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Drivers still have questions after Saturday practice session

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CONCORD, N.C. — Even after a 60-minute practice Saturday morning, drivers were still trying to figure out what the racing would be like with the rules package for this evening’s Monster Energy All-Star Race.

NASCAR granted teams an extra session Saturday after much of Friday’s practices at Charlotte Motor Speedway were canceled by rain.

Kyle Larson posted the fastest lap in Saturday’s session at 173.305 mph. He and others noted that handling could play a factor in the race for $1 million.

“I felt like early practice I could pass cars pretty easy,’’ Larson said. “But when the track got a little tighter, it was harder to pass.’’

Clint Bowyer, who was next on the speed chart at 173.255 mph, was struck by how the cars reacted in traffic.

“To be dead honest with you, the thing that surprised me was they didn’t pull up near as much as I thought they would,’’ he said. “I don’t know, that’s what I was hoping they would do. I think that’s what everybody was hoping they would do. I was a little bit frustrated with that. I still think you’re going to have that gaggle of cars, you know what I mean? Some excitement within there.’’

Aric Almirola also expressed surprise at what the cars didn’t do during practice.

“I think the biggest thing that surprised me was that the runs weren’t bigger,’’  said Almirola, who starts on the pole for the Monster Open preliminary race. “I thought that when we got in a pack or just even two cars, I thought the idea behind the package was for the trailing car to be able to get a big draft and get up to the lead car and be able to slingshot. I was surprised by that. It’s a little bit more sophisticated than that and the runs we were a little bit slower than I anticipated.

“I don’t know if it’s because of the race track or because of the radius of the corners are tighter, the straightaways are shorter or if it’s actually the package. I was anticipating bigger runs and more ability to do something with a run.’’

So what does that forecast for the racing Saturday night?

“From what I have seen in practice, if you want to win, you have to be in the top three spots,’’ Almirola said. “I think track position will play a part like we have seen in speedway racing the last few years.”

Joey Logano, who won this event in 2016, is certain about one thing with tonight’s race.

We are going to crash some stuff tonight,’’ Logano said. “I think that is pretty apparent. In practice we were all pretty good at giving each other some room and making sure our cars are — at least we have a car for later on.

“I think towards the end of this race is when business picks up, I mean hey, it is the All-Star race. It is the same thing when we come here no matter what package you use. You have nothing to lose and $1 million to gain. I think every driver knows that. That whole caring about things kind of goes out the window. You think about winning the race and winning the money. That is what this is about.’’

Daniel McFadin contributed to this report

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Kyle Larson leads way in busy final Cup practice

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CONCORD, N.C. — Kyle Larson had the fastest lap in a busy practice session Saturday morning at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

NASCAR officials added the practice because much of Friday’s sessions were rained out. Some drivers did not run a lap of practice Friday with the new aero package, which is intended to keep the cars closer together and run slower speeds with a restrictor plate.

Saturday’s 60-minute session featured cars in a pack for longer periods of time.

Larson led the way with a lap of 173.305 mph. He was followed by Clint Bowyer (173.255 mph), Kevin Harvick (173.049), Aric Almirola (172.977) and Daniel Suarez (172.656).

Denny Hamlin ran the most laps at 73. He was followed by Larson and Brad Keselowski, who each ran 62 laps.

Larson also had the best average for 10 consecutive laps at 171.756 mph. He was followed by Suarez (171.593) and Darrell Wallace Jr. (171.448)

Click here for practice report

Starting lineup for Monster Energy Open

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Rain forced the cancellation of qualifying for tomorrow’s Monster Energy Open at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

The lineup for the 50-lap event prior to the All-Star Race has been set by owner points, giving Aric Almirola the pole.

He will be joined on the front row by Erik Jones.

Alex Bowman will start third and Chase Elliott starts fourth.

The Open is broken up into three segments. The first two are 20 laps in length and final segment is 10 laps.

The winner of each segment will advance to the All-Star Race. A fourth driver will advance via a fan vote.

Click here for the lineup.

Friday 5: Matt Kenseth, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. on same page about Roush cars

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The sample size is small, but Ricky Stenhouse Jr. said Matt Kenseth’s impact already has been felt at Roush Fenway Racing.

In his first race weekend with the team, Kenseth noted similar issues with the car that Stenhouse has had this season.

“Talking with him so far, it’s definitely different than what he had been driving, and he’s got a lot of the exact same complaints and feedback,’’ Stenhouse told NBC Sports about Kenseth’s comments last weekend at Kansas Speedway. “That’s good. Just trying to figure out how to fix those complaints and feedback. That’s the biggest issue.’’

Stenhouse admitted it was reassuring to hear Kenseth’s feedback.

“I think it’s something that I’ve been struggling with in the cars for a while and to hear him reiterate that after one weekend is nice,’’ Stenhouse said. “The biggest thing for me at least confidence-wise is I’m giving the same feedback that he is.’’

