Posted 03/30/2012 at 04:44 PM
With only three minutes remaining in the first Goody’s Fast Relief 500 practice session at Martinsville Speedway, Jeff Gordon laid down the fastest lap of the day at 97.048 mph. The seven-time Martinsville winner eclipsed the lap of Kyle Busch (96.595), who was second fastest, that had stood at the top of the charts for about 45 of the 90 minute session.
Denny Hamlin had the third fastest lap (96.835) at about the same juncture Gordon did in the final stages. Hamlin will be looking for his fifth Martinsville win and if average time is any indicator (it is), he’s well on his way. Hamlin had a session high average speed of 94.077 mph while running 36 laps.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished runner-up in this race last season and all indications from the first practice is that he’ll be right there contending again for his first Martinsville win. Junior ran the fourth fastest lap (96.686) and finished with a very respectable average of 93.798 mph.
Ryan Newman brought his winning New Hampshire chassis from last year in hopes of recreating some flat track magic and finished with the fifth fastest lap (96.376) of the session. Newman also raced this car in both Martinsville events last season and led a combined 44 laps.
The surprise of the entire practice may have been the absence of Jimmie Johnson among the top-10, top-20 and even top-30. Johnson ran a session high 67 laps, but was only able to muster the 38th best time, or better yet, ninth worse among the 46 drivers attempting to qualify Saturday.
Friday’s final session will surely decide the fate of the six-time Martinsville winner and something tells me they’ll be just fine. The car Johnson's using this week is the same one that was runner-up last fall at Martinsville.
A driver who didn’t place in the top-10 during individual lap times, but excelled with his average speed was last year’s winner Kevin Harvick. He was best lap of 96.111 was good enough for 12th fastest, but his average speed of 94.053 was second best to Hamlin’s. Hamlin and Harvick were the only two drivers to average over 94 mph.
The final 90 minute practice session is for 3:30 pm (ET).
Top-5 Practice 1 Speeds:
1) Jeff Gordon 97.048
2) Kyle Busch 96.959
3) Denny Hamlin 96.835
4) Dale Earnhardt, Jr 96.686
5) Ryan Newman 96.376