Top 10 Generation-6 track qualifying records
November 27, 2013, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
Editor's note: This story is the fourth of a weekly series about the Gen-6 debut.
It was built with brand identity in mind, to further strengthen the bonds between the vehicles raced on the track and those driven on the street. In the process though, something else happened -- the Generation-6 car became one fast machine.
That much was evident in a test last December at Charlotte Motor Speedway, where Kasey Kahne was turning laps that would have broken the track qualifying record. And it was realized in a breakthrough season for the new NASCAR Sprint Cup Series car, one in which lighter overall weight and increased rear grip helped the vehicle set new track records in 19 of the 32 qualifying sessions conducted this past season at NASCAR's top level.
Of the 23 tracks on the Sprint Cup circuit, 16 now have new track records thanks to the Gen-6 car. Of the seven tracks that retained their existing marks, two (Daytona and Talladega) are restrictor-place venues with records out of reach, and another (Las Vegas) had its qualifying session rained out. That means the Gen-6 car broke records at 16 of 20 facilities where it had the opportunity, a sparkling batting average straight out of the box. Even Danica Patrick's pole speed for the Daytona 500 was among the fastest of the restricted era.
Yes, NASCAR's new car proved to be a speed racer indeed. And some of the marks it set proved more notable than others, given the circumstances or the dramatics involved. So as we zoom from Thanksgiving and toward Champions Week, chew on a helping of the top 10 track records set by the Gen-6 car.
10. Darlington: 181.918 mph
Ten years after his historic duel to the finish with Ricky Craven, and at the same track where his Furniture Row Racing team notched its only victory to date, Kurt Busch showed flashes of what he might be capable of in the No. 78 car by turning a qualifying lap at Darlington that easily surpassed Kasey Kahne's previous mark from two seasons earlier. It was the first pole since 2011 for Busch, who regained his competitive footing with Furniture Row for the first time since his split with Penske Racing. "A great surprise," said Busch, who would go on to amass nine front-row starting spots and get the No. 78 team into the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup for the first time.
9. Watkins Glen: 128.241 mph
There had been no track record at Sonoma Raceway, the first road course in which the Sprint Cup field used group qualifying at NASCAR's top level. That would change a few months later at Watkins Glen International, when Marcos Ambrose would smash the track record despite a slight bobble in the esses during his best lap on the high-speed course. Ambrose's lap easily bettered the one-year-old previous record held by Juan Pablo Montoya, with the Australian over a full mile per hour faster than the Colombian had been. It was a brisk qualifying session in total, with all but 10 cars breaking the old mark.
8. Dover: 161.849 mph
Dale Earnhardt Jr. isn't necessarily known for his qualifying prowess, but you wouldn't have known that in qualifying before the Chase race at Dover. NASCAR's most popular driver broke the nine-year-old track record previously held by Jeremy Mayfield, and in the process earned multiple poles in a single season for the first time since 2002. "I think we're a better team that we were last year," said Earnhardt, who had also won the pole in a track-record effort at Kentucky.
7. Bristol: 129.535 mph
At Daytona, there were the restrictor plates. At Phoenix, everyone was still adjusting to a new pavement and new configuration. At Las Vegas, there was rain. So the long-awaited first track record to be set by the Gen-6 car had to wait until the season's first short track, and Kyle Busch delivered at half-mile Bristol in the form of a 14.813-second lap that broke the existing mark set a decade earlier by Ryan Newman. "A great, crazy-fast lap," second-place starter Kasey Kahne called it. To Busch, who would also win the NASCAR Camping World Truck and NASCAR Nationwide Series events that weekend, it was another accomplishment at perhaps his best track.
6. Charlotte: 195.624 mph
Denny Hamlin's comeback from a broken vertebra suffered in a crash started so well -- first with a runner-up performance at Darlington, and then with a record qualifying lap at Charlotte that broke the mark Greg Biffle had set the previous October. "These small victories give me confidence I'm still capable," he said then. Hamlin admittedly pushed himself right to the edge in qualifying, trying to make up for what he missed due to the injury. But such high hopes were short-lived -- the layoff, combined with struggles with his race cars, led him to miss the Chase for the first time in his career.
5. Richmond: 130.334 mph
The guy who hardly ever wins poles took his second in as many race weekends -- kind of. Matt Kenseth earned the first back-to-back poles of his career in track record efforts at first Kansas and then Richmond, although the former was initially stripped of Sprint Unlimited qualification due to engine penalties that would be largely overturned on appeal. "One of our goals this weekend was to come here and sit on the pole and try to quiet down some of the noise," he said after a lap at Richmond that broke a nine-year-old record previously held by Brian Vickers. "I was pretty glad we were able to accomplish that." And even better, he got to keep it.
4. Phoenix: 139.222 mph
Leading Matt Kenseth by eight points entering the penultimate race weekend of the season, Jimmie Johnson made a statement by dropping a track-record run on the competition at a track he's all too often used as the staging ground for a championship. While Kenseth qualified 14th, Johnson broke the old mark set by Kyle Busch the previous November. "Track records are awesome," Johnson said. "I don't qualify on the pole all that often, so I take great pride in them." It was a session that underlined the disparity in how the two leading contenders would run that weekend, with Kenseth struggling deep in the pack and Johnson motoring toward title No. 6.
3. Michigan: 203.949 mph
No single day emphasized the speed in the Gen-6 car better than one August afternoon in Michigan, where Joey Logano broke a blistering record that Marcos Ambrose had set only the season before. Logano's lap bettered Ambrose's mark of 203.241 set the previous June, and became the ninth-highest speed ever recorded by a NASCAR pole winner. "I don't know how fast it is, but it feels freaking fast," Logano said afterward. No surprise -- that day at Michigan produced the fastest pole speed since Bill Elliott went 212.809 mph at Talladega, on the weekend in 1987 that ushered in the use of restrictor plates at the sport's two largest tracks.
2. Indianapolis: 187.531 mph
Jimmie Johnson posted an early provisional pole speed at the Brickyard and waited as more than 30 other drivers tried to knock him off. One by one, they came up short -- until the last man to go in the qualifying order. In one fell swoop, Ryan Newman bumped Johnson, broke Casey Mears' nine-year-old track record, and notched his 50th pole. It was a big moment for the driver once called "Rocketman," who hadn't won a pole since 2011, and had recently learned he was losing his ride at the end of the year. "People ask me if I've run out of fuel for the rockets," Newman joked. Certainly not that day at Indianapolis.
1. Richmond: 130.599 mph
For Jeff Gordon, the pressure was on. The four-time series champion came to Richmond in September six points out of the 10th and final Chase berth decided on the standings, and needing a strong run to bridge that gap. Gordon left no doubt that he would be in the mix for a playoff spot, seizing the pole for the crucial regular-season finale with a lap that broke the track record set by Matt Kenseth only a few months earlier. "There's no doubt," Gordon said that night, "we all recognize what's on the line here."
What happened since is well-known. Gordon finished eighth in the event, and fell just shy of the a Chase berth -- until NASCAR took the unprecedented step of adding him as a 13th driver in the wake of a race manipulation scandal that had unfolded that night in Richmond. But before that, there was clear satisfaction in a pole that not only established Gordon as a contender, but also extended his record string of consecutive seasons with a pole to 21, breaking a tie with David Pearson. "I didn’t think it was going to come this year, I'll be honest," Gordon said that night. "… Very proud of this one. Boy, it comes as a great time."