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Saturday, June 16, 2012
Updated: June 17, 7:35 PM ET
The thrill -- and chill -- of speed

By David Newton
ESPN.com

BROOKLYN, Mich. -- The buzz began early Thursday morning as Martin Truex Jr. posted a lap of 200.261 mph during a test at Michigan International Speedway.

It grew louder as Dale Earnhardt Jr. topped the 200 mph barrier, a speed never maintained in a Sprint Cup car around this 2-mile track or any non-restrictor plate track.

By the end of Friday's practice, the buzz was almost deafening as Greg Biffle posted a lap of 204.708 mph and almost a quarter of the field was faster than 200.

Not even a last-minute mandate from NASCAR and Goodyear to change left-side tires to slow the cars and prevent blistering for the sake of safety -- for the sake of avoiding another public relations catastrophe like they had at Indianapolis in 2008, when teams were forced to pit every 12 laps to keep tires from blowing -- could completely temper the enthusiasm.

That's because there is something special, almost magical -- or "cool," as Joey Logano says -- about a 200 mph lap.

They do this in IndyCar all the time. But in NASCAR, a 200 mph lap hadn't happened since 1987, when Bill Elliott won the pole with a speed of 203.827 at Talladega before they put plates on the cars.

Magical.

It was magical to Marcos Ambrose on Saturday when he won the pole with a lap of 203.341 mph, making him the fourth driver to win the pole with a lap faster than 200 mph and the first to do it on a non-plate track.

It was magical to MIS, which presented Ambrose with a life-sized stuffed cheetah. You know, the fastest animal on the planet for the now-fastest stock car driver on the planet.

Marcos Ambrose
Marcos Ambrose is the first NASCAR driver to top 200 mph in qualifying at a non-restrictor plate track.

"And we're proud of it," Ambrose said.

There's also something frightening about a speed that for so long has been taboo in this sport.

The faster cars go, the more it brings safety into the picture, the more drivers don't feel so bulletproof. What if a tire blows at that speed? What if a car goes airborne? What if a car spins out and goes head-on into the wall?

For so long, NASCAR has gotten away from what first attracted many fans to the sport, the need for speed. For so long, NASCAR has done everything to take the danger factor that tweaked our sense of adventure out of racing, particularly since the death of Dale Earnhardt in 2001.

Cars were bulletproof.

Drivers felt bulletproof.

Now, at least to some degree, some of the unknown factors and dangers of high speeds are alive, brought back by the repaving at Michigan.

No one wants to see somebody killed, but it seems the threat of harm creates an allure that makes a race more exhilarating. It's like watching cliff diving. You don't want to see the diver hit the rocks, but you know that possibility is there.

So people watch.

Or some do.

"Sometimes you just want to slap them, don't you?" Kevin Harvick said with a laugh. "Regardless of what you do, whether it's 190 or 215 mph, it's still pretty darn dangerous no matter what you do."

He has a point. Eric McClure hasn't raced since receiving a severe concussion and internal bruising from a head-on collision with a SAFER barrier late in a May 5 Nationwide Series race at Talladega at a speed much slower than 200 mph.

But for some reason, the danger feels greater when speeds reach 200 mph, even if it isn't. Maybe it's because for so many years, NASCAR has made that speed a target. When the drivers climbed that high at Daytona and Talladega, officials adjusted the plates to slow the cars.

It's that unknown factor that is intriguing, why many watch Daytona and Talladega but won't watch another race, why some will watch Sunday's race to see what happens.

"We don't feel bulletproof, not at these speeds," defending race winner Denny Hamlin said before the new tires were announced. "You hate to think about what could happen, but somebody running the speeds that we're running at the end of the straightaway, if somebody gets turned the wrong way, it could not be good going into Turn 1.

"Anything can happen. We hope it's a safe race on Sunday, but at these speeds, I don't think we've tested these cars at these speeds yet as far as crashes."

More unknown. The unknown creates intrigue and interest, right?

That tires were blistering during Friday's practice brought in another threat of danger.

"I am nervous now that you tell me that," Carl Edwards said.

Saying you're nervous in today's world is foreign to many who believe they can step from their street car to a race car without feeling endangered. Biffle was villainized on Twitter and email for saying he had safety concerns when cars reached 218 mph going into Turn 1.

"Biffle is a wuss," one of you wrote in the comments section of a Thursday ESPN.com story on the high speeds.

"If you don't like going fast, Biff, maybe somewhere you took the wrong career path," wrote another.

But Biffle was right when he said, "We have to walk that fine line of not killing people and creating excitement." What would those who criticized him Thursday say if somebody was seriously hurt Sunday because of the havoc higher speeds created?

"Everything is perfectly safe and fun unless something goes wrong," four-time champion Jeff Gordon reminded. "But at these speeds, if it happens at the wrong place, there's some unknowns that are out there that are going to certainly … "

In the same breath, Gordon added, "It's pretty cool that we're going that fast."

Speed, as we've had ingrained in us through government ads, kills. It also thrills.

There is truth that some fans miss the threat of danger for the sake of entertainment. It's also easy for them to say. They don't put their lives on the line.

"I talk to Michael Waltrip all the time," Hamlin said. "He said you don't understand how those concrete walls hurt so very much."

Fortunately for the sport, the SAFER barriers, head and neck restraints, and safer chassis introduced with the Car of Tomorrow in 2007 have almost made us forget death was once a big part of the sport. A driver hasn't been killed in NASCAR's three national touring series since Earnhardt.

No one is suggesting that will change Sunday. But as several drivers have suggested, because of the speed, you just don't know.

Speed used to be what the sport was all about. Not that it isn't today. Speed still wins races and championships.

Richard Petty
Richard Petty was as excited about seeing his car average more than 200 mph in qualifying as he was to see it win the pole.

But when Richard Petty first came to Michigan, the pole speed was 160.135 mph. In his last Michigan race, in 1992, the pole speed was 178.196, 18 mph faster.

Teams gained speed in leaps and bounds back in the day.

Now it comes in fractions of a second.

Until we got to Michigan, where the resurfacing and softer tire used the first two days of practice and in qualifying helped Ambrose beat Ryan Newman's 2005 pole record (194.323 mph) by 9 mph.

Thus there's a buzz like we haven't seen at a non-plate track since Atlanta was repaved in 1987 and Geoff Bodine flirted with 200 mph with a qualifying lap of 197.478.

Even Petty, who has done everything there possibly is to do in NASCAR, was impressed.

"When they redid the track and came up here testing and said they were running over 200 mph, it was blowing my mind," NASCAR's all-time race winner said. "That is like IndyCar speeds and stuff. Being able to accomplish that -- to run 203 mph is more exciting to me than sitting on the pole."

Despite NASCAR's effort to make things safer with more durable tires, the speeds in the race will flirt with 200 mph.

"It's not going to change that much," said Harvick, who qualified second at 202.037 mph.

There might be even more intrigue. The harder left-side tires being brought in for Sunday will make for less grip and worse handling.

"The more grip you take away … they can get real snappy and edgy," said Rodney Childers, the crew chief for Mark Martin. "When you get racing somebody, that can be a pretty big problem.

"That's one thing we said last night, there's probably going to be a lot of wrecks."

Yes, the buzz is still here. It's tempered from what it was Thursday, but it's here.

That's good for the sport. That's good for those who miss the danger aspect high speeds and unknowns bring.

"You take [safety] for granted at times," Hamlin said. "But when you run these speeds, it's kind of a wake-up call of what can happen and what's the possibility of it happening."