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.

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.

 

NASCAR suspended Sprint Cup driver Matt Kenseth on Tuesday for two races in his part of taking out race leader Joey Logano on Sunday at Martinsville Speedway.

The incident took place with 47 laps to go when Kenseth pile drove his car into Turn One and put the No. 22 into the outside wall. Lost in the fact is that two weeks prior Logano spun out Kenseth with five laps to go at the 1.5-mile Kansas Speedway. That race was a must win for Kenseth in order to move onto the Eliminator Round and after leading the most laps, Kenseth had a 14th- place finish to show for it.

Leading up to the incident on Lap 453, the No. 20 got into another incident while racing for the lead on a restart just behind Logano when he and the No. 2 of Brad Keselowski made contact and ruining both of their days as well as Kurt Busch.

“Based upon our extensive review, we have concluded that the No. 20 car driver, who is no longer in the Chase, intentionally wrecked the No. 22 car driver, a Chase-eligible competitor who was leading the race at the time,” said Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer. The No. 20 car was nine laps down, and eliminated the No. 22 car’s opportunity to continue to compete in the race.

“Additionally, we factored aspects of safety into our decision, and also the fact that the new Chase elimination format puts a premium on each and every race. These actions have no place in NASCAR.” 

NASCAR deemed that Kenseth’s part in the incident was extreme and not in the racing code, thus the reason for the two week suspension.

However, following the Kansas race, NASCAR chairman and CEO Brian France credited the ending to that race as "quintessential racing." The drivers were questioning the driver code in which they race under. 

A Joe Gibbs Racing spokesman stated in a press release that JGR will appeal the suspension, but there was not a given date. If the appeal process has not happened before this weekend, then Kenseth is eligible to race this weekend in Texas. Otherwise, Joe Gibbs Racing development driver and current Camping World Truck Series points leader, Erik Jones will take the helm behind the No. 20.

At Bristol in April, Jones replaced Denny Hamlin after a lengthy red flag due to discomfort finishing 26th. Back in May, Jones filled in for the injured Kyle Busch at the Kansas Speedway and finished in the 42nd position after a late crash. Prior to the incident he hovered around the top 10.

The way that Kenseth denied on live television that he didn’t wreck Logano on purpose more than likely didn’t help his case. Of course he doesn’t want to come out and say that he wrecked the No. 22 on purpose, but maybe a better explanation would have been in his best interest.

“Some days you’re the bat, some days you’re the ball, it’s never any fun when you’re the ball,” Kenseth said about the incident. “The splitter was dragging things down and we got into the corner and unfortunately ruined his day. He’s got the best car, he has a couple of races left to till have a shot at it (championship). Certainly disappointed that it came down to that.”

Many of Kenseth’s peers weighed in on Twitter including teammate Hamlin and another current Toyota driver Clint Bowyer deeming that the penalty was too harsh and that NASCAR should “Free Matt.”

Kenseth is the 2003 Cup champion and has acquired 12 wins since coming over to Joe Gibbs Racing in 2013, ironically replacing Logano from the No. 20. Since moving to NASCAR’s top series Kenseth has an active streak of 571 consecutive races in which he has started, but that is in jeopardy has the second race in the Eliminator Round at Texas approaches.