Penske sweeps front row again
LAS VEGAS -- These Penske cars have this knockout qualifying format figured out.
For the second time in two weeks of elimination-style qualifying, Penske Racing swept the front row.
Last week at Phoenix International Raceway, in the first race featuring NASCAR's new knockout qualifying format, Keselowski won the pole and Logano started second.
"To have a Penske front row the last two weekends at two completely different racetracks just goes to show how hard these guys have been working, and when you work hard, results come," Logano said. "We haven't won on Sunday yet but we've had some good speed in our cars. We're here to win this year, and we're trying to prove it."
Keselowski held the provisional pole briefly in the third and final qualifying segment Friday before Logano bumped his teammate with a minute to go, setting down a track-record 27.939-second lap (193.278 mph) on the 1.5-mile tri-oval. Keselowski had checked in at 27.965 seconds (193.099 mph), which was a short-lived track record.
"We've been very fortunate," Keselowski said of the Penske qualifying machine. "The cars are fast and I don't think it's much more difficult than that. When you have fast cars, it makes your life a lot easier."
Clint Bowyer, the first driver out in the final five-minute qualifying session, will start third after clocking a 28.021-second lap at 192.713 mph. Austin Dillon will start fourth, followed by Jimmie Johnson, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Jamie McMurray, Aric Almirola, Brian Vickers and Ryan Newman.
It was the Cup series' first attempt at elimination-style qualifying on a 1.5-mile track. Tracks 1.25 miles and longer require three qualifying segments to set the race grid. Shorter tracks such as Phoenix feature only two segments.
Friday at Vegas, the fastest 24 cars advanced to the second session, with the fastest 12 from that pool making the five-minute shootout for the pole.
Vickers had set a then-track record in winning the first segment, turning a 27.980-second lap at 192.995 mph. Among the notables who did not advance out of that session were Greg Biffle, Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth.
Logano was fasted in the second qualifying segment.
Finding out what we've got
Welcome to the heart of the Sprint Cup schedule.
No restrictor-plate track here. No short track, either.
Just a good old-fashioned mile-and-a-half.
The Kobalt 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Sunday (3 p.m. ET, Fox) represents the Cup series' first race this season at a 1.5-mile track. Eleven of the 36 Cup events will be staged on the so-called intermediate tracks -- including half of the 10 Chase races -- and we'll get an inkling of who has what right out of the gate.
Judging by performance levels in 2013, watch out for Joe Gibbs Racing. JGR drivers won seven of the 11 events at intermediate tracks, with team newcomer Matt Kenseth landing in Victory Lane four times. In fact, all three JGR drivers -- Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch included -- posted at least one win at a mile-and-a-half venue last season.
Some water-cooler numbers courtesy of the research group at ESPN.com:
Johnson, the Cup series' six-time champion, is the all-time leader in wins on 1.5-mile tracks with 18 (a series-high four at Vegas). Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon is next with 16, followed by Tony Stewart (15), Dale Earnhardt (14), Richard Petty (13), Matt Kenseth (12) and Bobby Allison (12).
How will those numbers translate to Vegas this weekend?
Tough to tell with the new aero rules designed by NASCAR to increase downforce and promote better side-by-side racing, particularly at the 1.5-mile tracks. But Thursday's four-hour test at LVMS at least provided a measure of comfort to drivers, including Harvick, who drove the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet to victory Sunday at Phoenix.
"I thought it went really well," Harvick said. "We struggled in the beginning just to get the feel. It took us a couple of hours to kind of get everything situated and get the balance of the car right. Then we felt pretty good about it after that. Changed a lot of stuff and did a lot of different things to the car. Felt like we made good headway in the end, and hopefully we can progress on that tomorrow and make it even better."
In other words, strap in and hold on.
Turn 4 TV: Junior vs. Harvick?
Congratulations to the happy couple
Romantics fly into Vegas from all over the world to get married.
So why Las Vegas Motor Speedway?
"Why not?" Tim Wade quipped.
"It's our favorite track," Lisa Schreiber said.
"This is our 12th trip here together," Tim said.
Tim and Lisa, of Louisville, Ky., exchanged vows in Victory Lane on Friday morning, Tim in a blue Jimmie Johnson T-shirt and Lisa in a gray Tony Stewart T-shirt. Tim had daughter Shelby Wade at his side, while Lisa stood next to sister Katie Falconer, who held an aluminum bouquet hand-cut from a Bud Light beer can.
