Greg Biffle, guns blazing, winner here a year ago. But if he wins this Texas NRA 500, he'll have to come from deep in the field, 35th. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
FORT WORTH, Texas
This place is fast, darned fast. Really darned fast.
"Ludicrous fast," Kurt Busch says.
And he was one of the fastest here in Friday night qualifying for Saturday night's Texas NRA 500.
Kyle and Kurt Busch made it a brotherly front row for the 6:30 p.m. CT start at Texas Motor Speedway. Kyle took the pole at a steamy 196.299 mph in Dave Rogers' Toyota, a track record; Kurt took outside at 195.595 mph. That's more than six mph quicker than the pole speed here a year ago, an astounding jump.
But that's one of the stories surrounding these new 2013s: Speed.
Apparently Detroit engineers have done a good job of putting 'design cues' into the new stockers.
Danica Patrick's Daytona pole at 196.434 mph was the fastest run at that track since 1989.
Mark Martin's Phoenix pole at 138.074 mph was the second-fastest run at that track ever.
Las Vegas qualifying was rained out.
But at Bristol Kyle Busch set a track record at 129.535 mph.
And at California Denny Hamlin's pole was the second-fastest ever, and the fastest since 2005.
Jimmie Johnson's Martinsville pole at 98.400 was a track record.
Brian Vickers held the old Texas track record at 196.235 mph, set in the fall of 2006.
This track is abrasive, and tires wear out quickly and lose speed. The closing rate for drivers on new tires versus drivers on old tires is considerable. Ford's Aric Almirola says that means some drivers will 'short pit,' stopping for tires earlier than usual, to try to get an edge. And spotters will have to be on their toes to keep their drivers aware of who has fresher tires.
But Kurt Busch he's not worried about drivers having any brake issues; drivers sometimes drag brakes into the corners to help stabilize the car at high speeds. He says the large rear spoiler and new rear end camber settings keep the cars stable enough, even though mid-corner speeds are much higher too.
Greg Biffle had problems in qualifying and will start 35th. Kevin Harvick had trouble in practice, blowing an engine, which could point to potential problems with all cars using the same engine design -- including Kurt Busch. Clint Bowyer, Mark Martin, Matt Kenseth, Joey Logano and Paul Menard were all also well off the pace in qualifying, pointing to strategy rather than pure speed as part of their game plans. Fuel mileage could also be an issue.
Jimmie Johnson earned one of these classic Turnball 1886s for winning the Texas pole last fall.... (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
And this speed thing is likely to be a significant storyline for some time. Goodyear has tests lined up at Daytona and Chicago in coming weeks.
Carl Edwards just tested on Kansas Speedway's new asphalt, the tour's next stop: "It's lightning fast. I think we were 207 or 209 mph at the end of the straight."
Kansas is a Texas-size 1-1/2-mile track, but Kansas' banking is 17-20 degrees, while this track is banked an awesome 24 degrees.
How fast into the corners here? Kurt Busch, after final practice, said the fastest he saw was 195, down a bit since NASCAR is allowing teams less rear end gearing, which keeps RPM down to acceptable levels, and because spoilers here are like parachutes.
However mid-corner speeds for this race are 7 mph quicker than last fall, which has kept Goodyear men prowling the garage.
And when qualifying finally got underway Friday evening, speeds picked up a solid three mph.
Friday afternoon teams packaged all practice, and in final runs Marcos Ambrose was fastest at 191.354, and Brad Keselowski was fastest deep into a run, 189.361 on lap 50.
Will Saturday night's 500 be another Jimmie Johnson-Keselowski duel? Well, Johnson figures to be there; Rick Hendrick's Chevy guys are on top of their game, while Ford teams are still looking for a little more speed.
Johnson is atop the Sprint Cup standings: "I like it. I think it sends a message to the garage."
That a run to a sixth championship is utmost in his mind.
This has long been a powerhouse track for Ford, particularly Jack Roush. However Chevy and Toyota teams appear to be starting the season with an edge. So this could be a tell-tale event for Roush and Ford men.
