Drivers are finding a completely different experience at Michigan International Speedway on this visit.
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First, several are facing the pressure of making the Chase for the Sprint Cup. And second, the racing is expected to be different as this is the second trip to the repaved track, and the first with a slightly different tire designed to wear less.
These are the factors drivers will have to deal with Sunday in the Pure Michigan 400, a race that has heavy implications for drivers trying to either break into the top 10 in the standings or grab one of the two wild-card spots. Now, with four races until the Chase begins, there’s more to think about than just a top finish.
Several drivers absolutely need to win in the next four races in order to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup. Jeff Gordon is among that group.
Sitting 15th in the standings and with one win, Gordon needs to overtake the other drivers that have one win but are outside the top 10 in the next few races. Or, he needs to win again.
But as he heads into Sunday’s race, he says that he’s not thinking strictly in those terms. Instead, he’s trying to race like he always does, focusing only on the next event.
And like the others, he’s just looking for a win Sunday – and then to what lies ahead at the next stop.
“I get in the car and I drive the car and I tell them what it’s doing,” he said. “I’m not sitting there trying to calculate anything other than how do I make the car go faster and what kind of information I give them. And I do that lap by lap, session by session, and do that throughout the whole race.
“And that’s as far as I think ahead. I mean when I get asked a question like Atlanta, yeah, I’m excited about going to Atlanta because of what we did there last year and how good our cars are this year. But I really haven’t put much more thought into it other than that.”
Add in that the track was more slick for drivers on Friday, changing the nature of practice.
“The biggest difference right now is that we haven’t run the soft tire this weekend to get a bunch of rubber in the racetrack so it’s really hard… I mean it’s one-lane wide right now,” defending NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart said Friday after practice at Michigan for Sunday’s Pure Michigan 400. “It’s going to take a lot to get it any wider than that.”
How much is a lot? According to Stewart — more than teams will get this weekend from practices, qualifying and the Camping World Truck Series activities.
Michael Waltrip Racing’s Martin Truex Jr., who enters the race fifth in the points, echoed the sentiments.
"It’s still a narrow groove and that’s because when you come here and practice, everybody wants to run where the car’s fast,” he said. “You’re not going to move around. It’s going to take some time. Qualifying and practice, generally you don’t run anywhere but the fastest groove on the track. We’ll just see where it goes.”
Still, speeds were picking up by Saturday. This trip, speeds started out slower than in June, with Jimmie Johnson leading practice with a lap of 197.450 mph, and the pole was set by Mark Martin with a lap of 199.706 mph. Saturday, though, practice speeds topped 200 in the opening session as Greg Biffle hit 200.362 mph in the day’s opening session.
“I feel much better about the speeds now than what we were in practice at this point in June,” Ryan Newman said Friday. “Averaging 196 miles per hour in qualifying, that’s plenty fast. Remember when we said that the race we put on won’t be because of the speed, it will be because of the way we raced side by side, three and four wide and things like that. We can do that at 165 (miles per hour) verses 195.”