Bowyer, Ambrose fastest in Friday’s Sprint Cup practice sessions at Sonoma

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Clint Bowyer appears ready to pick up where he left off the last time he raced at Sonoma Raceway, winning there in last year’s race.

And Marcos Ambrose, who already has two career road course wins at Watkins Glen International but is looking for his first at the 1.99-mile Sonoma layout, looks like he’ll be a factor in Sunday’s Toyota/SaveMart 350.

Ambrose, who won the pole for this race last year, was the fastest driver in the first of two practice sessions Friday with a series-best lap of 94.049 mph.

Bowyer, meanwhile, was the fastest in the late afternoon session at 94.556 mph. His win in last year’s race was his first for Michael Waltrip Racing and laid the groundwork for what would be an eventual runner-up finish to champion Brad Keselowski in the final Sprint Cup season standings.

Colombian driver Juan Pablo Montoya, whose first career Cup win came at Sonoma in his rookie season in 2007, was second-fastest in the first practice session in his Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing Chevrolet, followed by Casey Mears, Kurt Busch and another Earnhardt-Ganassi driver, Jamie McMurray, as fifth-fastest.

In the second session, McMurray moved up to second-fastest, followed by Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards and Montoya. Of note, while Ambrose was the only driver to break 94 mph in the first session, 10 drivers broke the mark in the second practice.

Several drivers ran into trouble during the afternoon session, spinning or running off-track, including Keselowski, Ryan Newman, Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin, whose car suffered minor but repairable damage.

Also of note, speeds in the first practice set the groupings for Saturday’s first-ever Sprint Cup series event using European-style qualifying with five or six cars going out at a time, each attempt separated by five seconds of starting time.

Qualifying takes place Saturday starting at 2 pm ET.

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.