Talladega Update: Johnson, Kenseth, Dale Jr. mixing it up

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As expected, the field has been constantly fluctuating today at Talladega Superspeedway in the Camping World RV Sales 500 – the sixth race of the 2013 Chase for the Sprint Cup.

With the field lined up by first practice speeds after the rainout of qualifying on Saturday afternoon, Aric Almirola and Jeff Burton led the grid to the green flag at NASCAR’s biggest track under sunny skies.

On Lap 3, the first caution of the day emerged as Tony Raines suffered an engine problem. Many drivers – including Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kyle Busch, Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer – came down to pit road under the yellow to top off on fuel and make small adjustments to their cars.

The green came back out at Lap 8 with Almirola and Burton still leading the way. Burton’s train of cars on the high line propelled him to the lead shortly afterwards, with Chase leader Matt Kenseth following Burton into second position.

On Lap 11, the high line re-emerged for Kenseth, and with help from Kurt Busch and his Wonder Bread-themed homage to Talladega Nights, he pulled ahead of Burton on the low line for the point.

Greg Biffle and Joey Logano then rose up to mount a challenge against Kenseth as the race crossed the 25-lap mark. The leaders then settled into a single-file formation with two-lane racing continuing on toward the middle and rear of the pack.

Green flag stops began at Lap 41, with Kenseth abandoning the lead for service one lap later; Jimmie Johnson, one of Kenseth’s main rivals in the Chase, also pitted at Lap 42.

During the cycle, Kyle Busch was unable to cross over toward his pit box thanks to Jamie McMurray, forcing him to come back again to make his stop. Additionally, last week’s winner, Brad Keselowski, was hit with a drive-thru penalty for speeding on pit road.

When the cycle ended, the order shook out with Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. duking it out for the lead before Johnson assumed control and Earnhardt fell back slightly to around fourth.

On Lap 53, Denny Hamlin then took a brief turn at the front, with Johnson coming back to P1 on the next go-round. Earnhardt and Kenseth then came back to fight the No. 48.

The pack swallowed up Keselowski and put him a lap down at Lap 62. At this point, Johnson had fallen back and Kenseth had assumed the lead on the high line. He would then drop to the low line by Lap 65 to hold back Johnson and Denny Hamlin, while Earnhardt became the new lead car up top.

Kyle Busch and Kasey Kahne were the next ones to fall one lap down around Lap 67, but with Hamlin directly behind him, Busch settled in as he tried to become the potential beneficiary for the free pass.

Shortly afterwards, Kenseth got hung out on the high line and fell out of the Top 10, allowing Johnson to take control. Once again, the leaders went into single-file formation ahead of another wave of stops.

Kenseth was able to cut his way back to the lead on the low line and was able to catch the draft from Johnson to return to the Top 5 close to Lap 80. On Lap 78, the long green-flag run ended with a multi-car incident on the frontstretch as Marcos Ambrose lost control of his car while moving to the high line and then skidded down the track and into the side of Juan Pablo Montoya.

With Kyle Busch earning the free pass as a result, the pits opened for the leaders. Earnhardt led the pack into pit road, but came out behind Johnson and Kenseth, who, like Earnhardt, took two tires.

The green came back out at Lap 84, and Earnhardt quickly stuck his nose to Johnson’s bumper, pushing him past Kenseth for the lead. But Kenseth would not go away and used the high line to pass Johnson back before dropping low to clear him.

He wouldn’t hold that lead for long as Johnson and Earnhardt teamed up yet again to pull ahead on the inside line by Lap 88. The two were still up toward the front at the halfway point, but Clint Bowyer and Aric Almirola were starting to make noise against them on the inside…

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.