June 16, 2012  |   By Bruce Martin

Sprint Cup Raises Speed Limit On Fast New Pavement This Weekend In Michigan

For the second week in a row, the “Race to the Brickyard” is on a newly paved road.

Last week, it was the 2.5-mile; triangle-shaped Pocono International Raceway that got a fresh coat of asphalt and created a different dynamic for a race that was shortened from 500 to 400 miles. The youngest full-time driver in NASCAR Sprint Cup knocked the oldest driver in the series out of the way on the final lap as Joey Logano defeated Mark Martin.

This weekend the Cup drivers head to the repaved Michigan International Speedway, where speeds are very high heading into qualifications Saturday and the 400-mile race Sunday. Drivers surpassed 217 mph at the end of the frontstretch heading into the first turn during practice.

And that creates a new challenge for the “Legends of the Brickyard” – the contingent of former Brickyard 400 winners in the race Sunday as the Kroger Super Weekend at the Brickyard gets closer.

But one driver in this illustrious contingent has gone faster.

“That is not that fast,” said Tony Stewart, the Columbus, Ind., driver who is a two-time Brickyard winner and a three-time Cup champion. “We ran a lot faster in Indy cars. It’s fast for stock cars, but the good thing is I don’t know if it is the asphalt mix or if it is the tire that Goodyear has brought but when we ran Phoenix last fall and then Pocono last week and this week. It seems like the tires that we have like I say whether it’s the mix of asphalt with the tire or what, but it doesn’t seem like it did when they redid Vegas years ago where you’ve got a lot of grip, and then when you lose it, you lose all of it. The cars get a little tighter, a little loose, but it’s not uncomfortable. The cars are stable out there even though we are running quick lap times.”

Stewart believes his Chevrolet is still stable at the high speeds, which add another element into Sunday’s race.

“You can still get a little bit lose or a little bit tight and it’s still, you don’t feel like you are out of control doing it,” Stewart said. “It’s kind of surprising because I didn’t think they would be as stable as they are but the whole time we’ve been here the cars have been really stable. I think a lot of that has to do with the tire that Goodyear brought.”

But Goodyear is making a change to its tire choice for the race Sunday after blistering started to occur Friday due to the heat, high speeds and fresh asphalt. Left-side tires with a tougher rubber compound will be used during the race to combat blistering.

Stewart loves to run at high speeds from his day as an IndyCar regular from 1996-98. He started from the pole in the 1996 Indianapolis 500 after turning a four-lap qualifying average of 233.100 mph.

“We’ve been around that number (200 mph) at Daytona and Talladega,” Stewart said of NASCAR restrictor-plate races. “It’s just kind of cool to do it with an open motor at 200 miles per hour.”

Stewart won this race in 2000 and this is his lone victory, one of his 10 top-five and 18 top-10 finishes in 26 Michigan starts. He was seventh in this contest last June and ninth in the return trip in August. He has a streak of four-straight top-10 finishes and five top 10s in his last six MIS starts. Stewart, the defending Cup champion, is eighth in points entering the race Sunday.

Compare that to four-time Brickyard winner and four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon, who is mired in 22nd in points and is winless in 2012. Gordon finds himself in jeopardy of missing NASCAR’s “Chase for the Championship,” and his best way to make the 12-driver field is through the “wild card” berths. Those go to the two drivers in positions 11-20 with the most victories. If Gordon could get two or three wins between now and the cutoff race in early September at Richmond, he could be a “wild card” if he is 20th or better in the standings.

Gordon is a two-time winner at MIS and has 18 top-five and 24 top-10 finishes in 38 starts. He was 17th in this race last year and sixth in August. A good finish at Michigan could help give Gordon, who used to live in Pittsboro, Ind., the boost he needs for a fifth Brickyard win on July 29.

Then maybe he can start looking at the standings again – something he hasn’t done lately.

“Not when you’re 22nd,” Gordon said. “I don’t look at the standings where I’m at. And I even rarely do that. Unless you’re kind of right there in eighth to 11th or 12th, that to me is the highest-pressure place to be in the points because if you don’t have the wins, you could fall out. To me, the most consistent drivers have to be those guys because the pressure is on them to maintain and stay in the top 10. And usually when you’re in that position, you’re good enough to be there, but not good enough to (not worry), and so you have a little more pressure on yourself. When you’re back where I’m at, you just have to win. It’s the only chance you have. And so, it’s like this is it. Probably unlikely that we’re going to make it, but we’re good enough and running good enough that we can win races. So if we finally start to put it together, we’ll make it in. And if we don’t, we’ll start working on it next year.

