DAYTONA BEACH, Fla.—After two lackluster seasons to begin his NASCAR Sprint Cup Series career, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. already has shown signs that 2015 might well be different.
In Saturday’s opening Daytona 500 practice, Stenhouse ran the fastest lap, covering the 2.5-mile distance at Daytona International Speedway at a top speed of 202.643 mph.
In Friday’s Sprint Unlimited practice, in a different No. 17 Roush Fenway Racing Ford, Stenhouse had the second-fastest lap (199.769 mph), behind only Kurt Busch on the speed chart.
“It was great to get back out on the race track, and it was a lot of fun out there,” Stenhouse said between Saturday’s two practices. “The car is fast and feels really good on the track.
“We’ll keep working with it in the next session and see what we have for qualifying.”
Indeed, the next major hurdle for Stenhouse is Sunday’s Daytona 500 qualifying session (1 p.m. ET on FOX), which will lock two cars into the front-row starting positions and guarantee starting spots (with exact positions still to be determined) to the next four fastest cars.
For the first time, the Daytona 500 (Sunday, Feb. 22 at 1 p.m. ET on FOX) will implement the group qualifying format introduced at Talladega Superspeedway last year. In a nutshell, here’s how it works:
All told, 49 cars are entered in the 57th edition of the Great American Race. Based on a drawing for qualifying order, cars with odd-numbered positions will have five minutes to post their fastest laps. The even-number positions follow with another five-minute session.
After a 10-minute break, the 24 fastest cars in the two first-round sessions combined have five minutes to post a lap. The top 12 make the cut for the final round, another five-minute session that follows a seven-minute break.
But unlike Talladega or the July race at Daytona, only the pole position and the outside of the front row are locked in for the Daytona 500 during time trials. What the qualifying session does determine are the starting positions for Thursday night’s Budweiser Duel at Daytona, two 15-mile qualifying races that set positions 3 through 32 for the 500.
Positions 33 through 36 in NASCAR’s most prestigious race go to the four drivers who posted the fastest speeds in qualifying but fail to transfer through the Duels. Positions 37 through 42 are provisional starting spots available to the top finishers in the 2014 owners’ standings not otherwise qualified.
The 43rd starting spot goes to the most recent past champion not otherwise qualified. If there is no past champion who fails to make the field through qualifying or the Duels, the 43rd position becomes a seventh provisional.
Stenhouse was the odd man out at Talladega last fall in the debut of five-minute group qualifying sessions. He was part of a large group of top drivers who failed to get to the start/finish line in time to take a hot lap in the first round, and Stenhouse was too far down the provisional list to make the race.
Having missed the Talladega event, Stenhouse is understandably nervous about Sunday’s time trials. And he believes drivers may take a different approach at Daytona because waiting until the last minute at Talladega clearly didn’t work.
“I’m definitely worried about qualifying,” Stenhouse said. “I think everybody will approach it a little different. I don’t think anybody will be hanging around and waiting and trying to get a good lap. I think everyone will go out there and basically race for five minutes and see where you stack up.
“We have tried to come up with different plans of what we need to do, but, really, we just have to go make fast laps. That’s definitely in the back of our minds of making sure we get a decent lap in. If we can make that top 24 and move on to the second round, I think that would be a lot of weight off our shoulders.”