Driver Kevin Harvick and his son Keelan celebrate winning the pole position with Bandit at Michigan International Speedway. ASSOCIATED PRESS
BROOKLYN, Mich. — The first time around the 2-mile superspeedway in the Irish Hills, Kevin Harvick went fast. Fast enough to set a track record.
Was it possible for Harvick to go faster the second time around?
Not necessarily. He was a little more than a mile per hour slower than his record-setting pace.
Was it possible for him to go any faster on a third try?
Yes. Fast enough to set another top-speed mark.
Harvick set a track qualifying record of 204.557 miles an hour Friday at Michigan International Speedway to win the pole for Sunday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Quicken Loans 400.
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“Obviously, it was a really fast couple laps, but my car’s been really good since we unloaded it off the truck, and these guys put fast cars on the track every week,” said Harvick, who qualified ahead of Jeff Gordon (203.776) and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. (203.729). “We’re paying attention to poles and wins and today, it all came together from the time we unloaded.”
Harvick’s pole win was a byproduct of NASCAR’s new qualifying format. Instead of having drivers complete two laps at a time on the track to register a qualifying speed, qualifying this year is broken down into a three-session elimination format, which leaves 12 drivers in the final qualifying session, a five-minute shootout format. The driver with the fastest lap in the final qualifying session wins the pole.
“We just have to put the car in the top 24 on the first run, and then we can really go at it and see what it brings, but it’s exciting,” said Juan Pablo Montoya, an IndyCar driver who is representing Penske Racing this weekend at MIS. “The way it was before, if your car was good, it was really good. If you missed it, you were screwed. Here, this gives you a little extra chance to get it done.”
In the first qualifying session, Harvick set a qualifying-lap record of 203.995 miles an hour.
With the field pared to 24 drivers for the second qualifying session, Harvick had a lap speed of 202.988 miles an hour, then completed the 12-driver final qualifying session with a blistering lap.
“Michigan’s been fast for a long time,” said Harvick, who won his ninth career pole and third pole this season. “How fast is too fast? It’s the perfect storm, with fresh pavement and with the cars. The cars will slow down a tremendous amount when you get them in a race and get them in a pack. It’s going to be quite a bit hotter on Sunday. Qualifying speeds are high. It’s just a matter of who’s opinion is taken on whether it’s too fast or not.”
Speed in qualifying wasn’t isolated to Harvick, one of 21 drivers who had lap speeds of at least 200 miles an hour. Also in that group? Greg Biffle, who qualified 18th (200.518), Jimmie Johnson, who qualified seventh (202.401), and Brad Keselowski, who qualified sixth (202.908).
“The speeds are up because the cars are comfortable,” Keselowski said. “The two are connected together. The cars may have more rear downforce, considerably more than they’ve ever had, along with more front downforce. This track used to be notorious, once they repaved it, for being real loose in Turn 3, which is more of a flatter entry corner and you don’t have the banking to support you. This year, we’re entering Turn 3 five to 10 miles faster.”
Joey Logano set the previous track qualifying record of 203.949 in August, 2013, winning the pole for the Pure Michigan 400. Logano qualified ninth on Friday (202.032).
“This format obviously has been good for me,” Harvick said. “A fast car allows you to do that. A fast car really solves a lot of problems. We just have to keep at it.”