And after beating Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch to win last fall's Texas 500, Jimmie Johnson earned this brace of Turnbull revolvers (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Carl Edwards, a three-time winner, his last time five years ago, could be one Roush man to watch. But he concedes he and new crew chief Jimmy Fennig are still learning this new car and what it might need to perform well on these 1-1/2-mile and two-mile tracks:
"I had reservations, because of how different the car is, and the cambered rear ends, and the different aero package.
"Then those last 10 or 15 laps at California (three weeks ago) pretty much said it all to me. If we can put on that style of a race at a track that's two miles long and has all the aero issues we complain about, I think this car could put on some very, very good races at these 1-1/2-miles.
"One of the biggest things that made the race so exciting at the finish at California is the way Goodyear had engineered the tire to interact with that track surface... so at the end of the race guys like me, who had a 12th-place car, came in and got tires and could go four-wide in the first corner, and ended up finishing third or fourth.
"I don't know if Kansas has aged enough for the tires to act like that. (Kansas was just repaved last year.) It feels like Texas has."
Carl Edwards (R), with Clint Bowyer (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
However it seems this NRA sponsorship the 500 is getting much more attention than many in the sport like.
And Daytona execs may be nervous about how other sponsors will react to the politically sensitive issue.
Keep a close watch on victory lane and the various celebrations here. The pole winner traditionally gets an expensive rifle (lately from New York-based Turnbull), which he fires off for the cameras. And the race winner traditionally gets an expensive brace of cowboy revolvers (also lately from Turnbull).
The bullets fired are, of course, all blanks. But who fires the guns, and where, well, stay tuned.
NASCAR's reaction has come somewhat late; the NRA sponsor was announced last month.
"NASCAR has no official position on the gun rights debate," NASCAR's David Higdon says.
"Our fans, racing teams and industry partners come from all walks of life, and thus have varying points of views and opinions.
"As a sport we are in the business of bringing people together for entertainment, not political debate."
Well, NASCAR executives have never been very shy about bringing politics into this sport. In fact there was the appearance last season of a decided tilt toward the Romney presidential campaign.
Still, this time the issue of guns appears much more sensitive. Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy has written NASCAR Brian France to complain about the NRA sponsorship, which he says indicates NASCAR's tacit support of the NRA positions. And Murphy has even asked Fox boss Rupert Murdoch not to broadcast the race on TV.
That reaction may have shaken NASCAR.
Higdon says "The NRA's sponsorship of the event... fit within existing parameters that NASCAR affords tracks in securing partnerships.
"However this situation has made it clear that we need to take a closer look at our approval process."
NASCAR has on occasion censored sponsorships (Nate Ryan has a good report on that HERE ) for various reasons. Big Johnson tee-shirts was one of the more humorously controversial.
Martin Truex Jr. with a custom Turnbull 1886 he won for taking last spring's Texas pole (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Meanwhile, over in the garage Patrick should rightly be basking in the glow of last weekend's surprising performance at Martinsville.
"It was a satisfying moment," she says.
Particularly after a month-long stretch of poor showings.
After surviving the nearly four-hour Martinsville 500, Patrick got caught up in a last-lap tangle between Kevin Harvick and Vickers.
Patrick appears to be taking Harvick's side in whatever happened.
She talked with Harvick and "said 'Thanks,' because it looked like he was giving me a hand there with someone that was a little upset.
"He was a little upset with Brian; I think there were a lot of people upset with Vickers. I haven't raced with him very much, so I'm getting on with my day."
Vickers' view: "Harvick wrecked us after the checkered.
"I reached out to Harvick -- I tried to call him, and he didn't answer. We texted back and forth a few times.
"We were on a different page to start with, and I think we ended closer to the same page, but not necessarily where we needed to be. I’d still like to spend a few minutes with him.
"He was, for some reason, under the impression I put him three-wide on a restart. The reality was I started on the inside and he started on the outside and he passed someone and put himself three-wide. I had nothing to do with that.
"He took his frustration out on us. It's unfortunate."
Tony Stewart, in a Texas victory celebration. You get the idea (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)