|Jimmie Johnson is the driver to beat Sunday (Getty)|
Brad Keselowski continued his strong morning practice session with the fastest lap (183.692 mph) during Charlotte’s final practice session. The conditions for the final session were much hotter than what we’ll see in tomorrow’s Coca-Cola 600, which made some teams a little weary about tinkering with set-ups that ran well in the earlier session.
Three drivers, such as Marcos Ambrose who starts second tomorrow, didn’t even attempt a lap because they felt there was nothing to gain.
Most of the drivers who were fast in the earlier session were again during the final 60-minute practice. Carl Edwards was third earlier in the day and followed that up with the second fastest lap.
Mark Martin was third fastest after being 12th earlier. Martin also had the best average speed among all drivers who ran at least 10 laps. Martin ran 29 laps with little differential in lap speeds compared to the other drivers and it wouldn‘t be a shock to see him get his fifth Charlotte win and first since 2002.
The Michael Waltrip Racing group of Martin, Martin Truex Jr. and Clint Bowyer should all be considered drivers to run well Sunday night. Truex Jr. finished with the 10th fastest lap, but was spectacular earlier in single lap times and average speeds. Bowyer is using his Las Vegas chassis this week that finished sixth, one of his better runs of the season.
Jimmie Johnson finished with the fourth fastest lap and looks to have the car to beat. He had the fastest 10-consecutive average here after being great earlier in the day. Not only does Johnson have a great Charlotte history, look great in practice -- which haven’t said much this season, but he also momentum in his favor. The cherry on top is that Johnson is using his runner-up Texas chassis.
Tony Stewart ran the third most laps (32) of the session and shot up the field to sixth fastest after being 18th in the earlier practice. Of all the drivers from the final practice, Stewart’s performance might carry the most weight. The car alone should be respected. Stewart’s chassis this week won win at Fontana and is a clone to the winning Las Vegas car.
Showing a big improvement in the final practice was Joey Logano who ran the fifth fastest lap at 182.921 mph. This should be expected just because of how well his teammates Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin ran in the important session. Busch ran only 12 laps and his best was 16th fastest while Hamlin was 20th with the second best 10-consecutive lap average.
The Roush-Fenway drivers all look fine despite the cloud of last weeks engine problems looming above their stable. Kenseth finished seventh and Biffle 15th. All three of the Roush cars look like a real team in their red, white and blue Fastenal colors. Despite nothing spectacular out of Biffle in either of today’s practices, his chassis should garner respect just because it's the same car won at Texas.
Based on a formula that considers Saturday’s early practice as 50% of the equation, Johnson is the driver to beat. The drivers who look to have a best chance to beat him are Keselowski, Truex Jr, Martin and Kyle Busch.
Top-5 Coca-Cola 600 Practice 3 Speeds:
1) Brad Keselowski 183.69
2) Carl Edwards 183.349
3) Mark Martin 183.231
4) Jimmie Johnson 183.231
5) Joey Logano 182.921
Coca-Cola 600 Practice 3 Speeds
|Hamlin could be celebrating Sunday night based on practice|
By Micah Roberts
Not a lot changed after the first five minutes of Saturday’s early practice session at Charlotte Motor Speedway in preparation for Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600. Denny Hamlin topped the charts with the fastest lap of 186.239 mph early on when the temperatures were cool. For the remainder of the 55-minute session the leader board appeared as though it stood still.
The only driver within the top-30 speeds that bettered their first few laps was Kurt Busch -- in a back-up car -- who found speed on the 18th of his 20 laps run, which put him 29th fastest.
Paul Menard was second fastest (186.123) followed by Carl Edwards (186.021) and Kyle Busch (185.021). For both Edwards and Busch, they have to be ecstatic about being fast in this session after struggling most of the season trying to find speed on the fast tracks.
A few teams commented that this early practice was the most important session of the weekend to get their car ideally set. In the final practice, set to begin at 1 pm (ET), the track will be blazing hot and greasy, both conditions that won’t be applicable when the race begins a 6:18 pm (ET) Sunday evening.
Continuing his trend of being very fast in practice was Martin Truex Jr. who had the fifth fastest single lap as well as having the best 10-consecutive lap average. Just like Hamlin, Truex Jr. gained his top speed on his very first lap.
Hamlin ran 33 laps while Truex Jr ran 45. The lap leader on the day was Kyle Busch with 53, apparently showing they have no worries about extra mileage on their engine before they're about to run 600 miles. Busch also ran the most laps in Thursday’s practice, a session most teams used only for qualifying set-ups.
Perhaps those extra race runs Thursday allowed Busch’s team to be right where they needed to be for today’s early session and better their chances Sunday. Hamlin ran quite a few laps Thursday as well, as did Joey Logano. The additional time may also have helped Hamlin's team be prepared early, but not so much for Logano who finished with 22nd fastest lap.
No one is hotter right now than Jimmie Johnson who won at Darlington two weeks ago and took last week’s All-Star race, which may be bad news for the rest of the field. We’ve seen Chad Knaus and that No. 48 team look like they were going through lulls over the last decade and then break out with an unbelievable run that usually ended up with a Championship trophy.
"The company," Johnson said Thursday, "is still on a high from the 200th win and the All-Star win just kicked it up another notch."
Johnson and his team once again look dialed in as he ran the sixth fastest lap, which was good enough to keep JJ as the favorite in Las Vegas sports books to win on Sunday. A win would be the seventh of his career at Charlotte.
Brad Kesleowski hasn’t fared well on the tracks similar to Charlotte this season, but did run well enough to get a runner-up finish last week and practices indicate he may be a driver to contend on Sunday. In addition to having the second best 10-consecutive lap averages, Keselowski also had the seventh fastest individual lap at 185.631 mph.
Top-5 Charlotte Practice 2 Speeds:
1) Denny Hamlin 186.24 mph
2) Paul Menard 186.12
3) Carl Edwards 186.02
4) Kyle Busch 185.97
5) Martin Truex Jr. 185.90
Coca-Cola 600 Practice 2 Speeds
Practice 1 Notes from Thursday