SUAREZ LEADS STEWART-HAAS RACING FRONT ROW SWEEP IN QUALIFYING QUAKER STATE 400 PRESENTED BY WALMART
Mike Shiplett knew the characteristics of Kentucky Speedway's racing surface were going to change Friday as the sun set, the lights came on and the laps added up in the Alsco 300.
The transition factored into his strategy for Cole Custer and the No. 00 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford team.
"The biggest thing we talk about, and we talk about a lot of stuff before the race, but we explain to him that the car is going to do something different than it had done in practice for the first 45 laps. Then the next 40 laps will be totally different from that. Then the last 110 laps the car is going to be where we need it," Shiplett said. "Just getting through the first part of the race is the key. That is where Cole has really accelerated his understanding of what he needs to do to get to the end of the race. It is really nice to win every stage and win the race but the ultimate goal is to win the race."
Custer and Christopher Bell entered the race deadlocked for the most NASCAR Xfinity Series victories this season.
Bell dominated the first two stages Friday, but Custer dominated the most important one.
The 21-year-old withstood a challenge from Bell with 46 laps remaining but kept his distance the rest of the way to earn his first victory at Kentucky Speedway and fifth in the series this season.
"The track was a lot different this year, so I kind of almost had to re-learn it a little bit. I think I got better and better as the race went on, got more comfortable with it," said Custer, who started fifth and now has seven victories in 88 career Xfinity Series races. "I think the track changed a lot also and I think Mike did a good job keeping up with that and knowing what was going to happen."
Bell, the defending race winner, won the first two stages and led 72 laps overall but twice lost the lead on pit road.
Fifth at the outset of the final stage, he got as close as Custer's back bumper after Custer's final green-flag pit stop only to lose grip and fall farther back. Unable to mount a serious challenge the rest of the way, he finished 1.651 seconds behind Custer.
Bell felt the transition from daytime to nighttime affected his car.
"It seemed to," he said. "We were really good early and my car felt really good late. We just got beat. Probably just got a little too comfortable there, a little bit too tight. We've just got to work on a couple more things and we'll be good."
The third place car driven by Tyler Reddick finished 12.808 seconds behind the winner.
The race was slowed by five cautions but went caution-free in the final stage. The extended period of green-flag racing left just five cars on the lead lap at the end. That's the fewest number of lead lap cars at the finish of an Xfinity Series race at Kentucky Speedway in the 25 times the series has visited the track.
"I think I was a little too conservative on my green flag pit stop," said Custer, who led the last 46 laps and 88 overall. "It worked out good. He got a little close and I was definitely sweating a little bit. He was definitely our competition there at the end but we had the better car."
Bell swept the first two stages and lead 70 of the first 90 laps. He passed pole winner Austin Cindric on the opening lap of the race and led every lap of the first stage.
After winning the first stage, he lost six spots on pit road. He lost four on pit road after winning the second stage. Bell recaptured the lead by passing Noah Gragson on Lap 67 and cruised to his 10th stage win.
Cindric earned the pole earlier in the day with a lap of 180.030 mph, and did so without his regular crew chief. Brian Wilson was suspended for the race after NASCAR discovered illegal body modifications to the No. 22 Team Penske Ford upon initial inspection Thursday. The team also was docked 10 owner points and Cindric lost 10 driver points.
Cindric added to the team's eventful visit to Kentucky Speedway on Lap 55. Racing side-by-side with Justin Haley, Cindric lost the handle on his car, bumped into Haley and spun up the track and damaged the right rear quarter panel when he hit the wall.
Cindric fell a lap down but had made it back to the lead lap for the start of the final stage and finished 14th.
Kentucky Speedway's tripleheader race weekend continues Saturday with the ninth running of the Quaker State 400 presented by Walmart. The race is set for 7:30 p.m.
Imagine being Martin Truex Jr. and the next Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race is one that you have dominated the previous two seasons.
“It’s always nice to go to a track you have confidence at and feel good about,” he said.
And then you experience a day like Friday.
The two-time and defending Quaker State 400 presented by Walmart winner was middle-of-the-pack fast in two practices then qualified eighth in the No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota for Saturday’s race at Kentucky Speedway.
