Dale Jr. bounces back with sixth-place showing in N.H.

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Time will tell if a spark of life has been put into the Chase hopes of Dale Earnhardt Jr. after he finished sixth on Sunday afternoon at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Earnhardt jumped two spots to 11th in the championship, but still faces a mountain to climb if he wants to truly be back in post-season contention. Despite the move up the table, he lost ground to leader Matt Kenseth; he entered New Hampshire down 53 points after an engine failure last weekend at Chicagoland Speedway, but left with a 62 point gap to overcome starting at Dover next weekend.

But today certainly fared better for him than the Windy City did, even though things didn’t start well. A loose lug nut forced Earnhardt to make a second stop under the first caution of the day, putting him on an alternate strategy.

That strategy enabled Earnhardt to get to the lead at Lap 114 before he pitted again shortly before the halfway point. During a caution at Lap 164, the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports team opted to go with two tires on his stop in a bid to gain track position.

The move worked, and on the final restart of the day, Earnhardt was able to move up to second before he began to lose rear grip and give up several positions in the remaining laps.

“I ran out of rear tires trying to hold him [fifth-place finisher Jamie McMurray] off,” Earnhardt said. “[I] couldn’t get the power down just off the corner and he was a pretty fast car to begin with. I knew it was going to be difficult to hold him off, but we had a good car yesterday. Almost as good as it was today.

“Just real happy to be able to rebound from earlier on pit road and get a good finish. The car was fast as heck yesterday – one of the top three cars I thought. Glad we were able to get a decent finish out of it. Just want to win one, I’m trying hard.”

Looking ahead, Earnhardt has one career win at Dover but has been up-and-down at the Monster Mile in recent times (five finishes of 20th or worse in his last ten starts there). However, he did finish 10th there this past June.

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.