After a delay from the Formula 4 series race, NASCAR Xfinity Series qualifying was a battle between rain and different tire rubber on the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. However, the weather held off and Sam Hornish Jr. will start from the pole in Saturday’s Mid-Ohio Challenge. This is his eighth career pole and first of 2016. Hornish will also hold the new track record with a speed of 96.755 mph.
In the first round of qualifying, David Starr spun and ended up in the sand trap to have the red flag fly when he entered into the “keyhole” portion of the track and ended up in the sand trap. The red flag was displayed for the second time due to weather in the area with 6 minutes and 22 seconds remaining. However, this round was able to run its advertised time with Hornish Jr. on top of the board with a speed of 96.755 mph. Ty Dillon was second at a speed of 95.753 mph, Owen Kelly was in third with a speed of 95.702 mph, Erik Jones edged his way into fourth with a speed of 95.661 mph, and Ryan Blaney rounded out the top five at 95.481 mph. Notable drivers who did not advance to the second round include Blake Koch who qualified 13th, Brennan Poole who qualified 17, Kenny Habul who qualified 18th, and Alon Day who qualified 22nd. No drivers will be going home from Mid-Ohio this weekend.
The second round of qualifying was not plagued by weather or on-track accidents like the first round.. Hornish Jr. topped the round with a speed of 96.374 mph. Kelly qualified second with a speed of 95.877 mph, Blaney qualified third at 95.739 mph, Elliott Sadler qualified fourth at a speed of 95.675 mph, and Daniel Suarez rounds out the top five with a speed of 95.613 mph. Dillon, who qualified second in the first round, qualified seventh.
The Mid-Ohio Challenge from Lexington, Ohio will be on USA Network and Motor Racing Network beginning at 3 pm eastern with pre-race shows. Action from Mid-Ohio will begin at 3:30 pm eastern
It's the first practice session that the No. 27 car has been atop of in 2016 season. Menard is coming off his second top-10 finish of the season at Indianapolis, which he placed 10th. This week veteran Danny Stockman took over as the crew chief for the team, replacing Justin Alexander, who was in his second season atop the pit box.
The next trio of drivers were all from the Joe Gibbs Racing stable, led by four-time Pocono winner Denny Hamlin (177.406 mph). Looking for his first win at the track, Kyle Busch was third in practice at 177. 019 mph. Carl Edwards was fourth at 176.977 mph.
Kevin Harvick was fifth on the board at 176.620 mph.
2015 winner, Martin Truex, Jr. was sixth on the speed chart (176. 602 mph), Joey Logano seventh (176.495 mph), rookie Chase Elliott was eighth (176.484 mph), Ryan Newman was ninth after leading the session early on (176.391 mph) and his Richard Childress Racing teammate Austin Dillon rounded out the top 10 at 175.984 mph.
Spring winner, Kurt Busch was just outside the top 10 in 14th. In his return to Pocono, Jeff Gordon was 22nd on the board, over eight-tenths of a second off the top time. Defending winner Matt Kenseth put up a lap that was 24th quick.
Only two drivers made a run of 10 or more laps, led by Danica Patrick (171.094 mph). Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. was the other driver on that list, running 22 laps in the practice session, the most of all drivers.
Qualifying is set to begin shortly after 4:00 p.m. ET. Brad Keselowski won the pole for the spring race eight weeks ago.
Austin Dillon was made available to the media early in the day. Dillon talks about Kentucky and the 2016 season.
When asked about the first half of 2016 and his outlook on Kentucky, Dillon stated, “For us it’s an opportunity I think coming to a track that is freshly paved. The racing has been pretty solid this year. We look at this as an opportunity for us coming to a place that not anybody has a real true advantage. There are some guys that tested here, but as far as the banking and the layout of the track, I’ve been pretty fast here. I’m looking forward to this weekend’s race and the opportunities it brings. It was nice getting in the Xfinity car and kind of learning a little bit before we get in the Cup car. I think it will be interesting for sure come Saturday night.”
