While only 14 drivers took made at least a 10-lap in the first practice session, the top of that chart was dominated by playoff eligible contenders.
Kyle Larson posted the quickest 10-lap average followed by Martin Truex Jr., Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin, and Chase Elliott with the difference from first to fifth a little more than two-tenths of a second. That can easily be made up on the track or in the pits and it underscores how close the competition will be for the final position in the Championship Round.
Kyle Busch, Joey Logano, and Ryan Blaney did not make five-lap runs in Practice 1 so we do not have them to compare but Busch and Logano are above the cutline and might be a little more relaxed. Busch also has the fastest single lap in this session and probably spent more time working on qualification trim.
Blaney was second-quickest on the five-lap chart (behind Larson) with Logano third. Busch landed sixth.
On the 10-lap chart in Practice 1, positions six through 10th were occupied by the drivers we’ve come to identify as the best of the non-playoff drivers. In order they were Clint Bowyer, Daniel Suarez, Erik Jones, Aric Almirola, and Matt DiBenedetto. The ISM Raceway 500k has been won by a non-playoff driver four times in the 15 races that make up the playoff history – and that is the most of any track. If we are looking at a surprise winner this week, it could come from this list.
Happy Hour is often Hamlin more telling than first practice because the track has started to rubber in. Hamlin jumped to the top of the leaderboard as the sun began to set and track cooled. Hamlin led the field at the 10- through 20-lap marks. Hamlin has a perfect record of top-fives on short flat tracks and is backing it up with these speeds.
DiBenedetto landed second on then 10- and 15-laps charts in Happy Hour and has been one of the most improved on this track type in 2019. As strong as he's been in recent weeks, he is not going to sneak up on anyone, but his salary cap has still not caught up entirely with his results and that continues to make him a solid value.
The playoff contenders topped the 20-lap board in Final Practice with Hamlin still at the top, followed by Blaney, Logano, Harvick, Busch, and Elliott. We have been paying a lot of attention to the playoff contenders, but the bottom line is they deserve it and are going to challenge for the top five.