Hendrick drivers search for speed

HAMPTON, Ga. — If Friday’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series qualifying is any indication, Hendrick Motorsports has work to do.

Of the 34 drivers who posted times in the knockout sessions, Daytona 500 pole winner Alex Bowman was 18th fastest, and that was the best performance among the four HMS entries.

Seven-time series champion Jimmie Johnson qualified 22nd, followed by rookie of the year contender William Byron in 23rd and Chase Elliott in 27th.

Asked what he and his team missed in preparation for the time trials, Elliott had a succinct answer.

“Everything, I think,” he said. “Some days you do, and some days you don’t, and we didn’t today. So, I don’t know. We were way off — not even close.

“So, I don’t really have much of an excuse for it. We just didn’t hit it right today, and we’ll go to work tonight and work through it and hopefully get ready for (Saturday’s practice). It’s our only option now.”

On the other hand, qualifying was a relative success for Kasey Kahne, who landed a ride in the Leavine Family Racing Chevrolet after Byron took over Kahne’s former seat at Hendrick. Kahne failed to advance to the final round of qualifying by a mere .074 seconds and will start 14th in Sunday’s Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway (1 p.m. ET on FOX).

“We picked up in the second round, which I thought was nice,” Kahne said. “It’s tough to do. I don’t feel great, but I doubt anybody does on this surface. But it’s been an interesting day just trying to understand.

“It’s a different car and a lot of different things going on. We’re trying to understand that. Working with the guys has been good, but we have a long way to go. So we’ll keep after it.”

Undoubtedly, the Hendrick drivers feel the same way. They just have farther to go after a qualifying session that saw only one of their cars earn a spot in the front half of the field.

Johnson was sixth fastest in final practice on Saturday, but his teammates continued to struggle. Bowman was 17th in Happy Hour, followed by Byron in 26th and Elliott in 28th.

STEWART-HAAS DRIVERS WILL HAVE A LEG UP ON SUNDAY

Ford drivers don’t have a new car to decipher this year — as the Chevrolet camp does with the Camaro ZL1 — but Stewart-Haas Racing did just fine with a familiar platform in Friday’s qualifying session.

With Atlanta maven Kevin Harvick leading the way from the third position on the grid, all four SHR drivers will start from the top 11 spots in Sunday’s Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500, the second Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race of the season and the first without restrictor plates on the engines.

Harvick’s teammates — Kurt Busch, Clint Bowyer and Aric Almirola — will start nose-to-tail on the inside row from seventh, ninth and 11th respectively. To Bowyer, the organization’s excellent performance in time trials represents a validation of their efforts.

“That’s a good start,” Bowyer said. “You always worry about, after Daytona, you get down to Atlanta and get to some of these mile-and-a-halves, and you wonder where you’re going to be. You’ve had a competitor (Chevrolet) get a new body this year, so you worry about that. There are a lot of unknowns as you go into the season off of a long offseason like we’ve had, but to have all four Stewart-Haas Fords in the top 11 and making that final round is very, very good for everybody involved.

“I have to thank the aero guys and the engine guys, everybody that makes up Stewart-Haas. It’s so fun to have a group like that that’s all racers. They all get it. They know the task at hand, and they all just get in there and get it done, and it’s fun to see. There’s no oddballs at that place. Everybody fits in, and everybody chips in, and it’s a lot of fun to see.”

SHORT STROKES

Georgia native David Ragan will make his 400th Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series start on Sunday. “I can remember watching from a condo building in the summer of 1996 as they reconfigured this place and just dreaming of watching a race here,” Ragan said. “I remember my Bandolero and Legends Car days, where I just basically lived here at the race track during the summer months and we raced a lot. For me to be able to start in one NASCAR race was a really big deal, but to make 400 Cup races is something I really never thought about.”

— During a media visit to Atlanta Motor Speedway’s new Restart Bar (a large hospitality area overlooking the restart zone), speedway president Ed Clark revealed an interesting tidbit. In preparation for the NASCAR weekend, AMS patched seams in the aging asphalt. Only one crew chief called Clark to find out where the track had been patched and what material had been used to patch it. The crew chief in question? Chad Knaus. Perhaps that helps explain why Jimmie Johnson leads all active drivers with five victories at the 1.54-mile track.

— Atlanta Motor Speedway has moved the start time for Sunday’s Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 to 1 p.m. because of rain in the forecast for race day. That’s an hour earlier than originally scheduled. Driver introductions will start at 12:15 p.m.

— Ryan Newman, who qualified second to Kyle Busch in Friday’s time trials, topped the speed chart in Saturday’s final practice, posting a best lap of 184.888 mph. Martin Truex Jr., who did not make a qualifying run after his car failed pre-qualifying inspection three times, was second fastest at 184.597 mph. Joey Logano ran 74 laps in the 80-minute session — more than any other driver.

–Reid Spencer, NASCAR Wire Service. Special to Field Level Media.

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