For the second consecutive week Kurt Busch will lead the Sprint Cup Series to the green flag to start the third race of the 2016 season. This is his 21st career pole and second at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, his hometown track.
After setting a new track record in Round One of qualifying (196.378 mph) Busch needed to rebound after a slightly disappointing second where he was third quick. With just minutes remaining in the final round of qualifying he was able to barely edge Joey Logano by .067 seconds.
“It was insanely fast,” Busch said of his lap. “It’s amazing all the detail that goes into qualifying with finding that perfect lap three times out there. My second outing we were way tight and I didn’t know where it came from and (Tony) Gibson and crew went to town.”
The No. 41 Chevrolet was no lower than third on the leader board in the single practice session or any of the rounds of qualifying as he is looking for his first win in Sin City.
Logano will begin his third consecutive race in Las Vegas from the front row. After a disappointing qualifying session last week in Atlanta, the No. 22 team found what they were missing and are off to a good start this weekend.
Matt Kenseth made multiple adjustments throughout the day and when it counted he was third, the best he had been all day. The 2013 winner in Las Vegas is going into one of his best tracks with his best starting position the year.
Brad Keselowski will lineup fourth on Sunday in his Ford. The No. 2 car was quickest in the opening practice on Friday and he is looking for his second win on the 1.5-mile oval. In Round Two, he was fastest but fell to Busch, .093 seconds behind the pole winning speed.
Austin Dillon needed two attempts to make it out of the first round of qualifying. But in the final moments of the last round he slotted his car into the fifth position. On his first run he was complaining that his motor wasn’t running properly, but when he came in to cool his tires down the No. 3 team fixed the problem and he feels this is the start of good runs for his team this year.
One of the biggest stories in Round One was Kevin Harvick needing three attempts to improve his car, narrowly making it into Round Two. After making it through that round his car continued to pick up speed, resulting in a sixth-place effort.
After crashing in the test session on Thursday, Denny Hamlin will start Sunday’s race ninth. The Daytona 500 winner struggled in practice, but the Joe Gibbs Racing organization looks to have made major adjustments with two of its cars starting in the top 10.
Chase Elliott is the highest starting rookie in 13th. His closest competitor for Rookie of the Year Ryan Blaney will start alongside him in 14th.
Some notable drivers that struggled in qualifying were Brian Vickers who will begin the race from 19th, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. 20th, Ryan Newman 21st and Kyle Busch 23rd. The No. 18 team struggled all day on Friday and was mired back in the mid 20s.
Just over three minutes into the second round of qualifying Carl Edwards No. 19 Toyota shot up the racetrack when something appeared to broke in the rear end of the car. After running the fourth quickest speed in Round One of qualifying, he will go to a backup car and start from the 24th position.
“I think the right rear was going down,” Edwards said. “It felt good going into the corner and there was a big bang and I think that was just the frame heights being low, hitting the ground. I thought it was the left rear, but it hit hard. I’m still not convinced that something didn’t break in the left rear.”
Other notable drivers that will start toward the rear are Greg Biffle in 26th, Jamie McMurray in 29th and Clint Bowyer in 35th.
McMurray will go to a backup car after slapping the wall in his qualifying attempt. He stated that his primary car has been a 30th-place car all weekend long.
The Cup teams will have two practice sessions on Saturday to tune their car up for Sunday’s Kobalt Tools 400.
Coming off of a disappointing weekend at Atlanta, Team Penske rebounded to pace the first practice session of the Sprint Cup weekend at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Brad Keselowski led the way at 195.327 mph, .009 seconds faster than teammate Joey Logano.
Kurt Busch posted the third fastest time as the No. 41 car was among the fastest all morning long. The car would get faster in every run it made.
The first three drivers were all faster than last year’s pole winning run by Jeff Gordon.
Paul Menard recorded his hot lap after having a close moment with the outside wall. He finished the practice fourth fastest and was the first driver over a tenth of a second behind the lap posted by the No. 2 car.
Brian Vickers, filling in for Tony Stewart rounded out the top five after posting 117 laps in Thursday’s test session at the 1.5-mile racetrack.
