Charlotte Update: Kasey Kahne strong early on

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Kasey Kahne and the entire Hendrick Motorsports posse have had a robust first half in tonight’s Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Pole sitter Jeff Gordon led the first 26 laps of the night and went to pit road as the leader following an early yellow. But a decision to go with four tires caused him to drop back to eighth for the restart, while Kasey Kahne was able to ascend to the front for the Lap 30 restart.

However, Gordon didn’t falter as badly as Kyle Busch, who was forced to make a second stop under the caution because of loose lug nuts on his No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota. He was forced to restart from 35th spot, but quickly began made up ground when the race went back to green.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. quickly took the point from his teammate Kahne, but a piece of trash on the grille triggered a rise in temperatures for Earnhardt’s No. 88 Chevy. On Lap 44, Kahne re-took the lead, giving Earnhardt a chance to draft him in an attempt to knock the debris off.

But he wasn’t quite able to do the job until he had conceded both second and third to Martin Truex Jr. and Jimmie Johnson respectively before the Lap 50 mark; Earnhardt finally got rid of the debris after running up toward Johnson’s rear bumper.

Truex’s stop on Lap 69 began a cycle of green flag service for the field, which ended with Kahne getting the lead back, Truex in second, Earnhardt in third, Johnson in fourth and Gordon in fifth.

An engine failure for Mark Martin brought the yellow out again shortly after Lap 80, triggering stops for drivers such as Truex,  Kevin Harvick, Kyle and Kurt Busch, and Brad Keselowski – who was forced to return after he left with the jack still attached to his car.

Earnhardt once again popped ahead of Kahne off the restart at Lap 91. Also taking advantage was Kyle Busch, who had already climbed back up to 14th after his ill-fated first stop but then vaulted an additional eight positions off the restart to sixth.

Kahne, though, would not be shook off by Earnhardt, and on Lap 96, he passed him again for P1. The Hendrick foursome of Kahne, Johnson, Earnhardt and Gordon stayed up front, running 1-2-3-4 up to Lap 126 when Kyle Busch passed Gordon for fourth as the latter was slowing down to get to the pits.

Another round of stops under green flag conditions were beginning at that point, and Kahne would give up the lead to pit on Lap 130 – only to get it back on Lap 135 at the end of the cycle. Kyle Busch rose to second behind Kahne and ahead of Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon.

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.”