Column By: REID SPENCER / NASCAR – FONTANA, CA – You won’t hear Aric Almirola saying “Thank goodness it’s Friday”— not this year at least.
Fridays typically are qualifying days for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, and Almirola hasn’t found the secret to success in time trials in his first season with Stewart-Haas Racing.
Through four races, Almirola has posted an average starting position of 24.8. By the time race day arrives, however, Almirola finds his stride in race trim. His average finishing position through the first four races is 10.2, producing a series-best start-to-finish differential of 14.6 positions.
On Friday at Auto Club Speedway, Almirola was poised for his best qualifying effort of the year, having posted the third fastest lap in opening practice at the two-mile track.
But Almirola’s hopes for a top starting position were squelched when his No. 10 SHR Ford failed pre-qualifying inspection, joining 12 other cars that didn’t make it through tech. Accordingly, Almirola will start 27th in Sunday’s Auto Club 400 (3:30 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
“Man, Fridays are just our Achilles heel right now,” Almirola said. “Vegas, we showed up and I was out of control and we weren’t very fast and I think we qualified 29th. And then last weekend (at Phoenix) we improved a little bit in qualifying, so Fridays have just not been good for us. This weekend, we came here with a heavy focus on qualifying. Our car was really fast right off the truck.
“We ended up third in practice and I was really excited about qualifying, and then we didn’t make it out to qualify. I’m disappointed, because our Smithfield Ford Fusion was really fast, but it is what it is. We’ll get ready for the race now, and one of these days we’re going to get Friday figured out, and it’ll just make it a lot easier and cleaner weekend.”
NASCAR MOVES TO STRIP ADVANTAGES FROM NON-QUALIFIERS
Teams that made it through qualifying inspection had a legitimate beef.
A loophole in NASCAR’s rules provided a tire advantage to cars that failed inspection and made no qualifying attempts. Those cars could start Sunday’s Auto Club 400 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race on fresh rubber, while those that made qualifying attempts are required to start the race on their qualifying tires.
How big an advantage were new tires versus scuffs? Martin Truex Jr. summed it up after winning the pole on Friday afternoon.
“In my mind, if you’re not probably in the top four, you’re better off being 25th (on sticker tires),” Truex said.
On Friday evening, NASCAR moved aggressively to eliminate the loophole and negate any advantage those who failed inspection might have. All teams whose cars passed inspection were given the right to buy an additional set of sticker tires to start the race, provided they turned in their scuffed qualifying tires and did not use them for Saturday’s practice.
As a consequence, those who passed inspection and qualified will be able to start the race on rubber equal to that on the cars that failed inspection.
Early Saturday morning, before the NASCAR Xfinity Series cars were set to qualify, NASCAR went a step further, announcing that cars that did not make a qualifying attempt before Saturday’s Roseanne 300 would have to serve a pass-through penalty after taking the green flag.
The specter of a penalty had the desired effect. All Xfinity Series cars passed inspection and made it to the grid in time for qualifying.
Seeking a fourth straight Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series victory, Kevin Harvick dominated Saturday’s first practice session at Auto Club Speedway. Harvick ran the fastest lap (186.075 mph) and posted the best consecutive 10-lap average (181.009 mph). Stewart-Haas teammate Kurt Busch was second on the speed chart in the session with a lap at 184.431 mph…
Toyota drivers were fastest in Saturday’s final practice, with three-time Auto Club Speedway winner Kyle Busch at the top of the chart with a lap at 185.668 mph. Pole winner Martin Truex Jr. was second fastest at 185.319 mph, and seven-time series champion Jimmie Johnson was third on the list at 184.525 mph…
Nine cars served 15-minute holds in final practice for failing pre-qualifying inspection twice. The list included all four Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolets, the Stewart-Haas Racing Fords of Aric Almirola and Clint Bowyer, the Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota of Denny Hamlin, the JTG Daugherty Chevrolet of AJ Allmendinger and the TriStar Motorsports Chevrolet of Cole Whitt…
Late in final practice, Alex Bowman reported a drive-train issue in his No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet and brought it to the garage five minutes before he was to serve a 15-minute hold. An engine change, if deemed necessary, wouldn’t be particularly costly to Bowman, who would have to drop to the rear for the start of Sunday’s race. Bowman is already deep in the field—28th of the 37 drivers entered.