Dillon was also asked about the difference between 2015 Kentucky and 2016 Kentucky. "“Yeah, it is still very unique. The way the banking enters Turn 3 it’s a flat corner and in (Turns) 1 and 2 is very high banked. You run wide open getting through 1 and 2. In 3 and 4 you kind of have to back up your corner and figure out how to carry momentum and speed because of the banking. I think it’s still Kentucky. There are just not as many bumps and a lot of grip right now. I do think that the way it’s paved, eventually the higher line in 3 and 4 will come into play. “
Dillon also talked about how he believes the low downforce package would come into affect this weekend. “I think you will see similar racing that you saw at Michigan. I think getting underneath a car is going to be the hardest part. I think you will be able to run closer to guys, but exit of the corner will be tough. Carrying speed off of Turn 4 is going to be tough like Brad (Keselowski) was saying. Entering (Turns) 3 and 4 will be a challenge and then exiting beside somebody. But, with all the grip I think it will be very similar to any package that is out there because you have a lot of grip right now. Hopefully, it does present some passing lanes as we move throughout the weekend and create a strong race for us.”
Austin Dillon believes that racing in Friday’s Alsco 300 will be a benefit to him in Sunday’s Quaker State 400. "Definitely hope it’s the advantage I think it is. Not only that it’s just good for me to be prepared when I get in that Cup car to be ready to go.”
As Brendan Gaughan’s career dwindles down, he admits that there are no regrets, even if he fails to win a NASCAR championship. In what could be his last season, this might be the best shot he’s had in a long time.
Gaughan is in his 20th season as a NASCAR driver, starting off in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series as a crafty 21-year-old in 1997, when he ran one race for Walker Evans in the No. 20 machine at his home track, Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Since then, the Las Vegas native has raced his way up and down the top three national tours of NASCAR and has 10 career victories on his resume. But in 2016, as Gaughan puts it, he wants to lead Richard Childress Racing to the promise land.
Gaughan, now 40, is the “old guy” on the team that Richard Childress has assembled in the XFINITY Series. The other two members of RCR, Brandon Jones and Ty Dillon, have a combined average age of 22.5.
That’s not going to get in the way of Gaughan and want he wants to accomplish.
“The sport is all about the team you’ve got,” Gaughan told Speedway Digest. “You can definitely see that on the board. You see what teams have the best stuff. We’re not the best car right now, but that’s what is great about having this race team and I’m not concerned about it.”
Through 14 races in the 2016 season, the No. 62 car has a best finish of fifth at Talladega, with five other top-10 finishes. Currently, Gaughan sits sixth in the XFINITY Series points standings, 78 markers behind point’s leader Daniel Suarez.
The last time any of the three RCR drivers won a race in the XFINITY Series was 2014. However, Gaughan believes that the trio of full-time drivers for RCR will be among the championship favorites by the time the Chase rolls around. Being there for each other could separate RCR from other teams.
“Any time Brandon Jones or Ty Dillon need anything, I’m always more than happy to be there,” Gaughan said. “These kids nowadays race so much by the time they get here that it’s hard to say that they need much coaching.”
In his third year racing for RCR, Gaughan believes this is his best shot at the championship.
The tracks in the new Chase system are favorable to some drivers, Gaughan included. He runs well on the 1.5-mile racetracks, picking up one of his two-career wins at Kentucky Speedway. He has led 61 laps on the mile-and-a-half tracks, just under half of his 126 career laps led in the XFINITY Series.
Four of the seven races in the Chase are on 1.5-mile racetracks. Kentucky Speedway kicks off the Chase in late September, where Gaughan led a career-high 22 laps en route to his victory in 2014.
“I’m really happy with this new Chase format,” Gaughan said. “Even without it, we’re seventh in the points. We were only about two races out of a real striking distance in the old points system format. I really felt strongly coming into this year with the races that are in the Chase and with them adding the Chase format. It wasn’t just going to be strong for Richard Childress Racing, but myself.”
Since joining RCR, Gaughan has picked up the two solo victories of his XFINITY Series career. And though he wishes he had made the move earlier to the race team, he is in good company.
