Coming off of a disappointing weekend at Atlanta, Team Penske rebounded to pace the first practice session of the Sprint Cup weekend at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Brad Keselowski led the way at 195.327 mph, .009 seconds faster than teammate Joey Logano.
Kurt Busch posted the third fastest time as the No. 41 car was among the fastest all morning long. The car would get faster in every run it made.
The first three drivers were all faster than last year’s pole winning run by Jeff Gordon.
Paul Menard recorded his hot lap after having a close moment with the outside wall. He finished the practice fourth fastest and was the first driver over a tenth of a second behind the lap posted by the No. 2 car.
Brian Vickers, filling in for Tony Stewart rounded out the top five after posting 117 laps in Thursday’s test session at the 1.5-mile racetrack.
Defending winner of the Kobalt Tools 400 Kevin Harvick was seventh fastest at 194.126 mph. The driver of the No. 4 Chevrolet has been battling the flu throughout the week as he looks to go back-to-back in Sin City.
The first Toyota was Matt Kenseth in 11th as the Joe Gibbs Racing and Furniture Row teams struggled on one lap speed. Kyle Busch was the slowest among the five teams in 25th. Denny Hamlin finished the session 13th in his backup car after crashing his primary on Thursday.
All 39 teams took part in Friday’s opening practice in preparation for qualifying. The drivers will look to battle slick track conditions during qualifying. If practice is a fair representation of qualifying, then there will be a new track record set tonight in Las Vegas.
Chip Ganassi Racing had a subpar season in 2015. For the second consecutive season neither Jamie McMurray or Kyle Larson were victorious in the 36-race season. There were flashes of bright spots for both teams, but each wants to pick up the performance in 2016.
It would be normal to think that McMurray was satisfied in making the cutoff for the Chase for the Sprint Cup for the first time in his career. The No. 1 team showed instances in which it could contend for the win with two second-place finishes at Phoenix in the spring to Kevin Harvick and Martinsville in the fall to Jeff Gordon.
The short tracks are where the team has excelled in the past few seasons. One area in which the team decreased from 2014 was at the 1.5-mile racetracks. Throughout his career, McMurray has been solid on the mile-and-a-half tracks, but last year was an exception.
It was just two years ago that the No. 1 car won the Sprint All-Star Race and McMurray left Charlotte Motor Speedway $1 million dollars richer. Last season was a struggle, which is why in 2016 one of the team’s main goals is to re-establish itself on those tracks.
“Ultimately, it’s just about better cars and better setups,” McMurray told Speedway Digest last month at the NASCAR Media Tour. “I’ve been able to win at some mile-and-a-half racetracks in the past. In 2014, we were just really good at those tracks and in 2015 we weren’t as good.”
McMurray, 39, is coming off a season in which he posted four top fives and 10 top-10 finishes, down from the 13 that he posted a year prior. However, the Missouri native was consistent with a career-best 14.9 average finish, but finished with a career-low in laps led, 14.
In the 11 1.5-mile tracks that were on the Sprint Cup schedule, McMurray averaged a 15.8 average finish, leading nine laps at Texas back in April. Based on the fact that he accumulated just two top-10 finishes in those 11 races, he knows that he needs to improve in 2016.
“I didn’t particularly do anything different,” McMurray said. “Ultimately, it’s just about being able to have the right car and the right setup underneath you.”
Compared to 2014, McMurray had had a better average finish on the 1.5-mile racetracks, but didn’t run up nearly as much. In the previous season, he had two finishes outside of the top 35 at Kansas and Kentucky, but ended the season with three-consecutive top-five finishes at Charlotte, Texas and Homestead. The No. 1 car finished inside of the top five in both races in NASCAR’s hub in 2014.
All year long, Larson struggled in 2015. The driver that had so much animosity behind him due to his remarkable rookie season ended up with a disappointing 2015 season.
