Practice One:

The Sprint Cup Series took part in two practice sessions on Friday afternoon. Like every other year in Speedweeks, all of the cars don’t particularly make a lap on the track. However, the car that crashed in the Can-Am Duel races on Thursday evening saw it as an opportunity to test out their new Daytona 500 car.

Opening practice was strictly for one car speed as there was no drafting. After crashing in the final lap of his Duel race on Thursday, Jimmie Johnson was quickest at a speed of 194.083 mph. Other than Brian Scott who also crashed on the last lap of his Duel, the No. 48 car was the only team to hit track in its backup car.

Scott placed the No. 44 car 12th out of the 13 cars who took part in opening practice. Denny Hamlin who led 13 laps on Thursday night and won the Sprint Unlimited last Saturday was second fast at a speed of 193.861 mph.

Daytona 500 pole-sitter Chase Elliott posted the third fastest time, followed by Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. and Kasey Kahne in the top five.

As well as recording the fastest overall lap, Johnson also ran 24 laps, the most out of all 13 drivers in the first practice session.

Practice Two:

During the second Cup Series practice 31 cars took time led by Hamlin. While running in a pack, he put a lap up of 199.658 mph. The top five teams in the latter practice were all part of the Toyota camp in Joe Gibbs Racing and Furniture Row Racing.

Thursday night Duel winner Kyle Busch was second quick, followed by Martin Truex, Jr. in his backup car. The No. 78 car ran 15 laps with his new racecar and felt good about how it felt in the draft.

“As far as I can tell it feels real similar,” Truex said of his backup car. “The only drafting we did in our primary was the other day with the Gibbs cars and our Toyota teammates, basically, the same situation as today. It’s hard to tell until you get into race conditions. Hopefully, it will react as well as it did last night in the big pack. I don’t know if it was the strongest car, but it was a good fifth to 10th-place car.”

Carl Edwards finished the practice with the fourth quickest lap. The No. 19 car was on track for 22 laps, the most of any driver in the second practice session. ‘

After crashing on Thursday night, Matt Kenseth had a hot lap of 198.566 mph in his backup car. The No. 20 team was scheduled to start on the outside of the front row in the Daytona 500 until the crash last night where he got into the back of Truex.

“It’s hard to tell with not many cars out there,” Kenseth said of how his backup car is. “We probably won’t know until the race gets going on Sunday, but the speed seemed to be reasonable.”

Ryan Blaney and Joey Logano have formed an alliance of sorts this weekend as they finished practice sixth and seventh after helping each other to second and third-place finishes on Thursday night. Both teams ran for 10 laps and never left each other’s bumpers.

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. finished the practice session in 11th. The No. 88 car named “Amelia” has never finished worse than third in any race that it has ever been entered in at either Daytona or Talladega. With a win in Duel one on Thursday, Earnhardt is one of the favorites for Sunday.

Johnson finished the second practice session with the 12th fastest time and AJ Allmendinger was 28th in his first time out on track with a backup car.

After receiving damage in his Can-Am Duel race Kurt Busch did not participate in practice on Friday, but will take part on Saturday in the final practice.

Out of cars that ran 10 consecutive laps, Edwards had the fastest time at an average of 197.186 mph. The first four drivers in that category were also all Toyotas, as they look to be stronger than some former Speedweeks.

There is just one practice session remaining between now and the Daytona 500, which will take place at 12:15 p.m. on Saturday.

The Can-Am Duels at Daytona did not disappoint this year. Throughout the majority of both races, there was action packed racing, two and even three-wide at some points. Like always, there were some cars that stood out and others that finished better than what they ran. That’s restrictor plate racing.

Duel One:

In the opening Duel race, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. proved that he will have one of the cars to beat on Sunday in the 58th Annual Daytona 500.

It didn’t take long for the restrictor plate veteran to prove that he had the best car in the first Can-Am Duel. It took him just two laps to take the top spot away from Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Chase Elliott. He held the lead until his pit stop until Lap 40.

