BROOKLYN, Mich. - The Nextel Cup drivers talk about Michigan International Speedway with a certain degree of warmth and affection - like they are recalling an old girlfriend that moved away, or the feel of the upholstery on a restored classic car, or the time spent with that hunting dog always sleeping on the front porch.
They give this two-mile stretch of pavement a persona, a spirit all its own.
They reunite with that beloved acquaintance this weekend, when NASCAR returns to MIS for Saturday's Carfax 250 Busch Series race, and Sunday's 3M Performance 400 Cup event.
Both series make stops at road courses with plenty of tight turns, and at smaller, tighter ovals where close quarters often result in cars stringing along somewhat monotonously in single file.
Not at Michigan. This track is wide and fast - sometimes scary fast.
"This is one of the higher speed racetracks. It seems like you are really on the ragged edge almost more than any other racetrack you're at," Denny Hamlin said.
"You see it two and three-wide constantly. It's definitely a racers' track that we all like to go to simply because you can move around and pass guys. You are not stuck right in another guy's air. I think that is why we like it so much."
Hamlin joins a pack of Cup drivers who come to this season's second race at MIS in the thick of the points picture. When they leave the Irish Hills Sunday night, only three races will remain before the field is cut to the top 12, who then will fight for the Nextel Cup championship over the final 10 races.
The points chase, and enhancing his position with a strong showing at MIS, is more crucial for Dale Earnhardt Jr. than for Hamlin, who stands second behind leader Jeff Gordon. Junior is currently 14th, two places out of the elite field.
"No one has been better or more consistent at Michigan than we have the last few years," Earnhardt said. "We're taking our favorite car - chassis No. 39 - that we've been using there and it just seems to really get up and go at Michigan. The boys have been working on it and updating it just for this race. I can't wait."
That anxiousness is shared by Rick Rudd, who ran his first Nextel Cup race here in 1977. Rudd is out of this season's Chase for the Nextel Cup, 29th in points, but optimistic about the opportunities for success at MIS.
"The racetrack is so race-able. It's got at least three grooves wide," Rudd said. "If your car is not handling well at the bottom then you can move to the top. If it doesn't work on the top then you can move to the bottom. You can run fast in any one of those grooves. You can lead the race on the top or on the bottom."
Kyle Busch, eighth in points and finally out from under that cloud of speculation over who he will race for next season, says the high speeds and long runs at MIS torture the equipment, especially engines. Busch recently announced he will jump from Hendrick Motorsports to Joe Gibbs Racing in 2008.
"A sustained RPM like that [at MIS] just kills engines, so you are up in that 8500 rpm range and above the whole time, so it's just sitting there screaming the whole time," Busch said. "It's a tough place because reliability comes into play. The valves, valve springs and the valve train overall just takes a beating there, because everything is moving so fast."
Busch said Michigan's wide layout sometimes lulls drivers into thinking they have the space for a certain aggressive maneuver, but running three or four abreast taxes their ability to keep track of the surroundings.
"When you are three and four wide, sometimes you can definitely get lost," Busch said. "You can come off the corner thinking there is still room out there and you can squeeze people into the wall or something like that. The place is a little bit deceiving for you."
Clint Bowyer, ninth in the points race with 11 top 10 finishes this season, said the checkered flag at MIS signals the start of a 400-mile free-for-all.
"As soon as the rag falls, you go off into turn one and it's like 'man, everybody is everywhere.' You'll have cars on the bottom, on the top and in the middle," Bowyer said.
"Trust me, it doesn't take long to get three and four-wide. You can run on the bottom, you can run on the top - basically, you can run all over the place at Michigan."
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