Friday, June 29, 2012

Kentucky Practice Notes: Gordon Fastest in Happy Hour, Earnhardt Jr. Impresses

by Micah Roberts

Dale Earnhardt Jr and Jimmie Johnson talk during practice (Getty)  
Jeff Gordon used a mock-qualifying set-up in the final 15 minutes to put down the fastest lap during Friday’s final practice session in preparation for Saturday night’s Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway.

Gordon’s fast lap of 175.097 mph was the cherry on top of the day for the No. 24 team that had progressively found faster speeds between the two practice sessions run on the day. Gordon was 16th fastest in the early session running eight laps while running 40 laps in the final session.

Several teams switched over to a qualifying run late in the final session like Gordon did, but one driver never changed over from a race set-up, and he was almost as fast as the leaders.

Dale Earnhardt Jr only had the seventh fastest practice lap (173.144), but didn’t run any qualifying laps like the six drivers faster than him. He ran 57 laps for a 170.924 mph average and looks like he‘s going to be one of the three drivers to beat Saturday night.

Despite not seeing any confirmation on how many other drivers ran mostly race set-ups like Junior throughout the final session, based on laps run, it’s kind of easy to figure out. Kyle Busch ran the most laps (67) followed by Jimmie Johnson (58), Earnhardt Jr. (57) and Denny Hamlin (56).

Hamlin had the fastest 10-consecutive lap average of the session while finishing with the eighth fastest individual lap. Busch was fast for the entire practice with the fifth fastest 10-consecutive lap average.

Only 13 drivers ran at least 10-consecutive laps with Johnson and Gordon being second and third best respectively. Earnhardt Jr. did not run that many laps consecutively to rank on the list.

Brad Keselowski had the second fastest lap of 90-minute session, capturing it late in practice. Keselowski was forced to a back-up car in the first practice after an altercation with Juan Montoya ended up sending the No. 2 car into the wall.

19 minutes into the final practice session, Keselowski found Montoya on the track and repeatedly bumped him from behind forcing NASCAR officials to momentarily red flag practice and call the two drivers into the garage where they were warned to cool their jets. This story should make an interesting side-note to watch for on Saturday night.

Keselowski ran 40 laps for the highest average (170.943) among all drivers that attempted at least 30 laps which should make him a driver to take serious notice of on Saturday. Hamlin won on the similar track on Kansas earlier this year and has to be considered one of the favorites, as does his teammate Kyle Busch, but Junior has the top look of a winner this week.

The No. 88 team may have lost momentum from their Michigan win with a poor finish at Sonoma, but there is no denying that their team is equal -- if not better -- to the No. 48 team right now. There is a focus with Earnhardt Jr right now that we may have never seen in his career. He's having fun, the team is a groove producing great cars, and most of all, he's very fast.

I had high expectations on the MWR drivers coming into this week, but neither Clint Bowyer or Martin Truex Jr. followed up their top-5 practice runs from the first session with times to be excited about in their final chance to tweak race set-ups. Truex Jr. finished 26th fastest followed by Bowyer in 27th. 

In no way should either driver be discounted to run well in the race because we don’t know exactly what the team was trying to use the session for. It would be hard to imagine two of the fastest cars from the early session tucked away in the bottom half of the final session simply because they couldn’t find maximum speed. My gut tells me they were running their own agenda, searching for something other teams weren't.

Tonight’s qualifying should tell a little bit of the story. Many of the driver quotes from the week regarding Kentucky talked about starting up front being the key because it’s a one-groove track that’s hard to pass on.

Results justify their comments as eight of the top-10 finishers at Kentucky last season started in the first seven rows, including the winner -- Kyle Busch, who started from the pole.

So the point is, If Truex Jr and Bowyer can qualify well as their first practice indicated, they may still be in good shape to run well on race day/night despite their final practice speeds.

Top-5 Kentucky Practice 2 (Final) Speeds:
1) Jeff Gordon 175.097
2) Brad Keselowski 174.633
3) Greg Biffle 173.958
4) AJ Allmendinger 173.572
5) Carl Edwards 173.494

Kentucky Practice 2 Speeds

Johnson on Pole at Kentucky - Starting Lineup

Kyle Busch Fastest, Again, in First Practice Session

By Micah Roberts

Kentucky Reign: Kyle Busch fast at Sparta again in practice (Getty) 
Kyle Busch laid down the fastest lap in Friday’s first practice session as 45 drivers prepare to qualify for Saturday night’s Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway. Busch topping the charts with a fast lap of 177.801 mph should come as no surprise, since he not only won the Inaugural Kentucky race last season, but was also fastest in two of the three practice sessions prior to winning.

There are only two practice sessions for this years race before qualifying begins later today at 5:10 pm (ET). The final practice session is schedule for 1:30 pm.

Dale Earnhardt Jr had the second fastest lap (176.817) of the 60-minute session, which in the process bumped teammate Jimmie Johnson to third fastest (176.540). Johnson was second fastest in a mock-qualifying run for exactly 30 seconds as Junior was right behind him.

Both Hendrick chassis’ should be fast this week based on recent past history. Each of the cars ran in the Coca-Cola 600 and finished 11th or better (Junior 6th). Earnhardt Jr’s car won the Sprint Shootout prior to the All-Star race and Johnson’s got a runner-up finish at Texas in April.  

Michael Waltrip Racing teammates Clint Bowyer and Martin Truex Jr. rounded out the top-5 fastest in practice. MWR Racing and Bowyer come fresh off a win at Sonoma while Truex Jr. looks to be able to use his set-up information from the similar track of Kansas, a place where he led 173 of the 267 laps before settling for a runner-up finish. Friday is also Truex Jr's birthday, and no better present would better capturing his first win since 2007 on Sunday.

MWR should also have reason to be optimistic this year because David Reutimann finished second to Busch last season at Kentucky. If looking at similar tracks, Reutimann fared very well on these flatter 1.5-mile tracks that included a 2010 win at Chicagoland.

Their boss, Michael Waltrip, is participating this week because the race is in his home state. Waltrip took the No. 55 UK Wildcat themed Toyota to only the 27th fastest lap. Mark Martin and Brian Vickers have been fast weekly in that car, so the only reason for being slow thus far has to rest with the uneasiness of Waltrip getting back into the car.

The drivers put their fastest qualifying set-up on the track -- with no sandbagging, because it figures to be very cool at the latest juncture and the speeds from this first session will be used to determine qualifying order. The fastest in early practice goes out last, which should produce the highest speeds of the day.

The talk around the garages was how slick the track was.

Juan Montoya and Brad Keselowski smacked each other early in practice sending Keselowski into the wall. Keselowski got his back-up car off the hauler and was able to run a few laps just before the session ended.

No driver ran 10 consecutive laps during the session. Tony Stewart ran the most laps (21), but only had the 24th fastest lap.

Top-5 Kentucky Practice 1 Speeds:
1) Kyle Busch 177.801 mph
2) Dale Earnhardt Jr 176.817
3) Jimmie Johnson 176.540
4) Clint Bowyer 176.488
5) Martin Truex Jr. 176.327

Kentucky Practice 1 Speeds

Kentucky Average Practice 1 & 2 Speeds -

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