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Unknowns make Pure Michigan 400 unpredictable

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News

Brooklyn, Mich. — As they race arguably the fastest track in NASCAR Sunday in the Pure Michigan 400, drivers and crews will be assured mostly by knowing what they do not know.

Race preparation is complicated by variable weather, the condition of the track and the novel design specifications of the cars. The uncertainty coupled with enormous top speeds could make for one of the more interesting Sprint Cup races of the season.

That the final practice Saturday was cut short by a threat of lightning and then a downpour seemed largely irrelevant. The teams unlikely learned much Saturday that would help them Sunday.

Much is at stake for some drivers three races before the start of the playoff. A new winner in the 2016 season would reduce the number of drivers who can enter the playoffs by virtue of points to just three.

“It (MIS) is very unique,” pole-winner Joey Logano of Team Penske said. “For one, you are going 220 mph. That is insane!

“It is a lot of fun, though.

“It is all about the corners here,” said Logano, who enters the race ninth in the point standings, with the single win June 12 at MIS. “That is where most of the speed is.

“You carry momentum through it, and that is where you make your passes if you can maintain momentum.

“It is a horsepower racetrack, though, and you have to get down the straightaways here,” he said. “They are really long and fast.”

The temperature has varying all weekend through practices and qualifying, and may continue to change right up until race time (2 p.m., NBCSN). And a quarter-inch to half-inch of rain predicted between Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning is likely to wash away rubber ground into the track by the Sprint Cup cars and the truck racers.

Less rubber in the road means less grip, and changing temperatures causes drivers, crew chiefs and crews to achieve less precision when preparing the cars.

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Since the repaving at Michigan International Speedway five years ago, driver say the racing groove remains narrow.

Meanwhile, NASCAR is running the new package of design specifications intended to spur passing and more competitive racing by reducing the handling of the cars, especially in the turns.

Smaller splitters along the bottom of the front end of the cars allows more foul air under the cars. Smaller spoilers along the top of the rears dump more air moving over the top of the car.

Both reduce downforce.

The specifications for the setup could be the package for the entire 2017 season.

Team Penske has won both races in which the new package has been used, with Logano winning in Michigan and Brad Keselowski in Kentucky. Pole winners have won four of the last six races at MIS.

But both the trend and Penske’s technical aptitude could get shuffled to the bottom of the deck, given the changing conditions.

When he announced the specifications for the Pure Michigan 400, Gene Stefanyshyn, NASCAR’s vice-president for innovation and racing development, said, “The teams have some knowledge on it, and they believe they still have some fine-tuning they can do on that package.

“Obviously, this package relies more on mechanical grip than aerodynamic grip and a lot of the teams still have a lot of things they think they can try.”

On June 12, in the FireKeepers Casino 400, the drivers found the car less predictable in the corners, so they eased off the throttle. That is part of the varying speed and the need for more judgment by the drivers that will provide for more competition and passing, NASCAR hopes.

But it is the need for more judgment amid less certain conditions and handling that might well determine the winner and the order of the rest of the finishers, when a second can easily mean the difference between a checkered flag and 10th place.

“Michigan, since it’s been repaved, has been very sensitive and track position has been very important,” said six-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, who qualified second, behind Team Penske driver Joey Logano, on the pole.

Johnson was part of Chevrolet’s sudden ascendancy, and a bit of a turnaround for Hendrick Motorsports, which is seeking to rediscover some speed to end a mid-summer slump.

“We’ll stack some pennies in the right direction and hopefully have a nice race on Sunday,” said Johnson, who is currently ninth in the point standings and one of five drivers with two wins in 2016.

But he has not been to victory lane since March 20.

Johnson has won once at MIS, in June 2014.

“Our past history shows good Fridays mean good Sundays and we’re off to a good start,” Johnson said.

To increase grip, and perhaps widen the groove, NASCAR deployed its “tire dragon” for a total of about 60 hours from August 15-25, with Sunday off.

The tractor-hauled, weighted trailer with four tires, changed frequently, is driven around the track dozens of times to wear tire residue into the racing surface.

It is supposed to enhance grip, but some drivers noted little difference, since the race in June — even before the rain.

“I didn’t feel like the track was a whole lot different from earlier this year to now,” said Kasey Kahne, who qualified his Chevy 11th. “I was kind of surprised.

“I thought it would feel a little more like we had been on it, like there was rubber on it. To me, it felt pretty similar.”

After qualifying 15th for his last Sprint Cup race in Michigan, Tony Stewart agreed.

“I don’t think the changes to the track did too much,” he said. “We are not seeing it.”

The uncertainty and speed heighten the risk, and it is not lost on the drivers.

Stabbing the throttle deep through corners is an act of courage, and occasionally plain foolishness. But the willingness to do it can make the razor-thin difference between victory and second place, or erase the margin between triumph and catastrophe.

The drivers said they expected a high risk of wrecks in June, but they mostly did not occur.

They hope past is prologue, but they do not know.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. is still not racing, as he recovers from a concussion. Brad Keselowski, still searching for his first win in Sprint Cup at MIS, was battered in a brutal wreck during testing at Watkins Glen when his brakes failed and he t-boned a barrier at 120 mile per hour.

“Drivers are perishable fruit,” Keselowski said. “Just like anyone else that’s an athlete, your career is easily spoiled. So you’ve got to be careful not to drop the fruit, and bruise it.

“Those incidents are tough, but it’s part of the gig.”

Logano described his feeling at the wheel.

“It is crazy, because I went in into the corner into Turn 1 and the motor is cranking a ton of RPM and we are getting into the corner so fast and you want to lift, but you can’t because you want to go fast at the same time,” he said. “Your brain is telling you to lift. But something else in your body has to fight that urge.

“That makes it a ton of fun and kind of crazy.

“I don’t recommend doing that when you get your driver’s license,” Logano told some children visiting as part of a new NASCAR initiative.

“But if you are on a racetrack, it is OK.”

Pure Michigan 400

When: 2 p.m. Sunday, Michigan International Speedway, Brooklyn, Michigan

TV: NBCSN

2015 winner: Matt Kenseth

Tickets: Go to mispeedway.com

Free kids’ sections: Kids 12 and under will be admitted free to Sections 59 to 111 for Sunday’s race. Kids aged 13 to 16 may attend for half price.