All eyes on three: Keselowski, Dale Jr., Johnson at center of tonight’s Bank of America 500

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The mission is simple for Chase contenders Brad Keselowski, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Jimmie Johnson tonight at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

For these three drivers, only a win in tonight’s Bank of America 500 will erase their wrecks during last weekend’s Contender Round opener at Kansas, which have put them at the bottom of the Chase Grid.

Failing that, a Top-5 finish may be enough to at least put them closer to where they need to be.

Kasey Kahne is also below the cutoff with them at eight points behind Jeff Gordon. But it’s Keselowski (-22 points), Earnhardt (-25 points), and Johnson (-27 points) that will have the majority of the attention throughout tonight.

It’s likely safe to assume that not many of us were thinking the latter three – Keselowski and Johnson, the last two Sprint Cup champions, and Earnhardt, the sport’s most popular driver – would be in a spot like this during the Chase.

Many of us were thinking these three would do enough to be part of the final four in the Championship Round at Homestead. And that could still happen.

But right now, the citizens of Brad Nation, Jimmie Nation, and Junior Nation are sitting on pins and needles.

As for their drivers, they know how big tonight is.

“For us, this is a very Homestead-like weekend,” Keselowski said on Thursday after qualifying. “We need to perform. This is our last chance to really control our destiny in the Chase for this round and we want to make the most of this opportunity.”

Out of Keselowski, Earnhardt, and Johnson, the Team Penske driver may have the best chance tonight to win and advance.

He is the defending champion of this race and in 2014, he’s shown that he can win anywhere, at any time, with that No. 2 Team Penske Ford.

On the other side of the coin, Earnhardt’s never won a points race at Charlotte and Johnson’s still hunting for that extra burst of performance that will put him back on form.

However, Earnhardt is the only one of the four Chasers currently below the cutoff that will have a Top-10 starting position tonight (Earnhardt, 9th, Keselowski 17th, Kahne 19th, Johnson 21st).

The finish is what counts, of course, but Junior fans should keep this stat in mind: 75.6 percent (84 of 111) of all the Cup races at Charlotte have been won from a Top-10 spot on the grid. And considering that he’s in go-for-broke mode, he figures to have a say in the outcome.

That brings us to Johnson. He won the Coca-Cola 600 in May, and we know better than to count out a seven-time victor at Charlotte.

But he’s starting from mid-pack, and he had another problem on Friday when he scraped the wall during final practice. Johnson avoided having a backup car called in for him, but can he move forward tonight from 21st?

Then there’s the one issue that could potentially impact everyone on the grid: Tires.

Keselowski and Earnhardt had tires fail on them before they crashed at Kansas, and they weren’t the only ones to suffer failures last week. Speeds are up at Charlotte this weekend over those from May, and that’s caused Goodyear to warn the teams about putting too much load on the right-front tire.

It will be interesting to see how the teams react. If they heed Goodyear’s warning, how much more conservative will they be with air pressures and set-ups? Or will they continue to aggressively push the envelope?

Keselowski’s spotter, Joey Meier, may have provided the answer from the 2 team’s perspective this morning on Twitter:

Cadillac, Acura battle for top speed as cars back on track for Rolex 24 at Daytona practice

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The new hybrid prototypes of Cadillac and Acura battled atop the speed chart as practice resumed Thursday for the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

Chip Ganassi Racing driver Richard Westbrook was fastest Thursday afternoon in the No. 02 Cadillac V-LMDh with a 1-minute, 35.185-second lap around the 12-turn, 3.56-mile road course at Daytona International Speedway.

That pace topped Ricky Taylor’s 1:35.366 lap that topped the Thursday morning session that marked the first time the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship was back on track since qualifying Sunday afternoon that concluded the four-day Roar Before The Rolex 24 test.

In a final session Thursday night, Matt Campbell was fastest (1:35.802) in the No. 7 Porsche Penske Motorsports Porsche 963 but still was off the times set by Westbrook and Taylor.

Punctuated by Tom Blomqvist’s pole position for defending race winner Meyer Shank Racing, the Acura ARX-06s had been fastest for much of the Roar and led four consecutive practice sessions.

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But the times have been extremely tight in the new Grand Touring Prototype (GTP) category that has brought hybrid engines to IMSA’s premier class. Only 0.9 seconds separated the nine LMDh cars in GTP in qualifying, and though the spread slightly widened to 1.378 seconds in Thursday’s practices with teams on varying strategies and preparation, Westbrook still pooh-poohed the importance of speeds.

“It’s always nice to be at the top, but I don’t think it means too much or read too much into it” Westbrook said. “Big fuel tanks in the GTP class this year, so you have no idea what fuel levels people are running. We had a good run, and the car is really enjoyable to drive now. I definitely wasn’t saying that a month ago.

“It really does feel good now. We are working on performance and definitely unlocking some potential, and it just gives us more confidence going into the race. It’s going to be super tight. Everyone’s got the same power, everyone has the same downforce, everyone has the same drag levels and let’s just go race.”

Because teams have put such a premium on reliability, handling mostly has suffered in the GTPs, but Westbrook said the tide had turned Thursday.

“These cars are so competitive, and you were just running it for the sake of running it in the beginning, and there’s so much going on, you don’t really have time to work on performance,” he said. “A lot of emphasis was on durability in the beginning, and rightly so, but now finally we can work on performance, and that’s the same for other manufacturers as well. But we’re worrying about ourselves and improving every run, and I think everybody’s pretty happy with their Cadillac right now.”

Mike Shank, co-owner of Blomqvist’s No. 60 on the pole, said his team still was facing reliability problems despite its speed.

“We address them literally every hour,” Shank said. “We’re addressing some little thing we’re doing better to try to make it last. And also we’re talking about how we race the race, which will be different from years past.

“Just think about every system in the car, I’m not going to say which ones we’re working on, but there are systems in the car that ORECA and HPD are continually trying to improve. By the way, sometimes we put them on the car and take them off before it even goes out on the track because something didn’t work with electronics. There’s so much programming. So many departments have to talk to each other. That bridge gets broken from a code not being totally correct, and the car won’t run. Or the power steering turns off.”

Former Rolex 24 winner Renger van der Zande of Ganassi said it still is a waiting game until the 24-hour race begins Saturday shortly after 1:30 p.m.

“I think the performance of the car is good,” van der Zande said. “No drama. We’re chipping away on setup step by step and the team is in control. It’s crazy out there what people do on the track at the moment. It’s about staying cool and peak at the right moment, and it’s not the right moment yet for that. We’ll keep digging.”


PRACTICE RESULTS:

Click here for Session I (by class)

Click here for Session II (by class)

Click here for Session III (by class)

Combined speeds