BROOKLYN, MI - JUNE 17: Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the #88 Diet Mountain Dew/TheDarkKnightRises/National Guard/ Chevrolet, celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Quicken Loans 400 at Michigan International Speedway on June 17, 2012 in Brooklyn, Michigan. (Photo by John Harrelson/Getty Images for NASCAR)
NASCAR returns to the Michigan International Speedway, a track notorious for game-changing fuel-mileage results. Point leader Jimmie Johnson has never won at MIS, while teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. took the checkered flag in June.
With the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship in place since 2004, holding the point lead during the premier stock car racing division's "regular season" has come to largely mean, well, not much. No matter how big of a lead you build up during the season, it is all going to be wiped away once the checkered flag drops at Richmond and the eleven guys you'll be battling for the title will be right on your rear bumper.
Still, when one looks at the point standings and sees Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet at the top -even if it's only by the one marker by which he leads Roush-Fenway's Greg Biffle - it can look pretty ominous for the large number of fans who don't particularly care for Double J. Or "Five-Time," as he is known for the five Sprint Cup titles he won from 2006-10 before finishing a career-worst sixth - yes, sixth is Johnson's career-worst points finish in ten seasons - in 2011.
As the Sprint Cup series heads to the Michigan International Speedway - one of five tracks where Johnson has never won, along with Watkins Glen, Homestead, Chicago (where he claimed his lone Nationwide Series victory to date in 2001) and Kentucky which has hosted just two races - Johnson and company seem to be firing their warning shot for their detractors that this could be another long fall and subsequent winter.
No one is conceding anything to Johnson yet, though, aside from the fact that he will probably win at Dover on September 30. The Sprint Cup Series is as tough as it has ever been, and once the Chase starts, anyone could come out of nowhere like Tony Stewart did en route to his third-career title last fall.
Of course, the priority for all of those teams is this Sunday's Pure Michigan 400 at the 2-mile, D-shaped oval located in the shadow of Detroit. While Michigan doesn't have the pageantry of the Daytona 500 or the Brickyard 400 and its racing often leaves a bit to be desired, the event is still an important one. When the Motor City is that close and you're racing in a series in which most of the field is branded with one of Detroit's "Big Three" automakers, taking your particular nameplate to victory lane is important - even for Toyota, who's American headquarters are based out in California.
More important than manufacturer pride - which, believe it or not, still does exist as evidenced by the genuine heartbreak conveyed by Chrysler's Ralph Gilles when he announced Dodge wouldn't be racing in 2013 - are the three precious bonus points a driver can pick up towards the Chase.
The Wild Card story, which seems to become more and more intriguing with each passing race, could be turned on its head Sunday if the right driver plays the right strategy. Michigan is notorious for fuel-mileage racing, with the 2009 races as good examples. In June, Johnson ran out of gas exiting the fourth turn on the 199th lap, handing the lead to Biffle. Biffle's Ford ran dry on the backstretch, and Mark Martin streaked past to the win.
Come August, Johnson again ran out with the white flag in sight, this time handing the win to Brian Vickers. Vickers made the Chase thanks in large part to the points he gained for winning over what he would have taken for running second. Martin, meanwhile, ran out of fuel on the last lap and wound up barely squeaking into the Chase despite his four regular-season wins, though he ultimately finished second in the standings.
Don't be surprised if similar scenarios play out in the late stages of Sunday's race. Caution flags are often rare in Michigan, with its wide surface that lends itself to clean, green racing. Crew chiefs will likely have their drivers wait a few moments after the ceremonious command to fire the engines is given before they start their cars, and they'll also have them saving fuel on the pace laps.
Though the on-track racing doesn't figure to win any awards, strategy will be constantly evolving, making for an intriguing, can't-miss event that could go a long way towards determining who races for (and, if last year's tie between Stewart and Carl Edwards is any indication, who wins) the Sprint Cup championship.