Saturday Richmond Notebook

By Reid Spencer NASCAR Wire Service

A tale of two baffled drivers: teammates Jimmie Johnson and Kasey Kahne

 

RICHMOND, Va.—Call them mystified.

 

Hendrick Motorsports teammates Kasey Kahne and Jimmie Johnson were baffled by their performances during Friday’s qualifying session for the Toyota Owners 400 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race scheduled for Saturday night at Richmond International Raceway (7 p.m. ET on FOX).

 

Johnson fully expected a strong effort during time trials. Instead, he was 28th fastest in the first round of knockout qualifying and failed to advance.

 

“I’m really puzzled,” Johnson admitted, as he stood on pit road with a quizzical look on his face. “We had such a great practice session, in race and qualifying trim; so I’m just scratching my head—big-time—right now.

 

“We’ll try to figure out what happened and then prepare for the race. Like I said, we had a great race practice in the first session. A tenth there, in qualifying trim in the second session. And I really had high hopes for a good starting spot, but we’re far from that.”

 

No one was more surprised, however, than Kahne, whose discrepancy between practice and qualifying was nothing short of enormous.

 

Kahne’s No. 5 Chevrolet topped the speed charts in the final practice session on Friday, but when it came to putting down a hot lap during time trials, he could do no better than 40th.

 

“To me, it was definitely something with the tires because we didn’t change anything,” Kahne said. “So I’ve been bouncing on the splitter in practice, and right there (during qualifying), I never even felt it. So there are obviously some differences in the tires or something. I guess that could be the only thing. Other than that, everything is the same.

 

“But I had no turn there in qualifying. In practice, I was actually on the loose-side with really good turn. So, hopefully we’ll put on a good set of tires for the race and be able to drive towards the front. I feel like our Great Clips Chevy was actually pretty good in practice—race and qualifying (trim). So, we’ll see how tomorrow night goes.”

 

Whether justified or not, tires are often the whipping boy when the handling characteristics of a car change radically from one session to the next. Unfortunately, because Richmond is an impound race, Kahne won’t find out whether a new set of tires will cure the fall-off in performance until he starts the race.

 

Of the five Hendrick drivers entered in the Toyota Owners 400, only Jeff Gordon and Chase Elliott advanced to the second round during time trials.

 

MATT KENSETH STAYS THE COURSE

Since the introduction of the new elimination format for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup last year, many drivers have spoken about an early victory as the equivalent of a “Get out of jail free” card.

 

With a win in the bank, teams can change their approaches and take risks they might not otherwise take, given that a victory virtually assures them of a place in the Chase.

 

Matt Kenseth, on the other hand, believes in a single-minded approach to every race, even though he just broke a 51-event winless streak last Sunday at Bristol.

 

“I've got to be honest, (my approach) really doesn't (change), and I hope the team's doesn't either really, to be honest with you,” Kenseth said. “I think that every week you show up with the idea of trying to qualify the best you can and trying to win the race. If you can't win, you want to finish second. If you can't finish second, you want to finish third.

 

“You always want to do the best you can. I've never been to the race track and not wanted to win, to do my best or not wanted to finish the best I could. I just don't feel like any of that changes. I know that where you are in the point standings doesn't have a big effect to where they rack you up when September comes along, but, man, we're only in April and we want to race hard every week and try to get the best results we can every week for our team and our sponsors and everybody involved.”

 

MILESTONES GAINED AND LOST

The most obvious milestone in Friday night’s NASCAR XFINITY Series race came when Denny Hamlin took the checkered flag to register Toyota’s 100th victory in the series. But there were other significant achievements beyond Hamlin’s dominating win.

 

Rookie Daniel Suarez finished sixth, marking the first time in his career he had posted back-to-back top-10 results. A week earlier at Bristol, Suarez had run a career-best second.

 

Erik Jones, pressed into full-time participation in the XFINITY Series by an injury to Kyle Busch at Daytona, recorded his fifth straight top-five finish. During the stretch, Jones scored a breakthrough victory at Texas to go with a fifth at Phoenix, a third at Fontana and consecutive thirds at Bristol and Richmond.

 

If Hamlin, Suarez and Jones added to their accomplishments, one important streak ended on Friday night. Kevin Harvick suffered severe handling problems with his JR Motorsports Chevrolet and finished 18th, two laps down, ending a string of 29 straight top 10s in the series.

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