Defending winner of the Kobalt Tools 400 Kevin Harvick was seventh fastest at 194.126 mph. The driver of the No. 4 Chevrolet has been battling the flu throughout the week as he looks to go back-to-back in Sin City.
The first Toyota was Matt Kenseth in 11th as the Joe Gibbs Racing and Furniture Row teams struggled on one lap speed. Kyle Busch was the slowest among the five teams in 25th. Denny Hamlin finished the session 13th in his backup car after crashing his primary on Thursday.
All 39 teams took part in Friday’s opening practice in preparation for qualifying. The drivers will look to battle slick track conditions during qualifying. If practice is a fair representation of qualifying, then there will be a new track record set tonight in Las Vegas.
David Ragan has been announced as the new driver of the No. 23 Dr. Pepper Toyota for BK Racing. The news came hours after Matt DiBenedetto officially stated that he would be returning to drive the No. 83 car for the organization in 2016.
Ragan joins BK Racing after facing many unknowns about what his future entailed throughout the off-season. Last July, his future became uncertain after becoming the full-time fill-in driver for Brian Vickers when Michael Waltrip Racing announced that it would be shutting its doors at season’s end.
Last year alone, Ragan started off the Daytona 500 with Front Row Motorsports, a team that he had been with since 2012, but was named the replacement driver for Kyle Busch starting at Atlanta after Busch was injured in the XFINITY Series race at Daytona. He competed in nine events for the No. 18 team, and then moved over to MWR to drive the No. 55 car for the remainder of the season.
Throughout the season Ragan only accumulated one top-10 finish, which came in March at Martinsville. He was in a position where, yes he had to adapt to multiple different teams and crew chiefs, but had he been successful it is possible he would have landed a ride in a top-tier car for the 2016 season.
However, after not performing up to expectations, Ragan was stuck not knowing his future for a long time. He was in the prime position of his career to prove to other teams in NASCAR that he has what it take to muscle the car around and take advantage of an incredible opportunity. Unlike his teammate at MWR, he did not have sponsorship that would follow suit. It was announced in October that his teammate Clint Bowyer would be joining HScott Motorsports in 2016 with funding from 5-Hour Energy.
The Georgia native seemed to be relieved after announcing on Monday that he would be joining BK Racing.
"I'm happy to be part of something that has so much growth potential," Ragan said in a press release. “Ron [Devine] has steadily built his program over the last five years. He's made an even greater commitment in 2016 with new cars, equipment, and additional personnel. I feel that we'll be in a position to bring the team to the next level. I'm looking forward to the season."
The 30-year-old has proven to be marketable over the years. During his career, he has had funding from big-time sponsors such as AAA, UPS and Aaron’s. The two-time Cup Series winner will bring some star power to the young team, which was created in 2012 after Devine purchased the assets of Red Bull Racing.
For the majority of his nine full-time seasons, Ragan worked with Roush Fenway Racing, where he picked up his first career win in July of 2011 at Daytona. He spent his first five full-time seasons with Roush before joining Front Row Motorsports, which he raced with for just over three seasons.
Monday’s announcement was a win for BK Racing in trying to elevate its program to the next level.
“We're very excited to have a driver of David's caliber join our team," Devine said in a team press release. "In addition to being a race winner, I feel that his input and leadership qualities will benefit the team on many levels. Our entire organization is energized to work with him."
Over the off-season, BK Racing purchased more than a dozen of MWR’s racecars. This was a step in the right direction and puts better equipment out on the racetrack for the organization compared to the equipment it has used in the past. Last season, the BK Racing owned cars finished 37th, 40th and 43rd, respectively in the owner standings.
For Ragan, BK Racing was the obvious option. In an offseason that has had plenty of late moves, he was the only big name driver to not have secured a ride through late January. Though it might be a step down from previous teams that he was on, the new driver of the No. 23 car will get the most out of the racecars each week.
This move seems to have been Ragan’s only option in the Cup Series.
There were no deals on the table in the XFINITY Series that would have put Ragan in a competitive ride. However, just last season, rookie Jeb Burton went from being a championship threat in the Camping World Truck Series to a driver who missed multiple races at the Sprint Cup level competing in BK Racing equipment.
