There were four drivers in last Sunday’s race at the Michigan International Speedway who weren’t born the last time anyone qualified faster than 200 mph in NASCAR.
Marcos Ambrose led a parade of 19 drivers to break the 200 mph barrier for the first time since Bill Elliott’s fast lap of 203.827 mph in 1987 at the Talladega Superspeedway. All the necessary ingredients for speed – tires, new asphalt, no restrictor plates and enough banking to keep the gas pedal flat on the floorboard – fell into place for a rare feat that may not be duplicated in a long time.
“I can’t hardly remember that far back,” Richard Petty said after Marcos put one of his cars on the pole at 203.242 mph. “To be able to do it on a flatter race track, not Daytona or Talladega, that is unheard of.”
The track will lose grip as it ages and the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. is likely to bring a harder tire to the next race to keep the cars under the magical 200 mph number. NASCAR has used a variety of methods, including restrictor plates at the Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway, to stay below 200 mph since Bobby Allison got airborne at Talladega in 1987 and nearly landed in the main grandstands.
None of the drivers in last Sunday’s race were in the sport 25 years ago, so the 200 mph level was something new.
“It is the fastest lap at Michigan ever and everything you said,” Ambrose said. “And it felt that fast out there too. It felt like I was getting it done.”
While fans seem attracted to the 200 mph mark, some wonder if it’s too fast.
“Realistically, that’s a very good question because it is fast,” Ryan Newman said. “I can’t say that it’s too fast. Nobody really has had a situation where they’ve hit the wall or hit each other to say that it’s too fast. We won’t know until that time comes if it is too fast. Predicting that, I don’t know if there is a true answer in figuring it out if 218 (mph) at the end of the front straightaway is too fast when we were doing 207 before. That extra 11 miles an hour; is that too fast? I don’t know. It is fast, no doubt.
“I always said from 140 mph on up, it doesn’t necessarily feel any faster until you hit a bump or something hits you or you hit the wall or a tire blows out.”
Sunday’s race was the first time several drivers openly talked about fear and safety. Usually they ignore the obvious: Racing can be dangerous; choosing to believe they are invincible to the hazards.
The 200 mph barrier changed all that.
“We don’t feel bulletproof; not at these speeds,” Denny Hamlin said. “You hate to think about what could happen, but running the speeds that we’re running at the end of the straightaway. If someone gets turned the wrong way it could not be good going into Turn 1, that’s for sure – or Turn 3, especially if you get turned heading the wrong way if you get turned in the right-rear.
“At these speeds I don't think we’ve tested these cars at these speeds yet as far as crashes.”
Hamlin did crash in Sunday’s race, and his car burst into flames. He walked away knowing another driver, not the speeds, caused the accident.
Jeff Gordon has been in Sprint Cup for 20 years – five years after Elliott’s 200-mph lap. He’s been on fire and upside-down in races. He’s hit walls at nearly 190 mph, and he’s walked away from everything with no significant injuries.
But he understands the reality of going fast, especially when he’s confined one both sides of the track by concrete walls.
“I feel like our sport is extremely safe until something goes wrong,” he said. “And it doesn’t matter if you’re going 220 mph or 150 mph. You don’t want to hit anything.”
Road course experts
Sunday’s race on the road course at the Sonoma Raceway is a great chance for car owners currently not among the top 35 in the rankings to steal a good finish with a road-racing expert.
Several teams will use a specialized driver for the 110-lap race, including Brian Vickers aboard the No. 55 Michael Waltrip Toyota for Mark Martin.
Other ringers include: Trans-Am champion Tomy Drissi in Tommy Baldwin’s No. 10 Chevrolet – the same car shared by Danica Patrick and David Reutimann; and Brian Simo in TRD’s No. 30 Toyota.
Usually there are more road course ringers, but the Nationwide Series is on the road course at Road America. Sports car drivers Ron Fellows, Jacques Villeneuve, Nelson Piquet, Miguel Paludo and Max Papis will be trying to turn their expertise into a good finish.