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Juan Montoya and Gateway Motorsports Park make NASCAR return this weekend


Each week, Geoffrey Miller’s “Five Things to Watch” will help you catch up on the biggest stories of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series’ upcoming race weekend. This week, Juan Montoya’s NASCAR return, Greg Biffle’s defense, Hendrick’s Michigan woes and Goodyear tires highlight the storylines leading up to the Quicken Loans 400.

Montoya confident in moonlighting NASCAR return  

Juan Pablo Montoya is no longer a full-time NASCAR Sprint Cup driver after his offseason return to IndyCar in Roger Penske’s operation. Sunday, however, he makes his first stock car start of 2014 in a limited schedule for Team Penske’s third car. The time away for Montoya won’t be an issue, he says.

In a Friday press conference, Montoya beamed confidence. He talked of a recent test for the team at Nashville Superspeedway that served as a warmup for his Sprint Cup return. After spending the first three laps readjusting — Montoya said he missed the corners pretty badly during the initial laps — he quickly found speed.

“Honestly? I was within a tenth-and-a-half of the best time they ran at Nashville within eight laps,” Montoya said.

Montoya will have to qualify on speed for Sunday’s race, but he said racing up front shouldn’t be a concern. He thinks a top 10 is a good possibility.

Does that sort of confidence leave Montoya wanting a full-time NASCAR return? Apparently not.

“I know the game here,” Montoya said. “It’s fun knowing that you’re not doing the whole season.”

One year later, Biffle still searching for upswing  

Depending on your point of view, Greg Biffle was either lucky or good a year ago at Michigan. 

Biffle won the race — his lone win of 2013 — when a charging Jimmie Johnson blew a tire while leading Biffle and the checkered flag in sight. Biffle felt the pressure his team put on the No. 48 caused the blowout. Johnson attributed it to his traditionally bad luck at MIS.

Regardless, it was Biffle that went to Victory Lane in a moment of the 2013 season that he admitted felt a bit early in last season’s development of the Roush Fenway Racing cars.

“We've probably gotten a little more than we deserved the past two weeks with a second and a win,” Biffle said after the Michigan win a year ago followed a second-place run at Pocono. “But we certainly have gotten much, much better, and it looks like we're well on our way to getting some speed back in these cars.”

The prediction didn’t really hold. Biffle made the Chase but didn’t win another race. Currently 14th in points, Biffle and the rest of RFR have arguably regressed — or at the very least, failed to keep pace — since that Michigan bright spot. 

Reliability fleeting for Hendrick at Michigan in 2013

Hendrick Motorsports won 25 percent of the Sprint Cup points-paying races a year ago. Those wins, though, didn’t come at Michigan after a pretty absurd amount of issues beset the four-car team in the two races on the two-mile oval last season.

In total, Hendrick notched just a single top-10 finish among the team’s eight total MIS starts in 2013 when Kasey Kahne finished the August race seventh. Otherwise, HMS notched four total DNFs and six finishes of 28th or worse. The problems included two engine failures, two crashes and two blown tires.

All told, the Hendrick record at MIS hasn’t been great compared to the team’s traditional front-running ways. Since Jeff Gordon beat Ricky Rudd on the final lap of the June 2001 race, Hendrick has just two wins at the track — both from Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Goodyear makes slight adjustment to Michigan tires

Some of the issues for Hendrick last year came as a result of a tire combination that left many drivers feeling on edge — and may have contributed to a few blowouts. The issues really began when MIS was repaved before the 2012 season. Averaged speeds in qualifying at the track skyrocketed over 200 mph.

Trying to fix some of the concern, NASCAR tire supplier Goodyear hosted a test at Michigan in April to find a new combination. The left-side tires will remain the same whole the right sides will be changed to the same construction used at Kansas earlier in the year. Goodyear also boosted the minimum recommended tire pressure.

If you’re wondering who may have a leg up this weekend because of participating in that April test, drivers on hand were Clint Bowyer, Biffle, Trevor Bayne, Ryan Newman and Earnhardt Jr.

Trucks make return to St. Louis’ Gateway

About 450 miles southwest of this weekend’s proceedings at Michigan, the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series makes a return to the reopened Gateway Motorsports Park for a Saturday night race. The 200 mile Drivin’ For Linemen 200 is the first NASCAR sanctioned event on the oblong oval since 2010.

GMP — originally Gateway International Raceway — opened in 1997 for a Nationwide Series race and hosted its first Truck Series event a year later. The track never received a Sprint Cup date and was closed by original owner Dover Motorsports, Inc.

Still, the unique 1.25-mile oval played host to some pretty wild events in its time — including an act of the Brad Keselowski vs. Carl Edwards feud in 2010. Saturday night’s race will be the second in-a-row for the Truck Series away from a Sprint Cup weekend. It also marks the fifth-straight race that the CWTS field will be less than full as only 30 trucks are entered.

Follow Geoffrey Miller on Twitter: @GeoffreyMiller

Photos by Action Sports, Inc.