Ragan obviously has a more wealth of knowledge than Burton due to experience. However, how much can Ragan get out of the racecar? Everyone knows that he will be competitive on the restrictor plate tracks, he always is. But what about the other 32 events?
It will be difficult for Ragan to be competitive with BK Racing. The organization is making all of the right moves in purchasing new equipment, bringing in a driver who will instantly be the leader of the team.
Round Table Discussion: Breaking Down the Mid-Year ‘Silly Season’ with Joe Gibbs Racing and Michael Waltrip Racing
This NASCAR season has been everything but ordinary. Over the past three months, there have been multiple drivers to miss time due to medical issues, and teams have acted like they are in the MLB or NFL.
Trading drivers seems rather far-fetched, but that is what has occurred in the NASCAR world in 2015.
Following Kyle Busch’s hard wreck at Daytona, where he hit an area of the inside retaining wall that was not protected by the SAFER Barrier, the 29-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series winner was sent to the hospital. With Busch being out for several months, and no announcement on when he will be back other than that it will be before the series returns to Daytona in July, Joe Gibbs Racing made a “trade” with Front Row Motorsports. Well, it would have been a trade, but the small Ford team ended up losing its top driver.
Two-time Camping World Truck Series champion Matt Crafton replaced Busch for the Daytona 500, and David Ragan has since piloted the No. 18 car. Meanwhile, Brian Vickers, who missed the first two races due to cardiovascular surgery over the off-season, returned to the seat of his Michael Waltrip Racing car at Las Vegas. Evidently, his blood clots returned, and after announcing he would be out for at least three months, MWR was forced to put rookie Brett Moffitt into the car.
Now, with Erik Jones set to take over the No. 18 Toyota for JGR until Busch’s return, Ragan is set to join MWR for the remainder of the season. If and when Vickers come back is still in question, but our Speedway Digest team takes a look at some key questions that have come up with all the announcements as of late in our first round table discussion.
1. David Ragan was announced as the driver of the No. 55 Toyota for Michael Waltrip Racing, replacing Brian Vickers for the remainder of the season. After earning one top 10 and an average finish of nearly 20th this season for Joe Gibbs Racing, what makes Ragan a hot commodity for this team?
Brett Winningham: I see Ragan fitting in with the Michael Waltrip Racing team very well. Even though the finishes with the Joe Gibbs Racing team could have been better, I think he will perform just as well with MWR. The team has been off lately, earning only three top 10 finishes in 2015. With the addition of Ragan, it could potentially improve the team moving forward. It also allows Ragan a much better chance at making the Chase for the Sprint Cup if he can score a victory or record enough solid finishes to get into the Chase via points.
Steven Wilson: Ragan has been able to keep the car clean through the events he's run with JGR aside for an issue at Bristol. For one, it makes him look good to a team that is going to be able to give good information on what the car is doing and how to make it better with his many years behind the wheel. But most of all, he can bring the car home in one piece.
Joseph Wolkin: Ragan is a marketable driver. He was the face of AAA when he first came into the sport, and eventually did the same for UPS. Though he has had some struggles with Front Row Motorsports, the chance with Joe Gibbs Racing has shown that he is capable of running up front. His results don’t show it, but Ragan has proved thus far in 2015 that he can and will be a consistent driver once again.
Dustin Albino: Ragan has always been a solid talent behind the wheel of a racecar. Ever since he was with Roush Fenway Racing in his rookie year, he established himself as a threat to make the Chase. However, in 2012 when Ragan jumped into the No. 34, that wasn’t the best move at the time. But, it was the only ride available in the Cup Series. A big reason why Ragan landed the No. 18 ride following Kyle Busch’s injury is because he is more established and a true veteran of the sport.
2. With Ragan going to Michael Waltrip Racing, Vickers will need to find sponsorship if he is healthy before the end of the season. What does this indicate for Vickers' career?
Wilson: Vickers has had such an up and down past 18 months or so with his health coming back early this year for two events to have to get out the car the next week. With him being back on medications that will take him out the car for the foreseeable future, throwing in the recent announcement he will have to take a hard look at his abilities going forward. Will he be able to run 400-500 mile events? Do the rewards out-weigh the risks?
