Thursday, November 23, 2017
Sports

Paving its way to 200

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BROOKLYN, Mich. — The last time anyone was this fast in qualifying in NASCAR's top series, Richard Petty was still driving.

He's strictly an owner now, but when Marcos Ambrose won the Sprint Cup pole at Michigan International Speedway on Saturday for Richard Petty Motorsports, the Hall of Famer was on hand to put the accomplishment in perspective. Ambrose ran a lap of 203.241 mph around the 2-mile track, the first time since 1987 the 200 mph mark was broken during Sprint Cup qualifying.

"I can't hardly remember that far back," Petty, 74, said. "To be able to do it on a flatter racetrack, not Daytona or Talladega, that is unheard of."

Ambrose's first Cup pole was memorable on a day 19 drivers surpassed 200 mph on the newly paved surface. Because of increased speeds NASCAR altered the left-side tires for today's Quicken Loans 400, but that didn't affect qualifying.

The last pole winner to break 200 mph in the series was Bill Elliott (212.809), a quarter-century ago at Talladega, in the era before restrictor plates. Ambrose had the 11th-fastest pole speed in series history.

"It's going to sound great at the bar when you have had about six too many," Ambrose cracked. "It is good bragging rights, I will give it that."

Ryan Newman's track qualifying record of 194.232 mph went by the wayside almost immediately. In fact, 40 drivers broke the mark, set in 2005.

How fast was the field? One of the drivers to break the mark was David Stremme at 194.295. And he failed to qualify.

"When they redid the track and came up here testing and said they were running over 200 mph, it was blowing my mind," said Petty, who earned a pole at MIS in 1972 — at 157.607 mph. "I think the last time we even flirted with that was when they redid Atlanta and we ran 198 or 199 mph. We knew it was going to be quick, but I think it was a whole lot quicker than what we thought and definitely quicker than what Goodyear was thinking."

Nobody is sure what to expect for the 400-mile race. Drivers had an extra practice Saturday night after the tire switch was announced. The top speed in that session was 195.647, by Biffle.

Kevin Harvick was second in qualifying. Biffle was third.

"I am extremely happy with where I qualified. I just go into Turn 1 and bump Marcos out of the way," Biffle said. "No, I am extremely happy, I just don't know about this tire that we are going to."

Points leader Matt Kenseth qualified sixth. Dale Earnhardt Jr. was 17th, and Kurt Busch was 26th in his return from a one-week suspension for verbally abusing a media member.

Ambrose, the Australian who has one win in 133 Cup starts, entered the record books in his No. 9 Ford, but the biggest theme this week hasn't been the drivers, but the track. It was repaved in the offseason and led to Ambrose joining Elliott, Benny Parsons and Cale Yarborough as the only drivers to win a pole at more than 200 mph.

How fast is too fast? Ambrose didn't seem worried.

"We're race car drivers. That's what we do," Ambrose said. "We're going to get on the starting line, we're going to put the pedal to the metal, and we're going to go."

. fast facts

Sprint Cup points

Through 14 of 36 races. The top 10 drivers plus two wild cards (based on wins) through 26 races make the Chase for the Championship.

Driver Pts. Back

Matt Kenseth 523—

D. Earnhardt Jr. 513 10

Greg Biffle 507 16

Denny Hamlin 504 19

Jimmie Johnson 493 30

Kevin Harvick 470 53

Martin Truex 465 58

Tony Stewart 448 75

Clint Bowyer 443 80

Brad Keselowski 426 97

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