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Newest IRL track isn't new to all

The Indy Racing League's first race at Michigan International Speedway will be familiar for more than half of the drivers.

Of the 25 expected to compete Sunday in the Michigan Indy 400, 13 have raced at least once on the 2-mile oval.

"I've raced there three different times, and I like the track," said Alex Barron, coming off his first IRL victory last weekend in Nashville. "Michigan is pure speed, but you don't want to push too hard, or the track can bite you."

Of the active IRL points champions, only last year's winner, Sam Hornish Jr., and 1996 co-champion Buzz Calkins will make their first starts at the track.

Team Penske teammates Helio Castroneves and Gil de Ferran will be the most familiar with the track. Both competed in CART's race there last year.

That was the last CART race at the track.

Dwindling attendance and escalating sanctioning fees led CART and the track to not renew their contract after 33 races.

CART and the city of Detroit also did not renew their contract, ending the Detroit Grand Prix after last year's race. That race started in 1982 in downtown Detroit and moved to Belle Isle in 1992.

CART also closed its headquarters in suburban Troy, Mich., this year and moved to Indianapolis.

De Ferran, the points leader, said Michigan International is the superspeedway he's most familiar with because he has raced there since 1995.

"This will, however, be the first time I will compete there in the Indy Racing League, so it will provide a whole new challenge," de Ferran said. "The layout is such that you can have two or three cars running side by side in the middle of the turns.

"There's plenty of room to go racing at Michigan, so I am 100 percent confident that this will be an exciting event."

CART: It's not too late to catch Cristiano da Matta _ yet.

The series reaches its halfway point Sunday with the Vancouver Molson Indy. That means it's time for da Matta's pursuers to make a move on his substantial points lead.

"We have a bunch of races left," said Bruno Junqueira, who is second but trails by 50 points. "And I think we still have time to challenge for the championship."

Even when da Matta has had a bad race this season, it hasn't cost him much.

After tying a CART record with four consecutive victories, he dropped out of the race in Cleveland two weeks ago with a mechanical problem, finishing 16th.

With a chance to make inroads, Junqueira crashed and finished 14th. Dario Franchitti, in third, had an engine failure and finished 13th.

Only the top 12 finishers earn points.

Da Matta enters the 10th race of the season having won five of the first nine and seven of the past 11.

No matter what Junqueira or Franchitti do, da Matta can't lose the top spot for at least two races, even if he fails to earn a point.

"We have been pretty competitive on the street courses we have run on so far this season," da Matta said.

"Hopefully, that will carry over."

Da Matta said its hard to explain the success of his Newman-Haas Racing team.

"There isn't one specific thing that has put us in this position. It is many things," he said.

"Luckily for us, these things all worked so well together for a good stretch of races that we were able to build enough points to carry us over if we had a bad race like we did in Cleveland."

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