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The 200 MPH Barrier Is Taking A Beating In 2012

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Saturday, October 20 2012

Clint Bowyer says 200 mph at places like Kansas is just a Sunday stroll. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Harold Hinson)

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor

KANSAS CITY, Kan. – Not that long ago, 200 mph on a Sprint Cup track was the OMG threshold. It was the point where excitement met danger. Pulse rates rose, mouths dried out. And the debate would commence.

If the 200 mph threshold was crossed on a non-restrictor plate track, the cry would go up for plates to be bolted onto the engines that weekend. If it was crossed on a plate track, the cry was for smaller holes in the plates that weekend.

It would be a weekend in Angst City. And NASCAR officials would head into conference.

The common belief was that 200 mph was just not safe. Anywhere. Not for drivers, not for fans.

This week in Kansas City, the speeds at the newly repaved and reconfigured Kansas Speedway have easily crossed above the 200 mph mark. Denny Hamlin said he was going 202 before he crashed during the mid-week test. Others in the garages are saying top speeds have reached 204 and 205 and perhaps a little more even.

Yet, nobody is sounding alarms. Not competitors and not the series.

It appears that in 2012, in post-COT Cup, 210 has become the new 200.

It’s not that people have not noticed the big speeds that are being posted. How could they not when you consider that the qualifying speed for Sunday’s Hollywood Casino 400 was well over 10 mph faster than the old track record, and that every single car that made a qualifying run beat the old record of 180.856 mph which was set by Matt Kenseth seven years ago.

And afterward, there was Kyle Busch late on Friday saying rather matter-of-factly, “We’re all just high-fiving each other because we’re coming back in one piece. It’s crazy fast out there. It’s not necessarily the top speed we are going down the straightaways is any different than we’ve ever been, but the minimum speed – you’re carrying so much corner speed here that it’s just amazing that you don’t fall off that much through the turns. White-knuckling, baby. That’s what it’s all about.”

Mark Martin, after his qualifying run, said this: “I never dreamed you’d see these kind of lap times. So, the race track is going to throw us all a challenge.”

But then he quickly added, “And we look forward to it.”

Zero panic in the 200 mph Kansas drivers this weekend. Not about the speed, at least.

Yes, times have changed. In more ways than one.

“A lot has changed,” driver Clint Bowyer said after Saturday morning’s practice when asked about driving low downforce stock cars at 200 mph. “It just seems that we drivers are much more comfortable.”

That increased comfort level at increased speeds comes from a number of sources.

Toyota Racing Development’s vice president of chassis engineering, Andy Graves, enumerated some of the changes – advances, some would say – as he stood in the Kansas garages.

“There are a lot of changes which NASCAR has pushed,” Graves said, “with the soft walls, the (driver) seat mandates, the HANS devices. There’s a lot more comfort and confidence in being able to sustain some of these hits.

“And one of the big fears with cars running at these high speeds was the cars getting airborne. NASCAR, along with the manufacturers, have worked really hard in the wind tunnel with the higher side skirts and some of the other things we’ve done, we’ve dramatically improved the liftoff speed.

“An now, really, 200 mph isn’t as big of a deal as it was just a couple of years ago.”

Or even 210.

Earlier this year, cars were going that speed at the repaved Michigan International Speedway. On the weekend of that race, young Joey Logano was asked; Is there something magical about going 200 mph?

“I think a 200 mile per hour average is really cool – something really neat,” he said. “I remember the first time I hit 200 miles an hour at an ARCA test at Kansas and I thought that was one of the coolest things. I was looking at the data and we were at like 199.5 and I was like, ‘Man, I want to hit 200 – that would be cool.’ I think I was like 16 or 17 at the time and I thought that was the coolest thing. Now, it’s just a number, but it’s cool to see it.”

A couple of weeks ago, Kansas Speedway brought in a half dozen former drivers to run laps to put down rubber on the new surface. One of those drivers was Randy LaJoie.

LaJoie, whose career began in the 1980s, remembered and talked about running at speeds considerably less than 200 back in the day. He talked about getting in those Cup cars and heading up track and searching for a comfort zone.

Just when he thought he found one, he would look over at the cars whizzing past. There he would see Richard Petty and David Pearson muscling up and wrestling the steering wheel like it was an angry alligator.

LaJoie did not describe the situation as “cool”. But, he added, driving race cars is not supposed to be easy or comfortable.

LaJoie just shook his head when he was asked his thoughts about speeds the Cup cars would be running this weekend.

Two hundred, he said, with arms crossed across his chest. And comfortably so.

– Jim Pedley can be reached at jpedley@racintoday.com

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Saturday, October 20 2012
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