Richmond Practice: Montoya Fastest, Hamlin Looks Best

McCord RobertsCorrespondent ISeptember 11, 2009

RICHMOND, VA - SEPTEMBER 11:  Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Express Toyota, drives during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Chevy Rock & Roll 400 at Richmond International Raceway on September 11, 2009 in Richmond, Virginia.  (Photo by Todd Warshaw/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Juan Pablo Montoya was the fastest in Friday’s final practice session for Saturday Night’s Chevy Rock & Roll 400 at Richmond. Montoya reeled out the quickest speed of 124.412 mph near the end of the session while in qualifying trim.

Prior to the changes set up for qualifying, Montoya still had solid times in the few laps he ran. During the first session, Montoya 13th quickest while running 47 laps in race trim. All Montoya has to do is finish 18th or better Saturday and he’ll make his goal come to fruition by qualifying for the Chase to the Championship.

If looking at his career average finish at Richmond of 27th, it may seem a bit dicey. However, he’s brought the same chassis he raced to a Richmond career best of 10th in May.

Richmond’s weekend schedule of events is similar to what Atlanta did last week with two practice sessions followed by qualifying all in one day. Because most drivers used the final session for the qualifying set-up, it can be treated like a normal race schedule first practice.

The most telling practice this week in regards to how they may run in race conditions was the first practice. There a few exceptions such as drivers that ran more than 30 laps during happy hour like Kasey Kahne, Denny Hamlin, and Tony Stewart.

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In the first practice almost everyone was in race trim and ran several laps. The fastest or those drivers was Greg Biffle followed by Kyle Busch and Clint Bowyer.

Biffle brought a brand new chassis for this week and hopes to clinch a position in the Chase. He could take matters into his own hands by finishing 11th or better and make it regardless of what anyone else does.

Kyle Busch needs a lot more help, but has to feel confident coming to a track where he has the best average finish of anyone (6th) and where he claimed one of his four wins this season. Busch brought a chassis that finished 23rd at Michigan, kind of a perplexing move since he won in the spring at Richmond. Why not bring that car?

However, the last time they did something that appeared awkward like that and not bringing the winning chassis from the Spring, he won at Bristol a few weeks ago. He needs to gain 17 points on Vickers and 37 on Kenseth to make the Chase. It should be fun watching him try.

Clint Bowyer had the third best average times in the first practice among drivers that ran at least 35 laps. Bowyer’s may be a bit more impressive than first and second best times of Kevin Harvick and Mark just because he ran many more laps than they did with 62.

Bowyer won the spring Bristol race last year thanks to some hard racing in front of him while he was running third. In all, Bowyer has been brilliant at Richmond with an average finish of 10th. Bowyer brought his Chicagoland chassis that he finished ninth with.

Virginia native Denny Hamlin was as good as ever in both practices running a total of 109 laps between the two sessions. In the first practice he had the fifth best time then he ran a ton of laps in the final practice with top speeds and then put his qualifying trim on and was sixth quickest overall.

Hamlin has had at least two instances where he probably should have won on his home track, but has still had quality runs in just about every one of his seven starts. Only Kyle Busch has a better Richmond average finish than Hamlin’s at 9.6. Look for Hamlin to let it all hang out and go for the win to better his position in the Chase, but more importantly to him, get that elusive Richmond win.

Tony Stewart was the King of Richmond when he first arrived, winning as a rookie and then two other times giving him three wins in his first seven starts at the track. Since then, he hasn’t won any, but he has run very well getting second place in three of his last four races there.

Stewart ran the second most laps (76) in the first practice and was 12th quickest. During happy hour, Stewart ran 47 more laps and had the 11th best time while in qualifying trim. Stewart will be in the same race mode as Hamlin looking to move up the Chase ladder for start position by getting a win.

Jimmie Johnson has been hit or miss at Richmond. Despite winning there in three of the last five races, he has only one other top-10 finish there in his 15 career starts. Four top-10’s for Jimmie Johnson at any track would be considered struggling, as would his 18th average finish position.

Fortunately for Johnson, he looks to be trending upward at Richmond even though he finished 36th there in the spring. Based on what he’s done on the similar set-ups required at Phoenix and New Hampshire since the COT was introduced, not many are better.

Johnson was second fastest in happy hour while in qualifying trim and 11th best in the first practice while running the most laps (79). Johnson brought the same chassis that he ran with at Richmond in the spring.

Brian Vickers needs to gain 21 points on Kenseth to get the final Chase position while attempting to hold off Busch. Tough task, especially when considering his average finish position of 27th throughout his career on the track. The good news for Vickers is that he a solid 15th place finish in the spring, his best run there since he was a rookie with and 8th.

The bad news for Vickers, other than Busch, is that both his practice sessions went poorly in race trim and qualifying trim. It’s quite unusual for Vickers to struggle in qualifying trim, but he was only able to mange the 21st quickest lap in happy hour. In the first session, he was only 36th quickest running 69 laps.

Fortunately, the Red Bull team does have the luxury to tinker some more in the garage prior to the race, but they won’t be able to test it until the race.

Mike Bliss had two good practice sessions in the No. 71 despite running limited laps. Bliss only gets brought up just because of the fact that the car he’s driving this week was bought from the Richard Childress stable of cars. Richmond has been one of the better tracks for Childress in both the old car, and the COT.

The regular driver of the No. 71, David Gilliland, is filling in for Robby Gordon in the No. 7 while Gordon takes the NASCAR race weekend off so he can participate in the off-road event in Primm, Nevada.

First Richmond PracticeTop 5 Speeds

1. Joe Nememchek 122.867 mph—AVG 12 laps @ 120.325

2. Greg Biffle 122.594 mph—AVG 60 laps @ 117.378

3. Kyle Busch 122.482 mph—AVG 48 laps @ 118.464

4. Clint Bowyer 122.410 mph—AVG 62 laps @ 118.533

5. Denny Hamlin 122.288 mph—AVG 53 laps @ 118.197

Best Average Speed among drivers running at least 35 laps: Kevin Harvick 39 Laps @ 118.699

Most laps run: 79 each by Ryan Newman (10th) and Jimmie Johnson (11th)

Final Richmond Practice (Happy Hour)Top 5 Speeds:

1. Juan Pablo Montoya 124.412 mph - AVG 12 laps @ 121.414

2. Jimmie Johnson 124.390 mph - AVG 14 laps @ 121.301

3. Mark Martin 124.218 mph - AVG 11 laps @ 122.013

4. Jeff Gordon 124.836 mph - AVG 33 laps @ 117.536

5. Kasey Kahne 123.836 mph - AVG 58 laps @ 117.536

Best Average Speed among drivers running at least 30 laps: David Reutimann 34 Laps @ 119.119

Most laps run: 64 by Jeff Burton (22nd fastest)

Top 10 Rated drivers for Richmond based on First Practice session, some of Happy Hour, current state of team, and a mix of the three 2009 races at Phoenix, New Hampshire, and Richmond:

1) Denny Hamlin

2) Tony Stewart

3) Clint Bowyer

4) Jimmie Johnson

5) Kyle Busch

6) Greg Biffle

7) Ryan Newman

8) Mark Martin

9) Jeff Gordon

10) Kevin Harvick

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