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Sensational speed matters at Michigan

August 16, 2014, Zack Albert, NASCAR.com

Jeff Gordon qualifying record
Drivers make history with record-toppling laps over 200 mph

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BROOKLYN, Mich. -- The sheer numbers were staggering, watching speeds reach the stratosphere in Friday afternoon's Coors Light Pole qualifying at Michigan. The track record at the 2-mile oval fell four times during time trials, climbing from 204, 205 mph and more until Jeff Gordon finally carried the mantle at a blistering 206.558 mph.
 
After clocking the seventh-fastest pole-winning speed in NASCAR Sprint Cup Series history, Gordon knew he had a solid lap but didn't know just how solid until he checked the scoreboard.
 
"It doesn't feel that fast, I'll be honest," Gordon said after clinching his second pole of the season and the 76th of his career. "It feels fast through the corners. I know that I've gotten a tremendous amount of throttle in it and I'm carrying a lot of speed, but at the same time, when you're carrying that much speed through the corners you don't feel like you're going that fast down the straightaways. There's not a big acceleration or change. So, it only really kind of gets my attention when I look up there and I see the speed, because on the track you don't realize you're going that fast."

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Of the 43 cars entered in Sunday's Pure Michigan 400 (1 p.m. ET, ESPN), 32 of them qualified at better than 200 mph, one of racing's magic numbers that has long made crew members check the calibration of their stopwatches. The laps are the fastest turned in NASCAR's premier series since the pre-restrictor plate era in the mid-1980s at ultra-fast Talladega Superspeedway and Daytona International Speedway.
 
The blazing speeds simmered somewhat Saturday in the Irish Hills as teams changed from qualifying trim to race setups, but 26 of 43 still topped the 200 mph mark in the brisk early morning session. Asked to explain the rise in speeds and the 2-mph jump in the track record, Gordon was quick to credit changes made to NASCAR's sixth-generation stock car in the offseason. The new model was introduced before the 2013 season, and restrictions on ride heights were eliminated before 2014 began.
 
Combine that with the lighter weight of the current-generation model and the smooth, grip-happy surface from Michigan's repaving project in 2012, and the factors were ripe for records to fall.
 
"It is fast, I know that much," said second-fastest Joey Logano, who held the track record for a matter of minutes before Gordon uncorked his chart-topping lap. "You actually get used to it. It is such a smooth race track, and if your car drives as good as mine did here today, you get used to that."
 
But driving with 200-plus as the new normal hasn't come without some growing pains. Speeds at the end of the straightaway top out in the neighborhood of 215 mph, and drivers barely lift off the throttle to carry momentum through Michigan's sweeping turns.
 
"You're just on the edge, so close to wide-open," said Brian Vickers, who clinched the fourth starting spot with a lap he described as "hairy" at 205.685 mph. "You have less inputs -- if that makes sense -- when you're almost wide-open. When you're lifting and braking and steering you have three inputs. When you're holding it wide-open, there's just one input -- the steering wheel. There are less options to manage a tight or loose car.  If you have less inputs, you have less control. I find that any time you're almost wide-open, you have less inputs, which makes it more difficult."

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