By David Morgan, Associate Editor
CONCORD, N.C. – Ahead of the second running of the Bank of America ROVAL 400 at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Sunday, the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series competitors took to the track for two practice sessions on Saturday as they looked to get their cars dialed in for the first elimination race of the Playoffs.
Ryan Blaney, who was victorious in this race one year ago, topped the board in the morning session with a lap of 1 minute, 21.977 seconds (101.882 mph). Ryan Preece ran second as the best of the non-Playoff cars, followed by Joey Logano, Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin, William Byron, Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, Chris Buescher, and Matt DiBenedetto.
The remainder of the Playoff drivers timed in 11th (Brad Keselowski), 12th (Kevin Harvick), 14th (Martin Truex, Jr.), 18th (Clint Bowyer), 19th (Kurt Busch), 20th (Kyle Busch), 22nd (Alex Bowman), 24th (Erik Jones), 26th (Aric Almirola), and 28th (Ryan Newman).
Unlike Friday’s first practice session, Saturday morning’s session was relatively tame. The only incident that brought out the caution was a spin by Kyle Busch in Turn 4, causing minor damage to the left rear quarter panel. The No. 18 team was able to get the damage repaired and he returned to the track.
Final practice went off at 2:00 pm Eastern and Truex quickly jumped to the top of the board, with a lap of 1 minute, 21.875 seconds, but his practice run came to a premature end when he was coming back out onto the oval from the infield section and missed a shift, causing the engine in his No. 19 Toyota to overrev.
Truex would come to a stop in the backstretch chicane, bringing out the first caution of the session. Due to the team having to change engines, he will have to forfeit his eighth place starting position and drop to the back of the field for the start of the race.
“I went from second to first, so I don’t know,” said Truex. “I’ve never done that before in my entire career, so definitely unfortunate. I hate it for all the guys on the Bass Pro Toyota. You know fortunately, I guess we don’t have a whole lot to worry about, it’s just frustrating.
“We had a good car. We had a good qualifying effort yesterday. It’s just going to be hard starting from the back and I hate all the extra work for my guys. I apologize to them. I’m not sure how it happened. I had one other issue today with a shift in the gate. I don’t know if it was just an issue that was right there on the edge and I just screwed it up a little bit that one time, but we’ll have to look at it a little bit further.”
Chase Elliott would eclipse Truex’s time shortly thereafter to take over the top spot in final practice with a lap of 1 minute, 21.801 seconds. The two drivers would be followed by Keselowski, Bowyer, Michael McDowell, Blaney, Byron, Larson, Kurt Busch, and Bowman to round out the top-10.
“I hope it’s good,” Elliott said of his car for Sunday’s race. “I thought we made it a little better today from where we were yesterday. Obviously, fastest in practice. It’s not the time to be the top of the sheet necessarily, but hopefully our long run pace is there. Hopefully we have it driving well enough to be good as we go. Obviously, we qualified really bad yesterday, so we need to be able to try to stay out of trouble and have the ability to move forward. We’ll give it our best shot.”
Other Playoff drivers timed in 11th (Hamlin), 12th (Logano), 14th (Harvick), 18th (Kyle Busch), 19th (Almirola), 20th (Jones), and 24th (Newman).
While Elliott topped the board, two of his Hendrick Motorsports teammates didn’t fare as well.
Friday’s practice leader, Jimmie Johnson, ran into trouble in Turn 5, spinning out and impacting the tire barrier. Though there was significant damage to his No. 48 Chevrolet, the team elected to try and repair it instead of having to go to a backup car.
“It was really just me carrying too much speed into (Turn) 5,” Johnson said. “I’ve been kind of pushing out onto that painted area, trying to put some rubber down to have a better approach into (Turn) 6 and I was just wider than I had been any other lap and was basically on some dirty track. So, I got wide and pushed out over into the grass and once in the grass, it spun around and I backed it in.
“Certainly, something we didn’t need to have happen there, but our car was really going well and just trying to get my lines dialed in, get the balance set up well for the car. Put another set of stickers on to see what we had, but we’re going to work really hard to get this car fixed up. Doesn’t look like any critical areas are really hurt. It’s in the Hawkeye now and we’ll find out from the scan there.
“We want to try and keep that third starting spot if we can.”
And then there was Alex Bowman, who had issues in the final minute of practice, losing control of his car between Turns 3-4, and also impacted the tire barrier. The damage on Bowman’s car was too severe to try and fix, relegating the team to a backup car for Sunday.