The No. 88 car dominated the first Duel as he led 43 of the races 60 laps, but had to overcome adversity in the late stages. With just a handful of laps to go, Earnhardt was shuffled back to sixth while Denny Hamlin as on point.

With just over one lap to go, Earnhardt had to hold off a charging Joey Logano will help from Ryan Blaney from the Wood Brothers, an affiliate of Team Penske. Even with the two drivers pairing up they were unable to pass the No. 88 team.

In his post-race press conference Earnhardt eluded to his car as special and knowing that he has one of the cars to beat.

“That was crazy,” Earnhardt said on the race. “I was so nervous today about tearing the car up because I know how good it is versus what we have. What we have is a capable car in the trailer, but this thing is special. So I’m really excited.”

The defending Daytona 500 winner, Logano, finished second after getting shuffled back after his green flag pit stop. The No. 22 car was aggressive and made dicey moves in-and-out of traffic, much like his teammate Brad Keselowski who finished in a disappointing 13th.

Blaney is headlining into his second career Daytona 500, and as a rookie he stated his case as to why teams should work with him in the actual race. Last season the No. 21 car had one top-five finish coming at Talladega, the other plate track.

“We had a really fast racecar,” Blaney said. “We had a couple of problems early in the race which got us a lap down. Luckily we got a caution at the right point that got us on the lead lap so we could go racing for it.”

One lap prior to the halfway point, Blaney had a loose left-rear tire that the team accidently left loose prior to the 150-mile event. Evidently, the team overcame the bad luck and got a top-five finish.

Kevin Harvick finished fourth after starting in the rear and had a real shot the win while running second with four laps to go. The Sprint Unlimited winner Hamlin rounded out the top five and led 13 laps in the process.

With Blaney finishing in third and a 13th-place finish Michael McDowell came out on top in the race within the race, the race just to make the Daytona 500. On Lap 42, Cole Whitt had a big run on the No. 95 car that when he went to make a move to pass McDowell he overcorrected and spun out, ending his chance at competing in the Great American Race.

The other driver that McDowell had to beat was Josh Wise and he finished in 17th.

“It’s definitely a big thing for our team, Circle Sport-Levin Family Racing, we’re going to have two cars in the Daytona 500 especially for a small team” McDowell said on making the Daytona 500. “To really start out the year well, it’s very important. This is such a huge race.”

Duel Two:

The latter of the two 150-mile races was very tame until the last couple of laps. As Kyle Busch went on to dominate the event, a multi-car pileup on the last lap cost many of top drivers’ valuable starting positions for the Daytona 500.

It all started to go downhill with two laps to go when Casey Mears was running the second position and ran out of gas. The No. 13 car had just been placed into the second position and then ran out of gas, while trying to make a move on Busch.

As the lead pack of 11 cars darted in to Turn 1 on the last lap, Jamie McMurray made a move to try and win the race when he looked to the inside of the No. 18 car. While coming back up the track he clipped the front end of Jimmie Johnson’s Chevrolet, causing a five car crash, including Matt Kenseth who was scheduled to start on the outside of Row 1 on Sunday.

Also getting in the crash were A.J. Allmendinger, Danica Patrick and Martin Truex Jr.

With Kenseth likely going to a backup car, it will move Busch to the outside of the front row, alongside 20-year-old rookie Chase Elliott.

“I think I get to start on the front row,” Busch said. “I didn’t win this race to qualify myself for the fourth starting position, but with our teammate having trouble there at the end of the race, they’ll have to go a backup car, it looks. Well get the chance to start on the front row. That’s pretty cool.”

The accident looked to be the cause of all drivers going for it and getting the best starting position that they could. However, the end result was that three of the 500 favorites will now start in the rear.

“I was behind it to see it so I couldn’t really tell why the No. 48 went up the racetrack,” Kenseth said. “I was actually just in the process to get out of there and go to the back. I thought we had the best car and we led a lot of laps.”

