Brooklyn, Mich. — Heading into the Pure Michigan 400 Sunday at Michigan International Speedway, the fourth race before the start of the Chase, the seven top NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers are separated by just 123 points.
And their names, in order, are: Earnhardt, Gordon, Kenseth, Keselowski, Logano, Edwards and Johnson.
Seven of the best going. And they also are among the most popular drivers, all racing on the fastest track in Sprint Cup.
Two Team Penske guys, Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski, who qualified second and fifth, respectively, Friday, draw strong local interest, and Roger Penske’s machines and drivers are exceling in both NASCAR and IndyCar this year.
The great Earnhardt versus Gordon rivalry of the 1990s is reborn, only with Dale Earnhardt Jr., who qualified a disappointing 25th, participating instead of his late father, against Jeff Gordon, who appears poised for a huge later-career revitalization.
Gordon’s 76th pole, third all-time, was achieved Friday at the seventh-fastest time in NASCAR history, 206.558 mph. It was one of seven track records set at MIS in one day of qualifying.
Carl Edwards, who qualified on the outside of the first row, is looking for his first championship in what is likely his last season with Jack Roush, the Michigan-based owner.
And Jimmie Johnson?
Well, he is still Jimmie Johnson, and that 48 car is always in the mix for the championship, despite a 2014 season that is not up to par, at least so far. And qualifying 30th Friday is not a boost.
“The fastest track in NASCAR” is providing more evidence of the claim, with seven cars qualifying faster than Kevin Harvick’s’ mark, set last June, of 204.557 mph.
As it often does, the second Michigan race of the Sprint Cup season appears destined to provide strong evidence of the best cars in the fastest conditions, and an opportunity for drivers to gain position and momentum heading into the climax of the NASCAR season, the Chase.
“Wins for us are really all that matters until the Chase starts,” said Keselowski, the 2012 Sprint Cup champion.
“Consistency is great for looking and having momentum for the Chase, but in reality it probably doesn’t mean much. We’ve seen Jimmie Johnson enter this stretch of the year even so soon as last year and not have a lot of consistency and go into the Chase and be just fine.”
Keselowski has three wins, at Las Vegas March 9, Kentucky June 28 and New Hampshire July 12. He also has nine top-five finishes in 22 races.
He is currently fourth in the series, 77 points behind his old bunk mate, Earnhardt.
It was Earnhardt who gave Keselowski his first shot at the big time, several years ago, in the Nationwide series, when “Junior” put the young driver from Rochester Hills in his car. He also let Keselowski stay in his home, for a while, in those years.
Now, the friendship continues and their rivalry could develop into one of the great ones.
“I think he knows if I don’t win and my teammates don’t, I hope he does,” Keselowski said.
They have gone at it door-to-door late in races this season, with Keselowski passing Earnhardt on the final lap in Las Vegas and Earnhardt returning the favor in the final several laps at Pocono, in early June.
Earnhardt leads Sprint Cup and if the eternally popular racer, the king of Junior Nation, wins his first championship, it will be among the most stock car triumphs in more than a decade, since before Johnson began his string of six championships in eight years in 2006.
“The car’s been real fast,” Earnhardt said.
“It’s just so much better to come to the races every week and know we have a fast car, to know we can win, week in and week out,” he said. “We didn’t have that for a long time.
“I’ve got a better understanding of what it’s like on both sides,” Earnhardt said of his up-and-down career, which now seems utterly rejuvenated.
From his second year in 2000 to 2004, Earnhardt won 15 races. From 2004-13, he won four. This year, he has three at Pocono, the second Daytona race and Watkins Glen.
“I don’t know how the hell I got through that,” the understated Earnhardt said, of his fallow decade in Sprint Cup.
“I knew in the offseason that if we would keep the steady rate of improvement, we’d win some this year. You could feel it coming.”
Gordon, whose northern roots and youthful, squeaky-clean appearance contrasted him with Earnhardt’s late father in the 1990s, helping drive one of the biggest rivalries in the history of the sport, said he has felt his car can win almost every race this season.
He runs just four points behind Earnhardt, with wins at Kansas and Indianapolis and seven top-five finishes in 22 races.
“I’m just really proud of the team, for what they’ve been giving to me, every week,” Gordon said.
“This is a good track for us. Especially the last time we were here, I thought that things were going really well for us in qualifying and the race. I think we learned a lot about the pit strategy and trying to maintain that track position.”
As for Johnson, it has been a matter of consistency six months into a nine-month season.
“We’ve had the craziest luck over the last six or seven races, or whatever it’s been,” said Johnson, who has struggled not only with occasional, uncharacteristic mechanical issues, but also lousy on-track luck.
“Although we’ve only won here once, it’s been a very strong track for the No. 48 and there’s a lot of room on this racetrack. So I think I can be out of harm’s way and get to Victory Lane.”
Regardless of his circumstances, it remains true that if there is a driver in the field no one wants in their rearview mirror, it is Johnson.
Pure Michigan 400
When: 1 p.m. Sunday,
Defending champ: Joey Logano
Tickets: mispeedway.com or (800) 354-1010