Friday, August 22, 2014

Bristol Practice Notes: Larson, Almirola and Stenhouse all impressive

Could Aric Almirola grab his second win of season Saturday night?
LAS VEGAS -- After watching Friday’s two NASCAR Sprint Cup practice sessions at Bristol Motor Speedway, it’s looking like Saturday’s Irwin Tools Night Race may be similar to the track’s surprising March race, where four of the top-five finishers drove a Ford. There looks to be a wide-range of contenders able to hang with the NASCAR’s elite, who have been show-offs in practices all season and had that translate well to race day.

Maybe Saturday night is when Kyle Larson wins his first race as a rookie. Or perhaps the Chase-bound Aric Almirola can pick up his second win of the season. Or maybe it’s finally Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s chance to become a winner in the Cup series.

It seems like every week when going over the practices, the same names keep popping up and most of them have Hendrick Chevy engines, so it’s refreshing to see some new names look like solid contenders with a great shot at winning.

Larson, who uses a Hendrick engine himself, was fastest (131.083 mph) in the two-hour morning session. He was the only driver to top 131 mph, and he did so on lap 71 of the 72 he totaled. In the 50-minute afternoon session, he ran only 13 laps but came away with the fifth-fastest lap (130.762 mph). While he’s a rookie – which automatically downgrades him – he handled himself well in his first Bristol Cup start in March with a 10th-place finish.

Stenhouse topped the charts in the final practice session with a lap at 131.048 mph, showing that his season-best second-place finish at Bristol in March was no accident. It was his only top-five of the season, but there’s something about the Fords’ Bristol set-up and his fast speeds that make Stenhouse sound attractive (he opened at 100-to-1 odds).

His teammate, Carl Edwards, won the March race, and Stenhouse is using the exact same runner-up chassis from that race. We’ve already had a couple of surprises make the Chase with wins, and this looks to be Stenhouse’s best opportunity to get in.

However, Stenhouse drops just outside our top-10 list, at No. 11, but another big 100-to-1 underdog made the list – Amirola (130.132), who was sixth fastest (130.132) in the early session and fourth (130.780) in the final practice.

Almirola is in cruise control, getting ready for the Chase on the basis of his win at Daytona in July, but his career-best third-place finish at Bristol in March and his stellar practices on Friday make him a super live dog for Saturday‘s race.

What separates Almirola from Stenhouse and Larson is that he had the third fastest 10-consecutive average lap speeds during the early practice. Niether Larson nor Stenhouse ran as many laps in a row, and they could be up there with the leaders if they did, but we’ll have to wait until race day to see if they’re good on long runs. With Almirola, we have some idea coming in that he should maintain fast speeds and pass cars, while others slow after running 40 straight green-flag laps, and that‘s where the races are usually won.

The drivers topping the list on the 10-consecutive average lap times were five-time Bristol winner Kyle Busch and 2005 Bristol winner Kevin Harvick. While Busch ran only the seventh fastest lap (129.877) of the longer earlier session, he did have the fastest 10-lap average. He followed that up with the 25th fastest lap in the final session, but did manage to have the second-best 10-lap average behind Harvick.

Busch was once nearly invincible at Bristol, winning four of five races from 2009-11, but it’s been six races since his last victory there. Because of his history and average speeds, Busch is the driver to beat Sunday, with Harvick a close second. However, Harvick does not have a top-five finish at Bristol in his past 11 starts.

This race is wide open with a great chance of seeing a sixth different winner in a row at Bristol, and possibly a first-time Cup winner.

Note: Almirola damaged his car during qualifying and will be going to a backup

Read More Here........Final Bristol Driver Ratings

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