Kyle Busch fastest in first Cup practice at Daytona; eight Fords in top 10

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Kyle Busch was fastest in the first of two NASCAR Cup practice sessions Thursday at Daytona International Speedway.

Busch had a top lap of 197.438 mph around the 2.5-mile high banked superspeedway in his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota as teams begin preparations for Saturday night’s Coke Zero 400 (televised on NBC).

Brad Keselowski, who won last year’s Coke Zero 400, was second-fastest (197.230 mph). In fact, Keselowski led a phalanx of six straight Ford drivers that included Kevin Harvick (197.200), Joey Logano (197.165), Ryan Blaney (also 197.165), Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (197.161) and Matt DiBenedetto (197.148).

Austin Dillon and his Chevrolet broke up the Ford onslaught with the eighth-fastest speed (197.131 mph), followed by two additional Fords: Trevor Bayne (197.109) and Daytona 500 winner Kurt Busch was 10th-fastest (197.100), meaning Fords took eight of the 10 fastest spots.

Today’s second and final practice of the weekend is scheduled for 5 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

Stage racing has made an impact but qualifying remains key to Cup success

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Even with how stages have altered strategy and the racing this year, the importance of qualifying remains evident in the NASCAR Cup Series.

Seven of the top 10 in points entering Sunday’s race at Pocono Raceway rank in the top 10 in average starting spot. Points leader Martin Truex Jr. ranks second in average starting spot. Brad Keselowski, who has the best average starting spot (6.679), ranks seventh in the points.

Seven of the 13 races this season were won by a driver who started in the top five.

Qualifying at Pocono is scheduled to begin at 4:15 p.m. ET today.

The past two races have been won by a driver who started outside the top 10. Austin Dillon won the Coca-Cola 600 after starting 22nd. Jimmie Johnson qualified 14th last weekend at Dover but actually started at the rear after the team made a gear change before the race.

Rookie Ty Dillon, who had a strong run going until he was collected in the overtime crash last week at Dover, said qualifying remains a focus for his team.

Qualifying has probably been our toughest challenge all year just making sure we get good track position,’’ said Ty Dillon, whose average starting spot of 22.077 ranks 24th in the series. “We start anywhere from 20th to 28th every week. It’s just not been our strong suit, but we have raced really well. 

“The thing about qualifying is it is raw speed. It’s just a different level when you come to the Cup Series and qualify. It’s harder than anything you ever do.’’ 

Rookie Daniel Suarez, whose average starting spot of 15.846 ranks 16th in the series, says he sees progress with his team in the area.

“Track position is important,’’ Suarez said. “I feel like last week we made some gains. I honestly feel like every weekend we have been getting better and better. We are still a new team, a growing team, and I really feel like every weekend we are getting stronger and stronger and racing in the top 10.’’

Here is a look at how drivers rank based on their average starting spot this season:

(Some drivers, such as Kyle Larson and Jimmie Johnson, among others, are further down the list because they’ve missed qualifying after failing to get through inspection and started toward the rear, impacting their average.)

6.679 — Brad Keselowski

8.308 — Martin Truex Jr.

8.769 — Kevin Harvick

9.769 — Kyle Busch

9.846 — Jamie McMurray

9.923 — Matt Kenseth

10.000 — Ryan Blaney

10.154 — Chase Elliott

11.154 — Denny Hamlin

11.154 — Joey Logano

11.615 — Kurt Busch

12.308 — Kyle Larson

13.769 — Ryan Newman

13.846 — Clint Bowyer

13.923 — Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

15.846 — Daniel Suarez

16.000 — Dale Earnhardt Jr.

17.692 — Erik Jones

17.769 — Trevor Bayne

18.692 — Austin Dillon

20.154 — Kasey Kahne

20.385 — Jimmie Johnson

20.538 — Paul Menard

22.077 — Ty Dillon

23.923 — Danica Patrick

24.308 — AJ Allmendinger

25.846 — Michael McDowell

27.308 — Landon Cassill

28.308 — Matt DiBenedetto

28.923 — Chris Buescher

* Aric Almirola, who is out after his injury from a May 13 crash at Kansas Speedway, has an average starting spot of 22.363.