Albino: This is a real bummer for Vickers. The big question is will he be healthy? No one knows. The blood clots seem to be reoccurring very often. Vickers first has to put his health first. As hard as that may be, he needs to continue being smart about the way he approaches his life.
The fact that Aaron’s stuck behind Vickers through thick and thin, and now that Ragan is hopping in the No. 55 for the remaining of the 2015 season has to be eating Vickers alive. There is no telling where his career may go from here, but getting healthy is the number one priority.
Winningham: At this point for Brian Vickers, I don’t see him returning to the No. 55 Toyota next year if he ends up sidelined for the rest of the season. The Michael Waltrip Racing team cannot afford to be effected by this week after week. When and if Vickers returns, it will be interesting to see how the situation will unfold.
Wolkin: This is a very difficult situation for everyone involved. Obviously, Waltrip’s team was trying to prevent this situation, but it appears Vickers’ career is in jeopardy with this latest health issue. The team needed a season-long replacement to give the sponsor a driver that is consistent behind the wheel, which puts Vickers out of a ride if he can come back before the end of the year.
If he can beat the odds and race again, which he seemingly will be able to do once doctors take him off Xarelto, it appears he will have to find sponsorship to run a third car for the team. Co-owner Rob Kauffman has put his company on the team’s cars before, and this is a situation where he probably would do so at least until the remainder of the season. However, he’s in a bit of a pickle if Ragan performs well, which would mean he could likely be a free agent once again.
3. Prior to his stint with Joe Gibbs Racing, Ragan was slated to run for Front Row Motorsports for the fourth straight season. What opportunities are presented to the Georgia native now that he has publicity on his side, along with a possible developing relationship with MWR's sponsor, Aaron's?
Wolkin: This opportunity with MWR is gigantic for Ragan. Performing well, he can see himself in the No. 55 car in 2016, and possibly locking up a multi-year deal. However, if he struggles, Ragan could be sent back to a lower-tier team, such as Front Row Motorsports. This is his last big chance at getting a top ride in the Cup Series, and his future will be based on his performances. There are several drivers with expiring contracts this year, and if MWR opts to put another driver in the car for 2016, there should be some openings for him.
Albino: Ragan is now a veteran of the Sprint Cup Series, and he is able to have sponsors behind him, while previously driving the No. 34 the past three seasons, Front Row Motorsports didn’t have a primary sponsor to fund him. Now that he knows where he will be for the remaining of the 2015 season, it will be critical for the Georgia native to perform. He was also put in a tough situation by taking over the No. 18 for Kyle Busch. Erik Jones is the future of Joe Gibbs Racing, and team owner Joe Gibbs hinted that the young 18-year-old would be in the Cup Series soon following his first career NASCAR XFINITY Series win at Texas. However, Ragan is now granted an opportunity to drive for a sponsor in Aaron’s that is fully committed to Michael Waltrip and Michael Waltrip Racing. Ragan may have found himself a quality long-term ride.
Winningham: If David Ragan can build a relationship with the Michael Waltrip Racing organization, it would more than likely save his racing career. It would also be a huge confidence boost since he entered the 2015 season not knowing how many races he could run with Front Row Motorsports due to sponsorship issues. At the same time, if Ragan cannot produce for MWR, it could also hurt his racing career.
Wilson: Other than being with JGR, giving him a shot to do some good things in a racecar was still a temporary spot for him not knowing when he would be out of the car and go back to Front Row Motorsports. This gives him one of his best shots to have the engineering and sponsorship money behind him with MWR and Toyota to back his effort for the remainder of 2015. This also is an opportunity for him to move into 2016 with a team that is better equipped to give him more wins in the Sprint Cup Series. Obviously, having long-time MWR sponsor Aaron's onboard gives him the path to continue with MWR if and when Vickers may return or if he doesn't, he will have a legitimate shot at keeping the seat with his knowledge and ability to bring a car home clean.
4. As Ragan departs Front Row Motorsports, the team is looking to replace him. Originally, he did not have funding to run the full season in the No. 34 car, but as of now - the team has run every race. Chris Buescher has been the main man behind the wheel, but what route should the team go after losing its lead driver?
