Bell and Blaney Lead Championship 4 in Single-Lap and 10-Lap Consecutive Averages in Practice
Friday evening, the Championship 4 got their first chance to see how they stack up against the competition heading into Sunday's NASCAR Cup Series Championship Race at Phoenix Raceway.
We have our first preview of what kind of race cars the four contenders for the NASCAR Cup Series Championship have under them for this weekend's Championship race at Phoenix Raceway.
And the mental edge following NASCAR Cup Series practice at the 1-mile oval on Friday has to belong to Ryan Blaney and the No. 12 Team Penske team, and Christopher Bell and the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing team.
Blaney (third fastest overall in the session) led the way in the practice session among the Championship 4 contenders in single-lap speed with a lap time of 27.602 sec. (130.425 mph). Bell was right behind Blaney in the session with a fast lap of 27.612 sec.
William Byron had the seventh-fastest lap time in the session, and Kyle Larson was 11th-fastest in single-lap speeds.
While they turned the fastest lap in the session among the title contenders, Blaney's crew chief Jonathan Hassler says conditions in Sunday afternoon's race will be completely different than the practice session, which took place in the evening.
"The conditions tonight were quite a bit different than what we're going to have on Sunday," Hassler explained. "So we really just wanted to focus on making a couple of different changes. Getting some longer runs in and really learning some things about our car. The exact setup that we need tonight isn't what we're going to need for Sunday."
Even with conditions being not quite the same, it has to feel really good to be the fastest team among the championship contenders in the only practice session leading into the Championship race.
Single-lap speeds are nice, but you have to have consistent speed over an entire run to compete for a championship. When you look at the 10-lap consecutive averages, Christopher Bell goes to the top of the board narrowly over Blaney.
Bell's 10-lap average lap time was 27.779 sec., while Blaney's was 27.797. The No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Rheem / DeWalt Toyota Camry is good, and crew chief Adam Stevens, who is making his seventh appearance in the Championship 4, says practice went great for his team.
"We unloaded pretty close this time. That was good," Stevens said. Had decent short-run speed, and decent long-run speed. We just made a couple of changes, and they both seemed to improve the car. It was a good practice for us."
Byron ranked third-best with a 10-lap average of 27.870, while Larson was 11th with an average of 27.975.
While the two Hendrick Motorsports drivers trailed Blaney and Bell in single-lap and 10-lap averages, Byron's crew chief Rudy Fugle cautioned to not fully read into the multi-lap averages as it doesn't take into account a driver catching a slow car that had finished a run or things of that nature.
It also doesn't take into account issues that arose for cars during the session, like the issue that Kyle Larson ran into in the early portion of the practice.
"Yeah, we had to work on our car a little bit. It was really hard to tell at the beginning of practice. I don't exactly know what happened, I want to say from probably hitting the apron, our diffuser fell down on the first run," Larson's crew chief Cliff Daniels explained. "The car was super unhooked the first run. It kind of spooked us, so we had to just sit there and look things over and check it all out.
"For the second run, we kind of had a normal race car."
Once they got the diffuser issue figured out, Larson began to attack the track, and he ventured to the edges of the racing surface, and even slightly brushed the wall at one point.
While the four drivers in the Championship 4 have no ongoing beef between them heading into the race, they are without a doubt among the most talented drivers in the field. Their crew chiefs are all super talented, and the pit crews pitting the cars are top-notch. Sunday's NASCAR Cup Series Championship Race could be an epic duel between all four drivers and teams.
Photo Credit: Michael L. Levitt, LAT Images, Courtesy of Toyota Racing