By NOAH TRISTER
AP Sports Writer
BROOKLYN, Mich. — Dale Earnhardt Jr. snapped a long losing streak when he won at Michigan International Speedway two years ago.
How much have times changed? A victory this week would give NASCAR’s most popular driver a winning streak.
Earnhardt has already reached Victory Lane twice this year, including last weekend at Pocono.
Now third in the Sprint Cup standings, Earnhardt has three second-place finishes in 2014 to go with his two wins — and the question is no longer whether he can win, but how often.
“Definitely that’s new,” Earnhardt said. “That’s the new conversation topic for us, but I just want to win the next one. We have so much fun winning and going to Victory Lane and last week was so much fun (with) the feeling that you have inside and that you have for several hours after that. It’s like the best feeling ever. And I want to do it again. I want to do it now, this weekend.”
Earnhardt paired his first career win at Pocono with his Daytona 500 championship for his first multi-win season since 2004. He’s won twice at Michigan, including the 2012 victory that was his first in a Cup race anywhere since he also won at MIS four years earlier.
Earnhardt’s success this year has come to some degree at the expense of Brad Keselowski, who got his break when Earnhardt hired him to drive for JR Motorsports in the Nationwide Series.
Although their developing rivalry does not involve any real bad blood, Earnhardt and Keselowski have found themselves going head to head a decent amount lately.
When Earnhardt won at Daytona, Keselowski was third, and Keselowski was second to Earnhardt last weekend at Pocono. Keselowski did win at Las Vegas early in the season — with Earnhardt finishing second.
Although Keselowski is from Michigan, he’s never won a Cup race at MIS, finishing as high as second. A win by Keselowski would extend Ford’s winning streak to four Cup races at this track. Joey Logano took last year’s August event, and Greg Biffle took the two before that.
Chevrolet and Hendrick Motorsports have won the past four Cup races this year, with Jimmie Johnson winning twice and points leader Jeff Gordon also earning a victory in that span. And that doesn’t even count Jamie McMurray’s win for Chevy in the Sprint All-Star race last month.
Keselowski will try to end that run, while giving team owner Roger Penske another victory in Michigan after Logano prevailed last year. Keselowski is fifth in the Cup standings and Logano is ninth.
“I think it’s really good for Roger,” Keselowski said. “We rely on him so much to make our team go … whether that’s motivation, sponsorship, funding, decision making, leadership — across the board — and to see him be excited to have two cars that are legitimate front runners week in and week out, I think that really energizes him to play a strong role on the NASCAR side.”
Here are five more things to watch in Sunday’s race at MIS:
ROUSH’S OUTLOOK: Owner Jack Roush wouldn’t provide any update on what his driver lineup will look like in 2015, but Roush Fenway Racing is hoping to add to its record 13 Cup victories at Michigan. Roush’s only Cup win this year came when Carl Edwards took the checkered flag at Bristol. His best hope at MIS may be Biffle, who has four victories there — and Edwards leads all active drivers in the Cup series with an average finishing position at Michigan of 8.316.
TRYING AGAIN: Johnson is 0 for 24 at Michigan, although he came close to ending that drought in 2012 before his engine faltered with only six laps remaining. He finished second at MIS in August 2011.
RECORD SPEED: Ever since the Michigan track was repaved before the 2012 season, speeds have soared, and Kevin Harvick won the pole Friday at 204.557 mph, the fastest qualifying speed since Bill Elliott set the record of 212.809 mph at Talladega Superspeedway in April 1987. Johnson had the fastest speed in the first of two practice sessions Saturday at 202.054 mph. Kyle Larson topped the field at the final practice session at 198.424.
AT THE TOP: Gordon has finished in the top 15 in every race but one this year, and he brings the points lead to Michigan, where he’s won twice, although not since 2001. CONSISTENCY: Matt Kenseth is second in the standings despite not finishing higher than third in any race. He has 10 top-10 finishes. Kenseth has 18 top-10 finishes in 29 starts at Michigan, with two victories.
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