TALLADEGA, Ala – Friday was all about finding answers for how Sunday’s GEICO 500 (2 p.m. ET/FOX/MRN/SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) will race. With this weekend being the first time the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series will race on a superspeedway without a restrictor place since 1987, uncertainty was the name of the game.
Unlike like most normal race weekends to where we have one practice session on Friday and qualifying later on in the day, the Cup Series drivers were given two practice sessions on the 2.66-mile oval and will just qualify on Saturday.
In the first session, Kurt Busch turned a lap of 202.671 mph in his No. 1 Chevrolet. Busch, is 0-for-36 in his Cup career at Talladega but does have five top 10 finishes in his last seven starts on the Alabama race track.
David Ragan in the No. 38 Front Row Motorsports Ford and Erik Jones in the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota were both just behind, logging equal laps of 202.654 mph.
Michael McDowell in the No. 34 Front Row Motorsports Ford (202.641 mph) and Chase Elliott in the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet (202.624 mph) rounded out the top five.
In all, 21 drivers recorded laps of 200 mph or better in the practice session.
This practice was the first look at the 2019 rules package for superspeedway racing at Talladega. The package includes a 0.922-inch tapered spacer (replacing the restrictor plate), 9-inch rear spoiler, 1-inch bolt-on track bar mount (raising the rear of the car by an inch), a tapered radiator pan, 2-inch splitter overhang and aero ducts.
The spoiler and rear-end aerodynamic guidelines were altered after a two-day, three-car test session at Daytona International Speedway following this year’s Daytona 500. Findings from that three-car session prompted NASCAR officials to increase the height of the rear spoiler from 8 to 9 inches, along with the track-bar mount addition to create more drag in an effort to slow the cars down.
Despite the speeds on Friday actually being a bit slower in the first practice session than the ones ran the last time, NASCAR made some changes to the rear spoiler as well as optional gearing changes between sessions.
Last year, the top speed in practice was Kevin Harvick at 204.277 mph. They’re almost 2 mph slower six months later. Plus, in practice last year, 11 cars were quicker than 202 mph, today was eight.
But, after the changes, the cars actually went faster in final practice. Ryan Newman topped the speed charts with a top speed of 204.157 mph in his No. 6 Ford. His teammate Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was P2 with a lap of 204.127 mph in his No. 17 Ford.
Four other drivers eclipsed the 204 mph bracket with Martin Truex Jr. (204.114 mph), Matt Tifft (204.092 mph), Kyle Busch (204.079 mph) and Erik Jones (204.062 mph) being third through sixth respectively.
As you can see, that’s three JGR Toyota’s and three Fords all getting over 204 mph.
The reason why this was acceptable is because NASCAR deemed that the speeds were up because they were drafting closer. The close up rate wasn’t as vast as it was in the first session, which that is what worried NASCAR teams the most.
The entire top 10 was full of Ford and Toyota drivers as the top Chevy speed in final practice was by Alex Bowman at 201.774 mph.
In final practice, 24 cars got over 200 mph.
Still Up In The Air On The Racing Package For Sunday
It only took an hour before NASCAR decided to make changes to the aero package for Talladega. As stated above, this is the first race on a superspeedway without a restrictor plate since 1987. After the February test at Daytona with this package, speeds were way too high for comfort. So, NASCAR made adjustments for this weekend at Talladega. But, after just one practice session, more changes were needed.
Kurt Busch topped 202 mph in session No. 1 but it wasn’t just the speed that was concerning, it was the closing rate.
The drivers were getting almost too good of a draft to the cars in front which worried the teams. They could stand to get slowed down a bit too.
But, those changes didn’t necessarily work. The speeds were two mph faster in final practice as Ryan Newman eclipsed 204 mph. While the closing rate was fixed, it was only helped a little.
NASCAR doesn’t want a “tandem” type of race on Sunday. They also want a safe race too. I still don’t think anyone knows what we will see since we didn’t have 40 cars on the track at the same time.
What we do know is, we will see laps consistently over 200 mph on Sunday with 24 cars being over that in practice.
Roush/Fenway Racing Looks Strong
RFR went 1-2 in final practice which shouldn’t be too much of a shock. They’re been at their best on plate races. While this isn’t a “plate race” per say, it’s still a superspeedway.
Ryan Newman has never won at Talladega but it’s not like he’s been bad. Newman, isn’t necessarily a bad superspeedway racer and here he is entering this weekend on the heels of three straight top 11 finishes. He was quickest overall and seventh in session No. 1.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has two superspeedway wins including this very race in 2017. He also finished in the top five in both races at Talladega last year and was P2 in final practice and P12 in the first session.
This is their shot to shine.
Joe Gibbs Racing Looks Good Too
Three of the top six speeds in final practice belonged to the Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota’s. Denny Hamlin gave them all four in the top 10. That’s not too surprising either.
In February’s Daytona 500, they went 1-2-3 with Hamlin leading Kyle Busch and Erik Jones across the finish line.
They look like they could do it again this weekend.
While Toyota only has three career wins at Talladega, they can definitely win Sunday’s GEICO 500. Hamlin, has three superspeedway wins overall and 15 top 10 finishes in his last 25 superspeedway starts.
Busch, has two top three finishes in his last three spring race starts at Talladega and has yet to finish outside of the top 10 this season.
Jones, has finishes of first, eighth and third respectively in his last three superspeedway starts and was third and sixth respectively in practice on Friday.
Even Truex despite Talladega not being his best track has a decent shot too.