11 drivers cracked 200 mph barrier in first practice session
RELATED: Results from practices
TALLADEGA, Ala. -- Friday at Talladega Superspeedway was about going very fast or standing still.
The two Sprint Cup Series practice sessions at NASCAR's biggest race track produced very different results -- one with the fastest practice speed seen at the 2.66-mile layout in almost a decade, the other with a number of top drivers making only a few circuits around the facility if any at all.
Five championship contenders sat out the final session, while 11 drivers cracked the 200 mph mark in the opener, led by Aric Almirola's blistering pace of 202 mph.
Almirola's fast lap was the highest practice speed recorded at Talladega since at least 2004, when such things began to be archived. The Richard Petty Motorsports driver did it without regular crew chief Todd Parrott, who was suspended indefinitely by NASCAR on Thursday for a violation of the sanctioning body's substance abuse policy. Sammy Johns, the team's operations director and a former crew chief, is filling in this week.
Almirola and RPM teammate Marcos Ambrose were among the 11 drivers who broke 200 mph in the first session, which is where the day's drafting took place.
Also included in that group were Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup participants Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards. Almirola said his maximum speed during the session was probably just over 210 mph.
"It really didn’t feel that fast," he said. "… You know you're moving, but it doesn’t feel that fast. The only time you know you're going that fast is when something goes wrong."
Which thankfully didn't happen Friday -- both practice sessions were clean, although the specter of the Big One certainly looms for Sunday. Almirola hoped the speeds shown by him and Ambrose in practice foreshadowed good things for the RPM duo in the 500-mile event.
"I think we have really good cars. Our cars showed they have a lot of speed in the draft. So that’s important," Almirola said. "It always makes you feel good, too -- you have a sense of pride when you go out and you run that fast in practice. All that’s great, but we're still going to have to race on Sunday. We're going to have to be good on pit road, and you’ve got to have track position now. … I feel like our car's got plenty of speed in it, we just have to make the right moves."
For many, the right move in Friday's second practice was to sit out. Only 29 cars took part, and those who skipped the session included Chase drivers Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch, Clint Bowyer and Ryan Newman. The final practice was primarily single-car runs, and it was topped by Johnson's speed of 195.936 mph.
"Kyle was pretty happy with the car. You have a hard time actually evaluating changes unless you get into a big pack, and you just can't get a big pack (in practice)," said Dave Rogers, crew chief for Kyle Busch, fifth in the standings and 37 points off the lead. "Now you're out there chancing wrecking, and you're really not learning anything. So just keep miles off the car and keep out of harm's way, basically."
Chase leader Matt Kenseth was 12th in the opening session and 17th in final practice, where he made eight laps. Johnson, four points behind Kenseth in second, made just nine laps in final practice. Harvick, third in the standings and 29 points behind the leader, made only 10 laps of practice total Friday, all of them in the opening session.
"You've basically got what you've got once you get here," said Gil Martin, Harvick's crew chief. "We’re pretty comfortable with it, and you really can't recreate the conditions you’re going to have on Sunday with 43 cars there. We went out and ran us 10 laps earlier just to make sure the car was driving good and had no leaks ands no squeaks or vibrations, and then basically park it and go over it and get ready for Sunday."
Speeds on Friday were up markedly compared to May, the last time NASCAR's top series visited Talladega. In the first race weekend at the big track with the Generation-6 car -- whose lighter weight and increased rear grip has translated into record speeds at most facilities -- the fastest practice lap in the spring belonged to Edwards at 199.675 mph.
"We knew it was faster than it was in the spring," Rogers said. "Not really sure why -- everybody's got their cars a little bit better, cool weather. But I don't know there would be any indication that Sunday won't be the same thing. I think it will be pretty fast."
The 11 drivers who exceeded 200 mph in opening practice might be a prelude to Sunday, Martin added. "The weather's kind of cool right now, and you’re going to have cars that are probably going to do that," he said. "When we get lined up right, it's going to happen, because we're all over that speed. So you get them lined up just right, and the weather's cool and not very humid, they're going to run a little quicker."
Saturday's qualifying session will be the first for the Generation-6 car at Talladega, where time trials were rained out in the spring. The track record of over 212 mph, set by Bill Elliott April of 1987 in the era before restrictor plates, is clearly out of reach. The highest restricted pole speed was recorded in the next race in July of 1987 -- 203.877 mph, also set by Elliott. The pole speed at Talladega hasn't been over 200 mph since.
But Sunday, in the draft, might be another matter.
"I think the race is going to be really fast," Almirola said. "Especially since the pack's going to be even bigger -- not all the cars were even out there in that drafting pack. So the pack will be bigger, and I think you're going to see some really fast speeds."