Tony Stewart topped the speed chart on the newly repaved Michigan Speedway with a lap of 201.896 mph in NASCAR Sprint Cup testing Thursday. But down the frontstretch, drivers were reaching 218 mph entering the corner. That’s 5 mph faster than drivers were running last week at Pocono Raceway.
While Robin Pemberton, NASCAR’s vice president of competition, said the sanctioning body did not expect to add a restrictor plate to slow the speeds, which he expects to slow over time, drivers did seem a little surprised by them.
Greg Biffle, who posted a lap of 201.556 mph, doesn’t believe the speeds are outrageous. The former points leader — Biffle dropped from first to third in the standings after engine issues at Pocono — said “a little action and controversy” is good for the sport. And fans recently have questioned whether all the safety innovations have made NASCAR a bit stale.
“Yeah, but we don’t want to kill anybody, either.” Biffle said. “We have to walk that fine line of not killing people and creating excitement. I think the biggest thing is that when people say that it is too fast or whatever . . . that it makes it hard to race other cars at that speed. You look at the places we go, the absolute fastest, and sometimes those aren’t the best races to watch. Sometimes the tracks that are a little bit slower put on a little better side-by-side action and more bumping and grinding. I promise you that you aren’t going to bump somebody at 218 mph, I promise you that. It isn’t going to happen.
“Saying that, just because we are going that fast doesn’t mean it is going to be a great race. Just because the speeds are the thrill or excitement. TV tames it down a lot. Watching in the grandstands here and watching on TV at home is a lot different. It numbs you from that speed. High speed doesn’t always mean exciting racing. Sometimes a little slower speed actually could be a little more exciting and thrilling. You are seeing guys root and gouge and go.”
Still, Biffle recognizes the issues high speeds can raise.
”I have to admit that if I was on the other side of the game I would be a little bit nervous right now with the 218,” he said. “. . . It is kind of late in the game. Who knew what it would do, that is the biggest unknown. We know it slows the car down a little bit, but where do you start? Are these engines capable? That is a lot of unknowns.”
NASCAR, though, appears comfortable with the results as of now.
During the first session in testing on the 2-mile track, 39 cars surpassed the qualifying record of 194.232 mph set by Ryan Newman in August 2005. However, the cars were running in race trim, not qualifying trim. In the afternoon session, some, such as Stewart, were in qualifying trim when they set their fast laps and all 43 topped the qualifying record.
Asked if there was a speed that could generate liftoff and get the sanctioning body’s attention, NASCAR Sprint Cup director John Darby said, “Yes, there is, and, no, we’re not there yet.”
Drivers say it’s the handling of the car as much as anything that makes the higher speeds feel significant.
“It’s pretty fast,” said Clint Bowyer, whose best lap was 199.418 mph. “Center corner speed is fast. It doesn’t feel any different down the straightaway if your car is handling good. At the start of practice, I was a second off and it felt really, really fast. At the end of practice, I was top 10 in speeds and it didn’t feel as fast because I had a good handle on the car, good balance. And that makes all the difference in the world.
“Let me tell you, when you’re fighting loose conditions and the thing snaps sideways when you’re running 200 miles an hour, it gets your attention pretty quick.”
Four drivers — Mark Martin, Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr. and Dale Earnhardt Jr. — broke the 200-mph barrier for an overall lap speed in the morning session.
After two solid weeks and five consecutive events, Mark Martin will enjoy the next four weeks off.
Team owner Michael Waltrip and Brian Vickers will share driving duties during the popular veteran’s absence. Waltrip is running at Daytona and in his home state of Kentucky. After warming up in Le Mans, Vickers will tackle Sonoma and New Hampshire. Martin returns to action at the Brickyard.
“It’s a long time,” Martin said. “The way it happened, Michael got shafted out of Kentucky last year by running real fast and getting rained out in qualifying. So this was important for Michael to get locked in. Now, he’ll have a rocket ship to drive at Kentucky. I had all the other races I wanted to run, and it just worked out like this.”
Martin, who finished second last week at Pocono Raceway, topped the speed chart in the morning test session with a lap of 201.089 mph and was 11th quick in the afternoon (198.873 mph). Although Martin is having plenty of success lately, the 53-year-old racer is looking forward to a little personal time.
Does he hate taking time off when he’s running this well?
“No, not at all,” Martin said. “I’m ready. It’s been five races in a row. From here on out, it’s never more than two or three in a row.
“One of the twins is getting married. We might do a trip with Matt to Arkansas one weekend. We have a visit scheduled with a granddaughter. We’ll just keep bouncing along. We don’t have a personal ‘vacay’ yet, we might if we happen on to it, but right now we’re just playing it by ear.”
1 Blown engine by Regan Smith.
1 Blown right-side tire by Kyle Busch.
3 Blistered left-side tires by Mark Martin and 1 blistered right-side tire.
Does NASCAR have a target track speed at Michigan where there will be cause for concern?
“Yes, there is,” Sprint Cup director John Darby said. “And no, we’re not there yet.”