Storylines: Michigan

Jay Hart

The news out of Detroit wasn't good Friday. General Motors announced it was cutting back support of NASCAR, which just happened to be 73 miles away in Brooklyn, Mich., site of Sunday's LifeLock 400.

The cuts are expected to have a more immediate impact on the Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series – Kevin Harvick's Nationwide team has lost all support from GM – but the effects will eventually work their way up to the Cup Series. All three series receive support from GM through its Chevrolet brand via cash, engines and parts.

What exactly will the impact be?

We've already seen how Chrysler's bankruptcy has affected Richard Petty Motorsports, which laid off nine employees earlier this week. According to a report, Petty said the economy has "hit us between the eyes," which could be the motto of things to come.

Will cuts in manufacturer support mean the end of smaller teams? Hendrick Motorsports has the resources to get through lean times, but what will it mean for more financially strapped teams like Richard Childress Racing and Earnhardt Ganassi Racing? Will the two support series (Nationwide and Craftsman Truck) continue to exist and, if so, in what capacity?

While manufacturer support is in the news, sponsorship questions still remain and are equally as troubling. Last week, Jack Roush acknowledged that some sponsors of his five-car operation have asked for relief from the full 36-race schedule.

The game of musical sponsors – Kyle Busch, for example, has featured at least three different primary sponsors this season – isn't because teams like the diversity but rather done out of necessity.

Roush said he's OK for now – it also helps that Ford, his support manufacturer, is financially the most stable – but if the economy doesn't turn around there could be a lag effect in 2010 and beyond.

"We’ll try to do the best we can to cover the void that will create," said Dale Earnhardt Jr., who said his Nationwide team doesn't receive much monetary support from GM. "Chevrolet is going through some very challenging times. I had a true understanding that this would be coming down the pipe and they would have to make some adjustments. Every company, not only in this sport, but particularly having a company of my own, I’ve had to make adjustments due to how the economy has turned, so it wouldn’t be any different for anybody else."

Here are five other storylines to watch for in Sunday's LifeLock 400 at Michigan International Speedway:

1. What will Dale do?

Sunday marks the return of Dale Earnhardt Jr. to where his last and only win in two-plus seasons came. It also marks Race No. 2 in the Junior-Lance McGrew partnership.

While Junior has only three top-10 finishes all season, and none since April 26, his chances of qualifying for the Chase look bleak. But he still has two things going for him: time and Hendrick support.

If he's going to make that happen, he and McGrew need to get going, now. Over the next 12 races, Junior needs to make up an average of 20 points per race on Denny Hamlin, who's currently in 12th. With a string of top 10s, it's doable, especially considering he's in far better equipment than everyone between him and Hamlin, save Mark Martin in 13th.

"We just really want to see some results and things like that in the next couple of weeks to give us an assertion we need to move forward and keep improving. I think we will," Earnhardt said Friday. "I think Rick [Hendrick] has gone far beyond what I anticipated in trying to get us assistance and trying help me. … That kind of thing has got to give you some confidence going in because I see that they want it to work just like I do."

2. Is Tony Stewart just getting warmed up?

Stewart usually waits until the summer months to get hot, but when he does, he usually goes on a roll. Two seasons ago, he waited until July 15 to win his first race, then took three of four. The year before that, he won three of six, in the Chase no less.

Last Sunday, Stewart won for the first time in 2009, a run that came on the heels of three top-threes in the previous four races. Now he's heading to a track where he has 11 top-10 finishes in 18 tries. After that it's the road course at Infineon, where Stewart is a two-time winner.

He's already the points leader; now is his time to pad that lead.

3. Will Carl Edwards finally get to victory lane?

Coming off a nine-win season in 2008, including winning three of the final four races, Edwards was expected to have made multiple trips to victory lane already. He hasn't been there once.

Team owner Jack Roush says the problems aren't major, and the way Edwards has run backs that up. He could have won at Texas if not for a poor pit stop and was a few football fields from taking the checkered flag at Talladega until he and Brad Keselowski got together.

Michigan is one of Edwards' best tracks, if not his best. He's won there twice, has five top fives in nine races there and boasts the best average finish (6.6) at the track of anyone over the last 10 years.

All of this combined makes Edwards, along with Stewart, the favorites on Sunday.

4. Will fuel be a factor?

A year ago, Earnhardt gambled on fuel and won at MIS. Last week at Pocono, Stewart took a different fuel gamble and won. So will it happen again?

Drivers hope not. They prefer to race for the win. But if fuel does come into play, preparing early is the key.

“You have to really commit to saving fuel at the start of the run, the minute you leave pit road on that run," Jimmie Johnson explained. "So if the crew chief notices, even two pit stops from the end, that, hey, we’re getting to that point and figure out how to save fuel, you can hopefully learn the run before and see what those savings are and then count on that again for the final run.

"So, it’s always in our minds at places like Pocono, Michigan and the road courses for sure."

5. What about the crowd?

Michigan International Speedway can hold 120,000. Expect quite a few less.

Outside of Auto Club Speedway, there probably won't be more empty seats than this weekend. Some of that is coincidence – the Detroit area has been pounded by the downturn in the economy – some of it is not. Auto Club and Michigan are, after all, sister tracks, no track is criticized more for poor racing than the 2-mile oval in Southern California.

Michigan International is also notorious for its horrendous traffic, which undoubtedly keeps away fans who don't want to fight through several hours of traffic getting home.