BROOKLYN, Mich. (AP) — The numbers keep climbing — and this time the rise was anything but gradual.
Jeff Gordon set the track qualifying record at Michigan International Speedway on Friday with a speed of 206.558 mph, winning his 76th career pole in NASCAR’s Sprint Cup series. Gordon broke the previous mark of 204.557 by a remarkable margin — and that record was set just two months ago by Kevin Harvick.
Speeds at MIS have been climbing ever since the two-mile oval was repaved before the 2012 season. When Marcos Ambrose reached 203.241 that year, it was the first time anyone won a pole at over 200 mph since Bill Elliott did it in 1987, before horsepower-sapping restrictor plates were introduced at Talladega and Daytona. Joey Logano broke Ambrose’s record last August, only for Harvick and Gordon to keep pushing it higher.
“I don’t know where to start,” Gordon said. “You can point at the repaving of the racetrack. This track is smooth — has a tremendous amount of surface area where the tire can get a lot of grip to it. The next thing is the cars.”
Gordon’s run Friday was the seventh-fastest pole-winning speed in the history of NASCAR’s top series.
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.
There have been 17 qualifying records set this season, so this is not simply an MIS phenomenon.
“It has nothing to do with the racetrack picking up speed,” said Logano, who qualified second behind Gordon. “It has (to do with) what we’ve been doing to the race cars to go faster. ... I believe it’s cooler out, too. So I think between those two things, that’s why we went faster again, but the racetrack itself isn’t picking up speed. The racetrack, if anything, is maintaining to getting slower. But it’s widening out, so it’s becoming a better race.”
It was Gordon’s second pole of the season. He also qualified first last week at Watkins Glen but finished 34th, giving up the series points lead to Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Not everyone took advantage of the favorable conditions at MIS. Earnhardt and Johnson failed to advance out of the first round of qualifying. Earnhardt was 25th and Johnson 30th.
Johnson, who won at Michigan in June, has finished out of the top 10 in the last five races — and 28th or lower in four of them.
“We’ve just had a vibration with our car, really a shake, a violent shake through the corner,” Johnson said. “We’ve been trying to get to the bottom of it. We made it better, and it certainly went faster, but just not enough. We’ll go back to the drawing board.”
Carl Edwards qualified third, followed by Brian Vickers and Brad Keselowski.
“It’s fast — that’s the simplest way to describe it,” Edwards said. “I wish you guys could ride in that car with me there. That is screaming.”