The field for the 52nd running of the Daytona 500 got one final chance to feel out their cars in the draft around the 2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway on Saturday morning and when the red and black flag ended the session it was Richard Childress Racing that held the top two spots.
Jeff Burton overcame a blown tire during Thursday’s Gatorade Duel 150 to post the fastest time of the final practice session. The fast lap of 46.108 seconds at a speed of 195.194 mph came on only his third lap around the track. Continually working on the car’s handling, Burton was the only driver in the 195 mph zone and he also logged the most laps of any driver in practice with 60.
With Burton running the most, teammate Kevin Harvick took only 16 laps to determine he was pleased with his car. The winner of the Budweiser Shootout, Harvick posted the second fastest lap of the session with a time of 46.239 seconds at a speed of 194.641 mph. Reports were Harvick got out of his car and held his head high as he strolled to his hauler, obviously confident in his ride.
Perhaps one of the dark horses of the weekend, Marcos Ambrose powered his No. 47 Toyota to the third fastest time of the practice. Not only strong on the speed charts, Ambrose looked to be one of the best cars in the draft during the past week. Ambrose rolls off 18th for tomorrow’s event.
David Reutimann and defending Daytona 500 champion Matt Kenseth rounded out the top-5, while pole-sitter Mark Martin was 13th fastest and outside pole-sitter Dale Earnhardt Jr. was 21st.
More important than finding a fast lap, today’s final practice session was more about finding the perfect set up to have a strong car all day in the draft. Judging by the view in the press box, it appeared the strongest cars in the draft were Kurt Busch, Kasey Kahne, Ambrose, Denny Hamlin and AJ Allmendinger.
Unfortunately for Allmendinger, the engine under the hood of his No. 43 Ford was not strong enough. Allmendinger pulled on to pit road in the final moments of the session with steam shooting from the overflow. The team pushed the car back to the garage and was forced to change engines. Slated to start 15th, Allmendinger will now have to go to the back of the pack for the start of Sunday's race.
While the racing was fairly calm for the most part during Saturday’s practice, there were a few close calls with cars blending into the track. The biggest scare of the session came when the pack was racing three-wide two rows deep off Turn 4. The No. 82 of Scott Speed made contact with the No. 71 of Bobby Labonte, sending him sliding quickly towards the inside wall. Hard on the brakes, Labonte came within what appeared to be inches of backing the car into the wall, saving the team from going to a back-up car.
All the on-track work is done and now the crews are hard at work making the final adjustments before tomorrow’s race. So much work and planning during the winter goes into this race and now the teams just have hours to make cars as good as possible before hitting the track for the big show tomorrow. For some, like Harvick, the work is pretty much done, but for others the work will not stop until the garage is closed and the teams are forced to lock up.
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