BRISTOL, Tenn. — A brilliant blue sky greeted the No. 56 Toyota as it rolled out of the hauler and through the inspection lines Friday morning at Bristol Motor Speedway.
It proved to be the calm before the storm.
The first Sprint Cup practice session turned out to be 90 minutes of trial and error at speeds in excess of 120 mph. Crew chief Pat Tryson had two potential race setups in mind before he left Michael Waltrip Racing’s shop in Cornelius, N.C., but a change in the tire and a green racetrack teamed up to fire a nasty curveball at the entire Cup garage.
That forced Tryson to use feedback from driver Martin Truex Jr. to come up with a decent setup.
“The tire’s different, the track’s different,” Tryson said. “We just migrated to what he was telling us. We got it quite a bit better by the end of practice.”
Within the first few moments of the session, Kyle Busch had spun his No. 18 Toyota. Busch won both Cup races in Bristol last year and brought the same setup back with him, so everyone knew they were going to need to go in a new direction.
During the first 15 minutes of practice, there were only a handful of cars on the track capable of driving more than three laps in a row as everyone fought loose conditions in the turns.
“The track was really slick,” Truex said. “Normally when we come here, the Nationwide cars are on the track before us, but we went out first and nobody had been on the track since last year.”
The 56 car, like many others, unloaded well off the mark. After running a couple laps, Truex was back in the pits complaining that he was free in but so tight through the center of the corners that his tires were chattering.
Tryson scrambled to make a series of changes during the first 15 minutes of the session because the clock was ticking. Truex needed to find a setup he was comfortable racing with so the 56 could be switched over to qualifying trim in order to make a few runs near the end of the session.
There was no doubt Truex was frustrated, but he was in good company. In a matter of minutes, Bobby Labonte planted his No. 71 Chevrolet in the wall between turns three and four while Jimmie Johnson, who had just finished turning the fastest lap, also spun out.
Twenty minutes into practice, Truex was in the same boat as everyone else — nobody was happy.
“That makes you feel a little better, but obviously if you want to run up front and win you need to fix it,” Truex said. “We were pretty far off right off the trailer.”
However, as the session wore on, Tryson and the crew worked some magic on the 56. Every time Truex pulled into the pits, the NAPA team descended on the car like a hungry pack of jackals. The hood came up and wrenches were plunged into the car as one crew member bounced the nose up and down, shaking the living daylights out of Truex’s race machine in the process.
Meanwhile, Tryson stuck his head into the driver’s side of the car, listened to Truex and translated his complaints into adjustments. Despite the fact that the driver and crew chief are only entering their fifth race weekend together, the communication seemed smooth.
“Me and Pat have never worked together on these cars here, but we got a lot of good changes and got going in the right direction,” Truex said. “That’s still a work in progress for him to try to understand what I’m saying and what I’m looking for. Once we go through these scenarios a few times, a light will go off and he’ll know what he’s done in the past to fix that.”
By the 30-minute mark, the 56 was bouncy through the turns but better. There were still only a handful of cars making longer runs at this point, so Truex felt pretty comfortable that he wasn’t falling too far behind the competition.
At the halfway mark, Truex was 23rd on the speed chart and comfortable enough to climb out of his car while it was switched over to qualifying trim. He walked over to Tryson, and the gestures he was making told the whole story. Truex arched his right hand smoothly before jerking it violently at the exit of the imaginary turn he had just finished tracing through thin air. In short, when it was time for Truex to get back to the throttle, the 56 machine was loose on exit.
“That’s what we always fight here is trying to turn through the center, get to the gas and get off the corner,” he said.
Around this time, it came over the radio that Denny Hamlin had picked up some speed by waiting a split-second to get back on the gas. Word spread throughout the infield as drivers scrambled to make the adjustment.
Once the 56 was ready to make qualifying runs, there were just 20 minutes left in the session. Truex found a gap in traffic, jumped in and turned a lap that moved him up to seventh on the board, which is where he ended up. As the red flag came out to end the session, Truex climbed from his car and had another chat with Tryson. Hopes were high heading into qualifying, but an early draw was not good news.
“We’ve got a little bit of an early draw, so that’s not the best thing in the world but it is what it is,” Truex shrugged. “We’ll try to get the best lap we can. It would be great to start here in the top 10. Track position is important here — it would be nice to start up front here and start the weekend on a high note.”
The early draw doomed Truex to a 19th-place starting spot, but Friday’s practice session left him feeling encouraged heading into Happy Hour on Saturday morning.
“As practice went on, it got better and better,” Truex said. “Every change we made made it better, so I was happy. I didn’t care what (the changes) were at that point, I was just like, ‘It’s better — give me some more.’”
Check back Saturday for Truex’s thoughts about what it will take to put the No. 56 in contention to win the Food City 500.