“If we were running 25th every weekend, I would not be real happy. But when we’re up front leading and top five, and tires and blown engines and silly crazy things that we’ve had happen to us, some of that is self-inflicted and those are the ones that are the hardest ones to accept are the ones that we put ourselves in that position. And it’s not been a fun year. It’s not something that we’re used to being that far back in the points, but we also know we’re a lot better than that.”

As for the rapid increase in speed, Gordon believes it has its hidden dangers and challenges.

“I feel like our sport is extremely safe until something goes wrong,” Gordon said. “And it doesn’t matter if you’re going 220 mph or 150 mph. You don’t want to hit anything. There’s always that dangerous side of it everywhere we go. And this weekend everything is perfectly safe and fun unless something goes wrong. But at these speeds, if it happens at the wrong place you know, there’s some unknowns that are out there that are going to certainly; I think the speeds, to me, I’m not looking at it from the danger side of it. I think it’s pretty cool that we’re going that fast. The cars feel good. They’re certainly stuck to the racetrack. But there’s no doubt in the back of all of our minds, you don’t want anything to go wrong at that speed. And that’s part of racing.”

Three-time Brickyard winner and five-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson heads to Michigan fifth in points and climbing rapidly. Ironically, this is one of the few tracks where Johnson has never won a race although he has come close in contests that were determined by fuel mileage at the end.

Johnson has no wins, three top-five and eight top-10 finishes in 20 starts. He was 27th in this race last June and second in August.

“It’s been quite a rush for the drivers,” Johnson said of the high speeds. “To be on track and to go this fast and to run an average lap time of over 200 mph; you certainly feel the speed and the comfort is there. This asphalt and tire combo seems to be decent. My first set of tires I was on took a while for them to come in. As I got familiar with the track, I think as the track started to rubber up, we put tires on later the car was still pretty comfortable. 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.

“I still think that we are going to have our traditional repave type of racing. It’s just kind of how it is when you are going this fast. 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 some. I know some guys are searching around a little. I’m hopeful we can find a third or fourth lane out there to run in to have some options. So far, I think everything has gone well.”

Johnson does not have an issue with the increase in speeds at Michigan and expects to have a safe race.

“I don’t have any concerns about the speeds,” he said. “Granted, I haven’t seen one hit the wall yet to see how the car reacts with the SAFER Barrier at this pace. At least the balance that we have under our race car right now has been very comfortable to drive. I think we are in a bit of a comfort zone as a group right now because of last week’s experience. Our eyes are kind of calibrated for the speed. I knew that I was going fast more due to the fact of my on power points and how far I was driving into the corner on the throttle. It really was from my eye telling me. I think we are used to the speed.”

The high speeds created some problems this week in Thursday’s testing and Friday’s practice session as the tires started to blister because of the grip of the track and the tire compound.

 “Yes, there were blisters, mainly on the left-side tires more on the left-front than the left-rear and along with the right-rear,” said Kevin Harvick, the 2003 Brickyard winner. “That is our biggest concern right now is we’ve seen several of those situations through the garage. I don’t know that many people ran enough laps to really get to the blistering point. It’s either going to come down to the racetrack getting more rubber on it and the speeds slowing down or it’s just going to come down to you slowing down and managing the pace to keep the tires on the car.

“I don’t even look at the speed. To be honest with you, it’s really all about time for us. It’s just a matter of how fast that computes to. I saw that it was fast speed-wise, but it’s really all relative to what we do. The track is really wide, and after you get past about the first five minutes of practice, you just kind of settle in to being comfortable with whatever environment that you are in on that particular weekend. Whether it’s 200-plus here or shifting and hitting your marks next week at the road course, it’s just a matter of whatever that environment is that is what you settle into. It’s kind of like you guys showing up and hooking your computer up in here (media center); it’s just what you do on a weekly basis.”

The Kroger Super Weekend at the Brickyard is fast approaching. And from the increase of speed at Michigan International Speedway this weekend, the stars of the Brickyard are in a hurry to get there.
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Super Weekend tickets: Tickets are on sale now for the Kroger Super Weekend at the Brickyard on July 26-29 at IMS.

All ticket orders can be made at www.imstix.com and through the IMS Ticket Office at the IMS Administration Building at the corner of Georgetown Road and 16th Street between 8 a.m.-5 p.m. (ET) Monday-Friday. For more information, call the IMS ticket office at (317) 492-6700, or (800) 822-INDY outside the Indianapolis area.

Children 12 and under will receive free general admission when accompanied by an adult with a Kroger Super Weekend ticket or general admission ticket.

Tickets for groups of 20 or more also are on sale. Contact the IMS Group Sales Department at (866) 221-8775 for more information.