They knew it was going to be a record breaking day. Everyone had seen the speeds in practice and all of the predictions were that the record would fall, repeatedly, until a new record was set. Marcos Ambrose was not the first driver to go faster than the previous record qualifying lap in Michigan yesterday, but he was definitely the last. Heading out under the bright sunshine, Ambrose went out and set a blistering pace of 203.241 mph (35.426 seconds) making him the fastest man in NASCAR since 1987 when Bill Elliot hit 203.827 mph at Talladega and put him on the pole for the Quicken Loans 400. Ambrose then had to sit patiently on pit road waiting as 16 other cars qualified after him, trying to knock him off the top.
Kevin Harvick has set the previous fastest speed of 202.037 mph, before Ambrose came on to the track, which was still good enough for the outside of row 1 in second place.
Greg Biffle has been the fastest car in practice and looked to have the best shot at it, but with a little wiggle through turn 3 Biffle lost some speed and brought his lap speed to 201.816 mph, which was good enough for third.
Kasey Kahne and Ryan Newman, the previous MIS record holder, round out the top 5.
With all of the grip in the asphalt because of the repave the cars were setting record speeds throughout testing on Thursday and both practices on Friday. Drivers were not complaining about the speeds however, they were enjoying it. Many stated that the 200+mph speeds felt no different than running at 180mph because of the smooth track surface. The grip however was creating havoc with the tires. Goodyear noticed during testing and practice that the tires were blistering and tearing apart under track conditions and the speeds that were being reached.
“Our biggest concern right now is we’ve seen several of those situations through the garage,” Kevin Harvick said. “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 race track 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.”
Greg Stucker, competition director for Goodyear gave their reasoning behind the decision.
“We ran about 36.4 [seconds] in our test [in April],” Stucker said. “That was the fastest lap, and obviously, we’re running significantly faster than that now. We knew it would be faster but not quite as fast as it is.
“The blistering is definitely heat-related. It’s aggravated by particular setups. That’s why we’re seeing it predominately on some people and not at all on others.”
NASCAR mandated an extra practice session after the Nationwide race on Saturday night to give the teams a chance to test the new tire brought to the track and adjust their setups accordingly. The 1200 new tires were shipped from Charlotte and did not arrive at the track until Saturday afternoon leaving very little time to get in another testing session.
Some of the drivers were glad that Goodyear had made the call that they did citing the safety of the drivers. Carl Edwards feels that the decision was the right one and that everything will be just fine.
“I’m forecasting that we’ll be just fine and won’t have any issues. … What’s been done here is that we took a track and a tire that was very simple to drive, straightforward with tons of grip, and they took some of that grip away and put it in the drivers and crew chiefs’ hands and made the cars a little harder to drive.”
Other drivers such as Pole sitter Marcose Ambrose and fan favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr. seemed to disagree.
“This ain’t cool,” Earnhardt said.
Ambrose added a bit more detail to his reasoning saying, “We were out there trying to save miles on the engine, so we never really busted off a good run. The tire is very different. It hasn’t got much grip. You are loose in, shake in the middle and then on the gas [you] spin yourself out. It feels unbalanced and a little bit wobbly — and you don’t want to be wobbly at 200 miles per hour. You want to feel like the car is underneath you.”
The new tires brought to the track were manufactured in 2006 when Goodyear had concerns about grip with the repave in Charlotte that season. The harder compound will reduce grip and therefor reduce speeds as well. This was proven in the final practice session last night. Greg Biffle set the top speed at 195.684mph.
As is usual with changes like these there have been mixed reviews about the decision with drivers and team owners falling on both sides of the discussion.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. thinks the decision to switch the tires “would be debated for a long time.”.