Stenhouse said last weekend’s schedule made it difficult to work closely with Kenseth. Two Cup practices were condensed into one session after morning rain impacted the schedule. That didn’t allow for a debrief between the drivers and teams between sessions.

Stenhouse said that today’s schedule — weather permitting — should provide a better chance for both drivers to talk between practices. Both are in the All-Star Race. Kenseth, who won the event in 2004, will be making his 18th start in the non-points race, and Stenhouse will be making his third start.

This is the second of five consecutive weekends Kenseth will drive the No. 6. before Trevor Bayne returns to the car at Sonoma in June.

2. What to expect?

There are ideas, but nobody knows quite for sure with this aero package. Provided weather doesn’t cancel practices, drivers should get an idea what their cars will be like in practice today.

The package is similar to what Xfinity teams ran at Indianapolis last year.

The package this weekend will include:

# A 7/8 inch restrictor plate, marking the first time restrictor plates have been used at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

# Aero ducts. These will be used to push air from the front of the car through the front wheel well to create a bigger wake behind the car. That is intended to help a trailing car close at an easier rate.

# The rear spoiler will be 6 inches high and have 2 12-inch ears on either side to also help create a larger wake for trailing cars.

# A 2014-style splitter. This was done to balance the car aerodynamically with the changes to the rear of the car.

So how will the cars run?

Here’s what Elliott Sadler told Kevin Harvick on Harvick’s SiriusXM NASCAR Radio show this week:

“Kind of what I learned about it at Indy last year reminded me a lot about driving a Truck where the car is very draggy, and you’re not going to be able to get away from each other a bunch,’’ Sadler said. “It’s not going to be pack racing. But I think the guy leading the race now is not going to be able to pull away because you’re going to be able to draft up to him some. The cars are definitely going to drive easier because of the drag that is in the car and the lack of the speed with the restrictor plates. It’s definitely going to create a different feeling when side by side … the third guy in line is going to get a good draft up to the guys if you’re running side by side.

“What I learned at Indy is it’s not going to make a 20th-place car all of a sudden come win the All-Star Race. The good teams and the good drivers are still going to be the guys to beat. What I learned at Indy was that last restart we had, I restarted 12th and drove all the way to the lead before I got tight, and we fell back to fourth. I would have never done that without that package because it keeps everybody more bunched up. I think that’s what we’re going to see in the All-Star Race.’’

3. Stepping up

With the season a third of the way through (12 of 36 points races), here’s a look at who has made the biggest jump in points from this time last year to this season:

Aric Almirola has improved 15 spots, going from 25th at this time last year with Richard Petty Motorsports to 10th this season for Stewart-Haas Racing.

Kurt Busch has improved nine spots, going from 14th at this time a year ago to fifth this season for Stewart-Haas Racing.

Joey Logano has improved eight spots, going from 10th at this time last year to second this year for Team Penske.

4. Staying through the end

With the damaged vehicle policy allowing teams six minutes to make repairs or they’re out of the race, it has made it more difficult for drivers to build a lengthy streak of running at the finish.

Joey Logano is the exception. He’s been running at the finish in 31 consecutive races. Next on the list is Alex Bowman and Darrell Wallace Jr. at 12 races each.

5. No traction compound

A Charlotte Motor Speedway spokesperson said track officials have no plans to add traction compound in the corners this weekend.

There was no traction compound added to the track for last year’s All-Star Race, but track officials decided to add it leading up to the Coca-Cola 600 to enhance passing.

It makes sense not to have the traction compound this weekend with the different rule package Cup teams are using. Add too many variables, and it would be hard to distinguish how much impact the aero package has on the racing.

NASCAR America Fantasy League: 10 Best fantasy values of 2018

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The All-Star Race comes at the one-third mark of the season and affords the opportunity to take stock in who has been a good fantasy NASCAR value so far in 2018.

Kevin Harvick (with five wins and an average finish of 7.8) and Kyle Busch (three wins and an average of 8.5) have dominated the first 12 races like few have done in recent memory, but that does not make them good fantasy values. It is impossible to make up any ground on the competition when everyone has the same two drivers on the roster.

Their domination and popularity among fantasy players puts a premium on the other three active drivers as well as the garage pick.

Players also want to look at trends. Read the articles at Rotoworld.com, particularly the weekly Power Rankings and Cheat Sheets.

When setting the roster for the NASCAR America Fantasy Live game, click on the stats tab in the game’s navigation bar. There is sortable data that provides a wealth of information, such as the three-week average fantasy points earned by each driver.

The fantasy points, as reported on the stats tab, include points for the Gatorade Duels in Daytona and do not subtract any points lost to penalties during the year, but they are still highly reflective of a driver’s strength to this stage of the season.