In his first year of competition at the Sprint Cup level, Larson exceeded expectations, though he didn’t go to Victory Lane. It could be argued that it was the best rookie season since Jimmie Johnson in 2002. The results were different last season.
The No. 42 car is notoriously known for riding within an inch of the wall at the majority of the 1.5-mile tracks. The closer to the wall, the more grip there is. But if you get too close to the wall, it will come and grab you, ultimately damaging the car.
“I think just as an organization we want to be better on the mile-and-a-halves,” Larson said. “That’s the majority of our schedule, so we kind of need to focus the most on that. 1.5-mile tracks are my favorite tracks too. I definitely look forward to going to them every week and I feel like we got better on them throughout the year last year.”
Last season, Larson earned just two top fives and 10 top-10 finishes, down from eight top fives and 17 top 10s in his rookie year. The mile-and-a-halves were tracks that the he really struggled on.
With the exception of the season finale at Homestead, Larson recorded zero top-five finishes. He had six finishes of 25th or worse on the 11 1.5-mile racetracks that marked his average finish down to a disappointing 21.1. With a fifth-place finish at Homestead, in a race that looked like he was going to track down race leader Brad Keselowski before a late-race caution, there is reason for optimism heading into 2016.
If the team could go back to the way it performed in the 2014 season, Larson could qualify for his first Chase this season.
The new aerodynamic package for the 2016 season could play into Larson’s hands. The way that the new setup will be plays into a dirt racers hand, with the way that the car slides around. This is something that he normally runs well in as he has had a lot of experience on dirt. In the two races that it was raced in last year at Kentucky and Darlington, the overall racing was some of the best racing all year long.
“I think the aero package will probably help the mile and-a-half racing the most to which will hopefully help our race team,” Larson said. “I would love to be better on mile-and-a-halves than we were last year.”
The team has made multiple changes over the off-season including the addition of crew chief Chad Johnson. He has been atop the pit box for three-time Cup champion Tony Stewart in the last two seasons which were two of Stewart’s worst years to date. Prior to that, Johnston was the leader for Martin Truex, Jr. at Michael Waltrip Racing, where the two accumulated a lot of success, resulting in only one victory at Sonoma in 2013.
In order for this year to be a success, both cars will need to make the Chase and potentially complete for the first Sprint Cup championship in team history.
Prior to last season, Felix Sabates, co-owner of Chip Ganassi Racing guaranteed that both of his drivers would make the Chase. Though he was wrong, there is reason to believe that this could be the year, especially with the money and resources that Rob Kauffman is bringing in from MWR.
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.
Over the past two seasons, Team Penske has established itself as one of the teams to beat in the garage. Picking up 18 wins in that time, the foundation has been set for the organization to have a solid 2016 season.
There is no doubt about it that Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano have established themselves as championship front-runners heading into the season. Both drivers are coming off one of the better years of their career, respectively. Recording a total of seven wins in 2015, Team Penske has become a threat for victories on a weekly basis.
Though he had just nine top fives in the 36-race schedule, Keselowski picked up a career-high 25 top-10 finishes, including a stretch of 10-consecutive races spanning from Kentucky to Chicago. His solo win of the season came at Auto Club Speedway where he made a late-race pass for the win on the final restart, the team led by Paul Wolfe is right where it needs to be in the offseason.
“It’s pretty good,” Keselowski said of the team morale. “We ran well and were in contention to win a lot of races. We’re throwing a party on the first night. I think it’s going pretty well, but it always gets better when you start winning.”
The No. 22 team led by Logano and crew chief Todd Gordon picked up six checkered flags last year, elevating his driving style to a whole new level. The team became more equipped of leading laps and running toward the front which put them in position to take the checkered flag whether it was on raw speed, fuel mileage or even controversy.
Sure, Logano won five races and made it to the championship race in 2014. But in 2015, he alongside Kevin Harvick had one of the quickest cars week-in and week-out. It became a habit for the team to unload off the truck quick on Friday, sitting on a pole six times.
