There’s always that one guy you can’t quite count out no matter how down he is, and in the first of two Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series practices at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Jimmie Johnson put himself at the top of the list to be that guy. Johnson led the session on the 17-turn road course with a lap speed of 105.173 mph. Daniel Hemric, who is making just his second Cup start this weekend, was second at 104.962 mph. Hemric was announced Friday as the driver of the No. 31 at Richard Childress Racing next year.
Defending Cup champ Martin Truex Jr. was third, Brad Keselowski fourth, and Kyle Busch rounded out the top five in the session.
Six through 10th were Chase Elliott, Kyle Larson, Joey Logano, Ryan Blaney and William Byron.
Hemric and Byron are not in the playoffs; the rest of the top 10 are running for the title. Playoff drivers not in the top 10 were Austin Dillon (13th), Clint Bowyer (14th), Alex Bowman (17th), Erik Jones (18th), Denny Hamlin (22nd), polesitter Kurt Busch (23rd), Aric Almirola (27th) and Kevin Harvick (33rd).
Hamlin and Jones will both start at the back of the field Sunday after going to backup cars. Hamlin suffered heavy damage in qualifying Friday and Jones had a wicked crash in the first practice session Saturday. Darrell Wallace Jr. will also go to a backup car after a hard crash in the session.
The weekend’s final practice began with drivers given an opportunity to practice the restart procedure. Once that was done, Truex showed the field he’s catching on to the road course, going to the top of the pylon early. It looked as though Truex might stay there for the session, but rookie Byron took a turn at the top, and Larson also topped Truex’s speed. Byron’s turn was short-lived, however, as Keselowski posted a faster lap at 105.596 mph. That lap stood for the rest of the session, but Keselowski spun minutes later on the frontstretch to bring out a red flag.
He will join Hamlin, Jones and Wallace at the back for the start Sunday.
Byron was second, Larson third, with Paul Menard and Truex completing the top five. Kurt Busch, llmendinger, Michael McDowell, Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney also had top-10 runs.
Playoff drivers filled 11th-15th. Kyle Busch, Johnson, Bowyer, Logano and Bowman took those spots. Hamlin was 20th, Almirola 21st, Dillon 26th and Harvick 27th.
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