Albino: It will be interesting in the upcoming weeks to see what Front Row Motorsports decides to do with the No. 34 car. It seems as if the team is giving Roush Fenway Racing XFINITY Series driver Chris Buescher the go behind the wheel. He is a fellow Ford driver who has done a respectable job in his first four races behind the wheel with an average finish of 24.8. However, Bob Jenkins doesn’t want to go in the hole in regards to money, and without a primary sponsor on board, it will be hard to do. Giving young drivers an opportunity is always a good thing for the sport. However, is the driver up for the challenge? Maybe rotating a few younger drivers in that car for the remainder of the season is the way to go. But what if Vickers ended up in that ride? Only time will tell.
Wolkin: Chris Buescher is the obvious choice for the races that his XFINITY Series ride does not conflict with the Cup Series schedule. If he runs more than seven events this year, he will not be eligible for the Rookie of the Year when he races full-time in the Cup Series (possibly as soon as next year or 2017). Expect Buescher and Brett Moffitt to split this ride, with an occasional shot for young drivers, such as Ryan Ellis, Ryan Reed, Darrell Wallace Jr. or another driver who is associated with Ford.
Winningham: The Front Row Motorsports organization should continue to field the No. 34 Ford with Chris Buescher. Since making his debut with the team earlier this year, Buescher has finished inside the top 30 in each of those starts. In his Sprint Cup Series debut at Auto Club Speedway, Buescher left the two-mile oval with a 20th-place finish. In his last start at the Bristol Motor Speedway, Buescher walked away with a 25th-place finish. Based on these results, I see Front Row continuing to field a Sprint Cup Series entry with the young driver.
Wilson: This puts Brett Moffitt, who's already been in the car for Front Row Motorsports, in a position to be in a more stable seat week in and week out if he is given the opportunity. MWR would obviously like to keep Moffitt, but the lack of sponsorship to fund a third car leaves him out of that. Chris Buescher won't be able to compete each week for FRM due to obligations in the XFINITY series, where he's running for the championship, but gives him more seat time at tracks he's in need of to move on with his career.
It has been a year since a Michael Waltrip Racing car has won a race in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. Of course, there was the entire “spingate” ordeal, which dismissed NAPA from one of the top Toyota teams in the sport. Howver, MWR has rebounded with two full-time cars this year, and a partnership with Identity Ventures Racing in a third vehicle.
Since Brian Vickers won at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway at this time last season, the organization hasn’t scored a victory. It is not due to a lack of effort, however, as MWR drivers, Clint Bowyer and Vickers, sit 12th and 16th in the standings, respectively. With the new Chase for the Sprint Cup format in play, it is go time for MWR, and they have started to do just that.
Vickers is coming off of a runner-up finish at Daytona after a stretch of horrific luck spanning from Pocono through Kentucky. Bowyer has been the opposite. Starting out the year rather slowly, the Kansas-native has four top-10s over the past six races – moving up from 17th in points since then.
Even with luck on their side, is MWR going to be contending for race wins? What about the Sprint Cup Series title?
Well, even while their drivers have combined to lead 74 laps this season, they haven’t been in play late in events. The team has had trouble adjusting to the new rules package – similar to Roush Fenway Racing, but not as severe.
If there is any track that MWR needs to return to, it is certainly New Hampshire. The organization will be fielding Jeff Burton in that third car this weekend. Burton, 47, is making his second start in the Cup Series this year, and it could be his last pending on sponsorship. Brett Moffitt made his first pair of Sprint Cup Series starts in the No. 66 Toyota this year, and impressed the MWR folks enough to sign a deal for next season. It appears Moffitt will run a handful of races later this season – possibly running a full year in 2015.
At New Hampshire, Bowyer has a pair of wins back when he was racing for Richard Childress Racing. Besides that, he has two top-four finishes with MWR at the 1-mile track, but struggled during both races at the speedway last season. Loudon is one of Burton’s best tracks. He has four victories in 38 starts at the track, and he nearly won both races there in 2013. Before joining MWR, Vickers wasn’t exceptionally great at New Hampshire – recording two top-fives in his first 13 starts at the speedway. Since then, he has three straight top-10 finishes.
During Friday’s first practice, Bowyer and Vickers were each inside of the top-10 as they look to seal the deal for MWR’s first win in 2014.