Logano and company set a benchmark that the team will be looking to surpass in the coming season. However, with the numbers that the No. 22 team put up it will be astonishing if they can out-do the performance from one year ago.
During the season, Logano had the aforementioned six victories, including the Daytona 500 to go along with 22 top-five finishes and 28 top 10’s. Winning is the ultimate goal for the 25-year-old, and anything other than a championship will be a disappointment.
The first stint of Logano’s career at Joe Gibbs Racing was a disappointment. He was given the nickname “the best thing since sliced bread” from some of his peers which put even more pressure on the then teenager. Change was necessary for him, which is why when he went to Team Penske and it became a rebuilding period of his driving career after finishing in the mid-20’s with JGR.
“We talked about our goal of winning every race, winning 11 in two years doesn’t sound so great,” Logano said at the NASCAR Media Tour. “I think at this point last year we were going into Daytona thinking it was our worst race track and then we won two superspeedway races last year and that was our worst category. Really, identifying our weaknesses and working on it and our weaknesses have gotten smaller which is a good sign.”
Now that both teams have established themselves as two of the cars to beat on a weekly basis, it will be crucial for the two teammates to continue working together closely. That is something that Team Penske in general has done so well at accomplishing, getting two drivers united to one another and believing in the system that is in place going forward.
In the past Team Penske had some driver lineups that never really saw eye-to-eye. Rusty Wallace and Ryan Newman never got along as teammates for the four years that they were together. Kurt Busch and Newman worked together, but not to the degree of Keselowski and Logano. Busch did push Newman across the finish line to win the 2008 Daytona 500, but other than that race the two teammates never worked all that closely with one another.
Prior to Logano joining Team Penske in 2013, Keselowski was coming off of a championship season in 2012. With the addition of Logano and Gordon, the driver lineup and possibly even more importantly the crew chief lineup is set in stone for the coming years.
Unity has been one of the elements of success for Team Penske over the years. In a season where the team is celebrating its 50th year of competition in motorsports, the organization has never been at a better place heading into a season. Even through all of the rule changes over the span of the last four seasons, it could be argued that the team has evolved better than the competition.
Either driver from the organization feels that they could hoist the trophy at Homestead. All drivers should feel that way, but in reality no other team other than Joe Gibbs Racing can say the same based on stats. JGR is coming off of a championship winning season, but had some offseason changes that could potentially hurt the team. Hendrick Motorsports is always a championship favorite, but is going through a transition period as Jeff Gordon is now retired and in the broadcast booth.
Of course coming up short at the end of the year is disappointing, but everything is in place for the team to be successful going forward. The new low-downforce rules package could be the start of something great for the two teammates.
In the two races last season that tested the 2016 rules package, Keselowski had the dominant car in both races. If it weren’t for crucial mistakes on pit road at Kentucky, the No. 2 team would have picked up its second win on the season. At Darlington, the Miller Lite team led a race-high 196 laps, but on the last pit stop of the night Carl Edwards won the race off pit road and secured the victory, Keselowski finished second.
Keselowski has been very outspoken about the new aerodynamic package, which will give the drivers a little more drag, and the direction that he feels the racing should go.
Logano was the championship favorite heading into the Eliminator Round of the Chase in 2015, but Matt Kenseth put an end to that which also grew the team closer together. Keselowski could be seen publicly or on social media defending his teammate, who received scrutiny for the altercation with Kenseth.
“I don’t know if the point system has really helped,” Keselowski said on the relationship between the two drivers. “The team setup at Penske is set up in a matter to where I think just naturally it flows open.”
The identity of Team Penske is well in place and it is likely that at least one of the drivers will be competing in the championship race at Homestead in November. With the addition of Ryan Blaney going full-time for the Wood Brothers, it brings new opportunity to the already established organization. Potentially, there could be three Penske-supported drivers in the Chase in 2016.
The level of intensity at Phoenix International Raceway was higher than the clouds. Coming down to the final lap, the four drivers that will be fighting for the championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway now know that they are safe.
