At Michigan, NASCAR Drivers Unfazed By Record Speeds

BROOKLYN, MI - JUNE 14: Greg Biffle, driver of the #16 3M-Salute Ford, drives on track during NASCAR Sprint Cup Series testing at Michigan International Speedway on June 14, 2012 in Brooklyn, Michigan. (Photo by Geoff Burke/Getty Images for NASCAR)

NASCAR drivers are wired a bit differently than you and I. Just take this weekend's 218 mph speeds into the corners at Michigan International Speedway, for example.

NORMAL PEOPLE: "Gosh, 218 mph seems like a bit much. I think I would like to slow down now."

NASCAR DRIVERS: "No big deal."

Hey, they're race car drivers. This is what they do and this is why they get paid the big bucks. While some people might think 218 mph seems to be pushing the limits for a 3,400-pound stock car, the drivers themselves aren't bothered by it.

"To me, too fast is when we start flying in the grandstands," Michigan native Brad Keselowski said this week. "Until then, it's just a matter of how much pride you have and how much heart you have being a race car driver."

"It doesn't make me scared," added Joey Logano, "but i'm probably not smart enough to be scared."

For most of the drivers in the field, this weekend at Michigan will be the fastest they've traveled in a race car. Ever.

The newly repaved Michigan surface is a high-speed, high-grip track which allows drivers to make laps with an average speed of around 200 mph. Saturday's qualifying session will see the drivers go even faster than that.

Amazingly, though, the smooth track surface and the grip level allows the drivers to feel relatively stable inside the car.

"The speeds don't feel that fast," Dale Earnhardt Jr. "I feel like my car is going 180, but it says on the chart it's going 200 or whatever. It just feels like it's always felt here. It kind of just feels like qualifying, but there's a lot of grip and the car is pretty comfortable."

Here's the thing, though: While the cars feel comfortable when drivers are in control, what's going to happen when someone blows a tire going 218 mph into Turn 1 or breaks a part and slams into the inside wall on the backstretch? In that sense, is 218 mph too much?

When it comes to the question of how fast is too fast, Greg Biffle said there was a "fine line of not killing people and creating excitement."

"I think we are approaching some safety concerns at the speeds we are going," he said. "I don't know that we are quite there yet though. The thing you worry about is if a piece breaks on the car, an engine breaks at an inopportune time coming off the corner or getting in the corner."

But despite Biffle's comments, he endorsed the high speeds. And NASCAR officials said they have no plans to slow the cars down with a restrictor plate or other device.

Everyone knows the number sounds big, but none of the drivers actually seem worried.

"I don't have any concerns about the speeds," five-time champion Jimmie Johnson said. "Granted, I haven't seen one hit the wall yet to see how the car reacts with the SAFER barrier at this pace."

And that's really the crux of the issue: Drivers focus on how the car performs and feels, not the what-ifs concerning danger and safety. If a driver thought about that while racing, Logano said, "you probably don't belong out there."

"I guess it's in your mind, but it's not in your mind," he said. "You don't think about it when you make a move on somebody, like, 'Man, if this crashes, this is going to hurt.'"

NASCAR racing is not safe, but it's safer. Drivers who belong to the new generation haven't had any of their peers killed – only 10 current Cup drivers raced in the 2001 Daytona 500 when Dale Earnhardt Sr. died – or even seriously injured.

From Elliott Sadler's devastating wreck at Pocono to Michael McDowell's series of flips at Texas, drivers continue to climb from the cars mostly unscathed after terrifying crashes.

You can't blame them, then, if they don't look at 218 mph as a threat to safety in itself.

"It's my job to not be scared," Keselowski said. "It's my job to go out there and drive as hard as I can and not worry about those things and find my way in Victory Lane.

"I don't think speed is a bad thing. I think it's what attracts all of us to the sport at some level and I think it's great that we are going someplace where we are going to see something we have not seen in a Cup car, ever. We have never seen speeds this fast."

This is a weekend, though, that could separate the men from the boys if a car's handling goes away. Clint Bowyer said he couldn't feel the sensation of speed until he got loose; then, it really felt fast.

Even if the drivers aren't worried, though, the speeds are certainly enough to grab some headlines. And in what's been a quiet season so far, that's not a bad thing.

"It definitely is going to gain some attention going 218 mph and it has been a long time since we have gone that fast," Biffle said. "... A little action and controversy doesn't hurt us from giving us something to talk about. It is worthy of talking about."

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