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.
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.
In what was supposed to be the rain free day of the weekend, rain halted the racing 53 laps into the 100 laps race and by the NASCAR rule book, once the race is passed halfway it is deemed official if weather comes. Pole-sitter Erik Jones was closing in on Larson when the rain hit the race track.
NASCAR waited an hour and 35 minutes before calling the event due to rain. Once the track was near dry it began to pour, which led the series director to call the remainder of the race.
Larson led on several different occasions for a total of 27 circuits. It marks the Chip Ganassi Racing drivers' fourth career win in 82 XFINITY Series starts, and his second career win at Pocono, winning an ARCA event two years ago.
"I'm happy with it," Larson said of the rain coming in and ending the race. "We were good, a little bit better than i thought we would be. We were more comparable to the Gibbs cars than I thought we would be based off practice and qualifying."
Jones finished second on the afternoon after starting from pole, but never leading a lap. For the majority of the 53 laps the No. 20 car was in the runner-up position, first chasing his teammate Kyle Busch then chasing Larson. He felt like this race was another race that she let slip away.
"We had by far one of the best cars in the field today, so it's unfortunate," Jones said of his second-place effort. "Our Camry was good, but just not enough time t get back to the lead and have a shot at it. It's pretty frustrating because this whole year has been a season of just missing it by that much. We missed it in a couple races by penalties and circumstances and today was another one of those days where we had another good shot at the win, but with the way it played out it just didn't work out for us."
Ty Dillon finished third, posting his fourth top-five finish of 2016.
After leading the opening 16 laps, Busch couldn't get back through traffic to take the lead back after making a pit stop under the first caution flag. Finishing fourth on the afternoon, he felt that the team was a step behind.
Joey Logano rounded out the top five after getting off-sequence with the competition.
Elliott Sadler, Paul Menard, Brandon Jones, Daniel Suarez and Alex Bowman rounded out the top 10.
Brennan Poole finished 12th, ending a streak of four consecutive top 10 finishes, which is a career-high in his rookie season.
On Lap 20, Justin Allgaier made contact with the wall in the "Tunnel Turn" which resulted in a 39th-place finish. The No. 7 team dropped to seventh in the points after starting the race third in the standings.
The series is set to return to action next Saturday at Michigan, where Busch is the defending winner of the event, which was his first race back in the XFINITY Series after his leg injuries last February in Daytona. .
For the fifth time in 2016, Erik Jones will start from the pole in an XFINITY Series race. In the second round of qualifying he laid down a lap of 175.926 mph, which was much faster than the rest of the field. In the first round of qualifying the No. 20 Toyota was over a half-second faster than second-place.
Kyle Busch has been fast since the No. 18 team unloaded on Thursday. He was second overall at 175. 203 mph. His only win at Pocono in NASCAR came last summer when he won in the Camping World Truck Series.
The third Joe Gibbs Racing driver, Daniel Suarez was third quick at 174.784 mph. It his 12th top-10 start of 2016, in 12 events.
Kyle Larson was fourth at 173.568 and Joey Logano rounded out the top five at 172.781 mph.
Elliott Sadler was sixth, Paul Menard seventh, Ty Dillon eighth, Justin Allgaier ninth and Alex Bowman rounded out the top 10.
The top 12 cars in the second round of qualifying were separated by two seconds.
Notable drivers to miss the top 12 cutoff were a pair of rookies led by Brennan Poole who posted the 13th best lap, with Brandon Jones 14th, Cup Series driver Aric Almirola 16th and Brendan Gaughan 17th.
Darrell Wallace, Jr. was the second to last car to attempt a qualifying lap in the opening round. The No. 6 Ford got loose getting into the corner and went for a long spin, keeping it off the wall. In doing so, Bowman was on track for his warm up lap and had to pull his car into the pits to cool the engine down.
Bowman posted the eight fastest lap even with a hot engine, while Wallace will have to come from the rear as he never made a full lap.
The green flag is set to wave shortly after 1:00 p.m. ET.
Fog remained a factor for what turned into be just a 20 minute practice when rain came and halted cars from working on qualifying setup. 28 cars participated in practice, so if qualifying is rained out in the afternoon the starting lineup will be set by owner standings.
Carl Edwards posted the fastest single lap speed at 179.802 mph, which was over one mph faster than Kevin Harvick, who recorded the second fastest lap. If rain cancels qualifying, the No. 4 Chevrolet would start from the pole on Sunday.
Last year's pole-sitter for this event, Kurt Busch was third on the leader board at 178.649 mph. Paul Menard was fourth at 178.250 mph and defending Cup Series champion Kyle Busch rounded out the top five.
Jimmie Johnson, Casey Mears, Joey Logano, Greg Bffle and Tony Stewart rounded out the top 10.
Three drivers were tied for most laps ran in the practice session at seven. Cup Series rookie Chris Buescher led the way in that category at 23rd. Michael Annett and Brian Scott also completed seven laps and were the two slowest cars on one lap speed.
Notable drivers who didn't complete a lap were August winner, Matt Kenseth, Ryan Newman and Austin Dillon.
Qualifying is set to role at 4:15 p.m. ET if rain moves out of the Pocono Mountains.