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Test results show repaved Michigan could set records

June 15, 2012, Mark Aumann,

Four drivers top 201 mph; NASCAR expects speeds to decrease slightly by race

The first full-scale Cup test of the newly repaved Michigan International Speedway provided the answer to one question Thursday, but not surprisingly, led to several others.

Yes, MIS is lightning-fast. But at what point does fast become too fast? After three hours of practice, the consensus is that the speeds on the 2-mile oval are certainly attention-getting but not unusual enough to require any major rules changes.

Hold on tight: Topping 200 mph at Michigan

Morning test session
2.K. Harvick200.999 35.821
3. M. Truex Jr. 200.306 35.945
4.Dale Jr.200.206 35.963
2. G. Biffle 201.557 35.722
3. Ku. Busch 201.173 35.790
4.K. Harvick 200.697 35.875
5. Dale Jr. 200.658 35.882
6. P. Menard 200.111 35.980
7. C. Bowyer 200.078 35.986

The current NASCAR track record of 194.232 mph -- set by Ryan Newman in 2005 -- is most assuredly on the extinction list, as three dozen drivers eclipsed it unofficially in the three-hour morning session. All 43 drivers who took to the track in the afternoon session topped that mark.

It's been 25 years since Bill Elliott laid down a 200-plus mph lap in qualifying, but four drivers -- led by Mark Martin's scorching 201.089 mph -- broke through that barrier in race trim in the morning session and seven did so in the afternoon, with Tony Stewart's 201.896 mph the fastest lap of the day. Odds are good after this weekend, MIS can rightfully lay claim to being the fastest unrestricted track on the circuit.

"Qualifying trim will be spectacular, I am sure," Greg Biffle said. "It is just how fast this place is. I mean, I knew it was going to be like this when they repaved this place because it has some banking and is wide. The corner entry is a real long arc. It just has a lot of grip and that is how it is going to be."

But as the temperatures come up -- Sunday's high could come close to 90 degrees -- and more rubber is laid down on the track, NASCAR vice president for competition Robin Pemberton expects the optimum conditions drivers experienced Thursday morning will abate somewhat.

"What we saw [Thursday] morning is probably the best for speed that the track will be in," Pemberton said. "The grooves will widen out and the pace will slow down. It was nice to see the speeds this morning and maybe qualifying will get there -- maybe -- but the pace will slow down."

NASCAR officials were more than aware that speeds would approach 200 mph, Pemberton said, thanks to the April tire test. But that's to be expected with the improved grip of Michigan's new asphalt.

* Sound Off: Biffle, Bowyer, Johnson, Pemberton discuss test

This isn't that much different than what's occurred in the past at fast, high-banked ovals, Pemberton said.

"We're just a little bit faster than we were 15 years ago at Atlanta," Pemberton said. "Time will take care of all of it. We're not concerned right now. We're confident in it."

There are no plans to mandate restrictor plates between now and Sunday's race, Pemberton said. And according to Sprint Cup Series director John Darby, gear ratios and tire compounds are getting positive reviews from the garage area.

Amid all the back-slapping and glad-handing, though, some of the series' top drivers expressed their concerns on several issues: Is it safe to be going this fast, and will Sunday's race be anything more than "follow the leader?"

One of those was Biffle, whose quickest lap was ninth on the leaderboard at 199.253 mph in the morning and in between sessions said he felt like he was reaching the limits of his comfort factor in the car. He then went out in the afternoon and put down the second-fastest lap of the day at 201.557 mph.

"I think we are approaching some safety concerns at the speeds we are going," Biffle said. "I don't know that we are quite there yet, though. The thing you worry about is if a piece breaks on the car [or] an engine breaks at an inopportune time coming off the corner or getting in the corner.

"We have to walk that fine line of not killing people and creating excitement. I think the biggest thing is that when people say that it is too fast or whatever ... it makes it hard to race other cars at that speed. You look at the places we go the absolute fastest and sometimes those aren't the best races to watch."

If Michigan proves to be anything like Pocono, laps could be as much as a second slower in Sunday's race as they were during Thursday's test.

Even then, Biffle said you're talking about sustained laps in the mid-190s, which may not lead to much fender-rubbing.

"You aren't going to bump somebody at 218 mph, I promise you that," Biffle said. "It isn't going to happen. I'm saying that just because we are going that fast. It doesn't mean it is going to be a great race.

"High speed doesn't always mean exciting racing. Sometimes a little slower speed actually could be a little more exciting and thrilling."

No driver maintained a 200 mph average over 10 consecutive laps, with Martin posting the best average speed of 197.434 mph in the afternoon session.