The ceremony even featured an impromptu F-16 flyover, courtesy of Nellis Air Force Base down the road.
When Tim said, "I do," Bruce Brown of Racing Ministries yelped, "He said 'I do!' Boogity-boogity!" -- much to the delight of the 20 or so family members, friends and curious onlookers.
Brown's wife, also named Lisa, said later that the Wade-Schreiber wedding was the second of eight scheduled at the track Friday. She said both Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards have surprisingly stepped in as a best man at track weddings in years past.
"You never know what could happen," Lisa Brown said, grinning.
"It's so them," Shelby Wade said.
By the way, the happy couple said they'd mailed invitations to both Johnson and Stewart. Neither showed up.
"We didn't think they would come," the bride said.
'NASCAR Now' Minute
Kyle Busch not concerned
Kyle Busch worried?
Nah. Far from it.
After a 19th-place finish in the Daytona 500 and a ninth-place effort at Phoenix, Busch knows it's far too early to panic -- especially considering the new Chase format that virtually guarantees each race winner a playoff berth.
"I think as long as you can get a win, I don't think it really matters as much anymore," Busch said Friday. "If you don't get a win, then you still want to have a strong start because there still are going to be guys make the Chase without having wins. For instance, my start is not terrible. I'm 14th in points, or something like that, so I'm kind of already in if you look at it that way. Kurt [Busch], for instance, has had a horrible start, and if he wins here this weekend, then all he has to do is get himself top 30 in points and he's in."
Perhaps a return to his hometown track is just the elixir Kyle Busch needs.
"I remember watching it being built and racing over at the short track over the corner there and having some fun, being able to hone in my skills, I guess, and somehow make it to this level," he said. "It's been a journey, but it's always fun to come back and race here, and we won in 2009 and look forward to always being able to try to capture another win here if we can."
About that qualifying format ...
Jamie McMurray, for one, still isn't sure what to think of the new qualifying format in Sprint Cup.
This ain't like the old days, putting the hammer down for two laps and hoping your car is fast enough.
Knockout qualifying, introduced last week at Phoenix, involves an elimination of drivers through two or three timed sessions, with the fastest 12 ultimately competing in a shootout for the pole. Tracks 1 1/4 miles and longer -- Las Vegas Motor Speedway included -- will feature three sessions. All cars will run together for up to 25 minutes, with the fastest 24 advancing to the next 10-minute segment. The 12 fastest from the second group will move on for a shot at pole position.
"I am a little bit nervous about qualifying today," said McMurray, who's coming off a top-10 finish at Phoenix. "It's so much different than just trying to get the best setup in the car and going out on that one lap, and you know you're going to get the clean air. There are so many more factors now where someone can pull out in front of you or if people are cooling down their engines, they can get in your way and mess your lap up.
"I think most of the teams approach qualifying the same way. We were fourth in practice, so we feel very confident that unless something goes wrong we'll make the first segment, so we're not panicked to get out initially. But if someone gets in your way and messes your lap up, then it creates panic. So there are a lot of unknowns. And I think until we do this a few times and understand it better, it's a little nerve-wracking, which I think is good. There's so much strategy in it, and if the adjustments you make on the car -- if it's going to drive differently on hot old tires versus new tires -- it definitely has all the teams trying to figure out what the next trick will be."
A good town for 'Six-Time'
Vegas has been good to Jimmie Johnson. Very good.
And not just because the six-time Sprint Cup Series champion is the all-time wins leader at the 1.5-mile tri-oval.
"I love coming back here," Johnson told reporters Friday. "I spent so much time here in my younger years from racing dirt bikes in the Henderson area. A lot of years the mini nationals were placed over there for the amateur dirt bike racers. Literally across the street is where the start/finish and the main pit area for the Mint 400 was [where] I changed a lot of tires and worked in a pit for many years. Also competed in a few of the Mint 400s myself. Vegas has been great to me in racing."
Great indeed. The stats tell the story in Sprint Cup: four wins in 12 starts, seven top-10s and a series-best average finish of 9.5 among active drivers.
A win Sunday in the Kobalt 400 would go a long way in Johnson's quest for a record-tying seventh Cup championship, virtually locking him into the 2014 Chase.
