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.

Cooper solidifies PWC GT presence with Callaway Corvette

Callaway, Cooper, Gill. Photo: PWC
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Pirelli World Challenge could use a “face” of the series from a driving standpoint, and American Michael Cooper is a good candidate to fill that role for 2018.

Cooper, 27, has won PWC Touring Car, GTS and, most recently the SprintX GT titles within the series and has quickly blossomed into one of the series’ top GT stars.

It’s been a rapid rise for the Syosset, N.Y. native, entering into a world filled with series stars and champions such as Johnny O’Connell, Patrick Long, Alvaro Parente and a host of others.

But under O’Connell’s tutelage, Cooper admirably filled the rather gaping shoes vacated by Andy Pilgrim at Cadillac Racing, steering the Cadillac ATS-V.R to multiple race wins in the last two years – including a sweep of this year’s season finale weekend at Sonoma.

Cooper and Jordan Taylor were the model of consistency in SprintX this year, winning once at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park and surviving contact at Circuit of The Americas to take that title.

With Cadillac withdrawing its ATS-V.R program at the end of the year though, Cooper was left a free agent for 2018. Fortunately with one door closed another opened, in the form of the GM-blessed but full Callaway Competition USA effort with its Callaway Corvette C7 GT3-R that will come Stateside next year. Cooper and Daniel Keilwitz will be in the team’s two cars for the full season; the car was fully unveiled last week at the PRI Show in Indianapolis.

The Callaway is a proven commodity in Europe but couldn’t run in the U.S. unless the path was cleared by one of GM’s factory programs to end a direct, potential head-to-head competition.

Moving from the Cadillac to the Callaway Corvette should be a natural transition, Cooper said last week.

“It worked out incredibly well that GM decided to allow Calloway to run the car in the United States and it created an opportunity for me that wouldn’t have been there otherwise,” he told NBC Sports. “I talked to a lot of other GT teams and at the end of the day, I felt like this was the best direction for me to be competitive next year and to also continue furthering my career with General Motors.”

Indeed Cooper has graduated from the Blackdog Speed Shop Chevrolet Camaro Z/28.R in GTS to the Cadillac and now to the Callaway Corvette. Cooper hailed the Cadillac team for what they did for his career growth.

“Working with Cadillac Racing has been instrumental in developing my abilities both on and off the track,” he said. “So I’m definitely a much more well-rounded driver now and have a lot of experience in the World Challenge GT field, so I kind of know what to expect going into that first race and going into that first corner in St. Pete.”

As noted, the car’s success in Europe means it’s a well-oiled machine by the time Reeves Callaway has worked with PWC to bring it Stateside next year. And as Cooper explained, discussions had been underway for a bit of time to ensure his presence in this car and team.

“I think the car is going to be extremely capable. It’s already won championships and races in Europe. I think, in bringing it over here, we’re going to hit the ground running straight away,” he said.

“Calloway had wanted me to come drive for them in July or August. We always kept in touch since then, and there was a lot of work trying to put together a program before they decided that they were going to do a fully fledged factory program. So once they made that decision, I think the pieces were kind of in place already, and the conversations had been had to be able to say ‘You’re going to be our guy.’”

December is late for IMSA programs to get finalized, but it’s relatively early for PWC, with the season not starting until mid-March in St. Petersburg. An extensive testing program should follow, as Callaway establishes its U.S. base and infrastructure.

“It’s definitely early for a Pirelli World Challenge program to be announced in December when we start racing in March. So that’s very good,” he said. “But, the team has a lot of work ahead of them in terms of getting infrastructure set up here in the United States, because a lot of their racing program has been in Europe. So, there will be a testing program, but they have to get the infrastructure in place first. But, we’ll be well prepared for St. Pete, I’m certain of it.

“Last year was the first year when I could sit back, kick my feet up, and know what I was doing next year. So, to be able to have everything done and be able to announce it this early on makes my life less stressful and now I can just focus on preparing myself and my team for next year.”