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Roush Fenway’s Stenhouse, Biffle lead practice sessions

TALLADEGA, Ala. (AP) — The slumping Roush Fenway Racing organization got a slight boost Friday when Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Greg Biffle paced the field in a pair of practice sessions at Talladega Superspeedway.

Stenhouse turned in the fastest lap at 200.780 mph in the first session Friday, and Biffle topped the second at 197.859.

Both drivers credited the draft for their fast laps, but will take it however it comes in this season of small gains.

“We know it’s a speedway and catching the right draft is what helps you propel up the board, but it’s always nice to see,” said Stenhouse, who celebrated a season-best finish of fourth three weeks ago at Bristol. “It doesn’t matter what track you’re at you like to win practice, win qualifying and win the race, so it’s a good start for us.

Stenhouse, who followed his strong Bristol run with a 28th-place finish Sunday at Richmond, believes his No. 17 Ford is strong enough to contend for the win Sunday. The reality is, it’s a wide-open field at Talladega, where NASCAR requires the use of horsepower-sapping restrictor plates and multi-car accidents are common.

It can lead to chaotic finishes and random winners, which Stenhouse acknowledged.

But he’ll take his first career Sprint Cup Series race anyway he can get it.

“I don’t care if it’s in one piece as long as I cross the finish line first. I’ll do it upside-down. I don’t care,” he said.

Stenhouse missed the Talladega race last October when drivers attempted to manipulate the qualifying process and it ended with him being shut out from the 43-car field. It was a huge blow for a top-funded organization and again showed that NASCAR’s group qualifying system wasn’t suited for plate races.

But NASCAR stuck with the system for the season-opening Daytona 500, and driver manipulation again made it a debacle.

So NASCAR scrapped it for this weekend and will use a hybrid format of single-car qualifying and knockout rounds.

Qualifying on Saturday for the Sprint Cup race will be in two rounds with the 12 fastest cars advancing to the final round. The cars will be released at predetermined timed intervals and get one lap each.

Among the drivers who were thrilled with the change was Stenhouse girlfriend Danica Patrick.

“Ricky and I looked at each other this morning and we go, ‘I’m so glad the qualifying has changed,’ ” Patrick said Friday. “It just was, I feel, like a very unnecessary stress for everybody. I felt like I was on ‘Survivor’ and trying to make alliances and finding out the best thing to do was to not have any and just be the one that tags onto the group, because nobody really cared if it was just one car.”

Reigning NASCAR champion Kevin Harvick praised what qualifying has become after a disastrous Daytona 500 session that saw accidents that sent drivers into backup cars.

“We were tearing up a lot of racecars in qualifying,” he said. “It just didn’t work. Running last to be first just didn’t make sense in a lot of our heads. I think the sped-up single-car process with one lap, hopefully it makes as much sense as everybody thinks it’s going to, and make the process that much better.”

Biffle thinks the qualifying format it will work out well for the Roush cars, which have the speed to earn strong starting spots for Sunday.

“I’m really happy with the way they changed qualifying because it’s the speed of the car — it’s not who got the lucky lane or who got a draft or who laid back so far and got sucked up on a big run,” Biffle said. “For this type of racing we need to probably do this kind of qualifying like we’re going to do. I feel like that’s the right way to do it.”

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