by M Roberts
Jimmie Johnson doesn’t have a Bristol win among his 43 career NASCAR Sprint Cup wins, but after Friday’s final practice sessions for Saturday night’s Sharpie 500, he may well be on his way to crossing Bristol off his small list of tracks he’s never won at.
Johnson paced Happy Hour with a fast lap of 123.316 mph late in the session followed by Mark Martin, Marcos Ambrose, Jeff Gordon, and Greg Biffle to round out the top five.
Throughout the day during both practices, the track was extremely slick with several drivers almost hitting the wall coming out of the turns.
This will be the fifth race run on the new layout of Bristol. The banking was decreased by six degrees and in the process, it created an outside groove that that had never been there before. In the past, the only way to pass a stubborn driver in front of a faster car on the bottom was to bump him out of the way.
Those type of days appear to be gone, or at least diminished somewhat. Even though it’s still difficult to pass making start position as critical as it ever was, the additional groove has made the drivers less antsy, which in turn has lessoned the famous Bristol road rage.
The one change for this race that might see some good old fashioned Bristol Road Rage that we didn’t see as much of in the first four races since the change is the double-file restart. The bottom of the track is still the preferred spot, so the battle on each restart should be interesting to see.
Some of the top teams brought their Dover chassis’ from May rather than their March Bristol chassis’. The banking and grooves make it now similar to Dover in weight placement set-up despite Dover being twice as big in distance.
One of the few drivers to bring their Bristol chassis from the March race was Jimmie Johnson, who finished third in the spring tying his best career Bristol finish. The choice must have been a tough one for crew chief Chad Knaus since Johnson won at Dover in May in a different car.
Greg Biffle, who was fifth fastest in Friday’s Happy Hour, was one of the others to bring his Chassis from March’s Bristol race. However, the Dover connection is there because it’s the same chassis he won at Dover with last year in the fall. Biffle qualified well at Bristol in the spring but had engine trouble and finished 39th. Biffle should contend for the win Saturday night.
On an on going trend over the last few weeks has been the continued performance of Joey Logano in practice. He’s running with the upper-echelon of drivers and getting great times in single lap and average times. Friday was no different as he ran equally well on the high and low side for the seventh best overall time.
Meanwhile, as Logano runs well, his teammate, Kyle Busch, continues to struggle with his car.
Busch wasn’t happy at all in either practice session and almost flattened the back end while getting loose around one of the turns. The real mystery with Busch is why the team didn’t bring their winning chassis from the May Bristol race. They chose to bring their Phoenix car, which they ran well in, but the banking difference between the two tracks is pretty substantial.
It doesn’t look like Busch is equipped to run his best this week and the timing couldn’t be worse for him as he has only three races left to make up 70 points and make the chase.
Tony Stewart didn’t have a good practice at all, at least on the clock, and was 32nd quickest. On several occasions this season, Stewart has practiced much more than just being fast and his times on paper have suffered. However, when it comes to race day, Stewart has his game face on and usually gets himself a top-5.
Stewart ran the most laps in Happy Hour by a substantial margin. He ran 99 laps and used the majority of both practice sessions in race trim.
Final Bristol Practice (Happy Hour)
1) Jimmie Johnson 123.316 mph - AVG 20 laps @ 120.856
2) Mark Martin 122.874 mph - AVG 6 laps @ 122.145
3) Marcos Ambrose 122.874 mph - AVG 46 laps @ 118.567
4) Jeff Gordon 122.858 mph - AVG 42 laps @ 117.119
5) Greg Biffle 122.803 mph - AVG 64 laps @ 117.598
6) Joey Logano 122.693 mph - AVG 64 laps @ 117.946
7) Scott Speed 122.646 mph - AVG 49 laps @ 118.266
8) David Reutimann 122.552 mph - AVG 46 laps @ 117.831
9) David Gilliland 122.435 mph - AVG 23 laps @ 118.653
10) Kurt Busch 122.435 mph - AVG 56 laps @ 117.711
First Bristol Practice Session
1) Martin Truex Jr 122.014 mph - AVG 65 laps @ 118.464
2) David Gilliland 121.798 mph - AVG 69 laps @ 117.548
3) Clint Bowyer 121.651 mph - AVG 73 laps @ 117.764
4) Aric Almirola 121.628 mph - AVG 25 laps @ 118.606
5) Scott Speed 121.605 mph - AVG 48 laps @ 117.226
Top 10 Driver Ratings at Bristol following all practices sessions (not qualifying), with a mix or the last four Bristol races, the last three Dover races, and current state of the team.
1) Greg Biffle
2) Jimmie Johnson
3) Kurt Busch
4) Jeff Gordon
5) Tony Stewart
6) Clint Bowyer
7) Denny Hamlin
8) Ryan Newman
9) Carl Edwards
10) Mark Martin