In a two-day show, there is not a lot of time to get the setup right. There was plenty of on-track activity on Thursday, but it was dedicated to the Nationwide and developmental series. Cup drivers had to roll off the hauler fast on Friday, practice smart, and qualify in a very short period of time.
Scenarios like that typically put a premium on experience and it is no coincidence that Mark Martin posted the fastest single lap in the morning session, while Jeff Gordon jumped to the top of the speed chart in final practice. For Gordon, that was a huge improvement over how he looked most of the day. The No. 24 experimented during the first session and much of final practice as well, but they became faster as the day progressed.
Martin used the first practice to set up his car for qualification and concentrated on long runs in final practice. That paid off with the fourth-quickest, 10-lap average in the second session and upgrades his handicap from one of dark horse in this week’s preview to a favorite. With three consecutive Richmond top-10s entering this weekend, he is poised to earn a fourth.
Controversy can be galvanizing. Matt Kenseth arrived at the track with a cloud over his head in the form of penalties by NASCAR for an illegal part in his Kansas engine. While he is not at his best on short, flat courses, he has shown a tendency to run well on tracks dominated by Joe Gibbs Racing, and he affirmed that during morning practice with the quickest 10-lap average of 123.422 mph. His team is at full strength pending its appeal and they want to run strong while they can.
If Carl Edwards earns a top-10 this week, it will probably be attributable to a good call in the pits, or a setup that works over a long green-flag segment at the end of the race. A strong baseline setup for long runs would seem to be the least likely situation after practice because the No. 99 posted only the 21st-quickest time of 121.483 mph during the first session among 30 cars that ran that long. Edwards had the 10th-fastest single lap in final practice, but he did not run 10 consecutive laps that would allow players to judge how the car may have improved in that regard.
Read more: Practice results