TALLADEGA, Ala – Speed is everything is racing but it’s not the end all be all at a track like the Talladega Superspeedway. That’s why the duel Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series practice sessions around the 2.66-mile superspeedway on Friday weren’t going to be very telling on who wins Sunday’s 1000Bulbs.com 500 (2 p.m. ET/NBC/MRN/SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) or not.
Just look at the drivers in the top 10 of session No. 1. Corey LaJoie (203.407 mph), Michael McDowell (203.386 mph), Ross Chastain (203.213 mph), Brendan Gaughan (202.993 mph), Chris Buescher (202.976 mph) and Matt DiBenedetto (202.851 mph) were all fourth, fifth, seventh, eighth, ninth and 10th respectively.
That’s Go Fas Racing, Front Row Motorsports, Premium Motorsports, Beard Motorsports, JTG Daugherty Racing and Leavine Family Racing represented in the top 10 while Hendrick Motorsports and Team Penske were shut out.
While those drivers and Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch would like to think that the opening practice of a superspeedway race will hold some merit for how the end of Sunday’s race will look, reality is, nothing about Friday will be indicative on how the race will shape up.
Joe Gibbs Racing did take two of the top three speeds and three of the top six overall with Hamlin pacing the way in his No. 11 Toyota with a speed of 204.904 mph. His teammate in Busch was third at 203.684 mph in his No. 18 Toyota while Erik Jones was sixth with a hot lap of 203.286 mph in his No. 20 Toyota in the incident free session.
Busch, rallied back from a fuel pump issue on his out lap early on in the session to lay down a flier in the closing minutes. The problem for the Toyota’s are, there’s only seven of them in the garage this weekend, so they’re lacking strength in numbers. Both Ford and Chevrolet have more than double that, so if the manufacturers line up in the race like they did in practice, then the Toyota’s will struggle to keep up like they did in the spring race as well as the July race at Daytona.
Harvick was the lone Stewart-Haas Racing car in the top 10 with a speed of 203.688 mph in his No. 4 Ford. The top three were all playoff drivers as they were the only ones in the top 13 in session No. 1.
Kyle Larson was the next best in 14th while the Penske trio of Joey Logano (15th), Ryan Blaney (17th) and Brad Keselowski (22nd) were next best.
The three slowest speeds among playoff drivers belonged to the Hendrick camp with Chase Elliott, Alex Bowman and William Byron being 26th, 28th and 30th respectively themselves.
HMS went 1-2 in April, so I’m none too concerned about their practice speeds on Friday afternoon. They should still be in the hunt for the win on Sunday. Their fourth driver in Jimmie Johnson was black flagged early in the session for a transponder issue.
Overall, 33 of the 40 cars eclipsed the 200 mph barrier in session No. 1.
In final practice, we had 33 of the 40 cars take to the superspeedway for their final laps before qualifying on Saturday. This session, was completely different than the first one with most of the laps being single car runs.
The top laps though did see some drafting with some of the drivers in the Ford camp going out to draft with one another.
That’s why seven of the top nine speeds belonged to the blue ovals with Clint Bowyer topping the speed chart with a speed of 202.042 mph in his No. 14 Ford. The Emporia, Kansas native came home runner-up in this race last year.
The driver he pushed to a win in last year’s playoff race was second as Aric Almirola went 200.835 mph in his No. 10 Ford.
Harvick (200.612 mph) was fourth to five Stewart-Haas Racing three of the top four speeds in the final session.
Matt Crafton was practicing in place of Paul Menard who’s ailing with a neck injury, went P3 in his No. 21 Ford turning in a time of 200.814 mph.
Ryan Preece (200.498 mph) rounded out the top five in his No. 47 Chevrolet. Alex Bowman in sixth was the only other driver to eclipse 200 mph in final practice.