Mixed Bag From Michigan

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BROOKLYN, Mich. – No woman has driven in a Winston Cup race since 1989, when Patty Moise competed at Talladega.

Shawna Robinson will try to change that – again – this weekend. Robinson will try to qualify for the Kmart 400 at Michigan International Speedway. Michigan is similar to California Speedway, where Robinson didn’t make the field earlier this year because of mechanical problems on her qualifying lap.

“It was going to be California (her first Winston Cup start), and things didn’t work out, but this is now my first Winston Cup race, and that has to be special,” Robinson said. “We’re going into Michigan in the same basic shape we were in going into California. We have to be one of the fastest 36 cars in qualifying on Friday. If we don’t do that, nothing else matters.

“We tested at California and we tested at Michigan. California and Michigan aren’t identical, but there are things we found at California that we’ve been able to use for Michigan. We think we’re going to have a pretty good car. Again, our goals are to have a good practice on Friday, set down a really good qualifying lap Friday afternoon, practice well Saturday and then run a solid race Sunday.”

Driving for Michael Kranefuss’ MK Racing, Robinson will try to make five races this season: Michigan, Chicago, Indianapolis, Kansas and Atlanta. She’ll have Robert Yates engines at her disposal, and she’ll need all the power she can get. The team doesn’t have any points, so a provisional starting spot is a long shot at best.

New Dodge engine on the horizon: Dodge teams have complained this season about their engine being too heavy. But help may be on the way. Dodge is working on a lighter engine that could, if NASCAR approves it, be ready later this year.

“Obviously, we’re looking for ways to make the engine lighter,” said Jim Julow, the vice president for Dodge’s Global Brand Center. “We’re looking to make the car better, faster, stronger, and the motor is a big piece of that.

“The basic design in my mind has proven durability, which was the most important and critical factor from day one. We didn’t want those things blowing up and not finishing the race because of the engine. We’ve been pretty bulletproof in terms of powertrain, which I think is a great place to start.”

Asked if the new engine could be ready this year, Julow said: “Yeah, there are some (changes) that we could incorporate this year, assuming NASCAR agrees that they’re not significant or wholesales changes, that they’re within the realm of continuous improvement.”

Another racing Wallace: Greg Wallace, the son of Rusty Wallace, will start racing Late Model Stock Cars this weekend, making his debut at Greenville-Pickens (S.C.) Speedway in a car owned by former Busch Series champion Jack Ingram.

Winston Cup driver Robert Pressley suggested to Wallace he talk to Ingram about setting up a team. Wallace will provide the money and car hauler, with Ingram providing the shop, car, engines and personnel.

“Greg came to me late last summer and expressed an interest in trying his hand at driving,” Rusty said. “Until then, we always thought he was just interested in the business side of things. But he seemed so serious that Patti and I talked about it and decided to give him a chance at it.”

Wallace will race this summer before heading back to college.

“Gosh, I can’t explain how excited I am about this opportunity,” Greg Wallace said. “Man, I’m a super lucky guy to have the chance to hook up with such a legendary racer as the ‘Iron Man’ (Ingram). He’s won five NASCAR championships and has won races everywhere. I know it’ll be the best learning experience that’s out there.”

Hendrick Motorsports goes for No. 100: Jeff Gordon’s victory at Dover last week was the 99th for Hendrick Motorsports, ranking Rick Hendrick No. 3 on the car owner win list behind Petty Enterprises (271) and Junior Johnson (139).

Gordon has 54 of Hendrick’s 99 wins and would love to get No. 100.

“I think it would be fitting for the 24 team to give Hendrick Motorsports its 100th win,” Gordon said. “If it wasn’t for the support and confidence given to me from Rick Hendrick, I don’t think I’d be where I am today. A lot of people have come and gone in this organization. But Rick and I have maintained a great relationship both on and off the
track.”

Gordon’s 54 victories ties him for seventh with Lee Petty and Rusty Wallace in career Winston Cup wins.

“It’s hard to imagine I’ve won 54 races,” Gordon said. “It seems like yesterday when I got my first win in the (1994 Coca-Cola) 600. I guess we’ve just put the throttle down and never really looked back.”

Michigan, minus the fuel mileage: Tony Stewart is the defending champion of the Kmart 400, getting a rain-shortened victory over Dale Earnhardt and Bobby Labonte. Michigan is one of Stewart’s favorite tracks.

“We like to race at Michigan because the track is wide and you can run a bunch of different grooves,” Stewart said. “Depending on how your car is driving, you can run way down on the inside line or clear up to the wall and run what appears to be two different race tracks when you do that. It gives you the opportunity as a driver to adjust your line to compensate for what the car is or isn’t doing.

“I’ve never been a spectator and watched a race at Michigan, so I can’t verify as to whether it’s a fun race to watch or not. But from a driver’s standpoint, Michigan is a track that puts the emphasis on the driver, because you’re able to adjust your race car just by taking a different line around the track.”

Michigan is also a track where races can come down to fuel mileage, and that is NOT one of Stewart’s favorite things.

“I don’t know how to save fuel, basically,” Stewart said. “I think the longer you race the more you learn how to save fuel. But it seems like we’ve got two speeds – fast and parked. So, we’ll just stick with the fast part right now and worry about the fuel mileage later.”

Special return for Houston: Andy Houston made his Winston Cup debut at Michigan last season, but the race also served as a job interview. He must’ve done OK, as PPI Motorsports hired him to driver its second car this season.

“There was a lot of pressure on me to go out there and perform well,” Houston said. “I knew going into the race it was pretty much of a tryout even though they said it wasn’t. I was pretty pleased with the way we ran and I was satisfied with the way I handled myself.

“It was a special day in my career. I guess you can say it was on that Sunday in Michigan that my dream of becoming a Winston Cup driver was getting closer to reality.”

Houston qualified 35th but knifed his way to sixth place before a blown engine finished his day.

“Let’s just say I’ve learned plenty since my first Winston Cup ride last August in Michigan,” Houston said. “We’ve been up and down so far in our rookie season, but our Ford is getting closer to where we want to be.

“I really feel that we have the potential of having another great race in Michigan this weekend. We had a strong run in Dover last week and I know that everyone on the team is excited about returning to Michigan.”

Where in the world is Johnny Benson? Benson is happy to be returning home this weekend, if only because the Grand Rapids, Mich., native knows exactly where he’s going.

“Sometimes all these tracks start to blend together and you can’t remember if that restaurant is on that corner, or if it was in Pocono, or ‘Was that Dover?’” Benson said. “I don’t have that problem when I come to Michigan. I always know where everything is at Michigan.”

Little E’s not-so-excellent adventures: Dale Earnhardt Jr. won’t forget his last race at Michigan. A lot happened during his 31st-place finish, so much that it clouds his memory.

“Last year at Michigan, it seemed like anything and everything happened,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I had the flu, we won the pole and led the fall race, I barely avoided a couple of big wrecks, we dropped to last place, our spotter’s radio battery went dead, and I spun through the infield grass – let’s see, I can’t even remember it all.”

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