TALLADEGA, Ala. (AP) — Denny Hamlin climbed from his car at Talladega Superspeedway and was shocked to learn he had not only topped the speed chart, but reached nearly 205 mph in pacing practice.
"It really caught me off guard," Hamlin said Friday after his lap at 204.904 mph.
The Daytona 500 winner posted the seventh-fastest lap of the season — behind six drivers at a July practice at Daytona — in the closing moments of the first drafting session. He was the only driver to top 204, but Kevin Harvick was second fastest at 203.688 mph. Kyle Busch, who had an early fuel pressure issue at the start of practice, was third at 203.684 and seven drivers in total surpassed 203 mph.
Speeds like that typically cause jitters in NASCAR at its fastest and biggest track, where cars have been known to flip and Kyle Larson, the only driver locked into the third round of the playoffs, wound up upside down on his roof in the spring.
Hamlin downplayed any concerns headed into Sunday's playoff race, saying "only insurance companies" worry about speeds over 200 mph — a mark surpassed by 33 of the 44 drivers in Friday's first practice.
The cars were slower in the final practice, with Clint Bowyer fastest at 202.042 mph while five other drivers topped 200. Harvick, who said he doesn't even bother to look at the speeds anymore, said the window to slow the cars closed when NASCAR didn't react prior to April's race here.
"I was in that same group where Denny got that run and we just got a good run on the pack," Harvick said. "I think if they were concerned about the speed they would have probably tried to fix it after the first race here and it doesn't seem like anybody was really concerned with it. I don't know what changed, but I think (the cars) will probably be over 200 miles an hour most of the day."
The Talladega weekend schedule gave teams track time only on Friday, with qualifying the only scheduled activity Saturday. It made for a condensed schedule ahead of a wild-card race in NASCAR's playoffs. Sunday marks the middle race of this round, and four drivers will be trimmed from the remaining field next week at Kansas.
The unpredictability of Talladega makes it critical for drivers to have a smart strategy — but that's not even guarantee of a clean race.
"I tell everybody all the time we've got about a 50% chance of winning or flipping 17 times," Bowyer said. "I mean, it's just one or the other."
The bottom four in the standings are Joey Logano, Bowyer, Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney. Elliott won here in April as he helped Chevrolet to its first Talladega victory since 2015 when he snapped a seven-race Ford winning streak.
But Elliott had an early engine failure at Dover on Sunday and finished last to fall to the bottom of the standings just a week removed from his victory on the Roval at Charlotte Motor Speedway. He didn't seem concerned and said he is focused on sweeping the season races at Talladega.
"I think as you get put in bad positions throughout the playoffs, really and truly your situation just becomes clearer as to what you have to do, especially when you get in the hole early," Elliott said. "It just becomes very evident that you have to go do a really good job the next two weeks to make it through. Obviously, we don't want our season to be over after Kansas, so we have a lot of emphasis on these next two weeks.
"I'm going to do the best job I can do, my guys are going to do the best job they can do, and we'll see where it ends up."