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Social roundup: Aric Almirola’s violent wreck prompts wave of driver concern

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NASCAR drivers reacted en masse on Twitter to the wreck that sent Aric Almirola to the hospital Saturday night. Richard Petty Motorsports released a statement early Sunday that the driver was in stable condition and held overnight for observation.

Almirola’s No. 43 Ford briefly went airborne after colliding with the cars of Joey Logano and Danica Patrick during the Go Bowling 400 at Kansas Speedway.

NASCAR said Almirola was airlifted to the University of Kansas Medical Center for observation.

Here’s a selection of the well wishes for Almirola:

Who will win the fan vote to race in the Monster Energy NASCAR All-Star Race? You decide

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The polls are open and waiting for your vote.

It’s time choose your favorite driver to run in next weekend’s 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR All Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

The race takes place May 20th and the single driver that earns the most fan votes will receive an automatic berth in the main event.

Voting is currently taking place.

Fans can vote once per day at NASCAR.com/fanvote, and votes shared on Facebook or Twitter count double. Also, don’t forget to use the hashtags #AllStarRace and #FanVote on social media.

Voting closes May 19 at 11:59 p.m. ET.

Here’s the list of eligible drivers that are on the Monster Energy NASCAR All-Star Race Fan Vote ballot:

AJ Allmendinger, Aric Almirola, Trevor Bayne, Ryan Blaney, Clint Bowyer, Landon Cassill, Matt DiBenedetto, Austin Dillon, Ty Dillon, Jeffrey Earnhardt, Chase Elliott, Timmy Hill, Erik Jones, Corey LaJoie, Michael McDowell, Paul Menard, Danica Patrick, David Ragan, Reed Sorenson, Daniel Suárez and Cole Whitt.

Chase Elliott, AJ Allmendinger involved in 18-car crash with 20 to go in Geico 500

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A large multicar crash occurred with 20 laps left in the Geico 500 at Talladega Superspeedway.

AJ Almmendinger’s No. 47 Chevrolet, which started the wreck via contact with Chase Elliott, rolled upside down. The crash involved 18 cars.
Allmendinger walked away from the wreck, which forced the race to be red-flagged for 26 minutes and 51 seconds.

The crash began exiting Turn 2 when Allmendinger was drafting with Elliott, whose No. 24 Chevrolet was loose when Allmendinger hit the left-rear bumper.

Elliott turned toward the wall and briefly went airborne.
The accident involved Elliott, Allmendinger, Logano, Erik Jones, Kevin Harvick, David Ragan, Corey LaJoieBrad KeselowskiGray GauldingMatt Kenseth, Martin Truex Jr., Trevor BayneMichael McDowellAustin Dillon, Danica Patrick, Cole Whitt and Matt DiBenedetto.

Elliott and Jones were eliminated from the race by NASCAR after they continued to drive after the red flag was displayed.

“Just battling for the lead, (Kyle Busch) and (Elliott) were kind of leading the two packs,” Allmendinger told Fox. “(Harvick) was just on me. Once I got to Chase, I got loose. I barely tapped him, and I tried to get off him, but it was too late.”

Chase Elliott: “I don’t know that it was really his fault, per se. I think he had a big run, and he kind of got to my bumper and happened to be in a bad spot, kind of coming up off the corner. Was a skewed a little bit to my left rear. When that happens, it just unloads the cars.”

Austin Dillon: “I just saw somebody come across the field there, and started checking up. I got kind of pushed back into it. It’s just Talladega. It’s part of it. We’re three-wide trying to get as much position as we can.”

Joey Logano: “I don’t really know what happened, but I saw (Elliott) tank slapping down the backstretch. I was hoping he was going to go to the left and go toward the inside, but he came up top.”

Danica Patrick: “NASCAR is always making more and more efforts to make the cars safe, so I’m fine. Definitely wasn’t as big as last years’, that was really, really bad. It’s kind of a bummer to be part of an accident and not even be at the core of the accident. I thought somebody clipped me from behind, but it looks like I came down in front of somebody else. I couldn’t see anything, but my spotter just kept saying ‘go low, go low.’ It’s hard to trust them sometimes, but they can see more than I can right now. I was gradually coming low and obviously, he didn’t see me.”