By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The boys of NASCAR are back in full sound at Daytona International Speedway.
Saturday saw a possible indication which cars look poised of capturing the Busch Pole Award for next Sunday’s 62nd Daytona 500 and who can work together in the draft, but as the saying goes – it’s too early to tell who’s the heavy favorite right now as Daytona is an ultimate crap shoot where anything can happen and it usually does.
Before qualifying practice, there was one 50-minute session for tomorrow’s Busch Clash this morning and it was a clean sweep for the Joe Gibbs Racing quartet as they claimed the top-four spots.
Part of the reason behind the 1-2-3-4 practice result was working together in a draft close to halfway in the session. The man on top was Erik Jones who clocked in at 45.005 seconds (199.755 mph). Behind Jones was Denny Hamlin (44.060 seconds), Martin Truex, Jr. (45.067), and Kyle Busch (45.080).
Ryan Blaney was fifth fastest which leads the Ford brand while down in 11th, you’ll find the fastest Chevrolet driver which was Chase Elliott.
Blaney said the game of manufacturer drafting alliance has gone the last three years on the superspeedways, noting the Clash being the ultimate example of this trend.
“You want to get out there with the Clash car in a bigger pack. I wish there were a bigger pack in the Clash practice to run hard,” Blaney said. “I thought when we had our seven Fords out there and then one or two others joined in, the 88 and 9, you want to see what your car can do. I would rather make those moves in Clash practice than with with 500 car. I think it was a good practice for us.”
This season marks the first time Blaney will be paired up with former Cup Series championship winning crew chief Todd Gordon. He commented that all is good between them, but he won’t have a clear result as to how they’ll mesh until the series wraps up the West Coast Swing next month.
“It is nice to talk through things between Todd and myself and our engineers,” Blaney said. “It is going to change a lot when we get to like Vegas in a couple of weeks where you are really running through a lot of changes and having to really hustle through practice. It is great so far.”
Despite some intense moments among the Ford camp while working together, it was a clean session.
“We made a couple bold moves to see how the car reacts and you kind of want to put yourself in some hairy situations to where you will see what you need to do better to get out of it,” Blaney on the pack this morning. “Not too bad of a situation to where you wreck yourself. It is nice to sit in a car again. It has been a few months.”
Their minds would go from tomorrow’s exhibition race to getting the right setup for qualifying.
In the opening qualifying practice session, the Chevrolet duo of Ty Dillon and Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. topped the board, breaking up the Toyota parade that went on for a quarter of the session. Dillon clocked in at 44.206 seconds (203.592 mph) and along with Stenhouse, were the only ones who went over 203 mph.
Third through eighth were Toyota camp with Hamlin being the fastest of that group. Behind Hamlin were Jones, Truex, Christopher Bell, Busch and Daniel Suarez.
David Ragan was the top man for the Blue Oval at ninth quickest and rounding out the top-10 was fellow Ford driver Matt DiBenedetto.
With the exception of the top-three drivers who drafted together in final practice (Bubba Wallace, Cole Custer and John Hunter Nemechek), the rest of the session were single-car runs and the fastest of those drivers was Alex Bowman at 46.133 seconds. His Hendrick Motorsports teammates Johnson, Elliott and William Byron were behind them in single-car times.
The biggest headline of the session was a wild incident involving Brad Keselowski, who hit the fence post just as he was heading out to make a run. Consequently, the right side of his No. 2 Discount Tires Ford Mustang sustained damage and are making massive repairs to avoid getting out the backup car.
For now, the fight for the pole will commence Sunday at Noon EST live on Fox as William Byron is the defending pole sitter for “The Great American Race” as Hendrick Motorsports have put on a massive stranglehold on the front of the grid, winning the last five straight poles.
Johnson said it’s hard to say if his team can pull it off once again as you’ll have to go back to 2008 when the seven-time champion won the pole for the Daytona 500.
“Last year was so good for us. Nobody likes losing and this garage area is so tough. I woke up this morning thinking something along those same lines; which of the four Hendrick cars,” Johnson said. “Then, it dawned on me that these guys have had all winter to work on stuff. There are new bodies on the Camaros.
“I chased that thought out of my head. I hope it comes back and we’re going to find out in this next practice where we’re going to stack up. But you just can’t turn your back on this garage area; it’s just too strong.”
Following qualifying, live coverage of the Clash starts at 3:00pm EST on FS1. Jimmie Johnson is the defending winner as he’ll hope to start his final season on a positive note and avoid the drama after a bump gone wrong towards Paul Menard got him in front, but wiped out almost the entire field.
While the finish is still in the minds of fans, Johnson’s driven mentality is well focused on how the brand new Camaro will fare Sunday.
“We have a new bumper and new nose to get used to,” Johnson said. “It’s a very useful race that I’m going to take a full advantage of and hopefully apply stuff, and learn from there for the 500.
“Now more than ever it’s very useful. No Daytona testing, so it definitely makes a difference to be out there.”