LOUDON, N.H. – Aric Almirola, fresh off his first career victory at Daytona, crashed his Charter Ford Fusion in Saturday’s morning practice. He was forced to a backup car and will start Sunday’s race at the rear of the field. Similar to Logano’s mishap in Friday’s practice, a left-rear tire was the culprit.
Jeff Gordon (132.771) and Denny Hamlin (132.739) were second- and third-fastest in final practice. Pole-sitter Kyle Busch was eighth (132.370).
Streaking Ford teams set sights on Chase
Enjoying a sustained run of success not experienced in nearly a decade, Ford teams are thinking about the long haul as they prepare for Sunday’s Camping World RV Sales 301 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series event at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
Thanks to Carl Edwards (Roush Fenway Racing), Brad Keselowski (Team Penske) and Aric Almirola (Richard Petty Motorsports), Ford is riding a three-race winning streak for the first time since June 2005.
The last time Ford won four consecutive Cup events was 2001 with Dale Jarrett and Robert Yates Racing posting three of the four victories and Elliott Sadler the other for the Wood Brothers.
“I do feel like one of us can win the championship,” said Penske’s Joey Logano of Ford’s 2014 chances.
Keselowski, who qualified seventh for Sunday’s race, easily had the fastest laps in both of Saturday’s practice sessions. Keselowski turned the fastest lap of the day in the morning session (133.745 mph) and was the only driver to top 133 mph in final practice (133.254).
That said, New Hampshire continues to present both a challenge and a checkpoint. No Ford driver has won on the Magic Mile since Greg Biffle in 2008. Logano was the top Ford qualifier for Sunday’s race, checking in with the sixth-fastest lap on Friday.
Logano, Edwards and Keselowski are all but locked into the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup field with two victories apiece this season. Almirola’s victory last week at Daytona nearly assures his place. That doesn’t mean that every Ford team will take the same approach as it applies to preparation for the Chase or choosing tracks at which to test.
While teammates Biffle (15th in points) and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (28th) need a win to start thinking about the Chase, Edwards views Sunday’s race at New Hampshire (one of 10 tracks in the Chase lineup) as a chance to experiment.
“For us, this is really a race where we can try some things for the second race of the Chase because it is going to be so important to try to make it through that first round,” Edwards said.
Team Penske and Richard Petty Motorsports are already taking very different approaches when it comes to testing. Penske has yet to use any of its allotted four test sessions this season.
“We are stockpiling them because we are both in,” Logano said. “We are going to go to the tracks where we feel we need to test the most. It definitely gives us an edge. Are we where we want to be? No. We want to keep getting better and will work with Ford with that. We want to make sure that come Chase time our weak points are as strong as our good points.”
RPM plans to use its third of four tests to prepare for the Aug. 10 road course race at Watkins Glen International. The team knows that its best chance of putting a second car in the Chase is to have Marcos Ambrose win at Watkins Glen.
“For as small an underdog team as we are, to have the possibility of getting both our cars in the Chase is phenomenal,” Almirola said. “We want to give Marcos the best shot to win there. That is the priority on our list right now.”
Ambrose has two victories in 209 Sprint Cup starts, wins at Watkins Glen in 2011 and 2012. He has 11 top-10 finishes in 13 career road course races.
One thing could change RPM’s plans to test at Watkins Glen: a win by Ambrose either this week at New Hampshire or next week at Indianapolis. A victory at New Hampshire would be a true upset for Ambrose, who in 10 Cup races at NHMS has finished no better than ninth.
“I would love for (Ambrose) to win here this weekend,” Almirola said. “Then we don’t have to test Watkins Glen because we know he will be good there anyway.”
“But our philosophy is still that it doesn’t do us any good to save and hold onto those tests. We have to do everything we can to be the best in that first round of the Chase. It doesn’t do us any good to save a test for Homestead if we are knocked out of the Chase. Our motto: Go big or go home.”
LARSON SEEKS TURNAROUND
NASCAR sprint Cup rookie Kyle Larson was eighth in points after his seventh top-10 finish of the season June 15 at Michigan International Speedway. Since then, Larson has finished 28th, 40th and 36th, plummeting to 17th in points, 12 behind Austin Dillon (13th) in the battle for rookie supremacy.
“Our chances (to make the Chase) were really good up until three weeks ago. Then we lost power steering at Sonoma. At Kentucky we were pretty fast and blew a right-front tire. Then at Daytona we got caught up in a typical Daytona crash. Now we’ve fallen to where we have to fight really hard again. I figured we may have some bad luck one week or two weeks in a row, not three.”
Larson said he looked forward to coming to New Hampshire, a track “where you have a little more control over your outcome.” And heading into Sunday, the 21-year-old from Elk Grove, California had demonstrated speed.
Larson had the Target Chevrolet among the five fastest cars in the weekend’s first two practice sessions and was second to Keselowski in best 10 consecutive lap average (131.569) in final practice. Although on the wrong side of the knockout qualifying bubble (13th), Larson qualified fourth for Saturday’s Sta-Green 200 Nationwide race.