BROOKLYN, MI - AUGUST 21: Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 Interstate Batteries Toyota, crosses the finish line to win ahead of Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe's Chevrolet, and Brad Keselowski, driver of the #2 Miller Lite Dodge, during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Pure Michigan 400 at Michigan International Speedway on August 21, 2011 in Brooklyn, Michigan. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
When the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series schedule was released, it didn't come with road construction signs for the first two weeks in June. Perhaps it should have.
For the second consecutive race, NASCAR tackles a track with fresh asphalt as it makes the first of two annual stops at Michigan International Speedway for Sunday's Quicken Loans 400 (1 p.m. ET, TNT). While the configuration of the 2-mile D-shaped oval remains unchanged, speeds are expected to climb at what is already one of the fastest tracks on the circuit.
"It's going to be challenging to maintain the pace that we're going to be able to run there," said Jeff Gordon, a two-time Michigan winner, "but I've always loved Michigan and I was just happy to know that other than new pavement and a smooth race track, other than that, not a lot changed, which I was happy to hear."
As with last week's event at newly repaved Pocono Raceway, series officials have allotted extra track time for teams to adjust to the speedway, which has its first fresh coat of asphalt since 1995. Sprint Cup drivers begin testing Thursday morning before additional practice Friday.
Venturing into the unknown doesn't seem to bother Brad Keselowski, a Michigan native who called the track a "thrill ride" after a Goodyear tire test on the new asphalt in April. Conditions will be much warmer this time around, with temperatures forecast to reach the upper 80s all weekend.
"I don't think anyone really knows what to expect," said Keselowski, who ranks 10th in the standings. "Those are always the cool races to me, the races where everybody comes in with no experience and you just kind of go."
Going around Michigan hasn't been a problem in recent years for Joe Gibbs Racing, which has won three of the last four races held in the Irish Hills. Denny Hamlin has won the last two June races at Michigan and teammate Kyle Busch sealed a JGR season sweep there last August. With Joey Logano registering a convincing win last weekend at Pocono, each Gibbs driver has at least one victory this season.
While no Gibbs driver needed a turnaround more desperately than Logano, whose job security has been rumor mill fodder for much of the season, it's Busch who is in most need of a rebound this week. Two straight engine-related DNFs -- after a stretch of four straight top-fives -- have dropped Busch from eighth to 12th in the Sprint Cup standings, throwing his name into the hotly contested Chase wild-card fight.
"It's very frustrating," Busch said. "These guys here at Joe Gibbs Racing and everybody on this team deserves better than this. It's unfortunate that we just aren't getting the results we need because (crew chief) Dave (Rogers) and the guys have been working hard and bringing good cars to the race track. We just haven't been able to figure out what has caused our problems the last two weeks. I know a lot of people are working hard to get it figured out."
Sunday's race is expected to mark the second career Sprint Cup start for Austin Dillon, last year's champion in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series and current Nationwide Series rookie. The 400-miler would also be the 600th Cup start for veteran Joe Nemechek. Both Dillon and Nemechek are among 10 drivers outside the top 35 in series owners points vying for eight starting berths based on qualifying speed.