August 15, 2014 at 11:58 pm

Jeff Gordon sets track record at MIS to capture Pure Michigan 400 pole

Brooklyn, Mich. — The track record at Michigan International Speedway was shattered again and again and again Friday afternoon before Jeff Gordon finally came away with the pole for the Pure Michigan 400 with a lap of 206.558 miles per hour.

In all, seven drivers topped the former record — held by Kevin Harvick (204.557) in qualifying for the June race — during the three sessions of knockout qualifying. It was also the 17th track qualifying record set during the 2014 season.

Gordon struggled in practice with a fast lap of 202.629 mph, but made the necessary changes to top the field in qualifying.

“I don’t know how to make it much better than that,” said Gordon, 43, who has won twice this season in the No. 24 Axalta Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports and led 36 laps during the Quicken Loans 400 at MIS in June before settling for a sixth-place finish. “This entire Axalta Chevrolet crew just did a phenomenal job. Our first qualifying effort today, and practice, was not good. I’ve been hearing a lot about tire chatter and we had it big-time. The next run out we made some adjustments and it was better.

“That whole qualifying session, from the first one, second one, and third session, the car was just near perfect. This is exciting. To be running this good and have cars that are this great, back-to-back poles from Watkins Glen to Michigan. We’re having a lot of fun right now.”

Team Penske driver Joey Logano (206.381, Ford), Carl Edwards (206.115, Ford) of Roush-Fenway, Brian Vickers (205.685, Toyota) of Michael Waltrip Racing, Rochester Hills native Brad Keselowski (205.644, Ford) — Logano’s teammate — Harvick (205.438, Chevrolet) of Stewart-Haas and Paul Menard (204.580, Chevrolet) of Richard Childress Racing all topped the former record.

So, why the record-breaking speeds?

“You can point at the repaving of the racetrack,” said Gordon, a four-time Sprint Cup champion who earned his 76th pole.

“This track is smooth and has a tremendous amount of surface area where the tire can get a lot of grip to it and the next thing, the cars, you heard about the track-record poles this year, and that’s a testament to the things the teams and NASCAR did over the offseason. It’s not just a great-looking car, but it also performs very, very well with the ride heights being lowered down, a little extra spoiler, and we’re always trying to find more horsepower so all those things contribute to how fast we’re going around here.

“It doesn’t feel that fast, to be honest. It feels fast through the corners and I know that I’ve got a tremendous amount of throttle in it and I’m carrying a lot of speed, but at the same time when you’re carrying that much speed through the corners, you don’t feel like you’re going that fast down the straightaways. It only gets my attention when I look up there (scoreboard) and I see the speed.”

Yes, Hendrick Motorsports is the series’ powerhouse, winning eight times with Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. accounting for three apiece and Gordon, two. Team Penske has matched Hendrick’s speed this season with Keselowski also winning a series-high three times and Logano winning two more.

“It’s our seventh front-row start this year which we’re very proud of, don’t get me wrong,” Logano said. “It takes a lot of effort to be able to do that, but we only have one pole and that’s the frustrating part. I have a really fast Shell Pennzoil Ford this weekend and we’ve been able to keep showing that Penske is very strong in qualifying.

“I have a good car in race trim, too. I felt like I have something that was similar to what I had in this race last year, that we won the pole with and the race. We came up a little short in the pole but, hopefully, we can do it in the race.”

The top 24 cars from Round 1 of qualifying moved on to Round 2, then the top 12 moved on to battle for the pole.

Edwards celebrated his 35th birthday by being second fastest in practice with his fastest lap (204.111) in a 10-year career … which started at MIS. He continued to climb up the ladder from there.

“The simplest way to describe it, just that it’s fast,” said Edwards who announced last month he would be leaving Roush-Fenway Racing. “I wish you guys could ride in that car with me there, that’s screaming. There’s so much speed out there that you have to do everything perfectly and we almost did. It was definitely a fun day and it’s just what we needed, something positive like that.”

Edwards has two career wins at MIS and has won twice this season to put him solidly among the 16-car field for The Chase, the right to compete during the final 10 races for the championship.

Roush-Fenway drivers — Greg Biffle (20th), Edwards (23rd) and Ricky Stenhouse (27th) — failed to earn a top-10 finish for owner Jack Roush at MIS for the first time since 2000 during the June race. Roush, a Livonia businessman, is the winningest owner at MIS with 13 Sprint Cup victories.

“There is a lot of pride for me to be driving the Ford EcoBoost Fusion here in Ford’s backyard and Jack Roush’s backyard — to be able to come here and drive that car means a lot to me,” Edwards said. “If I am not mistaken, it was 10 years ago this weekend that I got my start in this series in the 99 car with Jack. It makes me feel really old.

“The car was extremely fast in qualifying trim there (practice). That was a blast. I think that is the fastest lap I’ve ever made in a race car. That was fun. It looks like our Ford’s are pretty good. For us, this would be a great place to get a win.”

Roush-Fenway came back to MIS in July for a test session to try to find some additional speed. It looked like the session paid off.

Jeff Gordon set the track record at Michigan International Speedway on Friday afternoon. / Steve Perez / Detroit News
Brian Vickers, left, set an MIS course record earlier Friday, only to see ... (Steve Perez / Detroit News)