Amid a Friday full of activities both on and off-track at Talladega Superspeedway, the main storyline was speed.
Same as it’s ever been, at the 2.66-mile tri-oval.
Practice sessions for Sunday’s (1 p.m. CT/local) 1000Bulbs.com 500 – a pivotal event in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs – produced eye-popping, chart-topping efforts by Denny Hamlin and Clint Bowyer.
Hamlin, the reigning DAYTONA 500 champion, led the first session with a fast lap of 204.904 mph in his No. 11 FedEx Ground Toyota. Kevin Harvick, driving the No. 4 Busch Light Ford, was second-fastest at 203.688. They were two of seven drivers to exceed 203 mph; 33 of the 40 drivers exceeded 200 in the session. Clint Bowyer (No. 14 Rush/Mobil Delvac 1 Ford) posted a speed of 202.042 to lead the second practice. Qualifying is set for 3:35 p.m. Saturday.
The 1000Bulbs.com 500 is the second of three races in the Monster Energy Series Playoffs’ Round of 12. The Round of 8 begins in two weeks.
Talladega Superspeedway is amid its 50th anniversary celebration this weekend, a celebration that includes the debut of the new Talladega Garage Experience infield fan area and its 35,000 square-foot party palace, BIG BILL’S Open Air Social Club. Big Bill is a reference to the speedway’s founder Bill France Sr., also the founder of NASCAR.
Speedway President Brian Crichton and former Monster Energy Series champion Joey Logano met early-arriving fans at the entrance to the garage area for the official Talladega Garage Experience ribbon-cutting. Speedway Chairman Grant Lynch, who will retire next month, then cut the ribbon to officially open BIG BILL’S.
The new garage fan amenities are the culmination of the year-long, $50 million renovation titled Transformation – The Talladega Superspeedway Infield Project presented by Graybar.
“What a start to this historic weekend,” Crichton said. “Everyone on our staff is proud of the renovation and especially proud of what we have done specifically for our fans. This project has honored our history – and positioned us for the future. The fact that the culmination coincides with our 50th anniversary weekend is a perfect showcase for our new fan experience.”
Friday’s fan experience also included two practice sessions for Saturday’s (12:30 p.m.) Sugarlands Shine 250, the first of three Round of 6 playoff races for the NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series. Those three races will decide the four drivers who will battle for the series title in the season finale, Nov. 23 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Austin Hill, driving the No. 16 Toyota, topped the first practice at 193.115 mph. Harrison Burton, making his first appearance at the mammoth track, led the second session with a fast lap of 189.077 in the No. 18 Toyota. The Gander Outdoors Trucks will qualify at 9:35 a.m. Saturday.
Coming into this weekend, Hill, Brett Moffitt, Ross Chastain, Stewart Friesen, two-time series champion Matt Crafton and Tyler Ankrum are the remaining drivers in contention. Moffitt is the defending series champion but he’s a relative Talladega novice with only one start, finishing 17th in October 2018.
None of the Round of 6 drivers have won a race at Talladega Superspeedway but perhaps Hill has an edge – at least on paper; he won the truck series’ season-opener at Daytona International Speedway’s 2.5-mile tri-oval.
“This is the same truck we had in Daytona,” Hill said. “It feels just as good as it was in Daytona.”