Fast in qualifying, Bayne still seeking speed in race trim

FONTANA, CA - MARCH 19:  Trevor Bayne, driver of the #6 AdvoCare Ford, stands in the garage area during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway on March 19, 2016 in Fontana, California.  (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

FONTANA, CA – MARCH 19: Trevor Bayne, driver of the #6 AdvoCare Ford, stands in the garage area during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway on March 19, 2016 in Fontana, California. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

FONTANA, Calif. – The surprise of the 2016 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season may just be Trevor Bayne.

Twice in the first events this year, Bayne has driven the top-qualifying Ford in time trials. He started third at Las Vegas, and on Friday at Auto Club Speedway, he advanced to the final round of knockout qualifying and earned the sixth position on the grid.

In the Atlanta race itself, however, Bayne quickly fell back through the field and finished 22nd, two laps down. In Sunday’s Auto Club 400 (3:30 p.m. ET on FOX) , the 2011 Daytona 500 winner hopes his race performance will match more closely what he accomplished in qualifying.

“I think we’ve learned throughout the whole season,” Bayne said before Saturday’s first practice session at the two-mile track. “It’s just which way the track is going to go and how aggressive do we have to be with our adjustments throughout the race to keep up with it.

“Last year, and years past – even in XFINITY – we always freed up the car through practice and maybe started the race too free. This year, with this (lower-downforce) aero package and tire, every race we’ve started way too tight and our first run we’ve been tight, and then we’ve had to work throughout the race to free up the car.”

That was certainly the issue in Atlanta, where Bayne struggled with a tight handling condition from the outset.

“We just weren’t aggressive enough freeing up the car throughout the race,” he explained. “The first run we were OK, but we just got tighter all day long. I don’t think my car (at Auto Club) drives the same as my Atlanta car. I think it’s a little bit freer balance already. It’s more neutral through the whole corner, whereas at Atlanta I kind of compressed tight.
“So I don’t think it’ll be as much of an issue here, but even at Vegas and Phoenix we’ve been tight every week. That’s something we’ve learned from a lot. We’re not perfect yet or we would be on the pole and leading every lap, but I think we just know we’ve got to be more aggressive changing the car throughout the race.”

If Saturday’s opening practice was any indication, however, Bayne and crew chief Matt Puccia still have work to do in race trim. Bayne was 25th fastest in the session, nearly four miles-per-hour slower than Carl Edwards, who topped the speed chart at 187.906 mph.

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