Friday notebook: Toyotas lead the way in Sprint Cup practice at Indy

Matt Kensth was fastest in Sprint Cup practice Friday in his No. 20 Dollar General Toyota at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

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BRICKYARD TOYOTATHON — The only on-track activity for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Friday was a single 85-minute practice session for Sunday’s Crown Royal Presents the John Wayne Walding 400 at the Brickyard. And at the top of the speed chart was the Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota of Matt Kenseth, who ran a best lap of 186.285 miles per hour. Second at 186.070 was another Toyota, the Michael Waltrip Racing entry of Clint Bowyer.

Brad Keselowski, the 2012 series champion, was third in a Team Penske Ford, followed by six-time champion Jimmie Johnson in the first of the Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolets. Kyle Larson completed the top five, followed by brothers Kurt and Kyle Busch. Four-time Brickyard winner Jeff Gordon was 14th, two spots ahead of Danica Patrick, with Dale Earnhardt Jr. 24th.

Afterward, Kenseth was pleased with his effort and the work of his JGR crew.

"I felt like we had a really good hour-and-a-half," said Kenseth, who comes into the Brickyard 400 fourth in points. "It was productive, so one of our goals was to get a good lap in case it does rain tomorrow, they (NASCAR) always go off first practice speeds and we’ve been bit by that this year.  We wanted to try to lay down a lap early when the track was as good as it could be and we were able to do that in case there is bad weather for qualifying, then we just worked hard on race trim the whole time. Felt like we got through a lot of stuff. Felt like we gained a lot. I feel like we’re closer than we’ve been in a long time in balance and in speed. Still have a lot of work to do tomorrow, but I felt pretty good about today."

FIFTH TIME FOR SIX-TIME? — Six-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson has won four Brickyard 400s, tying him with his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon for most ever. But it was a brutal learning curve: Johnson finished 36th or worse three times in his first six Brickyard 400s.

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"There’s certain tracks that are very difficult to get sorted out and to know how to lead your team," said Johnson, who was fourth in Friday’s lone practice round. "For me this was one of the toughest ones I came to. Took me a long time to get it. The light finally turned on in my head, I think maybe it was ’04, ’05. Mid-race I’m like, ‘I’ve driven this track wrong since practice opened, set the car up wrong and led my team in the wrong direction.’ In the race it really dawned on me."

Johnson said he thought the difficulty of this track accounted for the fact that 15 of 20 Brickyard 400s have been won by NASCAR champions. 

"I just think this track is so challenging that the best teams have a chance to stand out, the best drivers," he said. "Nowadays the teams that are best at pit calling and strategy and also knowing that strategy before you get to the racetrack and know that you might end light on fuel or on two tires or no tires and how to work that balance and know what that balance needs to be."

MAKIN’ BACON — Funny how winning changes everything. Aric Almirola’s victory at Daytona earlier this month means he and the Eckrich-sponsored No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Ford almost certainly will be competing in the Chase for the Sprint Cup for the first time. Friday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Almirola said the Daytona victory was huge.

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"Absolutely, it’s certainly been a relief for us," Almirola said. "It’s been a long time since that 43 car has been to victory lane so we’ve all been pressing pretty hard over the last several years to try and do everything we could to get that 43 car to Victory Lane and it just hasn’t become a reality until Daytona, so it’s such a gratifying feeling and certainly a big weight has been lifted off our shoulders, but, at the same time, we don’t want to wait 15 more years to win again.  We’d rather do it sooner than later."

In fact, Almirola would like to get that second victory sooner rather than later, as in this weekend’s Brickyard 400. "I don’t think anybody shows up at the race track expecting to run 35th, so I fully intend to have a lot of speed and be able to go race on Sunday for a Brickyard 400 win," said Almirola, who was 17th in Friday’s only round of practice. "That would be amazing to have an opportunity to win at probably both of the most historic race tracks on our circuit."

AUSSIE BOUND? — Rumors persist that Marcos Ambrose will leave Richard Petty Motorsports at the end of 2014 to head back to his native Australia to race in the V8 Supercar Series, where he is a two-time champion. Ambrose is a free agent after this season.

Friday morning at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, RPM co-owner Richard Petty told reporters, "You’ll have to talk to him (Ambrose)" about 2015. A spokesman for Richard Petty Motorsports said neither the team nor the driver will comment on Ambrose’s situation.

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