Determination is what has kept him going. Racing for Rusty Wallace Racing in 2009 and 2010 didn’t go as planned with a best championship finish of ninth. The move to RCR allowed him to instantly better that to eighth.
13 races have passed in 2016 and all three RCR cars are in the top six in points. The teams are said to be working closer than they ever had before and each driver can lean on each other for help. But for Gaughan personally, he knows what the No. 62 team needs to work on to get closer to winning races.
“We’ve got to hit these Happy Hour practices better,” Gaughan said. “We’re not good, but were not fine tuning that last little bit where we need to be. That’s what we are missing consistently from being top five and competing for wins. We’re consistently top 10, but were not consistently top five yet.”
Atop the No. 62 pit box sits veteran crew chief Shane Wilson. While compiling two victories in the Sprint Cup Series, the long-time RCR employee has 17 victories in the XFINITY Series, the last two coming with Gaughan.
This is the third season the duo has worked together and both years, they have finished in the top 10 in points. Winning those two races in 2014 and Gaughan having a career-high 14 top-10 finishes last year has the team confident going into the summer months.
Sitting comfortably in the points, 109 points above the Chase cutoff, the team can afford to take risks. In order to take that next step and win, the team needs to be near perfect, which started when they swapped rear tire changers with Austin Dillon’s Sprint Cup Series team. In order to be perfect, the driver and crew collectively need to put a full race together and not have a pit road penalty, loose tire, pit road speeding penalty, etc.
“We feel pretty strongly that we are going to make the Chase on points, but we want to win before we get there,” he continued. “Once we’re there, the races are very good for us. We’ve been doing a lot of engineering this year at racetracks. It’s been a lot of us practicing for the Chase and getting ready for it, trying to have our barrels loaded and our momentum swinging when that Chase hits.”
Gaughan prefers the Chase over other points systems. He likes the excitement that it has brought to the sport. The last two years the championship race at Homestead-Miami Speedway has been among his favorites to watch, with all the drama unfolding.
“In this points system it is so difficult to make up points,” Gaughan said. “Now, with a Chase format all that goes out the window and really all you have to do is beat the guy for a couple weeks and anything can happen. I love this Chase format. It has actually prolonged my career.”
Joe Gibbs Racing has dominated the series this season, winning nine of the 13 races, including both XFINITY Series regulars Erik Jones and Suarez winning races this year.
With many questions regarding Gaughan’s future beyond this season, he has publicly said that RCR is the race team he is going to race for until he opts to retire. But he knows this is his best shot at a victory after a reset in points after every three races in the Chase.
Unlike the majority of XFIINTY Series regulars, excluding Elliott Sadler and Justin Allgaier, Gaughan has raced against drivers in the Chase. In 2004, he raced the full schedule for Team Penske in the Cup Series, the inaugural year of the playoffs. He finished 28th in the standings that year.
That was the only year that Gaughan had a full-time Cup Series deal. Since then, he’s competed in 14 events with RCR, The Racer’s Group, Phoenix Racing and Premium Motorsports.
As long as Gaughan is competitive, he wants to race for championships. Though this might be his best shot, he could have more opportunities in the future.
“If I can keep getting sponsors on the racecars and keep winning races and running up front and competing for championships, I want to be here,” Gaughan said of his future. “When I can’t, I don’t want to be here.”
With their back against the wall, 2016 has been the resurgence of Austin Dillon and Richard Childress Racing.
Heading into Pocono, the 14th race of the season, Dillon sits 10th in standings and has a career-high six top-10 finishes. After the 500-lap event at Martinsville, the No. 3 car sat as high as seventh in the standings.
This is Dillon’s first full season working with veteran crew chief Richard “Slugger” Labbe. In the second race that the duo paired up, they had a seventh-place finish at Daytona, while flying into the catch fence.
In the 34 races that they’ve been a duo, the No. 3 team has 10 top-10 finishes and starts, with a pole at Fontana in March.