Kenseth mentioned that this will be the No. 20 team’s third car of Speedweeks as he also crashed in the Sprint Unlimited last Saturday.

In this Duel it was Robert Richardson, Jr. who was able to fall back on his qualifying speed from last Sunday as his teammate Matt DiBenedetto finished the highest out of the cars that needed to race their way in. David Gilliland and Reed Sorenson will miss the 500-mile spectacle.

 “Two weeks ago when I got the call to run this race, I was mowing the hay pastures,” Richardson said. “I’m just very blessed to be here.”

There are three practice sessions for teams to tune up their primary or backup cars to try and win the biggest race in motorsports. The team that is able to adapt to the conditions of the race and keep up with the pace being set will find themselves the winner of the Daytona 500.

For the first time since the 2007 season, the Wood Brothers are slated to run the full NASCAR Sprint Cup Series schedule in 2016. The man behind the wheel, 22-year-old rookie Ryan Blaney, is competing in his first full Sprint Cup Series campaign.

In any sport, the rookie season is always the toughest. Trying to fit in with teammates, adapting to new people and performing well, each of these variables can create a stressful and possibly mediocre first year. Blaney has the intangibles to make it a different story.

The last name Blaney is well known in the dirt racing realm. From his father Dave, to Uncle Dale, the youngest member of the family has been put in the best situation of all, competing in the Cup Series with a legendary team such as the Wood Brothers. 

The Wood Brothers have won races spanning over the last six decades, the first coming in 1960 when Speedy Thompson crossed the checkered flag first at Charlotte. The crew chief on that team was Leonard Wood, who can still be seen at the shop 56 years later.

Out of all five Sprint Cup rookies, Blaney has the most experience in this style of car. Over the last two years he has competed in 18 races with a best finish of fourth at Talladega last May. In those two seasons of part-time competition, the No. 21 car has had multiple part failures that have caused them to finish near the rear of the field, including four engine failures in 2015 alone.

One thing that Blaney has going for him in the rookie class is friends, better yet, rivals. He has raced approximately five years with driver of the No. 24 car, Chase Elliott. The two young talents have competed in 27 races against each other in the XFINITY Series, both winning three races over that time period.

When it comes to Blaney’s rookie competition, the North Carolina native doesn’t know what to expect. Being that he is a rookie, it is hard to set a standard on what could be a successful season.

“It’s kind of hard to set expectations and goals for your rookie season going full-time,” Blaney told Speedway Digest. “I think a good goal to set is try to run all the laps. It’s a tough goal to do, but doing that is how you get the most experience, and that’s how you really learn as a driver.”

The other three members of the rookie class include NASCAR XFINITY Series veteran Brian Scott who is getting his first real opportunity in the Cup Series with Richard Petty Motorsports. 2015 XFINITY Series champion Chris Buescher will be taking over the No. 34 car for Front Row Motorsports and Jeffery Earnhardt will run the majority of the races, except for the restrictor plate tracks for Go Green Racing.

The two front runners for the Sunoco Rookie of the Year award are Blaney and Elliott. It could be a toss-up on who comes out on top between those two teams, mainly since they are aligned with quality organizations.

 “I think that there are a lot of good teams and drivers that are going to be hard to beat on that side,” Elliott said. “But as I’ve said before, if we can go and be the team that we want to be and if I can go and try to do the job that I expect of myself, I think the rest will kind of take care of itself.”

The Wood Brothers now have an alliance with Team Penske. Over Blaney’s four-year run in NASCAR, he has become friends with Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski, who owned the truck that he ran in the Camping World Truck Series.

Team Penske is coming off one of its best seasons as an organization in team history. Combined, Logano and Keselowski led over 2,500 laps, earned seven victories, 31 top fives and 53 top-10 finishes with an average finish just over 10.1. The team has Blaney in its wing and looks to rub some of the speed over to the Wood Brothers.

“I think it’s a great rookie class,” Blaney said. “I think it’s the best class we’ve seen in a while. Chase Elliott is going to be really tough. He does a great job. He has a great team behind him and an already established team that has been working together for a long time. I think he will be very tough, but it will be something really fun to watch.”

