by M Roberts
The first practice session for Sunday’s Helluva Good! Sour Cream Dips at The Glen was used for several purposes by 46 drivers entered to make the 43 car field. For the top teams, they used the majority of the practice session to get a good feel for a race day set-up, while most of the hired guns and the go-or-go home entries used the session to get the best possible set-up in qualifying trim with hopes of making the field.
The top story of practice was how fast the trio of Penske Racing drivers were, not only in race trim, but later in qualifying trim as well. Kurt Busch topped the charts with a fast lap of 124.362 mph. Prior to the changeover, Busch was running with top-five times and then captured the top time overall in qualifying trim.
Sam Hornish Jr., not known for his road prowess despite coming from IndyCars, was extremely fast in the early part of the session while in race trim and settled in with the eighth quickest lap of practice. Last season was Hornish Jr.’s one and only Cup run at The Glen, where he finished 32nd. In this season’s Sonoma race, he finished 38th, so the No. 77 team should be very happy about their run.
David Stremme wasn’t as good as Hornish Jr. early on in practice, but did come out with a strong run late with the sixth fastest lap.
Richard Childress Racing came out strong in qualifying trim late and got the third fastest lap with Kevin Harvick and the fifth fastest with Casey Mears. For Harvick, the 2006 Watkins Glen winner, things have been looking much better. After not cracking the top 15 since Darlington in May, Harvick has had finishes of sixth and twelfth in his last two starts.
Coming in with the second-fastest lap of the day was Denny Hamlin, who grabbed the that time with only a few minutes remaining in practice. Hamlin has never finished outside of the top 10 at The Glen in his three career starts and has a Mexico City Nationwide series road course win under his belt to boot.
The fastest of the majority of the first session was Jimmie Johnson. Johnson settled in with the seventh fastest lap while most of the top cars were running in race trim. Though Johnson has never won on either of the NASCAR Sprint Cup series road courses, he has become progressively better each and every time out.
At Sonoma in June, the more technical of the two road courses, Johnson finished a very impressive fourth. At Watkins Glen, Johnson has three top fives in his last six races run there with a best of third in 2007.
Last year's winner, Kyle Busch, ran the fourth fastest lap late in practice while hanging around in the top-15 for much of the session in race trim. With only five races to go in the Race to the Chase with Busch outside looking in at the moment, there’s no need to express how important this race is for him.
What will be interesting to see is if he actually changes some of his aggressive tendencies for the sake of accumulating critical points. Not quite sure he has the makeup to pints race yet, but he’d be taking an awful big gamble if he didn’t alter something pretty quick.
Three of the favorites to win this week are Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, and Juan Pablo Montoya. Montoya had the 11th fastest lap while running only seven laps total. Gordon was 14th fastest, recording 12 laps.
Stewart turned 15 laps, but could only muster the 34th fastest lap overall. Despite the times, it’s safe to say by race time Stewart will be just fine. At Sonoma this year with his new team, Stewart finished second. At The Glen, he has dominated in the last seven years there like no one else ever capturing four wins and two second place runs over that span.
Of the top hired guns during practice, Max Papis was quickest with the 18th best lap while Boris Said was 23rd. Ron Fellows, who likely has more laps on the track than anyone, settled in a disappointing 33rd driving James Finch’s No. 09 Chevy.
Qualifying is set for Friday at 3:10 p.m. ET with the two final practice sessions scheduled for Saturday beginning.