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Weekend Preview: More than a surface matter at MIS

June 15, 2012, NASCAR Wire Service,

Michigan's fresh pavement expected to boost speeds; 'sense of urgency' in NNS

When the 2012 Sprint Cup Series schedule was released, it didn't come with road construction signs for the first two weeks in June. Perhaps it should have.

For the second consecutive race, NASCAR tackles a track with fresh asphalt as it makes the first of two annual stops at Michigan International Speedway for Sunday's Quicken Loans 400 (1 p.m. ET, TNT; pre-race at noon). While the configuration of the 2-mile D-shaped oval remains unchanged, speeds are expected to climb at what is already one of the fastest tracks on the circuit.

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"It's going to be challenging to maintain the pace that we're going to be able to run there," said Jeff Gordon, a two-time Michigan winner, "but I've always loved Michigan and I was just happy to know that other than new pavement and a smooth race track, other than that, not a lot changed, which I was happy to hear."

As with last week's event at newly repaved Pocono Raceway, series officials have allotted extra track time for teams to adjust to the speedway, which has its first fresh coat of asphalt since 1995. Cup drivers began testing Thursday morning before additional practice Friday.

Venturing into the unknown doesn't seem to bother Brad Keselowski, a Michigan native who called the track a "thrill ride" after a Goodyear tire test on the new asphalt in April. Conditions will be much warmer this time around, with temperatures forecast to reach the upper 80s all weekend.

"I don't think anyone really knows what to expect," said Keselowski, who ranks 10th in the standings. "Those are always the cool races to me, the races where everybody comes in with no experience and you just kind of go."

Going around Michigan hasn't been a problem in recent years for Joe Gibbs Racing, which has won three of the past four races held in the Irish Hills. Denny Hamlin has won the past two June races and teammate Kyle Busch sealed a JGR season sweep there this past August. With Joey Logano registering a convincing win last weekend at Pocono, each Gibbs driver has at least one victory this season.

While no Gibbs driver needed a turnaround more desperately than Logano, whose job security has been rumor-mill fodder for much of the season, it's Busch who is in most need of a rebound this week. Two consecutive engine-related DNFs -- after a stretch of four consecutive top-five finishes -- have dropped Busch from eighth to 12th in the standings, throwing his name into the hotly contested Chase wild-card fight.

"It's very frustrating," Busch said. "These guys here at Joe Gibbs Racing and everybody on this team deserves better than this. It's unfortunate that we just aren't getting the results we need because [crew chief] Dave [Rogers] and the guys have been working hard and bringing good cars to the race track. We just haven't been able to figure out what has caused our problems the last two weeks. I know a lot of people are working hard to get it figured out."

Sunday's race is expected to mark the second career Cup start for Austin Dillon, last year's champion in the Camping World Truck Series and current Nationwide Series rookie. The 400-miler also would be the 600th Cup start for veteran Joe Nemechek. Both Dillon and Nemechek are among 10 drivers outside the top 35 in series owners' points vying for eight starting berths based on qualifying speed.

Stenhouse looks to bounce back

Given his recent free-fall from the top of the Nationwide Series standings, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. may have benefited the most from last weekend's off week.

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Stenhouse hopes to use the extra time to regroup in Saturday's Alliance Truck Parts 250 (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC) at Michigan. The defending series champion was runner-up to Roush Fenway Racing teammate Carl Edwards in this race last year.

So far, 2012 has been a banner year for Stenhouse, who led the standings for four consecutive weeks on the strength of three victories and a string of nine consecutive finishes of sixth or better. Since then, Stenhouse's No. 6 has slipped in the invincibility department, finishing 26th with drive-shaft failure at Charlotte and 32nd after a crash at Dover.

The two-week lapse allowed Elliott Sadler, Stenhouse's top challenger for last year's Nationwide crown, to ride a modest streak of three top-10s in a row into the series points lead. It also has allowed Dillon, Sadler's Richard Childress Racing teammate, to close in on the title hunt; just 14 points separate the top three.

The championship contenders will be facing the same challenges as their Cup counterparts, racing on Michigan's blazing-fast new pavement. The Nationwide Series will get a little more than three hours of practice Friday (covering three sessions) before Saturday's time trials and the race.

"With only 125 laps in the Nationwide Series race, there is a sense of urgency," Sadler said. "We have to unload quickly and qualify well. I'm very interested to get out there on Friday for practice to see how the repave affected the track. The track has historically been one that fuel mileage is very important, and with it being a shorter race, anything can happen."