Blueegreen Vacations 150, Qualification Practice
Saturday’s NASCAR Cup practice serves two purposes, but to watch the drivers in the first session, one would have thought only one thing mattered.
A few teams were looking for a fast single lap without drafting help that will translate to a front row start in Sunday’s qualification session. But those are the only two rows locked into their starting position. A good time among the seven drivers vying for four spots among the non-franchised teams is also important.
Most of the drivers opted to work on race trim in Practice 1, however. And practice aggressively at that.
The Joe Gibbs Racing drivers were not content with posting fast times, they wanted to make certain their cars could dominate in the draft. Early in Practice 1 Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin swapped turns side-drafting. Busch was able to squeeze into a very small hole in front of Hamlin on his attempt and wedged the Toyota between the No. 11 and Martin Truex Jr.’s No. 19. Hamlin was not able to complete his pass and would have fallen back in race conditions as Erik Jones filled the gap he left behind the No. 18.
The speed chart is essentially meaningless in these conditions, but for the record Ty Dillon – one of our drivers to watch this week – posted the fastest single lap of 203.592 mph.
In his new JTG-Daugherty Racing ride, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was also notably fast with a lap of 203.192 mph.
Christopher Bell was the fastest rookie with a speed of 202.293.
Ross Chastain in Spire Motorsports’ No. 77 had the only incident in Practice 1. He appeared to spring a leak around the oil cooler and lost a lot of track time. Chastain finished 10th in last year’s 500. He was back on track for the second practice after repairs were made.
In Practice 2, Brad Keselowski sustained significant damage in an accident in the garage. He reported that the brake pedal went all the way to the fire wall after a car slowed in front of the No. 2. That suggests he was about to go out for a qualification run. The crew opted to fix the primary, but Kez missed the entire session.
Most drivers worked on qualification trim in this session. Hendrick Motorsports topped the chart with Alex Bowman (195.088 mph) in the fastest car. Jimmie Johnson (194.835), Chase Elliott (194.317) and William Byron (194.250) lined up behind him. Last year all four Hendrick drivers qualified among the top four, but only the front row was locked in. Byron won the pole with Bowman starting to his outside.
Meanwhile, Johnson started only 17th for the 500 based on his finish in the 150. Elliott was 18th.
There is a benefit to being included among the Busch Clash entrants. Before next week’s Daytona 500 gets underway, these 18 drivers will have two additional opportunities to test out the draft. The first of these came Saturday in the one and only practice for the 75-lap exhibition race.
This practice was not for the faint of heart. All 18 drivers ran at least five laps and nearly all of them spent time in multi-car drafts.
The fastest lap chart told a distinct story. The top four slots were taken by the Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR) drivers with Erik Jones at the head of the pack. Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr., and Kyle Busch lined up behind him.
This suggests teamwork is going to be important in the Clash. If JGR is able to get their drivers lined up nose to tail in the closing laps they could be hard to beat, but the Ford contingent of Penske and SHR have numbers on their side and the potential to form an even stronger drafting pack.
JGR has not won the Clash in the last three years, but prior to that they were on a three-race streak with Hamlin taking the trophy home in 2014 and 2016. Matt Kenseth won the 2015 edition of this race.
The Fords provided the most excitement during the session. Blaney got Harvick a little wiggly in a bump draft and then Keselowski returned to favor by nudging Blaney into a slightly faster pace.
The session was incident free – or at least no one came back on the hook – but staying clean in a 75-lap race with 20 cars on track may prove to be a different story. After all, last year’s edition of this event seemed clean and clear until Jimmie Johnson wrecked Paul Menard in front of the entire field. Only three cars escaped that incident without damage.