NASCAR’s underdogs have their day

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Apart from the “Super” or “Mega” teams in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series garage, the smaller teams usually relegated to the back of the field often get a chance to shine at Daytona. This year was no different.

Regan Smith (No. 51 Phoenix Racing), Michael McDowell (No. 98 Phil Parsons Racing, see right) and J.J. Yeley (No. 36 Tommy Baldwin Racing) all scored top-10 finishes in this year’s Daytona 500. Smith ended seventh from 40th on the grid, with McDowell and Yeley ninth and 10th from 38th and 41st, respectively.

James Finch’s Phoenix squad has a prior win at Talladega, the first of Brad Keselowski’s career in 2009, but has otherwise struggled with Finch funding the effort largely out-of-pocket. The team threw Kurt Busch a lifeline after he was released from Penske Racing at the end of 2011.

The Parsons and Baldwin teams had not previously secured a top-10 finish in the “Great American Race.” Baldwin’s No. 36 was in a position to win last year’s Daytona 500 with Dave Blaney, who was leading at the time of a red flag when Juan Pablo Montoya collided with a jet drier. McDowell’s ninth place is his first Sprint Cup top-10 in six seasons.

Of the other relatively smaller teams, BK Racing’s pair of cars got both of its cars (David Reutimann, 16th and Travis Kvapil, 25th) in the top-25 although Kvapil had an accident on the last lap of the race. Scott Speed finished a respectable 23rd in the Leavine Family Racing No. 95 Ford. All three of Front Row Motorsports’ Fords (David Ragan, Josh Wise, David Gilliland) were caught up in a lap 139 accident.

It’s difficult for these teams to get noticed with a lack of “big name” drivers or sponsors. But in the restrictor-plate racing crapshoots at Daytona and Talladega, they can score good finishes simply by staying out of trouble.

Ferrari teammates Vettel and Raikkonen fastest in rainy final practice at Australian GP

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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Ferrari drivers Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen went one-two in the final practice session ahead of qualifying at the water-logged Australian Grand Prix on Saturday.

Vettel set a best-lap time of 1 minute, 26.067 seconds, more than 2.4 seconds faster than his teammate in second.

Both Ferrari drivers switched from their intermediate tires to the super-fast, ultra-soft tires for the final few laps of the session, testing conditions on the track after a day-long downpour left it slick and filled with small puddles.

Mercedes drivers Valtteri Bottas and Lewis Hamilton did not opt to try out their soft tires, sticking to the intermediates for the entire session. They had the seventh- and eighth-fastest times, after topping the leaderboard in practice in dry conditions on Friday.

The heavy rains subsided by early afternoon, allowing the track to rapidly dry during the third practice session and making conditions safe for drivers to test their soft tires.

Still, only a few drivers completed a timed lap with the softer compounds, with Mercedes, Red Bull and most of the others staying with their intermediates.

Sauber’s Marcus Ericsson had the third-fastest time of the session on ultrasoft tires, followed by Red Bull’s Max Verstappen on intermediates.

Hamilton remains the favorite to capture his fifth straight pole position at the Australian Grand Prix in qualifying later Saturday. He had the fastest laps on ultrasoft tires in the two practice sessions on Friday, though Verstappen was right behind him.

Verstappen and Vettel both slid on the slick track early in the third practice session, but maintained control and completed their runs without incident.

Verstappen’s teammate, Daniel Ricciardo, had the sixth-fastest time of the session. The Australian’s chances of winning his fifth career Grand Prix on his home track in Melbourne took a hit late Friday when he was assessed a three-place grid penalty for Sunday’s race.

The Australian driver was penalized for driving too fast under red-flag conditions during Friday’s second practice session because of debris on the track.