1. Joey Logano (average finish in 2018: 6.91; stage points: 117)
Logano actually has a better average finish so far this year than either Harvick or Busch and is within striking distance of them in terms of fantasy points earned through the first 12 races (plus his Daytona Duel). Harvick leads with 553. Busch is second with 534, but Logano has earned 529 points on the strength of his average finish and 117 stage points. He has scored 10 top-10 finishes and a 13th so far this year.

2. Clint Bowyer (average finish in 2018: 10.67; stage points: 79)
Once one is past the top three drivers in terms of fantasy points, the difference becomes notable. Bowyer has scored 426 fantasy points in the NASCAR Fantasy Live game because he has not been as productive in terms of stage points. He is also trending down with 31.3 points per game in the past three weeks, which is tied for only eighth best.

3. Kurt Busch (average finish in 2018: 13.25; stage points: 102)
Busch got off to a rocky start in 2018. His 26th-place finish in the Daytona 500 came after an accident on lap 198. He crashed two weeks later at Atlanta to finish 35th. His next six races featured only two top 10s. But in that span, he also had three more top 15s and that was enough to keep him fantasy relevant. In the last three races, he swept the top 10.

4. Brad Keselowski (average finish in 2018: 15.50; stage points: 138)
Keselowski actually has earned a few more fantasy points than Bowyer or Kurt Busch, but his tendency to fall back in the second half of the race has cost fantasy players. Much of Keselowski’s woes can be traced to a four-race period from Texas Motor Speedway through Talladega Superspeedway when he crashed three times. If he can stay out of trouble, he will rival his teammate Logano.

5. Denny Hamlin (average finish in 2018: 10.25; stage points: 57)
Because of a rash of penalties, Hamlin has struggled enough in the early stage of races that he was a recent topic of conversation on NASCAR America. His 57 stage points is the least among any other driver in this week’s top 10, but he has at least been able to overcome at the end of races to minimize that damage.

6. Martin Truex Jr. (average finish in 2018: 12.50; stage points: 77)
With only 412 fantasy points banked, it would be easy to say that Truex has been a bit of a disappointment this year, but that is not strictly true. Champions often have slumps after winning the Cup and Truex suffered through a four-race streak from Texas to Talladega without a single top 10. Seven of his 12 races this year have ended in top-five finishes, however, so he is only an adjustment or two away from challenging the No. 4 and 18.

7. Kyle Larson (average finish in 2018: 13.83; stage points: 74)
One thing fantasy players look for is consistency. Having a historically strong driver on the roster when he wrecks, like Larson did at Texas earlier this year, or when he simply fades is not helpful. For that reason, streaks are important. Unfortunately, Larson has managed to back up one top 10 with another only three times so far this year and has not yet had a three-race string.

8. Aric Almirola (average finish in 2018: 12.42; stage points: 47)
Ranked eighth on the list, Almirola might be even more valuable because he is still flying under the radar. He has been strong, but as the fourth-most productive driver in a four-car team it can be easy to overlook him. The biggest factor Almirola has in his favor is consistency. In 12 races this year, he has finished outside the top 15 only twice and one of those was a 17th at Richmond Raceway.

9. Ryan Blaney (average finish in 2018: 14.67; stage points: 86)
Last week’s late-race crash at Kansas Speedway was frustrating. Since the NASCAR Fantasy Live game allows players to change a driver before the end of stage two, one prefers any problems to come early. That has not typically been the case with Blaney as can be evidenced by the fact that nearly 23 percent of his 374 points have come at the end of stages while his average finish of 14.67 is the second-worst among this week’s top 10.

10. Chase Elliott (average finish in 2018: 14.50; stage points: 31)
Elliott is a victim of his popularity. Everyone keeps expecting him to win so he keeps popping up on rosters. The unfortunate fact is that he has been hampered by whatever problem the new Chevrolets are facing. So long as players keep their expectations in check, Elliott’s eight top-12 finishes this year have been enough to make him fantasy relevant, but no one wants to build a roster around the No. 9. Use him as a frequent garage pick.

Stage Winners
Picking stage winners has been challenging. Harvick has dominated the first stage with four victories, followed by Keselowski with two. No one else has more than one. Stage two has been just as mercurial. Harvick and Keselowski are joined by Blaney with two.

Stage Points
Stage points are a good way to determine who has potential even if their average finish is less than optimal. Jimmie Johnson has not had the season anyone expected with only five top 10s in the first 12 races, but he has managed to earn stage points on 10 occasions for a total of 39.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has is another driver to watch. With Matt Kenseth joining Roush Fenway Racing, expectations are high that its performance will rise. Stenhouse has earned 33 stage points by being up front seven times. Now he needs to figure out how to close the deal.

Erik Jones has also earned segment points on seven occasions this year. Sophomores often have erratic results, but Jones is a solid value as a garage pick.

For more Fantasy NASCAR coverage, check out Rotoworld.com and follow Dan Beaver (@FantasyRace) on Twitter.