In being as young as Blaney is, but having plenty of experience under his belt in NASCAR, it is possible that the No. 21 car ends up in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. There will be multiple bumps in the road as the rookie will have to get used to the grind of the 36-race season.

If he can get through the first couple of months under the radar and in contention to make the Chase based on points it will make the Wood Brothers more mainstream. There is reason to think that the team will be successful because of the alliance with Team Penske. They will be receiving cars, equipment and members from the Penske organization.

It would be something else to see the Wood Brothers clinch a Chase spot for the first time in its history. The historic company has done everything else in NASCAR except compete for the championship under the Chase format.

Could Blaney pull off an upset victory in the Daytona 500, similar to what Trevor Bayne did in 2011 with the same team? If so he would clinch that ticket as long as he can stay in the top-30 in points.

To go along with a full Cup schedule, Blaney is scheduled to run in multiple XFINITY Series races for Team Penske. Over the past four seasons, he has recorded four victories, 21 top fives and 33 top 10-finishes in 43 career starts, leading 706 laps.

Said Blaney: “I’m sure we will figure that out here in about a month. It’s usually last minute before we figure all that stuff out, but I’m sure we will get it squared away soon.”

There is a new generation that is taking over quality rides in the Cup Series. Like always, there is pressure to succeed. However, this rookie battle has the potential to go down to Homestead before crowning a definitive champion.

Taking over the iconic No. 24 Chevrolet in 2016 is 20-year-old Chase Elliott. Imagine that, just two years out of high school and taking over the ride from NASCAR legend Jeff Gordon.

In 2014, his first full-time NASCAR season, Elliott went out and dominated the NASCAR XFINITY Series for JR Motorsports. He won three races, the most out of all of the XFINITY Series regulars, and secured 42 more points than his closest competitor and teammate Regan Smith.

During the 2015 season, Elliott ran up front for the majority of the year, but was unable to win back-to-back championships. Overall, he had 27 top-10 finishes, more than he had in his championship-winning season. But outside of his win at Richmond in September, he struggled to run as the leader on a consistent basis, leading 236 laps, down from 390 in 2014.

Like all rookies, Elliott will have some bumps in the road in his first full-time season in the Sprint Cup Series. Joining Elliott as first-year drivers are Brian Scott, Chris Buescher, Jeffery Earnhardt and Ryan Blaney.

Each have a different story behind them, but Elliott’s is the most significant. If he fails in his first campaign, questions will be raised about whether or not he is the right driver to replace Gordon in the elite ride.

One thing is certain, Rick Hendrick believes so.

 It seems like ages ago now that Hendrick put Elliott into some of his equipment, but in reality it was only five years ago and he was just 15 years old. Hendrick is the one who basically told Dale Earnhardt, Jr. that he needed him to fill a position at JR Motorsports, before he had ever even raced in an XFINITY Series event. The legendary team owner believes in the kid, like he does all of his drivers.

The 2016 Sunoco Rookie of the Year class looks to be one of the best in recent years. Sure, there was the rookie class in 2014 that was made up of Kyle Larson, Austin Dillon and others. But in terms of raw talent, this one could compete against it as arguably a better overall class, and possibly one of the strongest in recent memory.

One of the obvious goals for the No. 24 team in 2016 is to win the Rookie of the Year Award, something that the team hasn’t faced since the 1993 season when Gordon was a rookie as a part of the “Rainbow Warriors.”

“All of them, I’m sure, I really don’t know,” Elliott told Speedway Digest as to who his biggest threat will be for the award. “I think that there are a lot of good teams and drivers that are going to be hard to beat on that side. But as I’ve said before, if we can go and be the team that we want to be and if I can go and try to do the job that I expect of myself, I think the rest will kind of take care of itself.”

Elliott will be teaming with some of the sport’s best. Six-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, 26-time Cup winner Earnhardt and a resurged Kasey Kahne.  