In dominating fashion, Kevin Harvick locked himself into the final round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup with a victory on Sunday afternoon during the Quicken Loans Race for Heroes 500. Leading 264 of 312 laps at Phoenix, Harvick separated himself from the field to take his third-straight win at the 1-mile speedway.
“I could tell that we were probably going to have to win because everybody was running up in the front of the pack that we were racing against,” Harvick said following the race. “That was our goal coming in here and that’s really the goal every time you come to Phoenix. This place has just been phenomenal for me personally and for this team this year.”
With the triumph, Stewart-Haas Racing now has a shot to win their second NASCAR Sprint Cup Series title. Harvick now has four victories through the 2014 season and had he not won at Phoenix – likely would not have advanced to the final round of the Chase.
Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano and Ryan Newman were able to advance to the final round of the Chase. Hamlin had a flat tire during a caution period early in the race. Subsequently, the No. 11 car went a lap down during that green-flag run. However, he rallied back on the lead lap, albeit he proceeded to get lapped once again just after the halfway mark. But with approximately 100 laps remaining in the race, the soon to be 34-year-old received the free pass to get back on the lead lap. Hamlin drove his Toyota into the top-five late in the race and solidified his spot in the championship round.
For Logano, he had a penalty for dragging equipment out of his pit stop after winning the race off of pit road during the second caution of the day. Like Hamlin, the No. 22 Ford was lapped by Harvick, yet he got the lucky dog to get his lap back. He finished sixth on Sunday at Phoenix, which helped ease his way into the final four as he had a nine-point cushion over Jeff Gordon, who narrowly missed the cutoff.
"When the 4 car laps you, you don’t know how the race is gonna play out," said Logano following his comeback on Sunday. "You don’t know if there are gonna be enough cautions to get the lucky dog or will you get the lucky dog. When you go down a lap it’s not a day-ender, but it makes your day a lot harder. We missed the lucky dog by one that time, and we had a decent car but when you’re trying to work your way through the field and race really hard you burn your stuff up too much and you get in trouble. We were able to adjust our car to that and then worked our way back up there slowly but surely.”
Then, there is Newman. For a moment, he seemed to be like the Newman from Seinfeld. After struggling through the first 100 laps, the No. 31 team entered the top-10. However, he fell outside of the top-15 late in the going and opted to use strategy to get up front. On the final restart of the day, Newman’s Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet was in fifth-place. But on old tires – multiple cars roared right past him. On the final lap, he was set to be just one position out of the Chase in a tie with Gordon. Gordon would have won the tie-breaker since he had a better top finish in the Eliminator Round. Yet with a bold move in Turn 3, Newman drove it in hard and got into the side of rookie Kyle Larson – putting him in the wall and giving Childress a shot at winning his first Cup Series championship since 1994.
"That was about as clean as I could race," said Newman. "I wasn't proud of it."
Gordon was notably disappointed after finishing second at Phoenix. Had he not been involved in an on-track incident with Brad Keselowski at Texas, the four-time champion likely would have advanced to Homestead. Matt Kenseth also fell short on Sunday. After finishing third, he was just three points behind Newman for third in points. Keselowski finished fourth, and came up eight points behind Newman with Carl Edwards finishing 15th – 15 points behind the No. 31 team.
“It makes last week that much even tougher to swallow, but that's all right,” said Gordon. “We put in a great effort at Martinsville, great effort here, and it just wasn't enough. Some things are out of our control, and I felt like we did a great job putting all the effort into the things that we could control.”
The race had a record 12 cautions on the day – surpassing the previous track record of 11. With eight lead changes during Sunday’s 312-mile spectacle, it was the fewest amount of passes for the lead at the track since 1998.
Going into Homestead, there will be a first-time Sprint Cup Series champion. This will be the first time someone will take home their first title since 2006, when Jimmie Johnson captured his first of six crowns.
Joseph Wolkin can be found on Twitter at @JosephNASCAR.