Practice hardly matters at Talladega unless a team crashes due to the unpredictability of the event. Fortunately, there were no incidents in either of the two sessions on Friday.
In opening practice, Jamie McMurray paced the field at 199.737 mph. The No. 1 Chevrolet was on track for 16 laps, most of them coming in the draft, where he set his quick time.
Daytona 500 pole-sitter, Chase Elliott slated the No. 24 just behind McMurray at 199.729 mph. Kurt Busch, at 199.409 mph was third, with Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Danica Patrick in fourth at 199.384 mph and Trevor Bayne rounded out the top five at 199.317 mph.
30 teams posted a 10 consecutive lap run and Kyle Larson topped that list at 195.541 mph. On single lap speeds the No. 42 car was ninth overall.
Teams such as the Wood Brothers, Front Row Motorsports, Premium Motorsports and The Motorsports Group were all racing the weather with drivers Ryan Blaney, David Gilliland, Cole Whitt, Michael Waltrip and Josh Wise.
With the new charter system, none of those five drivers have a guaranteed spot in the main event on Sunday. Prior to the 2016 season, 36 teams were granted a charter giving them a position in each of the races this season and with qualifying being questionable for Saturday, each team needed to lay down a quick lap.
The slowest was Wise in 35th at 194.551 mph and if qualifying were to get cancelled he would miss the show.
The fall winner at Talladega, Joey Logano led final practice at 196.290 mph. Slated just behind him was Blaney at 196.239 mph.
Both Elliott and Patrick were in the top five in each session as the No. 24 car had a lap at 196.185 mph and the No. 10 machine was fourth at 195.094. Brian Scott completed the top five at 195.003.
Patrick also held the point on best 10 lap averages, though only a handful of drivers made a run of at least 10 laps. Three of the other four drivers were from the Hendrick Motorsports stable, with Jimmie Johnson as the odd man out.
Tony Stewart climbed into the No. 14 Chevrolet with roughly 15 minutes remaining to make his first laps of the day. The team worked on swapping Ty Dillon and he out of the car as the three-time Cup champion will only participate in the race until the first caution due to his lingering back injury.
Qualifying is set to begin on Saturday at 12:30 p.m. There will be a new pole-sitter from last year as Jeff Gordon won the pole for Sunday.
With just under 10 minutes remaining in Sprint Cup Series opening practice at Bristol, Denny Hamlin laid down a lap at 128.666 mph, shooting him to the top of the speed chart.
At a track that is a half-mile in length, Hamlin’s time lap time was 14.913 seconds. The top four all posted laps under 15 seconds as practice dwindled to a close.
In the last five races at Bristol, the No. 11 car has sat on the pole three times, including the night race last August, the last time NASCAR visited the world’s fastest half-mile.
After dominating last week in Texas, Martin Truex, Jr. was second fasest on the leader board at 128.399 mph, .031 seconds behind Hamlin.
Two-time Bristol winner, Brad Keselowski was third on the chart at 128.374. Jimmie Johnson posted a lap at 128.176 mph. and Jamie McMurray rounded out the top five at 127.767 mph.
With qualifying being so important at Bristol, the first 17 cars were within two-tenths of a second of the top time. Notable drivers under that mark was August winner Joey Logano in 19th and Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. who has two career top five finishes at this track in 26th.
Casey Mears was the fastest of the drivers who made a 10 lap run as well as running 43 laps, the most of all drivers in the hour-and-a-half session.
Qualifying will get underway at 3:30 p.m. Friday afternoon. Matt Kenseth is the defending pole-sitter and winner of the spring race in Bristol.
Jimmie Johnson led just 25 laps en route to his sixth career victory at Auto Club Speedway on Sunday following a late race restart that moved the race to overtime.
In a car that was sponsored by the movie Superman, Johnson needed to use super powers in overtime while restarting in third, sitting behind Kevin Harvick on the bottom line with two laps to go. He pushed the No. 4 car passed leader Denny Hamlin and hooked the white line going into Turn 1 which allowed him to get the lead down the backstretch.
This was Johnson’s 77th career victory, but without Kyle Busch getting into the wall after cutting a tire with two laps to go, he would have been stuck outside the top five.
In the second to last stint of the race, the No. 48 car was on older tires, thus making him fall through the field after restarting as the race leader.
“I knew we had a great car and that caution fell at a bad time the run before,” Johnson said. “I just didn’t have the tires on the car to race with those guys. I got a great run off of 2 [Turn] and thought I had a shot at this thing that I didn’t expect to have. I cleared him and kind of got away.”
Harvick placed his Chevrolet second on Sunday after dominating the race, leading 142 laps. Coming off a victory at Phoenix, he had the best car on the short and long runs, something that the team worked on in practice on Saturday.
