There’s been many a year where I’ve teetered on the see-saw of loving or merely dismissing the racing at Michigan. In decades past, horsepower and engine durability was king at this two-mile track. With a wide racing surface combined with high banks, drivers could almost hold the pedal down all the way around. Who would win? It wasn’t so much a who as a what. Whichever engine did not detonate was a fairly safe answer.
For the past few years, life has been a little more uncertain, and well, boring. With fresh pavement and new aero packages, what was once a pinnacle of the summer racing season became a shadow of the cookie-cutters, presenting NASCAR with another lengthy parade.
This last Sunday? Well, I highly suspect that the Quicken Loans 400 as seen on TV looked an awful lot like those past five years. What I saw from high over Turn One? Something else entirely, but admittedly colored by the NASCAR tourist in me. Yes, I still saw leaders that widened the gap over the pack almost immediately upon gaining clean air.Horsepower was definitely king. Longevity? It did not play into the afternoon so much. By Lap 170, I was still counting 39 cars on the track
However, where the real difference in my perception of Father’s Day being just another racing afternoon vs. this was really great racing lay in the sensation of speed I personally experienced, how I could see the really fast cars nearly drifting out of Turn 4 with their noses aimed down the track and yes, the four and five wide competition that marked restarts. It was plain as day to me that the early race wrecks were direct results of a hot track–much slicker than what the drivers encountered during practice and qualifying. Everybody needed a moment to get their feet under them. And the wrecks in Turn 4–you could see them happening a mile away–literally. Like a slow motion disaster film, all of them had their tires just a little bit above the groove, and instead of turning, their cars kept going straight until the back end decided it wanted to catch up with the front.
In short, we were presented with a drivers’ track. Yes, there was still all those things that irk the NASCAR fan parked on their couch, but like so many other facilities I’ve visited, there’s often an X-factor that just doesn’t translate on our little big screens. Michigan is deceptive in its apparent simple equation of power and speed, but in reality is tempered by a quickly maturing surface requiring a deft hand behind the wheel.
Besides all the Sunday excitement, there was the comparison I was able to make among the ARCA, Nationwide and Cup competition. The abilities of the drivers and machines has never been more clear to me than at this weekend event.
In the ARCA series, the leaders were able to lap the first cars within 3 laps, setting the pace for the rest of the feature. Not everybody brought a competitive motor to the show. The pitch of Austin Theriault’s hummed, where the No. 40 sputtered. For the teams, this was more a case of racing the track instead of the other cars. Could they actually achieve speed? Have their engine last the entire 100 laps? And manage to stay out of the way of the leaders–whose closing rate was petrifyingly fast. The Corrigan Oil 200 held up the AAA card as expected, but gave me a baseline to compare everything else on Saturday and Sunday.
On Saturday, the crowd was treated to a stellar show of hungry, young stars eager to strut their stuff. About two-thirds of the Nationwide field was able to run in a competitive manner–making the machine less of a contributor to the show. Side-by-side action punctuated the entire afternoon. Those making a dash for the trophy were easily able to trade off the lead, over and over. The wide racing surface was more like a playground for Larson, Logano, Earnhardt, Menard and Elliot. Perched over the exit of Turn 4, we were propelled out of our seats numerous times. Not out of alarm for a wreck, but while urging our drivers forward once again. We strolled back to our RV giddy with a well-fed racing fan’s excitement.
And with the wide-eyed wonder of Saturday providing the rose colored glasses, Sunday popped up sunny and hot. A perfect day for a race, if you ever saw one. After climbing around Victory Lane and signing the start/finish line, I was simply ready for a great show. And it didn’t disappoint. No, the Cup race wasn’t of the same thrilling ilk as the NNS. But I now watched 43 cars pile into Turn One–all of them able to make a challenge. Cars and drivers elbowed their way forward.
Not like the ARCA–where only a couple cars could go fast. Not like the NNS–with only a few drivers able to handle their beasts. Nope, the Cup race brought together the best of man and machine on a track ready to stand up to anything they brought. The machines were muscled down the stretch four-wide, just avoiding the grass. High in the turns they struggled to pass. It wasn’t easy. There were no gimme’s.
Which means…I am now firmly on the “love” side for Michigan. A big track, deceptively simple in its generous dimensions and welcoming banking, but providing more of a puzzle to the best teams in NASCAR than we fans tend to allow.
When the circus returns to MIS in August, I’ll be tuning in on my television. When they show the overhead shots of the track and talk about two second leads, I’ll recall all the things that combine to still make Michigan one of the most exciting tracks on the Sprint Cup circuit.
2014 Sonya Strictly by the Stats
Top Three Rookies for 2014 Quicken Loans 400
1.) No. 42 Kyle Larson Started 12th, Finished 8th
2.) No. 51 Justin Allgaier Started 17th, Finished 16th
3.)No. 7 Michael Annett Started 37th, Finished 21st