Michigan Ramps Up The Speed | June 20, 2012
A week after the race at a repaved Pocono provided some great racing, NASCAR arrived at Michigan International Speedway (MIS) which itself had undergone a complete repave to smooth out the surface and allow the 2 mile tri-oval circuit to hopefully provide closer and faster racing then we had seen in previous years.
Like with Pocono the repave had meant that teams were very unsure as to how the cars would react to the new surface both in terms of speeds and handling. To try and obtain more information NASCAR allowed an extra days practice session at the track and straight away it became obvious that the new smoother surface was allowing much higher speeds then had previously been seen. Cars were now averaging over 200 mph a lap (Greg Biffle topped the Happy Hour table at 204.708 mph) and some hit top speeds of 220 mph on the straights. These type of speeds had only previously been seen at the Super Speedway circuits like Daytona and Talladega which led to the introduction of restrictor plates to slow the cars down. But NASCAR had made it clear that despite these speeds they would not be requiring the teams to fit a restrictor plate.
It was with much excitement that qualifying got under way on Saturday. Nobody had qualified with an average speed of over 200 mph since Bill Elliot qualified with a speed of 203.827 in 1987 and by the end of the session a new track record had been set and pole winner, Australian, Marcos Ambrose had become the fastest NASCAR driver in 25 years. His speed of 203.241 mph (35.426 seconds) put him on pole by 0.211 seconds over Kevin Harvick and was his first ever pole position in NASCAR. But the high speeds had produced a lot of tyre blistering that concerned a lot of the teams, so as a result NASCAR had ordered that, only a few hours after qualifying had finished, there would be a final practice session. The reason being that NASCAR had ordered all teams, regardless of if they had experienced tyre issues, to replace their left side tyres with ones that were made 6 years ago and were of a much harder compound, that it was hoped would be able to withstand the higher speeds better.
Immediately it was obvious that the new tyres had affected the speeds. After the 75 minute practice session had been finished Greg Biffle again topped the charts but this time with an average speed of 195.647 mph. But for pole sitter Ambrose it was not a change that helped his team as only a few hours after being the fastest man in a Sprint Cup car he was only able to manage 11th fastest on the new tyres.
It was widely agreed amongst the drivers that these new harder compound tyres were going to be very difficult to handle when new. When Dale Earnhardt Jr was asked what it was like driving with the new tyres he replied that “it was like driving on 6 year old tyres”! As if the new tyres weren’t going to provide enough of a challenge there had been a downpour at MIS which delayed the start and washed away and rubber that had already been laid down. As a result NASCAR had stated that there would be two competition cautions so that the state of the tyres could be examined.
Finally the race got under way and Ambrose immediately went to the front of the field but it wasn’t for long as the worries over cold tyres seem to hold water as on the second lap of the race Kurt Busch spun out and was lucky not to hit anyone with the field still being bunched up. On the restart Ambrose was again able to maintain his lead but he would soon start feeling the pressure from the number 16 of Greg Biffle who was showing that the rain hadn’t dampened his pace. On lap 8 the number 16 was able to make a move stick and took the lead away from Ambrose, but he wasn’t able to pull out any sort of lead as only a couple of laps later the second caution of the day was thrown when Josh Wise’s engine let go spewing smoke around the track. It doesn’t phase Biffle though who once again is able to power away on the restart. It isn’t just Biffle who is showing his speed so are Kyle Busch and Ryan Newman. Newman qualified 5th but replaced his engine and started from the back and Kyle Busch had a poor qualifying session and started 34th. But by lap 20 had moved all the way up to 10th and Newman was now in 15th.
On lap 25 the first competition caution is thrown and everyone heads to pit row. Leader Biffle takes 4 tyres and fuel and means that he exits pit row in 7th while a few drivers opt for fuel only meaning that their stops are a lot quicker and as they come off pit row the top 5 are Matt Kenseth, Ambrose, Joey Logano, Mark Martin and Busch. But it is a risky strategy to not take any tyres as the drivers will be on older rubber and it is possible to change two tyres in the time it takes to take on the fuel needed. For the first few laps on the restart there is a constant back and forth between Kenseth and Ambrose for the lead before eventually Kenseth is able to stamp his authority on the battle and take and hold the lead. Despite not being able to pass Kenseth the number 9 is certainly keeping him honest and any sort of mistake from Kenseth will cost him the lead. On lap 49 both cars are side by side when they come up on a back marker and have to make a split second decision to go either side of him around turn 2 where one wrong move by the back marker could take out the leaders. Luckily they get passed him with no incident but it will have certainly raised the heartbeats of their respective crew chiefs. Two laps later the second competition caution comes out.