“It was the worst it had taken off on restarts,” Harvick said of the final run. “We weren’t good on restarts for four or five laps, unless we were all by ourselves. The 48 was able to hang with us and we just weren’t able to drive it in like I needed to and didn’t have the front tires turning.”
After leading on the green-white-checkered finish, Hamlin finished third. On the final pit stop the No. 11 pit crew gained four positions giving their driver the lead.
On the restart Joey Logano spun his tires, not allowing him to push Hamlin and race for the win. Hamlin led just two laps, not coming until after the scheduled 200th lap.
Logano came home in fourth, while Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. rounded out the top five. Chase Elliott came home just outside the top five in sixth as the highest finishing rookie.
AJ Allmendinger picked up his first top 10 since Pocono last August. He started shotgun on the field and raced his way into the top 10 in the first quarter of the race, where he remained there the majority of the afternoon.
Flat tires and pit road penalties were the story of the race. There were just under 10 flat tires on the afternoon the last one being Busch’s, but the biggest one coming on Lap 48. Kyle Larson cut a tire going down the backstretch, losing control of his car and pounding the inside wall. All four tires came off the ground.
“We were struggling all day,” said Larson. “We were really bad. And just on that backstretch, my left rear tire got cut and spun me to the outside wall and then spun me back into the inside wall. By the time I could hit the brakes it must have ripped the brake line and I had no brakes.”
All four Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas had to serve pit road penalties during the 400-mile event. Carl Edwards, whom rebounded to finish seventh, had one with 80 laps to go, but played strategy late in the race where he led at one point with 40 laps remaining.
Hamlin had to serve two penalties, one for speeding and one for pitting too soon on Lap 25. The other top Toyota team, Martin Truex, Jr. had to serve a penalty late in the race. He finished the race 32nd after Logano put him in the wall late in the race. The No. 78 team was out front for 21 laps.
The other big incident came on Lap 120 as Kasey Kahne hooked Danica Patrick and sent her into the wall heading into Turn 1. Like Larson, the No. 10 car got airborne and she was not pleased with the driver of the No. 5 car.
The Cup Series will return to action on April 3, beating and banging on the half-mile paperclip, Martinsville Speedway.
In what was one of the weirdest ranges of weather sequences in NASCAR history, Brad Keselowski left the field in the dust on his way to Victory Lane, picking up his first win of the season and 18th of his career.
With five laps to go in the Kobalt 400 on Sunday, Brad Keselowski passed Kyle Busch in what was the eventual race winning pass. This is his second triumph in Las Vegas in the last three years.
The No. 2 car was running third throughout the last stint of the race, but with roughly 10 laps to go was closing in on the lead and after passing his teammate Joey Logano then able to chase down Busch.
“This rules package, I love it,” Keselowski said. “You can be really fast at the start of the run or really fast at the end of the run and we had awesome speed at the end of every run. It seemed like we could just never put it all together with the way the cautions kept falling. At the end we got that big long run and couldn’t get going for the first few laps.”
Keselowski’s victory didn’t come without adversity. He was caught speeding on pit road with 90 laps to go. But after a caution with 53 laps to go, the No. 2 team stayed out when others decided to pit. He was able to go the distance on fuel and solidify himself into the 2016 edition of the Chase.
Logano came home second after a last lap pass on Busch. Leading 75 laps, the No. 22 team picked up its first top-five finish of the young season. However, he insisted that again, it is disappointing finishing second after so many second-place finishes in Daytona.
Atlanta winner, Jimmie Johnson came home third after also passing Busch on the final lap. The No. 48 car was out front for 76 circuits, the most of all drivers.
Dominating the middle potion of the race was what the six-time champion did. But after getting off-sequence with the rest of the field he needed to overcome other teams that took two tires when he took four.
The aforementioned Busch finished fourth at his home racetrack. On a restart with 44 laps to go the No. 18 car restarted sixth and by Turn 3 of that lap had made his way to the lead for the first time on the afternoon.
He led the remainder of the race until five laps to go when Keselowski passed him. He believed that it was a vibration that kept him out of the winner circle.
“Huge vibration,” Busch said as to why he lost the race. “I had a vibration when we put the rights on and it just kept getting worse and worse and worse. At the end I didn’t know if a tire was coming apart or what the deal was. I was giving it everything I had.”
Austin Dillon bounced back from a pit road speeding penalty on Lap 147 to a top-five finish. At one point of the race the No. 3 car was two laps down, after running in the top 10 all race long. On the same caution that Keselowski and Logano stayed out, so did Dillon for track position. This is his third career top-five finish.
Ryan Blaney was the highest finishing rookie on Sunday, finishing in sixth. Spending much of the day inside of the top 10, he needed to miss a wreck late in the race to come back to sixth.
That wreck with 43 laps to go came when one of the pre-race favorites Matt Kenseth slid up the track after getting loose where Chase Elliott rear-ended the No. 20 machine. Also caught up in the wreck were Carl Edwards and pole-sitter Kurt Busch.