“We changed a lot of things throughout practice and got better and better and better and then right there in qualifying it was the best it’s been all day,” Truex said. “I’m optimistic that it’s going to be pretty good (Saturday) night. Hopefully it is.”
Things are not like they were the last time the Cup Series visited the 1.5-mile track and Truex stole the show - again.
NASCAR has gone to a new rules package designed to create closer racing competition and more passing opportunities. Goodyear brought a new right-side tire this weekend. And hundreds of gallons of a sticky resin has been applied to swaths of the racing surface.
“It’s so different,” Truex said. “I think back to the last couple of years and we’ve really been able to kind of come in here with the same strategy, mindset, setup and look for the same things throughout the weekend.”
Success is difficult to sustain in NASCAR because so many variables can and do change. Even so, Truex will be mentioned with teammate Kyle Busch and Team Penske’s Brad Keselowski as favorites to win the Quaker State 400.
Together, they have won seven of the eight Quaker State 400s and 11 of the 18 races run in the Cup Series this season. Keselowski will start third in the No. 2 Ford and Busch will start 10th in the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota.
Stewart-Haas Racing’s stable of four drivers served notice Friday that it will be a factor, sweeping the front row and placing each of its four drivers in the top seven.
Daniel Suarez was the last driver to qualify and bumped teammate Aric Almirola off the pole. It is his second career Cup Series pole and the driver of the No. 41 Ford would like to turn it into his first career Cup Series victory.
“I feel pretty good about it,” Suarez said. “Pretty much the whole day has been pretty smooth…. I feel very good about it…. Hopefully we can keep that track position. Track position is going to be huge (Saturday), so hopefully we can keep that track position all night long, not make mistakes, run a good, clean race. We have everything it takes to make it happen. We’ve had a lot of first-time winners lately. Why not have a third one here?”
Fans will notice large sections of Kentucky Speedway’s racing surface look darker than other parts of the track. The darker areas are where crews applied traction compound for the race weekend.
Traction compound is a resin used to improve grip outside of the preferred racing groove, encouraging more side-by-side racing and greater opportunities to pass.
Track officials worked with officials from NASCAR and Goodyear on a strategy for how much of the substance to apply and where to apply it.
The traction compound was applied in every lane except the bottom groove from the entrance to Turn 1 to the exit of Turn 2. In Turns 3 and 4, it was applied to the middle groove. A decision about whether to apply more will be made before Saturday’s race.
Almirola was asked Friday what fans should watch for in Saturday’s race.
“I think the restarts,” the driver of the No. 10 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet said. “Once it gets strung out it will be challenging for everybody, and track position will be really important. But the restarts are going to be really wild.
“The guys on the outside are definitely going to have the advantage but then how high will the groove get and how high can you go in that (traction compound). Can we run three-wide? Can we run four-wide? I don’t know. We don’t know. We have never done it at Kentucky before.”
Multiple drivers said Friday that among 1.5-mile tracks on the Cup Series schedule, the reconfigured Kentucky Speedway is most like Texas Motor Speedway.
“(Turns) 1 and 2 are fairly similar to (turns) 3 and 4 at Texas just for the fact that you let out of the throttle very little,” Harvick said. “Three and 4 are still its own, unique corner. It’s just very difficult to navigate. With these engines, you just come out of there at a really low RPM. It’s really just a different style corner than we do anywhere else.”
Texas Motor Speedway hosts a race in NASCAR’s playoffs, and Kentucky Speedway is the last 1.5-mile race on the Cup Series schedule before the playoffs start in September at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Including the Quaker State 400, there are eight regular season races remaining before the playoffs.
Seven drivers have secured one of the 16 playoff spots based on their wins. If the regular season ended today, Harvick, Kurt Busch, Kyle Larson, Ryan Blaney, William Byron, Almirola, Clint Bowyer, Jimmie Johnson and Ryan Newman would be in.
Suarez would be the first driver on the outside looking in, but that could all change Saturday.
“We have had long meetings and long conversations about what we need and where we need to improve,” Suarez said. “I feel very proud to be a part of this team. I know that we are not exactly where we need to be just yet but I know we are heading in the right direction and hopefully we can show that tomorrow night.”