Denny Hamlin on pole for Bristol night race

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With the pole position in hand for tomorrow’s Irwin Tools Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway, Denny Hamlin is looking forward to trying to end what has been a tough stretch of races for him in recent times.

Results from the last nine events have been quite mediocre for the driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota. Since logging an eighth-place finish at Pocono in June, Hamlin has not finished higher than 18th (Indianapolis) with three DNFs along the way.

That’s made him vow to be, in his words, “as aggressive as [he] possibly can to get a win” tomorrow in Thunder Valley. But, being the good teammate, he also wants to help JGR compatriots Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch as they look to maintain their places in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

“Our job for the rest of the year is to do what we can for our teammates, for our manufacturers to try to be a guinea pig if we need to — whatever it takes to get a championship for Toyota or Joe Gibbs Racing,” said Hamlin.

“We’re going to try to sacrifice. We pay the price for that sometimes with results, but my job — I’ve had teammates who have not been part of the Chase before and I’ve asked them to try different things, so we’ve got to be that guy now.”

Hamlin threw down a lap at 128.969 miles per hour to earn the pole for tomorrow’s 500-lap event ahead of five-time Bristol winner Kurt Busch (128.770 mph), who is looking to strengthen his chances of making the Chase while talk continues to swirl about which team he’ll end up with in 2014.

“You know, it’s like a checklist that you go through each time you get in the car,” said Busch. “One of those items is to just block out the outside world and know that what is at hand right now is a qualifying run.

“Tomorrow is 500 laps at Bristol, where I have to protect my car and make sure we don’t try to push any issues on restarts. And then to have the outside guys knocking on the door going, ‘Hey we want you to drive,’ – it’s a good confidence booster, to say the least.”

Carl Edwards and Brian Vickers will roll off from the second row, with Matt Kenseth and last week’s winner Joey Logano sitting in Row 3. Kasey Kahne, Ryan Newman, Martin Truex Jr. and Aric Almirola round out the Top 10 on Saturday’s grid.

Red Bull rising into the form expected when the season began

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AUSTIN, Texas (AP) Young “Mad Max” Verstappen had plenty to be angry about for the first half of the Formula One season. After his breakout season in 2016, this year had been little more than a rash of retirements, crashes and clashes with other drivers.

But a late burst over the last two races delivered his second career victory and a second-place. Those results have Red Bull rising and looking more like the fast and muscular team it was expected to be.

Verstappen and teammate Daniel Ricciardo now look primed to keep pushing for the front over the final four races of 2017, starting this week at the U.S. Grand Prix. Do that and the prospects for a 2018 title fight grow brighter.

“We’re definitely going the way we need to be going,” Ricciardo said. “If we start on the front foot, I genuinely believe we can fight for the title if we start closer. That’s what we’re aiming for.”

Verstappen’s win in Malaysia demonstrated a perfect marriage of the young Dutchman’s driving skill and his improving car when he beat Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton with a head-to-head pass early. He was on the podium again a week later in Japan. The champagne spray at both races was a tasty but dry reminder that Red Bull wanted – and expected – so much more this season.

While Ricciardo has been a workhorse with nine podiums and one victory, Verstappen’s season was crippled by reliability issues with his car or crashes.

“There were so many races this year when he was in a fantastic position to achieve big results,” team principal Christian Horner said this week. “Credit to him that at such a young age he hasn’t let frustration boil over … when it comes right for him, it’s going to come right in a big way. And that’s exactly what happened in Malaysia. He drove a great race there, with no issues.”

Some of the “issues” created internal tension.

The first lap of the Hungarian Grand Prix was a disaster for Red Bull. Verstappen tried to overtake Ricciardo and hit him, knocking Ricciardo out of the race while Verstappen finished fifth. Ricciardo lashed out at Verstappen as “immature” and criticized the “amateur” maneuver.

Verstappen said he can’t think about what happened early in the season.

“That frustration I put behind me,” Verstappen said. “It happened. You can’t change it anymore. You’re just happy that it’s going well again and we had some good results.”

Ricciardo has carried Red Bull to the podium time and again but his broad smile hasn’t beamed from the top spot since Azerbaijan in June. Despite his run of strong finishes, he’s stuck at fourth in the driver’s standings and needs a boost to overtake Mercedes’ Valtteri Bottas for third.

The Circuit of the Americas has been good for both Red Bull drivers in the past. Ricciardo finished third here in 2014 and 2016. Verstappen had an attention-getting drive in 2015 when he finished fourth in his Toro Rosso after sloshing his way through the field on a wet track.

Verstappen had a wild race in 2016 when he challenged for the lead early, came in for a pit stop when the crew wasn’t ready and yelled to his garage: “I’m not here to finish fourth!” He didn’t finish at all when his car was knocked out with a gearbox problem on lap 32.

Verstappen was 17 when he joined the F1 grid as the youngest driver in series history and he still jokes about his age. Austin is known for its live music and nightlife, but he’s limited as to how much he can party away from the track.

“I’m only 20. I can’t drink,” Verstappen said. “If I’m on the podium (Sunday) I won’t care.”