By David Morgan, Associate Editor
TALLADEGA, Ala. – Uncertainty surrounded the first day of on-track activity at Talladega Superspeedway, with the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series getting their first glimpse at the new post-restrictor plate aero package that will be used at the 2.66-mile facility as well as Daytona for the foreseeable future.
The new package features a tapered spacer instead of a restrictor plate, making it the first race since 1987 to feature the horsepower sapping device. To counteract the increase in horsepower, about 100 more than the teams have had at their disposal in previous years, NASCAR slapped a nine-inch rear spoiler on the back, along with a limit on rear suspension travel with the addition of a one-inch bolt-on track bar mount to add enough drag to the cars to bring them back to an acceptable speed range (around 200 mph).
In the first of two practice sessions, there were differing agendas with some drivers electing to hit the track by themselves, while others tried to get in a drafting pack. The majority of those that elected to draft would wind up running single file, with some attempts to run two and three wide.
Kurt Busch topped the board in his No. 1 Monster Energy Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet with a lap of 47.249 seconds (202.671 mph), which is in line with the speeds that Cup Series cars ran in practice at Talladega last year.
Front Row Motorsports driver David Ragan timed in second, followed by Erik Jones, Michael McDowell, Chase Elliott, William Byron, Ryan Newman, Kyle Busch, Ty Dillon, Jimmie Johnson, and Kevin Harvick to round out the top-10. Of all the cars that went out on track, the top-21 topped the 200-mph threshold, with the top eight eclipsing 202 mph.
“I felt the runs were incredible,” said Ragan. “I have never been able to get such a quick run catching a car in front of me. There is a point when you stall out a little bit when you get really close because you are taking drag off the car in front of you before you actually get to the bumper. They will start to accelerate some then. I felt like I could push pretty good.
“I don’t think that the tandem deal that we have all thought about it going to be a reality but I do think that the cars are still pretty fast and handling will still come into play but I felt like the runs you get, 15 car lengths back to 10 to 5 are as dramatic as I have ever felt.”
With the high speeds seen during first practice, NASCAR elected to make some changes to the cars before final practice, adding a one-inch wicker bill to the top of the spoiler and allowing teams two different gears to choose from in an effort to bring the speeds and RPMs the engines are running back down.
At the start of final practice, there was a mad rush to hit the track, with a large drafting pack forming and speeds creeping ever higher as a result.
Though the intended result of the gear changes and the “Wicked Wicker,” as Joey Logano dubbed it, was to bring speeds down, that didn’t quite pan out as six cars eclipsed the 204-mph threshold, led by Ryan Newman at 204.157 mph (46.905 seconds), followed by Roush Fenway Racing teammate and former Talladega winner Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.
Martin Truex, Jr., Matt Tifft, Kyle Busch, and Erik Jones topped 204 mph, with the remainder of the top-10 going to Aric Almirola, Paul Menard, Matt DiBenedetto, and Denny Hamlin.
With practice in the books, next up for the Cup Series is qualifying at 4:40 pm Eastern Saturday, followed by the GEICO 500 on Sunday at 2:00 pm Eastern.