Roush Fenway Racing's Ricky Stenhouse Jr. put Ford at the top of the timesheets at the end of Friday's two NASCAR Sprint Cup Series practice sessions at Talladega Superspeedway ahead of this weekend's GEICO 500 restrictor plate race on Sunday afternoon.

Stenhouse set the best time of the day of 47.694s (200.780mph) on the 2.666-mile circuit, one of only three drivers to top the 200mph mark in the first of the day's two 55-minute sessions.

CLICK: Full Friday practice times from Talladega Superspeedway

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It's a big boost for the 27-year-old, who failed to qualify for the last Cup race at Talledega in October, although he also received a black flag for a blend-line violation in which he was deemed to have improperly merged onto the track on a warm-up lap.

"It's good for us at Roush Fenway," said Stenhouse at the end of the day's track activity. "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. 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.

"I think our Fifth Third Bank Ford drives really well in the draft. It seems to have some decent speed pulling up. We did some single-car runs this [second] practice, but we didn't really ever get it in qualifying trim and get everything taped up and things like everybody else did.

"I'm optimistic," he added. "I'm not sure how tomorrow is gonna look with qualifying, but I definitely think we have a car capable of manoeuvring through the race and through the pack and hopefully being the first one across the finish line."

Stenhouse was just nine thousandths of a second faster than Michael Waltrip in his eponymous team's #55 Toyota. Waltrip is back in the car for the first time since Daytona, taking over from Brett Moffitt who has been sitting in for regular driver Brian Vickers who remains on sick leave with blood clotting issues.

Third fastest in the session - and the only other driver to push past 200mph - was Roush Fenway Racing development driver Chris Buescher in the Front Row Motorsports #34 Ford. That's the car that Moffitt will take over with effect from next week at Kansas Speedway, when the #55 Michael Waltrip Racing car gets handed to David Ragan for the rest of the 2015 season.

Ragan is set to make his 300h Cup start this weekend, and his last in the #18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota as stand-in for the injured Kyle Busch. Ragan finished the morning session fifth fastest, just behind his JGR team mate and defending race winner Denny Hamlin.

Sixth fastest in the session was Stewart-Haas Racing's Danica Patrick, whose team mates were uncharacteristically struggling: Tony Stewart was 18th quickest and Kurt Busch ended up in 22nd place in the final timings, while defending series champion Kevin Harvick could only manage 31st.

The later afternoon session was slower than than the earlier one had been, with Stenhouse's Roush team mate Greg Biffle on top with a time of 48.381s (197.929mph) which was 0.017s than Tony Stewart, while Aric Almirola was third fastest for Richard Petty Motorsports.

In a session which saw only 38 of the 45 cars make timed laps, Ragan was seventh fastest while Harvick improved to 16th to put him ahead of Busch (19th) and Patrick (18th). Buescher dropped to 26th but was still ahead of Stenhouse who finished the session in 28th place with a time of 50.334s (190.249mph). That was 10mph slower than his earlier best after running just 13 laps compared with 32 in the first practice.

Qualifying for Sunday's race will take place at 1pm local time (6pm BST) on Saturday afternoon, and will be the first time that the latest tweaks to superspeedway qualifying will be put to the test.

After a controversial crash-plagued qualifying at Daytona at the start of the season, NASCAR announced at the end of March that they were dropping group qualifying at superspeedways for a return to single car time trials.

Qualifying will now consist of two rounds of qualifying with a ten minute interval in between, with the top 12 posted lap speeds advancing to the second round. Cars will take one, timed lap in each round of qualifying with each vehicle released at a predetermined timed interval as directed by race control, with the sanctioning body reserving the right to have more than one vehicle engaging in qualifying runs at the same time.

Qualifying order for the first round will be determined by a random draw while the order in the final round will go from the slowest to fastest speeds set in the first round. The same system will also be used to set the grid for Saturday's NASCAR Xfinity Series race.

See full Friday practice times from Talladega Superspeedway

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