“He’s been very influential,” Dillon told Speedway Digest of Labbe. “His passion for running fast and being competitive is the best part. He’s got a lot of fire in him and that’s what you want to have a guy that wants to run well. He gets all he can out of those racecars and that’s what you want with a guy that is leading your team.”
Labbe is a five-time winner at the Sprint Cup level, including two Daytona 500 wins with Michael Waltrip and a Brickyard 400 triumph with Paul Menard.
Dillon, 26, is continuing to adapt into his role with the team, which is owned by his grandfather Richard Childress.
The No. 3 team works with a pair of teammates in Menard and veteran Ryan Newman, looking at each other’s setups and learning information from them, when in the past it was vice-versa.
Dillon believes that he is establishing himself on and off the racetrack to be a guy to contend with going forward.
“I think everybody uses everybody to their advantage as much as they can because you can’t go through these days trying to fight these other guys without each other,” Dillon said. “I think we all use each other well.”
The teams are said to have an open notebook, allowing one another to compare notes. With all the cooperation at the track and at the race shop, the No. 3 car is still struggling to lead laps.
Dillon has led three laps this season. Additionally, all of RCR has led just 21 laps this season.
“We need to find that raw speed to get us to that point of leading laps is very important to us,” Dillon stated.
Following Pocono, the Cup Series takes to Michigan, where Dillon was out front for 19 circuits last August. That race was the most laps he has ever led in a single race during his career at the top level of NASCAR.
During the event, NASCAR tested out a new high drag aerodynamic package, searching for the 2016 rules package. It made for less passing and once a team was out front it was hard to pass, especially at Michigan when the straightaway speeds exceed 210 mph.
Michigan is said to be one of Dillon’s favorite racetracks. In 2015, his lone top-five finish came at the 2.0-mile oval. In seven starts at the venue, he has led multiple laps in two of those events. In three XFINITY Series starts, he has started from the pole twice en route to leading 72 laps and a best finish of fifth in 2012.
“Michigan is one of my favorite racetracks and just hoping we find a little bit of speed before we get there,” Dillon said with a smile. “I think that race could get us to the point where we can lead more laps.
Throughout his NASCAR career, consistency continues to be the key for Dillon. He has 14 career wins in NASCAR’s lower two national touring series, including championships in both the Camping World Truck Series and XFINITY Series.
But now, he is starting to see that consistency blend up to the Cup Series level.
“Consistency is something that I have been decent at throughout my career,” Dillon said. “The team has been given me a strong car each and every week. I think that’s what comes with it, having something you can race and have speed.”
Another part to the turnaround for Dillon has been girlfriend Whitney Ward. Since going public midway through last year, the No. 3 team has elevated their performance, in particular Dillon himself.
Ward has stabilized Dillon in a way that he wasn’t before. A bad day at the racetrack is still a good day in life for him because he has someone to share his success and failures with.
“She’s settled me down and made it fun at the racetracks to be with her and share all of the cool things that we get to do and see how special it is,” Dillon said. “She’s very positive. That’s what you want is somebody who is positive in your life and someone who is for you, and she’s definitely for me and that means a lot to me.”
Throughout the many crew changes that have happened in the past season for the No. 3 team. This season alone, they have changed rear tire carriers and have switched positions on the pit crew.
Dillon believes that Ward has been a big part of building the team chemistry due to the positivity that the two share.
It’s a bond that is hard to be broken.
“At the beginning of this year she has done some things that have showed everybody that she is all in for this team,” he said. “The guys really enjoy that. I think that she keeps showing everybody her passion. She shows me every week. When I get in the car, afterwards she wants to talk about it and understand it better and better. She really loves it.”
The Dillon brothers have been criticized in the past for being Childress’ grandsons. But in 2016, the on-track performance is starting to match the expectations for both drivers, with Ty Dillon expected to make the jump to the Sprint Cup level full-time next year.
Solidly in the Chase halfway through the regular season, Dillon hopes 2016 will be his breakout season, giving him a spot in NASCAR’s version of the playoffs.