Kenseth’s bad luck to start the season continued while getting caught up in that incident. After losing the Daytona 500 on the final lap, a pit road penalty in Atlanta, he was desperate for a good finish in Sin City. While leading nine laps, a 37th-place effort doesn’t help his causes.
The pole-sitter came back to finish in ninth. Outside of the No. 18 team, Joe Gibbs Racing struggled with Edwards in 18th the second-highest finisher out of that Toyota camp, Denny Hamlin was just behind in 19th.
Kevin Harvick finished seventh and he extended his consecutive top 10 streak to start the season. He is one of two drivers to finish in the top 10 in all three races, the other being 2015 champion Busch.
Next Sunday the Cup Series heads to Phoenix in the second of three west coast races. Harvick is the defending winner of the spring race and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. won the fall event in the desert.
Regardless of his victory on Sunday at the Atlanta Motor Speedway one thing has remained the same Jimmie Johnson is not in favor of the NASCAR point system.
Much to the delight of winning five consecutive championships from 2006 to 2010, then adding another in 2013, Johnson accomplished these feats in a 10-race post-season, with the driver producing the most points winning the title.
The last two years have come down to one race-- Homestead-- with four drivers having a shot at a title. In those two seasons, the No. 48 car has not been among the battle in the final race.
In 2014, it took two rounds to eliminate Johnson and co. from contention of a seventh title. However, in 2015, it was a five-dollar mechanical part in his drive line that took him out of contention of a championship at his best track, Dover.
Heading into that elimination race in Delaware, Johnson was fifth in the standings, 27 markers ahead of the cutoff. But on Lap 102, when that part broke, his hopes were shattered.
“The weirdness at Dover was a tough one to swallow,” Johnson told Speedway Digest. “Especially to be top three or five in points all season long and it all ended in that one race. But it’s part of it and I’ve not been a big fan of it, but what I am a fan of is full grandstands. Our sport needs to be strong and healthy and I’m willing to not worry what’s best for me and worry for what’s best for our sport.”
Though the six-time champion is willing to take a back seat to NASCAR in terms of the growth of the sport, obviously he still wants to be at the top of his sport. And at 40 years old, posting 76 career victories, he will go down on the Mount Rushmore of NASCAR drivers.
If he had gotten through Dover, advancing into the next round, he still had trouble at Charlotte the following week. Thus, he wouldn’t have made the next round of the Chase since he would have needed to record a victory and failed to do so at Kansas or Talladega.
With all of the accolades that Johnson has accomplished in his tenure at Hendrick Motorsports, what else is there to prove?
He has been outspoken about wanting to be triumphant with the new points system. To get to Homestead, he knows that he needs to maintain the pace that the team sets throughout the regular season.
It marks two consecutive seasons when the No. 48 team has clinched a spot in the Chase at the second race of the season. Now that he has qualified for his 13th consecutive Chase, Johnson knows that his team needs to keep up and not fall behind at all throughout the season.
“I think in 2014 we just didn’t have it, so that was on us,” Johnson said. “In 2015, I think we would have been one of the final four if we didn’t have Dover and the Charlotte thing.”
Even if it was a down year for one of NASCAR’s elite teams, Johnson still finished the season with five victories, 14 top fives and 22 top-10 finishes. But since NASCAR has gone to this new system in 2014, he has had the worst two points finishes of his career with a 10th and 11th.
There is reason to believe that the No. 48 car will be dominant again this season with a victory at Atlanta and leading 70 laps in the first two races. Last season Johnson led 558 laps all season long, which is the least since 2006 when he led 854, the last time he led under 1,000 laps in a season.
Even though he just tied Dale Earnhardt with 76 career victories, Johnson has just one goal for 2016.
“I look at it today and it’s such a different way to crown a champion than I won my six,” Johnson said. “My real goal is to be one of the four at Homestead and then it’s every man for them self.”
As he is just about every year, Johnson was one of the pre-season favorites to win the Sprint Cup title. Before the season began he was tied with Joey Logano and Matt Kenseth for second in Las Vegas betting odds of claiming his seventh Cup title, only behind Kevin Harvick.
If the odds were in his favor, then by Vegas standards he would be among the final four when it comes to the 36th and final race of the season. Much like people that bet on him, he also believes that Hendrick Motorsports will be tough to beat in 2016.
“This team is capable of amazing things, without a doubt,” Johnson said. “With what I’ve seen over the off-season, I feel not only the No. 48 team but all four cars at Hendrick Motorsports are going in the right direction.”
As the Cup Series heads to Las Vegas it is an opportunity that he has to pick up his second victory of the season and his fifth at the 1.5-mile speedway. With a win next Sunday, the No. 48 team will solidify itself as quite possibly the team to beat in 2016.