Matt Kenseth is not typically known as a great qualifier, but he has the distinction of sweeping Richmond International Raceway’s pole this year. Posting a lap of 122.421 mph in the final round of qualification for the Federated Auto Parts 400, he was good enough to lead the field to green Saturday night and that is important for a driver who needs one final strong run to insure he is part of the 2017 playoffs.
Kenseth’s first 26 attempts at this track produced a best starting position of seventh and only three starts on the first five rows. He managed to earn 10 top-10s, however, including one victory from 25th. He scored his first Richmond pole in 2013 and finished seventh. In 2015, he started on the outside pole and won. This spring, he was not as fortunate and finished 23rd after leading the field to green.
Kenseth had the fastest single lap in the first practice session, but was only 17th on the 10-lap average chart.
Teammate Denny Hamlin lines up alongside him on the front row. Unlike Kenseth, Hamlin has been consistently strong in both qualification and race trim on this track. His rookie year, Hamlin qualified seventh and finished second in his debut. He won the pole that fall—finishing 15th—and then logged two more top-10 starts and another pole in consecutive races. Hamlin scored his third career pole last spring and used it to his advantage: earning his third career win. On the heels of his Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway, he has to be considered a favorite this week as well.
Hamlin had the best 10-lap average in the first practice session.
With The Gibbs’ guys taking the significant top spots in the first practice session, one has to go to Happy Hour to find the drivers who have been dominating the season.
Kyle Larson laid down a lap of 120.235 mph in the final session to show that he has plenty of speed. He was not able to completely capitalize on that during qualification, however: slipping to fourth on the starting grid. That is close enough to the front to allow him to take advantage of an alternate groove and find the front. Larson likes running high and if previous events are an indication, that is where he will gravitate earlier than anyone else.
Starting one position further back, Martin Truex Jr. has long run speed. He posted the quickest 10-lap average in Happy Hour at 117.480 mph from his second to 11th circuits. It has been almost impossible to keep Truex from racking up bonus points this year and no one should discount his ability to win either stage or the race. There is a reason he is the most expensive driver in most salary cap games.
All eyes will be on Joey Logano this week. He won the spring Richmond race before NASCAR stripped it of all power. Deemed “encumbered” by a rule’s infraction, he cannot use it to qualify for the playoffs. And since that fateful race, he has fallen quickly through the ranks so that making the playoffs on points were not an option for the past month.
Logano finally found some speed in final practice with the second-fastest lap and the fifth-quickest speed. Unfortunately, that is not going to be enough to get him to the lead anytime soon because he qualified only 12th. He’s going to need some strategy to overcome his modest pit stall.