The 48 crew has been under the radar of sorts, finishing fifth in the season-opening Daytona 500 and sixth last week at Phoenix.
"It's always an interesting race because it's so early in the season and usually one of our first big tracks that we compete on. You find out how you stack up and where you are at," Johnson said of Vegas. "Phoenix went well for us. We would have liked to have been a bit better but had a very good week and progressed through the practice sessions and in the race. We learned about the qualifying format and kind of what we wanted to do this weekend.
"Then yesterday's test session was nice. There were points where we were real fast and happy. Then, with the rules like they are now, it is very easy to make an adjustment on your car that affects four or five other areas and takes the car right out of the race track and slows you down. We are learning, and we are enjoying the process."
As for time away from the track, Johnson says he has learned to dial that back considerably.
"I guess I might spend too much time in the casinos and doing things I shouldn't where a night or two is about all I need," said Johnson, now a father two times over. "The banquet week is three days too long because [my liver hates] me by the end of it. Vegas is fun, but it's really just in my mind a racing town."
That's what he said!
Junior moving up pecking order?
You've been warned, Jimmie Johnson.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. has served notice.
Earnhardt was asked Friday where he thought he stood previously among the Cup drivers at Hendrick Motorsports compared to where he is today.
His answer might surprise you.
"Before, we sort of been all over the board, really. I think in the last 10 races we've ran, we've been on par with Jimmie [Johnson]," said Earnhardt, whose newfound confidence is fueled by a season-opening Daytona 500 win and a runner-up at Phoenix. "He's obviously been the lead horse in the organization for a long time in performance. I feel like in the last 10 races or so we've been on par with him, if not a little bit better in certain cases; obviously, in the last few races we've been better, but just in results. You can't sleep on Jimmie -- he'll get it going and won't be a problem."
The numbers don't lie. Since dropping an engine in the 2013 Chase opener at Chicagoland, Earnhardt has rolled up five top-2 finishes, 10 top-10s -- including a personal-best seven straight -- and an average finish of 4.8.
Of course, Johnson is no slouch. He opened defense of his sixth Cup championship with a fifth at Daytona and sixth at Phoenix. Oh, and he's the all-time wins leader at Las Vegas and has more victories on mile-and-a-half tracks than anyone in series history.
"I think in the last seven years we've been at the bottom, we've been the third, second, first -- we've been all over," Earnhardt said. "More often we've been in the back half of the four cars. We haven't performed as well as our other three teammates throughout 2009 and 2010, and 2011 we started getting a little bit better.
"It's a very, very competitive group," he said. "Kasey's [Kahne] as fast as anybody. Jeff's [Gordon] got four championships and tons of experience and wins races. They raise your game -- it's good to have people pushing you, and they definitely push me to be better as a driver and I learn a lot from all three of them."
The feeling is mutual.
"The last couple of races certainly show where his confidence is and what comes with it," Johnson said before practice Friday morning. "I can say that throughout all of last year, and even into part of the season the year before when things really started turning around for him, that success leads to confidence. That circle started and they have been building ever since, and we have all seen it in his stats and performance. This year he is off to an awesome start."
Burton glad to be back
Don't put Jeff Burton out to pasture just yet.
Burton won't begin his official role as NASCAR analyst for NBC Sports Network until 2015. Meantime, he'll drive the No. 66 Toyota for Michael Waltrip Racing in select events in 2014. The first one is Sunday's Kobalt 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
"I am really looking forward to getting back in a race car this weekend," Burton said in a team release. "We spent a lot of time testing this winter. I really like the direction that Michael Waltrip Racing is heading. I really like my team and I am excited to see how our offseason testing worked for us."
"The Mayor" has 21 career Sprint Cup victories. He has won twice at Las Vegas in 16 starts (1999 and 2000), with an 11.9 average finish.
Burton, who finished 20th in the 2013 Cup standings driving the No. 31 at Richard Childress Racing, said his part-time schedule in the No. 66 remains fluid.
"We have a hard schedule -- Vegas being very hard -- and there are other ones we feel pretty sure that we're going to run. But we haven't really talked about it yet, so we might change our mind," he said. "We've got to run where it makes sense to run and not just run because we want to run. It's got to be part of a plan, and if it's not, we're making a mistake."