Marcos Ambrose had the answers Saturday, winning the Michigan 400 pole at a redhot 203 mph (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
Certainly can't say there's no drama here this weekend.
Perhaps just a little too much drama.
A lot of men walking around the stock car garage with pained, quizzical expressions on their faces.
Too much mystery, too much speed.
If any of these guys really knows just what is really going on here, they're keeping it to themselves.
Actually there is the decided sense that none of these guys has that much of a clue of what to expect -- The fastest race in NASCAR history is on tap here Sunday afternoon, at newly repaved Michigan International Speedway.
And, after a series of questionable decisions along the line, there is considerable mystery about just what to anticipate.
NASCAR tire men are earning their pay this weekend (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Now to put all this into some perspective, in years past, when a NASCAR track was repaved, everyone anticipated, with dread, what problems might erupt.
Remember Charlotte Motor Speedway 2005?
That 'levigation' project was a fiasco. Smoothing the surface made for lightning fast speeds (193 for the pole that fall), and it was too fast for the tires, leading to numerous cautions. That track was quickly repaved, and Goodyear designed a better tire – in fact the tire that is the new left-side for Sunday's 400.
But that, and the Indy Brickyard 400 of 2008, is ancient history now. Goodyear for nearly four years now has been hitting home runs in such tough situations, in part because of extensive pre-race testing.
Well, repaves haven't really been that much of an issue these past several years.
Until here and now.
But then no one in this sport has ever seen speeds like this either. Sustained high speeds, sustained engine RPM...and the tires....
Greg Biffle: nearly 205 mph in practice. But now he and the rest of the field will be racing on different tires. No one knows just what to expect. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Problems probably should have been anticipated and prepared for.
Now it may all turn out just fine Sunday, and someone will win, and then it's on to Sonoma.
But here on the eve of this historic event, things are just a little too worrisome.
First off, Nationwide drivers are running this track flat-out, never lifting. That's highly unusual on a two-mile oval like this.
And the tires...
Yes, those 220 mph straightaway speeds here are exhilarating, for drivers and fans alike. And the sport's first 200-mph qualifying laps in nearly 25 years are big headline material.
There is the nagging sense that some of the lead-up decisions to this event could have been, and should have been, handled a bit better.
This, after all, should be the fastest race in NASCAR history, and that's been evident for months now, plenty of time to get everything just right.
And, if last week's amazing Pocono 400 is any indication, this Michigan 400 could equally successful.
Considering the looming left-side tire design change for Sunday's 400, Saturday's qualifying runs may be just a footnote to the weekend.
Marcos Ambrose and Kevin Harvick took the front row for the 1 p.m. ET start, just ahead of Greg Biffle and Kasey Kahne. Ambrose's lap at 203.241 mph was a bit slower than the fastest lap here so far, Biffle's 204.708 mph late Friday afternoon in blazing 88-degree sunshine.
When the going gets tough, like it has here this weekend at Michigan International Speedway, a good man to keep an eye on is three-time champ Tony Stewart. What's 220 in a stock car after you've done 247 in an Indy-car? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
What to expect of the new tires Goodyear hauled in here overnight, the venerable Charlotte code 4020s, first used in the 600 in 2006?
The 4020s are a very hard, very durable tire. However the issue with the left-side tires now to be discarded is not that they were not hard and durable but that they did not dissipate enough heat, and thus blistered, a situation that appeared to be exacerbated as ambient temperatures increased and cars began 'dancing' around the track.
NASCAR is allowing teams an extra 75-minute practice session Saturday evening, after the Nationwide 250. The Nationwide cars, which are about 12 mph slower than the Sprint Cup cars, appeared to be doing fine on the original Goodyear setup.
While Goodyear officials were quick to address the situation Friday evening, three major issues were obvious:
-- Considering this track's major repave, and the long-anticipated extremely fast speeds, it is quite surprising Goodyear and NASCAR did not have a Plan B tire game plan in place, and did not have backup tires already at the track.
Perhaps this was in part complacency on both NASCAR and Goodyear, since the tire company performed so well just a week earlier under a similar high-speed repave at Pocono.
And perhaps this was in part because NASCAR executives appear to relish the news headlines and marketing buzz generated by such sizzling 200-plus speeds...even though drivers such as Jeff Gordon and Biffle have pointed out that fast speeds don't necessarily make for great side-by-side racing.
-- NASCAR's weekend schedule of events here, and the time-wasting 'impound' concept being used, put teams under the gun in getting setups set for one of the most anticipated races of the season: Just 75 minutes?
-- Despite banks of high-tech computers and huge numbers of engineers, NASCAR, Goodyear and the teams all were seemingly caught with their pants down when the hot weather and extra rubber on the track did not – as they had projected – ameliorate the tire and speed issues but in fact exacerbated them. Teams once like to have some extra track testing time about 10 days ahead of the event, when track conditions would be more like what to expect during the race itself. However NASCAR dropped such testing four years ago. So the only solid data about these tires on this track came from an early April test, when the weather was much cooler and speeds much slower.
A full two days of testing could have been held two weeks ago, or so; admittedly not all that pleasant a prospect for teams already being run ragged, still preferable to trying to put together a game plan for the fastest race in NASCAR history in just 75 minutes the night before the event.
NASCAR could be criticized for adding only one extra day of testing to the week's schedule. However drivers pointed out that the tire issues became quickly obvious Thursday afternoon...only to be dismissed by officials as something that would eventually go away. At that point Plan B tires (the 4020s in this case) could have been rolled out Friday for extended runs by some teams.
Hard to find many smiling faces here. Paul Menard isn't the only man wearing a game face all weekend (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
And then there is the bigger picture issue of just what options NASCAR even has at hand to deal with such excessive speeds, regardless of how the tires are performing.
Even before tires became a major issue, Biffle Thursday morning was raising significant questions about these speeds, about what might break on cars at these unprecedented stress levels.
Matt Kenseth raised a question too, that still hasn't been answered, about what might happen to one of these stock cars if it gets turned sideways at 220? Will it stay on the ground?
Another driver asked – without answer – if anyone has ever crash-tested one of these stock cars at 220?
Another unanswered question: have any drivers walked the track to see if there are any areas where safety could be improved?
Were NASCAR executives so hell-bent on big speed headlines that they glossed over such questions?
Are drivers so intimidated these days that they are unwilling to raise any such issues that might draw NASCAR's ire?
As it is now, the shape of Sunday's 400 will likely still be in considerable doubt even after the Saturday evening runs.
If you like NASCAR drama and mystery, this race should be one for the history books.
Maybe Kevin Harvick knows something the other guys don't (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)