Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson topped Thursday afternoon’s pair of Nationwide Series practice sessions at Bristol Motor Speedway.
Driving the No. 9 JR Motorsports Chevrolet, Elliott was fastest in the first practice session with a top speed of 123.324 mph. He certainly worked for it, leading all drivers during the session with an almost race-like distance total of 106 laps.
It’s not totally surprising, though, as Elliott seeks to keep his current lead in the NNS standings a 10-point lead over teammate Regan Smith.
Kyle Busch, who wrecked late in Thursday morning’s Camping World Truck Series, finishing 24th and seeing his hopes of a weekend sweep of all three NASCAR touring series races at Bristol, was second-fastest in the first NNS practice at 122.898 mph.
Having won the last three NNS races at Bristol, the younger Busch brother will go for four-in-a-row in Friday’s Food City 300 (7:30 pm ET).
In a rarity, Brian Scott and Kevin Harvick tied for third-fastest speeds with identical marks of 122.178 mph.
Fifth-fastest was Ryan Blaney (122.084 mph).
Of note, former IndyCar driver Milka Duno (seen in above photo) recorded the 41st-fastest speed in the first session. A native of Venezuela, Duno is hoping to become the first Hispanic woman to qualify for a NASCAR national series event.
Duno will have to find more speed in qualifying Friday afternoon, as only 40 cars will make the field for the NNS race later that evening.
As for Thursday’s second practice session, Larson was nearly 2 mph faster than Elliott’s first practice best. Larson cranked off a best-speed of 125.313 mph.
Like Elliott in the first practice, Larson also logged considerable time on track, totaling 90 laps on the high-banked .533-mile short track.
Just like the first practice, Kyle Busch was second-fastest in the second practice, as well, with a best lap of 124.525 mph.
In addition to three straight, Busch has won seven NNS races in his last eight attempts at Bristol.
Brian Scott was third-fastest at 124.339 mph, followed by Blaney (124.242) and Elliott (124.050).
Just like in the first practice session, Elliott logged the most laps of any driver: 126.
Duno improved in the second practice session with a 36th-best speed of 118.598 mph.
A total of 44 cars took to the track in the final practice session.
Change can be frightening, but it is often exhilarating and Ken Roczen, a rider in his ninth season on a 450 bike, it was urgently needed.
Roczen ended the 2022 Supercross season with his worst performance in five years. After finishing outside of the top five in seven of his last eight rounds in the stadium series, well down the points’ standings in ninth, he decided to put that season on hold.
Before 2022, Roczen was a regular challenger for the championship despite being plagued by major accidents that required surgery in 2017 and 2018. On his return, he was diagnosed with the Epstein-Barr virus, which presents with symptoms of heavy fatigue, muscle weakness and loss of appetite and last year he tested positive for COVID-19.
Against those odds, he finished second in the outdoor season in 2019 and third in 2020. In the Supercross series, he finished third in 2020 and second in 2021.
But the abbreviated season of 2022 signaled a need for change for Roczen.
“I needed the change urgently,” Roczen said in last week’s post-race press conference at Angel Stadium. “I did a pretty big change in general.”
Those comments came three races into the 2023 with him sitting among the top three finishers for the first time in 10 Supercross rounds. It was the 57th podium of his career, only six behind 10th-place Ryan Villopoto. It was also the first for Suzuki since 2019 when Chad Reed gave them one in Detroit 63 rounds ago.
Taking time off at the end of the Supercross season had the needed effect. He rejoined SuperMotocross in the outdoor season and immediately stood on the podium at Fox Raceway in Pala, California. Two rounds later, he won at Thunder Valley in Lakewood, Colorado. The relief was short lived and he would not stand on the podium again until this year.
“I just think change overall made it happen – and these overseas races – it’s really just a snowball,” Roczen said. “You start somewhere and you feel like something works out and I got better and had more fun doing it. Working with the team as well and working on the motorcycle to get better and actually see it paying off. It’s just, it’s just a big boost in general.”
The return to Suzuki at this stage of his career, after nearly a decade of competing on 450 motorcycles, recharged Roczen. He is one of three riders, (along with Cooper Webb and his former Honda teammate Chase Sexton), with a sweep of the top five in the first three rounds of the 2023 Supercross season.
But last week’s podium really drove home how strong he’s been.
“I think we’re all trying to take it all in,” Roczen said. “I wouldn’t say it came out of nowhere really, but before the season starts you think about – or I thought of how my whole last season went – and it’s been a long time since I’ve been on the podium.”
Roczen’s most recent podium prior to Anaheim 2 came at Budds Creek Motocross Park in Mechanicsville, Maryland last August in Round 10 of the outdoor season. His last podium in Supercross was the 2022 season opener that raised expectations so high.
The change Roczen needed was not just a different team and bike. More importantly, he needed the freedom to set his own schedule and control his training schedule.
“It’s long days, but I’m really into it at the moment,” Roczen said. “Overall, I felt [that] throughout this off season and now my health has been really well, really good, so that helps. It’s needed to get to the top. I’m pretty confident that we’re, we’re doing the right thing – that I’m doing the right thing.
“I’m doing all my training on my own and I’m planning out my entire week. And I feel like I have a really good system going right now with recovery and putting in some hard days. Right now, I don’t really have anybody telling me what to do. I’m the best judge of that.
“It’s really hard to talk about how much work we’ve put in, but we’ve been doing some big changes and riding a lot throughout the week, some really, really late days. And they’re paying off right now; we’re heading in the right direction. We’re all pulling on the same string, and that helps me out big time.”