UPDATED: Kyle Busch fastest in Friday Sprint Cup practice, earns pole due to rain; Team Penske struggles to find speed

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UPDATE  (6 pm ET): Friday’s qualifying for Sunday’s MyAFibStory.com 400 NASCAR Sprint Cup race has been washed out by rain. With Kyle Busch being fastest in the early afternoon practice session earlier in the day, he will start Sunday’s race from the pole. Ryan Newman will start on the outside pole.

“Practice went well for us,” Busch said. “Our guys got us to where we needed to be. … TRD made some improvements for this weekend’s race. There’s a lot of things that need to happen in the race Sunday for us to get off to a good start and carry for the next 10 weeks.”

 

ORIGINAL STORY

JOLIET, Ill. – Kyle Busch laid down the speed to beat in Friday’s first Sprint Cup practice at Chicagoland Speedway, turning a best lap in 21 circuits around the 1.5-mile track of 191.442 mph.

Only six of the 16 drivers in the Chase for the Sprint Cup were among the 10 fastest in the session. Qualifying is scheduled for later in the day at 6:45 pm ET.

However, rainstorms are predicted for later this afternoon and throughout the evening, which could play havoc not only with Sprint Cup qualifying but also tonight’s Camping World Truck Series race.

Ryan Newman was second fastest at 191.042, followed by Carl Edwards (191.022 mph) and Roush Fenway Racing teammate Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (191.002).

Matt Kenseth was fifth-fastest (190.900), followed by Clint Bowyer (190.880), Jimmie Johnson (190.813), Jeff Gordon (190.752) and rookie Kyle Larson (190.604) and Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Jamie McMurray, who also clocked the exact same speed of 190.604 mph).

Kevin Harvick was 12th-fastest (190.584), followed by Dale Earnhardt Jr. (190.570), Kurt Busch (190.456), Brian Vickers (190.328) and rookie Austin Dillon (190.328).

A.J. Allmendinger was 17th-fastest (190.087), followed by Danica Patrick (189.907), Kasey Kahne (189.747) and Greg Biffle (189.640).

There has to be some concern in the Team Penske camp: Brad Keselowski was only able to net the 25th-fastest speed (189.155 mph), while teammate Joey Logano was 28th-fastest (188.818), the slowest of all 16 Chase entrants.

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SuperMotocross: Ken Roczen urgently needed change

Roczen change
Feld Motor Sports/MX Sports Pro Racing/Align Media
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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.

How it ended was in stark contrast to how it began. Roczen’s 2022 season got off to the best possible start. He won the Supercross opener at Angel Stadium in Anaheim, California by more than seven seconds over the 2021 champion Cooper Webb.

That would be his last podium and he scored only one more top-five in the Glendale, Arizona Triple Crown.

MORE: Ken Roczen sweeps top five in Anaheim 2 Triple Crown

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.

Roczen Motocross Round 3
Ken Roczen won Round 3 of the outdoor season in 2022 at Thunder Valley after finished second in Moto 1 and first in Moto 2. Feld Motor Sports/MX Sports Pro Racing/Align Media

Winds of Change

Roczen’s offseason was dramatic. Citing differences over his announcement to compete in the World Supercross Championship, he split with Honda HRC and declared himself a free agent. It wasn’t a difficult decision; Roczen was signed only for the Supercross season.

That change had the desired effect. Roczen won the WSX championship in their two-race, pilot season. More importantly, he proved to himself that he could compete for wins.

Late in the offseason, Roczen announced he would also change manufacturers with a move to HEP Progressive Ecstar Suzuki. He won the 2016 Pro Motocross title for Suzuki with nine wins in 12 Nationals and finished no worse than second. He easily outran the competition with an advantage of 86 points over second-place Eli Tomac.

“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.

Supercross Round 1 results
Ken Roczen raised expectations with his season opening win at Anaheim but did not stand on the box again in the Supercross series. Feld Motor Sports/MX Sports Pro Racing/Align Media

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.”