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Published: Tuesday, 6/15/2010

NASCAR drivers appreciate packed stands at MIS

BY MATT MARKEY
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

BROOKLYN, Mich. - There has not been a whole lot of cheering and pompom shaking going on in this part of the country over the state of the economy.

Factories closing, layoffs, buyouts, cutbacks, foreclosures - it is either very, very bad, or it's the worst situation in the nation, depending on which statistical grim reaper you follow.

So when 100,000 people showed up for a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race on Sunday at Michigan International Speedway, even the guys who were whizzing by at 190 mph noticed.

"This has always been a great facility, and one that a lot of the drivers really enjoy coming to," Indiana native Ryan Newman said, "but to see this kind of fan support here at Michigan, in these tough times, it's amazing. We're really fortunate to have so many people who are so passionate about our sport. It's incredible, and we can't wait to get back here in August and experience it all again."

Staging a weekend of NASCAR racing is a gargantuan task, and the two-mile track in the Irish Hills about an hour northwest of Toledo is one of the facilities on the circuit that gets to do it twice. NASCAR returns to Michigan Aug. 13-15.

MIS has hosted the highest level of stock car racing - currently called the Sprint Cup Series - for two races each year since 1969, except for 1973 when there was just one event.

Sell-outs used to be the norm at MIS, where the grandstand capacity five years ago was close to 140,000. Improvements and enhancements to the main seating areas have reduced the capacity to around 120,000, but no one talks in terms of expecting a sell-out in this economic climate.

Numerous Cup drivers, used to seeing big sections of empty stands as they tour the circuit, expressed their gratitude for the level of loyalty they witnessed at MIS.

"I can't thank the fans enough," race winner Denny Hamlin said after he ran away from the field to take the Heluva Good! Sour Cream Dips 400 for his fifth win of the year, and then treated the crowd to a sequence of burn-outs along the front stretch.

MIS track president Roger Curtis said yesterday that earlier unofficial estimates that put the crowd at 95,000 were low and that a more precise count pushed the number to 100,000, which would reflect a four-to-five percent boost in attendance over last year's June Sprint Cup race - the only such rise in the industry over the past three years, with the exception of the 50th anniversary celebration at Daytona.

"To see that kind of growth, that sends a huge message about how the people of Michigan, northwest Ohio, northern Indiana, and the Windsor area - how much they enjoy and support this sport," Curtis said. "It's our obligation and commitment to provide them with a good experience at the race track, and the drivers deserve a lot of credit for that. When everyone puts the fans first, this sport works."

Sprint Cup veteran Kurt Busch, who won the pole for Sunday's race, led 60 laps and went on to finish third, said MIS presents a premium overall package that challenges the drivers while providing the fans with plenty of entertainment for their dollar.

"As drivers, we love this place but it really forces us to stay on our toes trying to figure out how to win here. We're chasing a moving target all of the time, and that's a tough deal, but one I think we enjoy," he said.

"As for the fans, I'm thrilled over how they support us here. This track is critically important to everyone in NASCAR, since it's so close to Detroit and the heart of the auto industry.

"Everybody really pushes hard to win here, and we're already thinking about how we can do that in August."

Curtis said the August dates at MIS (Aug. 13-15) include a Friday filled with practice sessions for the Sprint Cup and Nationwide series, and qualifying for the Sprint Cup Sunday race. On Saturday the Cup teams hold two more practice rounds, with the Nationwide cars qualifying in the morning, then racing in the CARFAX 250 that afternoon. The Sprint Cup CARFAX 400 race takes place Sunday afternoon.

The August Nationwide Series race at MIS will be a high-profile affair, since IndyCar Series driver Danica Patrick is scheduled to take part. Patrick is running a partial schedule in the Nationwide Series this year.

Contact Matt Markey at:

mmarkey@theblade.com

or 419-724-6510.



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