DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – By the time storm clouds started gathering near the backstretch at the Daytona International Speedway, a lot of the cars in tonight’s Subway Jalapeno 250 and Saturday’s Coke Zero 400 were already covered in the garage area.
Although the track offered two different practice sessions for both series, there were few takers later in the afternoon.
Once teams figured out what they had earlier in the day, many felt there wasn’t any advantage to running a lot of extra laps.
“You almost look at the schedule, unless there’s a major rule change you can line up a 30 minute practice and everyone would be fine with it,” Denny Hamlin said. “You want to minimize the risk. The more you’re out there, the more you take a chance.”
Fifteen of 44 cars for tonight’s Subway Jalapeno 250 practiced late, while less than half of the Coke Zero 400 cars remained parked.
Cars are so different for Daytona’s 2.5-mile layout speed generally is created during construction at the race shop. The main focus for Thursday’s laps was to make sure everything fell off the car.
“You got what you got,” Hamlin said. “Given the circumstances, we’re fortunate we’re here and not at a track where you have to dial the car in.”
Hamlin was grateful for the lack of emphasis on practice. He’s suffering with back spasms following last week’s race at the Kentucky Speedway, so he took Thursday off to get treatment.
Kyle Busch ran three laps in Hamlin’s No. 11 Toyota in the first session to make sure it’s ready for today’s time trials.
The bumpy racing surface last week at Kentucky aggravated a back that already has torn and bulging disks. He plans to qualify the car today at 4 p.m. because that only involves four total laps – one warm-up, two on the clock and one cool-down.
He won’t have a back-up driver on hand for Saturday night’s 400-mile Sprint Cup Series race.
Although Daytona has a different rules package to slow down cars for safety reasons and to break up two-car tandems, nobody is willing to push the car too hard before the race.
For Hamlin, that means not pushing his back, either.
“We are at Daytona. As important as practice is, at this track it’s not as important,” he said. “At any other racetrack I would have been on the track. We decided to sit everything out until I’m absolutely needed. We want to minimize the risk.”
Tampa’s Aric Almirola was the fastest in the first Sprint Cup session at 201.961 mph. Marcos Ambrose, his Richard Petty Motorsports teammate, was second at 201.374.
The only other drivers to top the 200 mph barrier were: Joey Logano, Ryan Newman, Greg Biffle and Jeff Gordon.
Nationwide Series qualifying is today at 2 p.m. The 250-mile race follows at 7:30 p.m. (ESPN).
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was quickest in Nationwide practice at 191.046 mph. He didn’t run any laps in the second session.
Clint Bowyer, Kurt Busch and Kyle Busch rounded out the top four, while the JR Motorsports tandem of Cole Whitt and Danica Patrick were next on the speed charts.
None of the top 10 drivers from the first practice went out in the afternoon.
Drivers cautious of mandatory cautions
Track owner Bruton Smith created a stir by suggesting NASCAR add mandatory cautions and intermissions to make races more interesting.
Drivers, however, don’t agree.
“I don’t think we need that,” Matt Kenseth said. “I think you have a pretty good mix of some races with long green-flag runs and some races with short runs.”
Smith, whose list of tracks include tracks at Charlotte, N.C., Atlanta, Las Vegas and Forth Worth, Tex., said long runs allows traffic to get too spread out. By throwing extra cautions, he said the double-file restarts would add excitement.
“It just depends what you’re looking for because every race isn’t going to be green-white-checkers with cars all over the place,” Kenseth said.
Kevin Harvick was as critical of Smith’s comments as he was on the way the Bristol Motor Speedway was re-designed, saying Smith “is the same guy that ruined Bristol.”
That track was changed to include new pavement and variable-degree banking. Fans apparently haven’t liked the changes since attendance has dropped dramatically in the last year.
NASCAR doesn’t plan to add any mandatory cautions or unscheduled breaks in Saturday’s race.