Rain canceled Friday practice and left NASCAR with a decision that needed to be made. They polled the teams and decided the best course of action would be to cancel Saturday’s qualification and run an hour-long practice instead. Certainly one of the big reasons for the decision was the fate of the Championship 4 and a desire to give these drivers the best opportunity to dial in their cars and take some of the guesswork out of the setup.
By the speed chart, it would certainly seem to have worked.
On the fastest lap chart, the three Joe Gibbs Racing contenders lined up first through third with Kyle Busch posting the fastest lap of 168.966 mph, followed by Martin Truex Jr. (168.460 mph), and Denny Hamlin (168.277). Kevin Harvick (166.806) lagged behind in ninth.
The pattern was repeated on the 10-lap average chart with Hamlin taking the top spot this time with a 32.938 average per lap. Busch (33.006) and Truex (33.029) were hot on his heels. Again, Harvick brought up the rear with the seventh-best time of 33.151 seconds-per-lap.
One cannot always tell how speeds will translate from practice into race trim, however, and the NBC commentators made a point of saying that at various times during the session they noted each driver was alternately fast. Fantasy players will want to recall the end of last year’s edition of the Ford 400 and note that the winning decision came inside the hauler when Joey Logano decided he needed to be fast on short runs; Truex was set up for a longer run.
And that would appear to be the case again this year. With a time of 33.288 seconds-per-lap, Truex topped the 15-lap chart. His principal rivals were much lower on that graph with Hamlin (33.419) landing seventh and Harvick (33.444) in ninth.
William Byron would seem to have also set up his car for the long run. Posting a time of 33.330 seconds-per-lap, he was second behind Truex. Byron topped the 15-lap chart – in part, perhaps, because Truex did not make that long of a run. Byron has no reason to make things easy on the playoff contenders. He has had a very successful sophomore season, but it won’t be complete without a win and he has been the best Hendrick Motorsports driver on occasion.
Ryan Blaney posted the third-best, 15-lap average and in doing so bettered his Team Penske mates. Earlier in the week we noted that his record is not nearly as strong as Logano’s or Brad Keselowski’s but a highly motivated driver can make up for that shortfall and it would appear that is happening with the newest member of the organization.
Aric Almirola had the fourth-quickest, 15-lap average – but that was not what made him the most interesting driver of practice. Midway through the session he completed a pass on Hamlin and then swept in front of him in the corner. Hamlin did not appear to care for the move and got right on his bumper down the backstretch – close enough, in fact, to cause the hood flaps to deploy. Hamlin was carrying too much speed exiting Turn 4 that he missed pit road.
Much has been made about the three Joe Gibbs Racing drivers – and rightfully so, given their position on the speed chart –but the non-playoff drivers at Stewart-Haas Racing have the potential to play a role in who wins the championship. We are not suggesting they will do anything purposefully to hinder the chances of the JGR drivers, but it would be natural for them to race Harvick with a little more respect and deference.
Almirola was 10th on the 10-lap chart; Clint Bowyer was ninth.
Matt DiBenedetto posted only the 19th-quickest time on the 10-lap chart in the only practice session for the Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. In practice 31 drivers went 10 or more laps, so DiBenedetto’s speed extrapolated to the full field would place him about 24th. He has been one of our most-highly valued dark horses most weekends and he and the team have been improving on 1.5-mile tracks, but this speed is a little worrisome.
Michael McDowell was another driver we were keeping an eye on and he was 27th of 31 drivers. Most of the racers who did not take 10 or more consecutive laps are ones expected to finish in the 30s, but McDowell would seem to have a long road ahead of him.