BROOKLYN, Mich. - There is a lot to like about the Irish Hills area of southeast Michigan for Buddy Rice. There are those obvious tangibles - the gently rolling countryside, the clean air, the two-mile oval at Michigan International Speedway.
And then there is the more subtle stuff, like the good feeling Rice gets when he returns to the scene of his last IndyCar Series win. When Rice claimed first place in last year's Firestone Indy 400, he was on a considerable roll. He had won the Indy 500 and the race at Kansas Speedway, and was entertaining thoughts of a season championship.
But after taking second at Kentucky, Rice was hit with a series of mechanical troubles and accidents that knocked him out of contention and left him third in the final point standings. Rice's woes continued this year, or got worse.
A back injury prevented him from defending his title at the Indy 500, and Rice finds himself 16th in the points race coming to MIS.
"Well, I think Michigan's always going to be special," Rice said. "For whatever reason, the track's been good to me. One is because it's where I made my IRL debut [finishing second for Team Cheever in 2002]. And obviously, I had a good run here last year. I expect to do good."
Rice, whose best finish this season and only top five showing is a third place at Motegi, said he likes the space and the speed that MIS offers. "I always look forward going to this track. It's an exciting race.
"There are big packs of cars," said Rice, who qualified third for today's race. "Yeah, there's definitely always a soft spot there. It's always a good spot for me to go.''
And scoring a victory and a second in two out of three years certainly doesn't hurt."
TRAGEDY EN ROUTE: Panther Racing motor coach driver Jerry Oberle suffered a fatal heart attack while driving to Michigan International Speedway on Thursday. Oberle, 68, was involved in an accident on I-69 in Madison County, Indiana, and was pronounced dead at St. John's Hospital a short time later. He had been with Panther Racing for the past three years.
10 CANDLES FOR FIRESTONE: Yesterday marked the 10th anniversary of Scott Pruett's victory in the Marlboro 500 at MIS, and the first major open-wheel victory for Firestone after its return to competitive racing following a 20-year hiatus. Pruett had to overtake Al Unser Jr. on the final lap to win that race.
Firestone, now the exclusive tire supplier to the Indy Racing League, delivered 924 Firehawk racing radials to MIS for today's race.
Each team will receive nine sets of tires to use for practice, qualifying and the race. The tires were produced at Firestone's Techical Center in Tokyo.
IndyCar Series defending champion Tony Kanaan lauded the tires that enabled him to complete every lap of every race on his way to the title last season. "No flats," the Brazilian Kanaan said with a smile. "I've never used another tire since I came to race in America.'
"It is difficult when you don't have competition to keep pushing, keep raising the bar, but they have done it. I have a lot of respect for the work they do."
DANICA'S EXPECTATIONS: Rahal Letterman Racing driver Danica Patrick is just 10 races into her rookie season in the IndyCar Series, but she has to keep addressing questions on why she has not won.
Patrick said the competitive fire is there, but she understands she still has a lot to learn to meet those expectations. "I think it is a lot harder to win out here than some people might think," Patrick said. "I see us getting better and better, and I think we have done really well in all phases of the race - qualifying, pit stops, race management.
"We just need to get all of those things to come together at the same time. I go into each race thinking I want to win, but not that I have to win. I think that will come when it comes."