There are other team goals for 2016. Of course, a Chase for the Sprint Cup berth is always a necessity. Since the Chase was implemented in 2004, the No. 24 car has only missed out on the playoffs one time, back in 2005 and has finished in the top 10 in points 22 out of the last 23 seasons.

In order to qualify the Chase, Elliott would most likely need to win a race. A few playoff berths will be given out to the highest drivers in the standings without a win, but a win essentially assures a chance to compete for the championship.

Elliott is not worried about his rookie competition. It’s not that he thinks NASCAR should engrave his name on the trophy now, but the fact that worrying about his competition could always cause turmoil. If he goes out and drives his style, everything will take care of itself.

“I’m definitely not going to show up to the racetrack each week and worry about what the other rookies are doing because I think you’re going to have to focus a lot,” Elliott said. “That’s definitely not going to be my main concern when I show up each week.”

On his down time, Elliott could be seen with one of his closest competitors and rivals in Blaney.  The two have become good friends as they’ve grown up together, though they sit a couple years a part in terms of age. Their fathers have cemented a legacy in which the two youngsters will look to better and add onto the legacy of their last name.

Elliott stated that he doesn’t have a great relationship with any of the rookies except for Blaney. As both drivers have progressed through the ranks of NASCAR, they’ve been able to have a real bond off the track.

“I guess the only other one that I really know or talk to any is Ryan Blaney,” he said. “We’re good friends and he’s really the only one of the rookie guys that I even know at all.”

By many, Elliott is the pre-season favorite to win the Rookie of the Year award and begin his legacy inside of the No. 24 car. If all goes well for him, he will put check marks next to all of his goals at season’s end and call it a successful rookie campaign.

Track time will be important for the team. In five career Cup races, Elliott has experienced some difficulty with a best finish of 16th and an average result of 26.2.

The Blaney name will live on in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. Veteran racer Dave Blaney is all but done with racing in NASCAR’s top-tier division, but his son is just getting started.

Ryan Blaney, 20, will run 18 races in the Cup Series this year with the legendary Wood Brothers Racing. Driving the No. 21 car, pressure is escalating for the son of the “Buckeye Bullet.” Besides competing for the Wood Brothers, he will also race for Team Penske in the NASCAR XFINITY Series for the majority of the season.

But before he steps foot in a Team Penske car for the fourth straight season, the young Blaney is set to race in NASCAR’s biggest race – the Daytona 500.

During the twin Budweiser Duel 150 qualifiers, pressure was on for the majority of the field to earn a spot in the “500.” NASCAR’s oldest team continued to show they are still worth while on Thursday evening in the second Duel.

Racing inside of the top 10 throughout the 60-lap event, Blaney was able to earn a starting position in the Daytona 500 for the first time in his career. Finishing in seventh place, the North Carolina native is set to embark on the beginning of his new journey.

“We were really smooth on pit road the one time we came down and that’s all we can really ask for is to try to control the things we control – no mistakes on pit road, and everything else is kind of up in the air,” Blaney said following the race. “You never know if you’re gonna get caught up in a wreck. Luckily, we were ahead of those incidents tonight and didn’t get caught up in a wreck like some other guys did, and just fortunate to be in the spot we were at. 

“There were a couple opportunities I really, really wanted to drive hard and go for a win and we had opportunities to do that, but, like I said, the main point was to transfer tonight and that’s what we did.  Everyone did a great job and it’s just cool to be with the Wood Brothers and say we’re racing Sunday.  I try not to get too worked up before races and I try to play it cool before I sat in the car and then you get nervous turning pace laps.” 

Starting 12th in the Daytona 500, he has high expectations. His predecessor, Trevor Bayne, was victorious in his Daytona 500 debut with the Wood Brothers in 2011.

This year, the Wood Brothers have begun an alliance with Team Penske. Previously, it had a partnership with Roush Fenway Racing. But following Bayne’s move to Roush full-time this season, it has swapped over to the organization that has put Blaney’s name on the map. 

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