Kenseth responds with Richmond Cup pole

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Two days after his team was heavily penalized by NASCAR after its race-winning engine from Kansas failed inspection, Matt Kenseth set a new Richmond International Raceway track record and claimed pole for Saturday night’s Toyota Owners 400 on the 3/4-mile bullring.

Kenseth’s lap at 130.334 mph was enough to out-hustle Brian Vickers (subbing for the injured Denny Hamlin), Jeff Gordon, Kasey Kahne and Clint Bowyer for P1. In an odd turn of events, Kenseth’s pole will put him in the running for the 2014 Sprint Unlimited exhibition at Daytona; he lost the Unlimited spot that he earned with his Kansas pole last weekend as part of the penalties that went against him and his No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing team this week.

“I’ve said it a million times, but this is just a really special group, and I’m a really lucky guy to be driving [this car],” Kenseth told SPEED Channel afterwards. “Really proud of these guys. After practice, I didn’t think we had a prayer of sitting on the pole, and one of my goals this week with everything going on was to go sit on the pole and maybe that would quiet things down a little bit…

“It always feels good when you can go out and win a pole, or even win a race, so the important thing tomorrow night is figuring out how to get this thing out front and be there at the last lap when it really counts. But yeah, the pole feels really good for all of us today.”

Kenseth was penalized 50 driver points and lost his bonus points for the victory in Kansas, while crew chief Jason Ratcliff was fined $200,000 and suspended for six races. Team owner Joe Gibbs lost 50 car owner points and had his owner’s license suspended for six weeks, which means he can’t gain points toward the owner’s championship in that period. Toyota also lost five points toward the manufacturer’s championship.

Juan Pablo Montoya, Joey Logano, Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr., and Mark Martin will round out the Top 10 on the grid for tomorrow night’s 400-lap event. Dale Earnhardt Jr. will go off from 19th, defending Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski from 23rd, current points leader Jimmie Johnson from 27th, and Danica Patrick from 30th.

F1 2017 driver review: Nico Hulkenberg

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Nico Hulkenberg

Team: Renault
Car No.: 27
Races: 20
Wins: 0
Podiums: 0
Best Finish: P6 (Spain, Great Britain, Belgium, Abu Dhabi)
Pole Positions: 0
Fastest Laps: 0
Points: 43
Championship Position: 10th

Expectations were hard to peg for Renault heading into its second full season back in F1 with a factory team, but Nico Hulkenberg was surely expected to be the man spearheading its charge.

With teammate Jolyon Palmer severely underperforming, Hulkenberg did exactly that, bringing home all but 14 of the team’s points in the final standings. However, consistency was never something he truly found.

Many of Renault’s issues were down to reliability issues, sidelining Hulkenberg for six races – four coming in a five-race stint from Singapore to Mexico – yet he only scored points in consecutive races on three occasions.

When Hulkenberg and Renault were on form, they proved to be a potent combination, often topping the midfield fight and even looking faster than Force India come the end of the season. His run to sixth at the final race in Abu Dhabi was crucial for the constructors’ championship as Renault jumped Toro Rosso, securing an extra slice of prize money in the process.

But for a driver who was so often tipped as being a future star in F1, Hulkenberg still has a lot to prove. Renault is set to offer a good platform for the German moving forward with factory support, yet if he cannot beat new teammate Carlos Sainz Jr. through 2018, concerns will surely be raised.

Season High: Charging to sixth in Abu Dhabi despite a penalty.

Season Low: A tough run to 16th in Malaysia.