Earnhardt Jr. turns fastest lap as number of cautious drivers skip final practice
TALLADEGA, Ala. — Dale Earnhardt Jr. turned the fastest lap in Friday’s Happy Hour at Talladega Superspeedway, but he didn’t have a lot of rivals. Only 32 of the 43 cars entered for Sunday’s race made it onto the track for the final practice session of the weekend — and most just turned a handful of laps to make sure all the connections were tight and the pieces all in working order.
Long before the 60 minutes were up, Talladega’s garage area looked more like a ghost town, with cars covered, equipment stowed and drivers already thinking about where to have Friday dinner.
How quiet were Talladega’s high banks Friday afternoon? Jeff Gordon turned nine laps in total, Brad Keselowski seven and Kasey Kahne three. Two Chase contenders — Tony Stewart and Kevin Harvick — sat out the practice entirely, content to take what they learned from the earlier session into Saturday’s qualifying.
Because aerodynamics mean almost everything at the 2.66-mile oval, teams are overly protective of their primary cars, which have been tweaked to the edge of perfection. That means keeping them out of harm’s way until Sunday.
Remember how frustrating it is to get a door ding in your new car at a parking lot? Compound that by thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours in manpower.
“There’s so much time put into these cars,” Harvick said. “To build them right, they take probably twice — if not three times — the amount of work of our normal car, because they spend so much time on the details. It’s so hard to find speed in the cars, and if you skip 10 things to get done a little faster, you’re going to pay for it when you get here.
“You don’t want to go and tear the bumpers off the car [in practice], because everything has been pushed and pulled, filed on, and maxed out for the templates in every area. You have to try to preserve that until the race starts.”
But it’s not just worrying about the exterior. For Denny Hamlin, it’s protecting the key components under the hood.
“A lot of it is because it’s a 500-mile race,” Hamlin said. “Any miles you can keep off your race car and the engine just saves it. You don’t want to have some sort of mechanical failure with five laps to go and say, ‘Man, I wish we hadn’t run those five extra laps of practice.’ ”
“We want to race the same car that we showed up here with, because it’s our primary for a reason. It’s better than our backup.”
Practice sessions without much practicing is a recent phenomenon at superspeedways, according to Greg Biffle. There was a time when teams needed all the time they could get on the track, because they might find a set-up change that could help the driver in the draft on race day.
Now, teams pretty much have a preferred set-up when they unload the hauler, and let the chips fall where they lay.
“It’s really changed a lot over the years,” Biffle said. “Before, our cars weren’t nearly as prepared as they are now. They were prepared, but we had a laundry list of things we wanted to try in race trim to see if the car pulled up better, drafted better or drove better and didn’t slide.
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“But over the past four or five years, it seems like you just do less and less of that sort of thing because you already know how you want the car. We didn’t have that ability four or five years ago. When we leave the shop now going to a downforce track, we’re pretty close.”
Biffle said a recent test at Nashville showed that his No. 16 Ford was race-ready right off the truck, so wasting valuable time practicing — and worrying about hitting something or someone — is no longer that critical.
“What we’ll do during practice here is make sure the car doesn’t have any leaks and it’s not rubbing or dragging,” Biffle said. “We’ll make one or two changes to see if there’s any difference because that’s just our nature to try a couple of things, but then we go into qualifying.”
Clint Bowyer did all of 10 laps in final practice, then pulled into the garage, climbed out and called it a day.
It’s more about making sure everything is in working order, because you don’t earn any points for being brave in practice at Talladega.
“Now you go out there and make sure nothing is going to fall off of it,” Bowyer said. “You make sure to get the engine up to oil temperature, … it doesn’t drag or do anything wild and you put it on jack stands. [Then] you go there and you run two laps [Saturday].
all the time we have on this race track.
There is a flip side, according to Bowyer. The lack of track time creates more than a few butterflies on race day. With so few laps turned early in the weekend, drivers don’t have the opportunity to settle into a rhythm. That sometimes leads to bad decisions.
“I miss running the Nationwide race because I got acclimated to all of the craziness that I was fixing to get into at the end of the Cup race,” Bowyer said. “I had already seen it one time and you got used to it.
“It’s a game-changer when you get down to the last 20 or 30 laps of this thing, and unfortunately we don’t have that experience and practice going into it like we used to. It’s definitely different. I think that adds to the nervousness a bunch.”
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