A great stop for the number 16 sees him get off pit row in first place but it’s not such good news for Kyle Busch who after making such great progress through the field has to come to pit row twice due to a wheel cap coming off and loses him six places. Pit row leader Kenseth also had a poor pit stop as he comes out in 7th. While Biffle and Ambrose once again duke it out for the race lead ‘the man on the move’ is Dale Earnhardt Jr who after qualifying in 17th is up to 4th, and before long he has caught the two leaders. With help from a draft with Ambrose they breeze past Biffle and go first and second. But second isn’t where the number 88 wants to be and one lap later he makes a move on Ambrose and claims first, which has the usual effect of bringing the crowd to their feet and the noise level to increase.
But before Jr can pull out any sort of a decent lead the third caution of the day comes out for debris on the backstretch. It also appears to be the end of the race for Kyle Busch who for the third week in a row is having engine issues. Although he was able to get back out later he eventually finished 43 laps down and despite all his hard work in the early stages he eventually finished 34th and once again Joe Gibbs Racing have another engine issue to work out.
On the restart Jr isn’t able to hold onto the lead from Tony Stewart who has been working his way through the field all race and is able to pull out too a half second lead. But Jr is pushing hard too keep in touch with Stewart and the speeds are starting to pick up as he just touches 213 mph down the straightaways. The fast laps time being put in by Jr start to pay off as he closes down Stewart and eventually is able to catch and pass him. The two of them pull out to a comfortable lead over third place as green flag pit stops get under way.Just as the final few cars are thinking about coming in another caution comes out as Kurt Busch takes his second trip of the day spinning into the infield. With 21 cars taking the wave around the front of the pack is now headed by two Hendrick Motorsport drivers of Jeffand Jr. But their battle is short lived as last weeks winner Joey Logano moves to avoid the slower car of David Gilliland and over corrects sending him crashing hard into the outer wall in front of Gilliland and giving the number number 5 of Kasey Kahne no where to go but into the side of them.
Its the same two drivers at the front on the restart but Stewart comes alongside them to make it three wide into turn 1 as Jr is able to hold them off. While the race is going well for Hendrick Motorsport it is an awful weekend for Joe Gibbs Racing. With two of their cars out of the running it was up to Denny Hamlin to get a result. But on lap 134 he got tagged by Ryan Newman and was sent sliding into the infield where his front tyre burst into flames. Luckily he was able to make it to pit row and the fire marshals aided by other team members were able to put the fire out while Hamlin was able to climb out of the car with no injuries. With the number 18 effectively running practice laps it was an unexpected to end to what looked to be a competitive race for JGR.
With 49 laps remaining the field restarts and Jr jumps to the lead, as the entire Jr Nation collectively holds it breath in hope with Stewart maintaining his second place and doing all he can to close down Jr. While Jr tries to hold onto the lead there have been some great drives back in the field. Carl Edwards, who started in 42nd is on the verge of the top 10 and Jimmie Johnson, who also started from the back of the field after having an engine change, is up to 7th and pushing hard.
On lap 162 the leaders make what should be their final green flag pit stops and a mistake by either the 88 or 14 team would surely cost them any chance of victory. Both cars make it off pit row with out incident and after all the cars have cycled through their stops Jr is able to maintain his lead. Despite the best efforts of Stewart he is unable to close down Jr and is able to increase his lead to over 5 seconds. NASCAR wouldn’t even dare throw a caution at this point, even if the Goodyear blimp itself crashed on the circuit as there would be rioting in the streets across the south! Eventually the white flag is shown and 37 seconds later Jr crosses the line for the win too scenes of jubilation in the stands. His win, his first in 143 starts (his last victory being at MIS 4 years ago), was a dominant one, he led the most laps, never looked like being caught, and showed that his form is genuine this year and for the first time in many years it gives his army of fans real hope that he can win the Championship.
The victory could also be just what NASCAR needs. His victory has been front page news on most sporting newspapers and has even been headline news on places like Sportscentre and other sports shows. It was said by NASCAR chief Bill France a few years ago that NASCAR needs Jr to get wins for the good of the sport. Now he has done just that it will be interesting to see if NASCAR can capitalise on it and will we see attendances increase and a wider press coverage that the sport so richly deserves.