By David Morgan, Associate Editor
AUSTIN, Texas – The stars of the NASCAR Cup Series took to the track at Circuit of the Americas on Saturday morning for their only track time ahead of Sunday’s EchoPark Automotive Grand Prix. Drivers and teams would have a limited practice session before rolling right into qualifying to set the 39-car field for the race.
Kyle Busch Fastest Overall in Practice
Split into two groups (A and B), with limited time to dial in their cars before qualifying, they wasted no time in getting up to speed on the 20-turn, 3.41-mile road course.
Early on in the first group, AJ Allmendinger set the quick time before Kyle Busch bested him late in the session with a lap of two minutes, 12.46 seconds (92.680 mph).
The first group saw a few incidents, including Ryan Blaney spinning off course and into the soft wall that lines the track, Kyle Busch looping it around shortly after setting his fastest lap, and Joey Hand having a tire come apart on, destroying the right front fender on his machine.
Blaney and Busch were able to drive away after their incidents, with little or no damage to their cars.
“It shocks you a bit more when you hit the curb,” Blaney said. “That’s kind of how I spun. I hit the curb in (Turn) 10 wrong and it kind of shot me loose one way and I overcorrected the other way. Luckily, we got away with minimal damage. It’s kind of a bit jump there and I did the ol’ overcorrect. Thankfully I didn’t hit anything too hard.”
However, Hand was not so lucky. His Rick Ware Racing crew will have a lot of work ahead of them to get their No. 15 Ford repaired for the race. Hand noted that with the damage, the team likely wouldn’t be making a qualifying run, relegating the road course ace to the back of the field when the green flag flies on Sunday.
“I was locking the left front, but the spotter was saying the right front was locking, which is weird, even in the left-hand corners,” Hand said. “That’s probably what happened and I didn’t know it. There was a lot of smoke in the car. It wasn’t totally normal, so we’ve got to figure out why we’re locking brakes because I was doing it late in the turn.
“It’s cool to be here, though. Super happy with this Ford Pass Visa Rewards car. Thankful for Ford, Ford Performance, and all the guys at Rick Ware Racing. This is going to be fun. We get to do six races this year, so I’m not a one and done. All the road courses.
“I’ve got good guys back there that are going to fix her up. Probably not going to qualify, but sometimes it’s cool to have a fast car coming from the back.”
Group B went without a stoppage, as Daniel Suarez flexed his road course racing muscles by setting the fastest time in his session, falling just short of Busch’s overall fastest time.
“I think our chances are pretty high,” Suarez said just before practice. “I personally love road course racing. I think everyone knows that. I think that this new car is going to level the field a lot, when it comes to road course racing as well, just like we’ve seen on the ovals. It’s going to be fun. I’m really looking forward to that.
“On top of the everything, as we know, Trackhouse Racing has a lot of momentum right now on our side. So, we have to take advantage of that and have fun. I think the last time we were here, in practice and qualifying, we were pretty strong; and then we broke in the race. But I feel like we’ll have good speed.”
Following Busch and Suarez as the fastest drivers overall in practice was Alex Bowman, Harrison Burton, Tyler Reddick, Ross Chastain, Blaney, Allmendinger, Cole Custer, and Joey Logano.
Ryan Blaney Rebounds from Practice Crash to Score Cup Pole
Immediately after practice concluded, it was time to set the field for Sunday’s race with two groups of qualifying before the final 10 dueled it out for the pole.
In the first group of drivers that headed out on track for time trials, Cole Custer led the way, followed by Austin Cindric, Justin Haley, Denny Hamlin, and Ryan Blaney advancing into the final round.
The second group would see Daniel Suarez top the board ahead of Tyler Reddick, Christopher Bell, Joey Logano, and Alex Bowman.
Once the final round was underway, Cole Custer set the quick time right out of the gate before Blaney bested him with a lap of two minutes, 12.343 seconds (92.759 mph).
Blaney would have to sweat out the final minutes of qualifying with both Suarez and Reddick still out on track trying to set a fast lap. Suarez would come agonizingly close to topping Blaney’s time, falling just .026 seconds short of the pole position.
Behind Blaney and Suarez on the front row, Custer will start third, followed by Reddick, Bowman, Logano, Bell, Hamlin, Haley, and Cindric.
“Talk about an up and down day, for sure,” said Blaney. “From putting it in the barriers on my third lap of practice and not knowing if the car was killed or if we had to go to a backup or what it would take to fix it. It ripped my left side mirror off right when I hit the barriers so I couldn’t see the left side of the car when I was coming back to the pits and I didn’t know how bad the damage was. I knew my wheel was straight and I had flat spots but I got out of the car and looked at it and it scuffed it up but it was nothing too bad.
“They went through everything thoroughly and looked at stuff and nothing was bent. We got really lucky honestly, right there, from a mistake of mine. Really lucky I hit those plastic blocks or whatever they are. We should put those things everywhere.
“Then to go out and have speed to put it on the pole. I didn’t know if we were even going to be able to qualify when I wrecked and to be able to come back and have a fast enough car to make it to the second round and then get a good lap in during the final round and barely beat Daniel (Suarez) there, that was really fun. Yeah, an up and down day and it is nice to end it on a high note.”