 race and concluded in November, giving the asphalt enough time to settle and cure during the winter months. The new surface on this 2-mile track produced record speeds. Marcos Ambrose won the pole at Michigan one year ago when he easily shattered the track qualifying record with a lap at 203.241 mph. Forty drivers in that qualifying session posted a faster speed than the previous track record of 194.232 mph, set by Ryan Newman in 2005. Nineteen drivers topped 200 mph.
However, teams were faced with a huge tire issue in the days leading up to the race. Several teams experienced tire blistering during Friday's practice session as well as on the extra day of practice on Thursday. NASCAR and Goodyear made the decision to use a tougher left-side tire for the race. The higher than expected speeds at Michigan caused significantly higher left-side tire temperatures and therefore blistering.
An additional practice was held the day before the race. Teams had 75 minutes to familiarize themselves with the new tires and make further adjustments to their race setups. Earnhardt Jr. was one of those drivers who was limited on his practice time due to engine concerns. He complained that his car wasn't as good as he wanted it to be after completing just 26 laps in the last practice.
But Earnhardt put on a dominating performance in the 400-mile event. He led a total of 95 laps and crossed the finish line ahead of his closest competitor, Tony Stewart, by more than 5 seconds for his 19th career Sprint Cup victory.
Right now, Earnhardt sits fourth in the point standings. He moved up two positions after his top-five run at Pocono.
"We have been carrying momentum for a good solid year now," he said. "We are alright, and we know what we need to do."
Earnhardt trails leader and Hendrick teammate Jimmie Johnson by 82 points. Johnson claimed his third win of the season at Pocono, placing him in a tie with Matt Kenseth for most victories in the series this year.
Michigan is one of five tracks on the current Sprint Cup schedule where Johnson has yet to win. Chicagoland, Homestead, Kentucky and Watkins Glen are the others.
Last June at Michigan, Johnson nearly ran out of gas but managed to pull off a fifth-place finish. But that was followed by a 27th-place result in August due to engine failure just before the finish.
"The Michigan track surface has had summer and winter on it, and we'll see how much grip is just in the surface," Johnson said. "I would assume we'll go as fast as we did (last year) if not faster, and with the flatter track, I think the Gen-6 (new Sprint Cup race car) will outperform the Gen-5. The question really comes down to how much grip is still in the asphalt. I would assume it's going to be high.
"On fresh repaves, the grip is always at its highest. I'm not exactly sure how that will play out, but I'm happy that a summer and a winter have been on the track. It will make the racing wider for us, and that's what we're all hoping for. We've had weird things happen at Michigan, but one of these times it (a win) will happen for us. I hope it's this year."
Greg Biffle won the most recent Sprint Cup race at Michigan last August. Biffle is coming off a season-best second-place finish at Pocono. He is now 10th in points.
"I couldn't be happier coming off the run at Pocono going into Michigan," Biffle said. "We finished fourth the first race and got a win there last year at Michigan. We are working hard on our cars, trying to get them better, but we still have a little work to do.
"Michigan is one of my favorite tracks. It's a big fast place and has lots of room to race. We can get strung out a bit, but there is always something going on, someone is always catching someone else. There is always a lot of strategy going on. Fuel mileage and pit stops are very important. I've had a lot of success at Michigan in the past, and I think this will be a good weekend for us."
Forty-four teams are on the preliminary entry list for the Quicken Loans 400. A.J. Allmendinger and Bobby Labonte will switch rides for this race. Allmendinger is scheduled to drive the No. 47 JTG Daugherty Racing Toyota, while Labonte is slated for a ride in the No. 51 Phoenix Racing Chevrolet.
Race: Quicken Loans 400.
Series: NASCAR Sprint Cup.
Date: Sunday, June 16.
Site: Michigan International.
Track: 2-mile oval.
Start time: 1 p.m.
Laps: 200. Miles: 400.
2012 Winner: Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Radio: Motor Racing Network (MRN)/SIRIUS NASCAR Radio.