RCR fleet continues to set the pace at Daytona
February 15, 2014, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
Paul Menard, Ryan Newman top Saturday's practice sessions
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- At Daytona International Speedway, Richard Childress Racing is more than just the No. 3 car. If opening practices are any indication, the organization will unleash an all-out assault on the pole position for the biggest race in NASCAR.
RCR picked up right where it left off in January testing, pacing Saturday's two opening practice sessions for the Daytona 500. Paul Menard needed just a single two-lap run to post the fastest time of the first practice, while new Childress driver Ryan Newman led the second. Both sessions featured a fleet of cars owned, affiliated or powered by RCR at the top of the scoring tower.
"It's at least a flash of comfort," said Luke Lambert, crew chief on Newman's No. 31 car. "A lot can change, and I don't like to get my hopes up too much, because everybody's still got a lot left in their tank. The question is, how much. Hopefully our speed is enough to put us on the front row and get us the pole, but we should be close with where we're at."
RCR swept the top three positions in the rain-shortened single-day test at Daytona in January, when Austin Dillon, Brian Scott and Matt Crafton -- substituting for Menard, who was unable to participate due to a burst pipe flooding his house -- led the way. The same team wasted no time backing up those speeds Saturday, when Menard, Newman, Dillon and Scott took four of the top five spots in the first practice, and Newman and Dillon went 1-2 in the second.
Saturday's practices consisted of single-car runs in preparation for front-row qualifying, which is scheduled for Sunday afternoon. Drafting practice -- which may offer a clearer picture of who the favorites are for the Daytona 500 -- will likely precede the 150-mile qualifying events, which will set the remainder of the starting field next week.
"You need to be careful not to get too confident just because you’ve shown speed in single-car runs," said Scott, a NASCAR Nationwide Series regular entered by RCR in a No. 33 car. "It's still the Daytona 500. There's still a lot of things that can happen, you still have to make it to the end. Having a fast car is only part of it. There's a lot of cars, a lot of teams up and down the garage that have really fast equipment. I think you've seen it through the years that anybody can win. Having a fast car helps, but it's only a small part of the puzzle."
For RCR, the parts include more than vehicles bearing the team's logo. In Saturday's first practice, the Furniture Row Racing car of Martin Truex Jr. and the Germain Racing car of Casey Mears -- both of which have technical affiliations with Childress, and use Earnhardt Childress engines -- were sixth and 13th, respectively. Truex, who didn't test here in January, was so comfortable with his No. 78 car in the first practice that he made just two laps and packed it in for the rest of the day. Mears jumped to fifth in the final session, where Scott was eighth.
"The good thing is, all the RCR cars and our alliance teams, all of them are fast," said Slugger Labbe, Menard's crew chief. "A lot of credit goes to all the work they've done to get out alliance teams up the snuff, and they've helped us as well. ECR's done a real good job this winter -- they won the Rolex 24, and we want to win the pole tomorrow and win the 500. They've worked really hard this winter, so hopefully we can put all out resources together."
Menard's day of practice consisted of just two laps -- he went out late in the first session, topped the board with a mock qualifying run, and soon afterward was in a ball cap and T-shirt because Labbe didn't want to put too many miles on the engine. The No. 27 car for the Daytona 500 is brand new -- in fact, Saturday was its first time on the track. Scott and Dillon are using the same cars they tested, while Newman's test car was tabbed for the Sprint Unlimited exhibition on Saturday night.
"I think obviously we've got some speed in our cars," Dillon said. "That's good for the race, especially, because you don't know who's holding back what for qualifying. But obviously we've got quite a bit of cars going all-out in practice. But I truly think the greatest thing about our car is how fast it is with nothing done to it. When we add everything to it, it should back that up and do what we want it to -- which is hopefully, sit on the pole."
After testing and a pair of practices, that certainly looms as a possibility. Menard said the RCR cars were split among two separate test plans in January, and the most effective parts of each were implemented across the organization's vehicles before they returned to Daytona for real. Saturday, the results of that approach were evident -- and could very well be again when the front-row starters are determined for the Great American Race.
"Hopefully, one of our cars gets the pole, and hopefully two of them stand on the front row," Menard said. "Outside of that, we just get ready to race. A lot of times, and you'll see it at Daytona way more than Talladega, a fast car doesn't always drive the best. But my car drove really good by itself, so if we have to dial some grip into it somehow ... for the 150s, then we'll do that. But I feel like it drives pretty good, it's got good speed. I'm not sure we'll have to do a whole lot."