Sprint Cup teams brace for Michigan
BROOKLYN, Mich. -- Charlotte Motor Speedway hosts NASCAR's longest race, and Darlington Raceway is called the track too tough to tame.
But 400 miles at Michigan International Speedway may well be the Sprint Cup Series' ultimate endurance test.
Set to take place on a hot and sunny Sunday, the Quicken Loans 400 is expected to push engines, chassis and tires to the max.
Michigan's wide 2-mile layout has become NASCAR's fastest track in the restrictor-plate era. Turned loose, the fuel-injected V-8 engines are tuned for maximum power and run at maximum revs nearly all the way around the moderately banked speedway.
Kevin Harvick's pole lap of 204.557 mph was the fastest seen in NASCAR since Bill Elliott established the all-time record of 212.809 mph at Talladega Superspeedway in the last year before the introduction of power-robbing (and speed-reducing) carburetor restrictor plates.
No less an authority than Jack Roush believes Michigan is a NASCAR engine builder's toughest test.
The tuning business and sports car team that established Roush were based in nearby Livonia, and he has won a record 13 Sprint Cup races at what he considers his home track.
"With today's electronically controlled dynamometers, you've got the opportunity, if you've got the data for it, to replicate the duty cycle for an engine on the racetrack," Roush explained.
"[Roush Yates Engines CEO] Doug Yates' most arduous and toughest duty cycle is the Michigan cycle, and, when I was building the engines in Michigan by myself, that was the cycle I used, as well. If you've got a weakness in your engine, you'll find it at MIS. Either the valve train or the bottom end ... either one, it's pretty tough."
In practice and qualifying, engines built by Hendrick Motorsports dominated, taking the top three places on the grid led by Harvick in a Stewart-Haas Racing entry. The HMS engines were strong in race trim, too; Jimmie Johnson topped 202 mph in the Saturday morning practice, and Hendrick engines powered five of the fastest six drivers.
"I think you have to give Hendrick a lot of credit for what they were able to accomplish, getting the pole and having the top three," said Dale Earnhardt Jr., who will line up third for Sunday's 200-lap race.
"We're happy about the power plants," he continued. "We had some real good motors last week at Pocono, and we knew coming in here it was going to be a plus for us. This racetrack requires an excellent power plant, so we kind of knew what to expect. Hopefully we can get this car to handle through the corner good and utilize all that power on Sunday."
Speeds at Michigan increased dramatically after the track was repaved in the spring of 2012. With a much smoother and grippier surface, the nature of the racing has changed since then, with fewer grooves available to competitors.
"It's starting to lose a little bit of grip in [Turns] 3 and 4," Earnhardt remarked. "That corner gets cooked and baked throughout the summer and winter time, a little bit longer throughout the day. It has a little less grip, so the car turns a little bit better through that corner, and I think that corner is wider because of that. You aren't able to do that in 1 and 2 because the track is still a little bit polished down there."
2012 Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski pointed out that changes to the car's aerodynamics and the new ride height rule have made the cars more comfortable to drive this year, even at the higher speeds.
The unknown going into Sunday's race is how the new setups will affect tire wear and the car's handling over the course of a long green-flag run.
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"This track used to be notorious, once they repaved it, for being real loose into Turn 3, which is more of a flatter entry corner and you don't really have the banking to support you," Keselowski said.
"This year, we're entering Turn 3 five to 10 miles an hour faster, but it feels probably 10-15 miles an hour slower because of how much rear grip that spoiler put in the car and how much more secure you feel with that."
Those higher speeds put a much greater strain on equipment -- engines, suspension and drivetrain mechanical hard parts as well as tires. Several drivers talked in terms of managing Sunday's race in an effort to conserve their car for the finish.
"This weekend is going to be a real challenge for reliability," said Jeff Gordon, who starts on the outside of the front row. "We are going so fast. From engines to just components on the car, tires, it's concerning. I'm glad it's 400 miles, but even at 400 miles you are going to have to manage it."
Gordon was pleased to have qualified at the front, noting that his car turned into a handful in traffic last week at Pocono when he was forced to run midpack.
"I got back into about 15th or 18th place at one time, and it was like flipping a switch," Gordon recalled. "The amount of grip that the car had went from awesome to none. It was very challenging, and we are seeing more and more of that as the cars become more aero dependent. Surviving traffic and being prepared for it is another part of the challenge here.
"There is very little the team can do," Gordon added. "It's you having to figure out what is going to happen when you drive into the corner and recognize that the car is buffeting around and there is probably not a lot of downforce on it. We are maximizing the grip and downforce, so if you take any amount of that away, it makes a bigger difference than it ever used to."
The widespread changes put into place this year by NASCAR make results harder to predict than ever. But if there's a favorite going into Sunday's race, it has to be Harvick.
That Californian is on a qualifying rampage, with three poles this year, including his record-setting effort at Michigan. Harvick is hoping to avoid the pratfalls that have affected several of his races this year and produce the kind of clean run that took him to race wins at Phoenix and Darlington.
"It's just part of it," Harvick shrugged. "In my career, I've won a lot of races that I probably shouldn't have won and lost a lot that you should have won. It's a vicious cycle. We've had flat tires two weeks in a row and really fast cars to go along with it. But you just have to keep plugging along week by week. Experience counts, and a lot of these guys have been around this a long time.
"I'm really excited to start on the pole and get that first pit box, and hopefully we can put the whole day together on Sunday."