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Published: Friday, 6/13/2003

2 races at Michigan track boost drivers' confidence

BY MATT MARKEY
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

BROOKLYN, Mich. - The Winston Cup circuit makes two stops at Michigan International Speedway this year - for Sunday's Sirius 400 and the Michigan 400 in August.

That gives the drivers and race teams the opportunity to get more familiar with the track, and possibly develop a certain comfort zone when running there.

“It helps to develop some kind of feel for the place, and to come back here more or less knowing how you will run on the track, and how the car will likely respond,'' driver Jimmy Spencer said. “It's like anything you do - you usually perform better when you have some familiarity with the place and a bank of experience there to draw on.''

Spencer and most of his counterparts are very complimentary of the Michigan oval and the opportunity it affords them to get out and run without worrying about getting squeezed at every turn, as is the case on some of the tighter layouts.

“This is one of the great tracks in racing because you can run two and three wide,'' Elliott Sadler said. “It is not one of the cookie cutter tracks that everybody relates to where you have to play follow the leader. Here you can run on the bottom or run up high, and kind of make your car do what you want.''

“Over the years, Michigan has been known to have some so-called boring races,'' Spencer said, “but I don't agree with them about that - and the people calling them boring - they're not in the cars running 190 miles per hour. The thing that happens at Michigan a lot is that it is a very wide-open race track, and it's big.

“And you have that at Las Vegas and in California, and you probably have it in Chicago and places like that. NASCAR can't predict how the race turns out. There would be nothing better than to have a Darlington finish every weekend - it's not going to happen. Our sport is no different than any other sport in that you don't have a great finish every single time.''

Sadler said the space Michigan affords the drivers allows them to place a premium on being able to execute the pass, and having a car that can perform at any place on the track.

“We have been really working hard and concentrating on making our car working on the bottom side,'' Sadler said. “If we can do that, I know we can make passes come Sunday.

“Anybody can move it and make the car run, but we're concentrating on making ours work on the bottom. That's something Michigan adds - you can spread out and the drivers can use their imagination to try to create ways to get to the front.''

WHEN THE SMOKE CLEARS: Stock car racing gets its share of flack from the non-believers, and most of the drivers on the Winston Cup circuit are quick to point out that while racing is their life, they also have a passion for other sports such as hunting, fishing or golf.

While admitting he does not know who won last year's Super Bowl, veteran driver Jimmy Spencer said he maintains a respect for other professional sports and loosely follows a number of them.

“We can all point fingers and say this is better or that is better, but when all of the smoke clears, I still think this is the best sport,'' Spencer said.

HARVICK PUSHES ON: Fate pushed Kevin Harvick into the spotlight in the world of stock car racing two years ago, and he has found a way to survive, if not thrive, under that intense scrutiny.

Harvick, the Bakersfield, Calif., native who was named to drive the No. 29 GM Goodwrench Service Plus Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing following the death of Dale Earnhardt in the 2001 Daytona 500, has won three times on the Winston Cup circuit since then, and was the 2001 Rookie of the Year.

He has yet to win this season, but has almost $2 million in earnings in his 14 starts.

Harvick comes into Sunday's Sirius 400 at Michigan International Speedway ninth in the Winston Cup points race.

“We were something like 30th in the points standings coming into the Michigan race last year, so we are quite a bit better off, despite what some people may think,'' Harvick said. “People can sit and critique it all of the time, and although we're not 100 per cent satisfied with where we are, we do feel a lot better about it than we did last year at this time.''

JARRETT'S GOOD CAUSE: Dale Jarrett knows what it feels like to be a champion. He won the 1999 Winston Cup championship and has visited victory lane 31 times in his Winston Cup career.

Last night he lent his name and fame in an effort to champion hundreds of Lenawee County children and hospice patients. The former Winston Cup champion was the featured celebrity at the second MIS Night of Champions Benefit dinner and auction that took place at MIS.

The event benefited the Boys & Girls Club of Lenawee and Hospice of Lenawee. In 2001, nearly 400 people - including 1988 NASCAR Winston Cup champion Bill Elliott and UM football coach Bo Schembechler - helped make the inaugural “Night of Champions'' fundraiser at Michigan International Speedway a huge success. The first fundraiser grossed more than $100,000 for the Boys & Girls Club of Lenawee and Hospice of Lenawee through table sponsorships and an auction.

SAFE TRACK: There have been three NASCAR Winston Cup events at MIS with no yellow flags: the 1973 Motor State 400 won by David Pearson, the 1984 Champions Spark Plug 400 won by Darrell Waltrip, and the 1999 Kmart 400 won by Dale Jarrett. Waltrip topped Terry Labonte by one second, and Jarrett topped Jeff Gordon by .505 seconds. Pearson's margin was 1.1 seconds.

RECORD IN PERIL: The Michigan Speedway Winston Cup track record has been broken by 12 different drivers since 1969, the most recent being Dale Earnhardt Jr. with a quick lap of 191.149 set in August of 2000. Earnhardt was also the first driver to top the 190 barrier in a stock car at MIS.



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