Austin Dillon tops lone day of Sprint Cup Preseason Thunder testing

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It may be just for one day of preseason testing, but the midnight-black No. 3 Chevrolet is back on top of a Sprint Cup leaderboard.

Richard Childress Racing rookie Austin Dillon, charged by his grandfather/car owner with returning the iconic number to NASCAR’s top series this season, threw down a single-car lap of 195.109 miles per hour around Daytona International Speedway to lead the lone day of Sprint Cup Preseason Thunder testing.

Rain played a major impact on what was supposed to be a two-day session at Daytona. Instead, Thursday was a complete washout and today’s action didn’t get underway until a little before 1 p.m. ET because of the wet stuff. That caused NASCAR to extend today’s session all the way to 9 p.m. ET with no breaks along the way.

After the lights went on at DIS, a mini-drafting session broke out within the final 90 minutes, with Aric Almirola, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jamie McMurray, Kasey Kahne, and Kyle Larson among those spotted in the pack. However, teams mostly focused on single-car work today.

In a NASCAR statement, Dillon once again reiterated his pride in reviving the No. 3, which was driven by the late Dale Earnhardt to six of his seven Cup championships.

“I’m honored to be in the 3,” he said. “This is special and walking into this Cup garage this weekend is pretty cool. There are so many heroes in this garage for me, and just being in this garage is going to be pressure.”

RCR compatriots Brian Scott and Matt Crafton were also stout, posting the second and third-quickest times in the session. Scott turned in a single-car hot lap at 194.582 mph in the No. 33 Chevy, while Crafton, the reigning NASCAR Camping World Truck Series champion, dropped a 194.342 in Paul Menard’s No. 27 Chevy; Crafton was a last-minute sub for Menard, who was forced to deal with the aftermath of a burst pipe at his home according to Fox Sports.

Chevrolet drivers posted eight of the 10 fastest laps on Friday, with Richard Petty Motorsports’ Almirola leading the Fords in fourth (193.828 mph) and Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin leading the Toyotas in ninth (193.071 mph). Larson, expected to be Dillon’s main rival for Sprint Cup Rookie of the Year honors in 2014, was fifth-fastest for Chip Ganassi Racing (193.411 mph).

In all, 41 drivers turned laps during today’s session (including Rusty Wallace, who shared the No. 2 today with regular driver Brad Keselowski). Kahne (14th, 192.893) ran the most laps out of all of them with 106. Second to Kahne was one of his Hendrick Motorsports teammates, defending Cup series and Daytona 500 champion Jimmie Johnson, who logged 95 laps and posted the 11th-fastest time (193.021).

Stewart-Haas Racing newcomers Kurt Busch and Kevin Harvick turned their first Daytona laps with their new squad, which expands to four cars this season. Both posted decent laps – Busch with the seventh-best (193.249), Harvick with the 12th-best (192.988).

Also getting acclimated to a new team was Ryan Newman, now with RCR after leaving Stewart-Haas. The Indiana native was 17th-fastest today (192.448).

SPRINT CUP PRESEASON THUNDER – FRIDAY TIMES

Neuville wins Rally Australia; Ogier takes FIA WRC title

Sebastien Ogier. Photo: Getty Images
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COFFS HARBOUR, Australia (AP) Belgium’s Thierry Neuville won Rally Australia by 22.5 seconds on Sunday as torrential rain added drama to the last day of the last race of the World Rally Championship season.

Neuville entered the final day with an almost 20 second advantage after inheriting the rally lead Saturday when his Hyundai teammate, defending champion Andreas Mikkelsen crashed and was forced to retire for the day.

His lead was halved by Jari-Matti Latvala early Sunday as monsoon-like rain made conditions treacherous on muddy forest stages on the New South Wales coast. The rain stopped on the short Wedding Bells stage where Neuville was almost 5 seconds quicker than his rivals, stretching his lead to 14.7 seconds entering the last stage.

COFFS HARBOUR, AUSTRALIA – NOVEMBER 17: Thierry Neuville of Belgium and Nicolas Gilsoul of Belgium compete in their Hyundai Motorsport WRT Hyundai i20 coupe WRC during Day One of the WRC Australia on November 17, 2017 in COFFS HARBOUR, Australia. (Photo by Massimo Bettiol/Getty Images)

That stage was full of incident. The driver’s door on Neuville’s Hyundai i20 coupe swung open in the middle of the stage and Neuville had to slam it closed as he approached a corner.

Latvala’s Toyota then crashed seconds from the end of the stage, allowing Estonia’s Ott Tanak, in a Ford, to take second place overall and New Zealalnd’s Haydon Paddon, in a Hyundai, to sneak into third.

Sebastian Ogier was fourth after winning the final, power stage but the Frenchman had already clinched his fifth world title before Rally Australia began. Neuville’s win was his fourth of the season, two more than Ogier, and was enough to give him second place in world drivers’ standings for the third time in five years.

Ogier owed his drivers’ title to his consistency: he retired only once and finished no worse than fifth all season.

Neuville admitted the last day was touch and go as the rain made some stages perilous, forcing the cancellation of the second to last stage.

“That was a hell of a ride,” Neuville said. “Really, really tricky conditions.

“I kept the car on the road but it was close sometimes. I knew I could make a difference but I had to be clever. You lose grip, you lose control and the car doesn’t respond to your input.”