BROOKLYN, Mich. – Kevin Harvick made Michigan International Speedway’s latest track record look routine.
In what is becoming an annual occurrence at MIS, Harvick pushed the track’s qualifying mark a little bit higher Friday, winning the pole for this weekend’s Sprint Cup race at 204.557 mph. Harvick’s pole-winning speed was the fastest since Bill Elliott set the record of 212.809 mph at Talladega Superspeedway in April 1987.
“This is one of those racetracks where you’re running fast, but you really can’t put it all in perspective, I guess, until you hit something,” Harvick said. “It’s so wide, it’s so fast and so smooth, but you don’t really get that huge sensation of speed.”
Drivers have broken 200 mph with regularity at Michigan since the track was repaved before the 2012 season. Marcos Ambrose had a speed of 203.241 in 2012, the first time anyone won a pole at over 200 mph since Elliott did it before horsepower-sapping restrictor plates were introduced at Talladega and Daytona.
Last August, Joey Logano increased the track record to 203.949.
Harvick was even faster in winning his third pole of the year and ninth of his career. Points leader Jeff Gordon was second, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. was third. The top three qualifiers for Sunday’s 400-mile race were all in Chevrolets.
NASCAR overhauled its qualifying process before this season, switching to a knockout format similar to Formula One and IndyCar. NASCAR now uses three rounds of qualifying at tracks 1 1/4 miles in length or larger. The entire field has 25 minutes to post their fastest single lap and the top 24 advance to the second round.
The second segment lasts 10 minutes, and the fastest 12 advance to a final, 5-minute round.
“This format has obviously been good for me to kind of, I guess, creep up on it as you go through the sessions,” Harvick said. “A fast car really solves a lot of problems.”
Harvick is 12th in the Cup standings, with victories at Phoenix and Darlington. The latter win came from the pole.
His impressive performance Friday raised more questions about whether these increased speeds are any cause for concern.
“Michigan’s been fast for a long time. How fast is too fast?” Harvick said. “The cars will slow down a tremendous amount when we get them in race trim and you get them in a pack, and it’s going to be quite a bit hotter on Sunday. They’ll slow down. Qualifying speeds are high. It’s just a matter of whose opinion is taken on whether it’s too fast or not.”
Brad Keselowski, the 2012 series champion, outlined a couple of the issues raised by the high speeds.
“How do the speeds affect our ability to pass and put on a race that our fans enjoy?” said Keselowski, who qualified sixth. “If we’re able to go 300 miles an hour and race side by side, that doesn’t really matter to me. It’s just the ability to do that — to have great side-by-side racing. And at this point, with the way aerodynamics have kind of taken over motorsports, we haven’t shown that ability.”
There’s also the issue of safety.
“We’ve shown time after time that the takeoff speed on these cars is about 185-190 miles an hour,” Keselowski said. “As you cross that 210-, 220-mile threshold – certainly, you lose some speed as the car spins out, but we’d really prefer to not have to lose any speed before the cars turn into airplanes.”