Montoya narrowly misses first Cup win on oval

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Juan Pablo Montoya was a cinch for his first Sprint Cup win on an oval last night at Richmond International Raceway, but a late caution turned the race into a free-for-all — and also ended his hopes.

With five laps remaining, it appeared a hard-charging Kevin Harvick was going to run out of time in his efforts to catch Montoya. But when Brian Vickers crashed in Turn 3 to bring out the yellow, everything changed.

“I said, ‘Really? Really?’,” Montoya replied with a laugh when asked of what was going through his mind at the time. TV cameras caught him bashing the steering wheel of his No. 42 Earnhardt Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates Chevrolet in frustration.

Instead of celebrating the end of a 94-race winless streak (Watkins Glen, 2010), Montoya and his EGR team were forced to look at the big picture and opted to pit with four laps to go for fresh tires.

Harvick did the same, and so Montoya and Harvick lined up sixth and seventh respectively for the green-white-checkered restart. But Montoya restarted on the outside and was only able to peel off two positions for a fourth-place result, while Harvick used his fresh tires to pull off a stunning win.

Montoya achieved his first Top 5 finish since Martinsville Speedway in 2011 and a much-needed first Top 10 of 2013. While he was understandably annoyed with his near-miss, he recognized how important it was to come away with a solid finish after a rough start to the campaign.

“[Ticked] off,” said Montoya. “Everybody…this week did an amazing job. We had a great car. Same as last week, we had a great car. The pit crew redeemed themselves tonight. They did a great job all day, no mistakes. That is what we needed.

“…It is the luck of the draw. We restarted on the outside, and we were screwed.”

Hartley happy with ‘big progression’ on first day with Toro Rosso

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With 69 laps completed (28 in free practice one and 41 in free practice two) and respectable lap times in both sessions, Brendon Hartley quickly acclimated to a modern day Formula 1 chassis in his first run with Scuderia Toro Rosso in Friday practice for the United States Grand Prix.

The Porsche factory driver has been drafted into the team following a convoluted series of musical chairs that sees Daniil Kvyat back after a two-race absence, Carlos Sainz Jr. now at Renault and Pierre Gasly racing at the Super Formula season finale in Suzuka.

Over the time in the car today, Hartley experienced changeable conditions in FP1 before a more normal FP2, and discovered the new F1 cockpit after a day learning in the garage yesterday.

“A steep learning curve today! It all went pretty smoothly and I kept the car on track without making too many mistakes, so I’m quite happy,” the New Zealander reflected at day’s end.

“I didn’t really know what to expect from today because I just had so much to learn! I think I made quite a big progression throughout the day.

“The biggest difference from what I’m used to is the high-speed grip, it’s incredible here in Formula 1…it was quite an eye-opener! Another challenge are the tires, which are also quite different to what I’m used to. On the other hand, the long-run looks quite positive and I did a good job managing the tires there – the biggest thing I need to work on now is the new tire pace, and I’ll get another crack at it tomorrow morning before qualifying.

“All in all, I’d say it’s all coming together. We’ll now work hard and go through plenty of data tonight and hopefully I’ll make another step forward tomorrow.”

His best lap was 1.1 seconds up on Friday driver Sean Gelael, the Indonesian Formula 2 driver, in FP1 (1:39.267 to 1:40.406, good enough for 14th) and 1.1 seconds off the returning Kvyat in FP2 (1:37.987 to 1:36.761, good enough for 17th). Interestingly, the Gelael/Hartley combination in FP1 marked the second time in three races that Toro Rosso had a pair of drivers in its cars without a single Grand Prix start between them – Gasly’s debut at Malaysia was the other, when he and Gelael were in in FP1.

Coming into Friday’s running, Hartley said he was more ready for this opportunity now than he had been as a teenager. He admitted he’d called Red Bull’s Helmut Marko in the wake of Porsche’s LMP1 withdrawal news earlier this year to say he was game for any chance that might come.

“I’m a lot stronger than I was back then, basically. I wasn’t ready at 18 years old. I like to think I’m ready now,” he said.

“I haven’t driven a single-seater since 2012, but I like to think that Porsche LMP1 has hopefully prepared me well.”

As for the rest of his weekend, it’s been made more complicated by Hartley being assessed a 25-spot grid penalty, even though Hartley had done nothing to accrue the penalties.

The roundabout sequence of driver changes at Toro Rosso saw Gasly replace Kvyat, Kvyat replace Sainz, and now Hartley replace Gasly, as is outlined by NBCSN pit reporter Will Buxton below.