Roush Fenway Racing got a bit of a motivational boost Friday as two of their drivers led the way in both NASCAR Sprint Cup Series practice sessions at Talladega Superspeedway as teams prepare for Sunday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series GEICO 500. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. led the first session with a speed of 200.780 mph while Biffle led the final period at 197.929 mph. It was a rare bit of good news for a team that has struggled in the first quarter of the season.
Biffle is 21st in points, highest among the Roush drivers. His best run of the season was a 10th-place finish in the Daytona 500, he has only one top-15 (14th at Vegas) since then and was 21st last week at Richmond. Biffle said his speed Friday wasn’t in single car runs.
“Certainly that was from drafting,” Biffle said. “We got a pretty big draft early on in that session and then went into qualifying trim and we’re extremely happy with the speed of our car in qualifying trim. It looks like we’re about top five in qualifying trim, so we’re excited about a top-10 starting spot for tomorrow. It feels good to come to the race track, this is the first time we’ve been fastest in practice all year and have a decent qualifying speed. That’s a little confidence-builder for us this weekend, but we would certainly like to find that kind of speed every week. This is a little bit different because it’s restrictor plates. These cars haven’t changed in four years. It’s the same car and we’re pretty decent at it, so we’ve got to get the other cars going where we want them, but we’re really happy right now.”
Stenhouse is 26th in points. He finished 28th at Richmond and had a season best 4th at Bristol the week prior.
“It’s good for us at Roush Fenway,” Stenhouse said of his practice session. “We know it’s a speedway and catching the right draft is what helps you propel up the board, but it’s always nice to see. It doesn’t matter what track you’re at you like to win practice, win qualifying and win the race, so it’s a good start for us. I think our Fifth Third Bank Ford drives really well in the draft. It seems to have some decent speed pulling up. We did some single-car runs this practice (final practice), but we didn’t really ever get it in qualifying trim and get everything taped up and things like everybody else did. I’m optimistic.”
The attention now turns to Saturday’s qualifying session. Stenhouse missed the Talladega race last October when drivers attempted to control the qualifying process. It ended with him being out of the 43-car field. It was a disappointment for the organization and had many questioning NASCAR’s group qualifying system for plate races. NASCAR however stuck with the system for the season-opening Daytona 500, and driver manipulation again made it a controversial. For this second plate race of the season, NASCAR will use a hybrid format of single-car qualifying and knockout rounds.
The format consists of two rounds. Every driver will take one timed lap around the 2.66-mile tri-oval during the first round, and then the drivers with the 12 fastest lap speeds will advance to the second round. The top 12 starting positions for Sunday’s race will be determined by the fastest lap speed in the second round, while positions 13 and beyond will be established off the first-round speeds.
The biggest difference between this format and the traditional single-car qualifying is that NASCAR officials will send cars onto the track at predetermined intervals, resulting in a constant flow of drivers making qualifying runs.
Defending NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Kevin Harvick was one of several drivers who talked about how much they like the new qualifying format Friday. Harvick won the spring race here in 2010
“I feel really good about what qualifying has evolved into. I think all the competitors feel that way,” Harvick said. “I think the sped-up, single-car process with one lap will make the process that much better. Our qualifying change has been probably one of the better changes that we have had in our sport in a while.”
Danica Patrick said the new format should give an accurate assessment of which cars will have the most power on a track known for high speeds. Patrick started 7th in the this race last year.
“I’m glad the qualifying has changed,” Patrick said. “For teams that have a fast car on the speedway, it’s an opportunity to display their talents and their abilities as car builders and the positions that they’ve earned at great teams.”
Qualifying will get underway at 1:00 p.m. ET with live coverage on Fox. Sunday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup GEICO 500 can also be seen live on Fox with live coverage starting at 12:30 p.m. ET.