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If you like 200 mph racing, you'll love the new Michigan

If you like 200 mph racing, you'll love the new Michigan

Mark Martin: 201.089 mph! Yes, Michigan is fast....(Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)




   By Mike Mulhern

   BROOKLYN, Mich.
   Now there's fast.
   And there's really fast.
   And there's really, really fast.
   But this, at least Thursday at just repaved Michigan International Speedway, could be called stupid fast.
   "There's no reason to be running this fast here," one veteran crew chief said wearily, asking not to be named, considering how sensitive NASCAR executives are these days to any hint of criticism.
   So, on the record, pretty much it's 'all quiet on the western front,' so to speak.
   With a strange dearth of journalists working the NASCAR garage here on this unusual 'test' day, where teams can fiddle to their hearts' content, the story line is easy to find: 218 mph on the straights is good for business and headlines, as long as no one gets hurt.
   And no one gets hurt in these stock cars anymore, do they?
   NASCAR officials Robin Pemberton and John Darby both insist there are no worries here, that speeds should come down as the track takes rubber and the weather heats up. Pemberton called Thursday morning track conditions here perfect, the best they should be all weekend for speed, so speeds should start slowing down.
    Darby says all the technical issues that he and Pemberton are monitoring are "green light."
    Pemberton says no plans at all to throw restrictors plates on the engines to slow the cars.

    Of course restrictor plates, while perhaps slowing the cars, would mainly serve to bunch the field into a big pack, like Daytona and Talladega, and drivers do not like that type of racing.
    However another veteran crew chief, who likewise asked not to be named, says that "NASCAR is in a box here," because there is virtually nothing the sanctioning body can do at this late point to try to slow the cars, without having some significant adverse effect.
    Raising the rear spoiler, to increase drag? One team already reported having cracked welds on that part of the car because of downforce at these speeds.
    Eddie Wood, the veteran team owner, concedes it is 'very fast here.
   "But I like it. It's cool.
    "But then I'm not a driver," he adds with a laugh.
    Greg Biffle is a driver, one of NASCAR's 'fastest' drivers, and he's led the Sprint Cup points most of the spring. There may be no braver driver in this sport.
    Biffle is worried about the speeds, not because of the speed per se but because the pounding on the race car might break something, since no one has ever raced cars this fast before.
    In fact, with a 200-mph qualifying lap a clear possibility....well, when was the last time NASCAR had a 200-mph pole run?
    It does seem odd that NASCAR has no particularly backup plan ready if things do get out of hand.

   And usually it's a good sign when drivers show a little fear. Maybe they'll show a little more discretion out there.

   However, all that considered, the blunt fact is drivers can't race this fast. Yes, they can drive this fast. But think California Speedway -- 208 mph into the first turn? Fine. No problem. But no side by side racing either.

     "It all seems fine right now, though it's definitely fast, like a qualifying lap every time out there," Biffle says. "Probably the biggest problem I see is that I'm holding my breath by myself, on edge going that fast. I cannot imagine racing five or eight guys for the lead going that fast....
    "If somebody gets in an accident, or breaks something....I mean we're pushing the limits of all our suspension components at these speeds.
    "As we keep picking up, we won't even ever be all off the gas.
   "So if a guys blows a tire, I'm a little concerned about that."

   Tires will naturally be worrisome, though Goodyear's Rick Campbell, the company's star tire designer, for more than 20 years, seems confident. Still, crews and drivers were carefully examining the right front tires here.

   And tire temperatures could be an issue, though Goodyear hasn't really had any major tire problems in years.

   Will the asphalt itself hold up? At these speeds the asphalt will certainly take a pounding. And sometimes the effects aren't seen until late Saturday, after several days of running.

    Mike Ford, crew chief for Aric Almirola this season, after years with Denny Hamlin, says strategy could be interesting to watch develop Sunday:
   "It's going to come down to track position, it's going to come to gas mileage....
    "It's opening things up to a different mindset than the typical 'lift and roll back to the gas.'
   "You'll have to be efficient in the areas....and not necessarily the standard areas.
   "The track has a lot of grip – which can compensate for miscues on handling.
    "You'll have to trim your car out for speed. And you'll have to keep your mileage good too.
    "You're off the throttle a little bit, but nothing like what it was before.
    "Drafting will come into play, and that could make the speeds come up."
    Tactics and strategy here, Ford says cagily, is wide open right now. "You're going into it completely open-minded....because you don't have any solid foundation to start from this time."

     What happens in the draft here? Good question.
     Maybe that two-car draft, that NASCAR has tried to kill off, will reemerge Sunday.
     If so, don't expect to squeeze any game plans out of these crew chiefs.
     Jimmie Johnson says these speeds are "quite a rush.
      "You certainly feel the speed... and the comfort is there.  This asphalt and tire combo seems to be decent. 
       "We wouldn't be able to run this fast if we didn't have comfort in the car and there wasn't a lot of grip.
      "(But) I still think we are going to have our traditional repave type of racing.  The racing lane gets narrower and narrower the faster you go.  With these record speeds it's going to be pretty narrow until the track ages.
     "I don't have any concerns about the speeds.  Granted I haven't seen one hit the wall yet to see how the car reacts with the safer barrier at this pace.
     "Every lap does feel like a qualifying lap; but because the comfort is there you complete the lap and you kind of giggle: 'I got away with that?'"


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