Fresh start has turned stale quickly for Martin Truex Jr.

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What was supposed to be a fresh start for Martin Truex Jr. in 2014 has instead become a frustrating if not stale start, with seemingly one bad thing after another this season.

Forced out of Michael Waltrip Racing when NAPA Auto Parts pulled their sponsorship in light of the attempt to manipulate the field of last year’s Chase for the Sprint Cup, Truex had high hopes moving on to his new team, Furniture Row Racing.

FRR was coming off its best season ever, becoming the first single-car team to ever qualify for the Chase, with Kurt Busch behind the wheel.

When Busch moved on to Stewart Haas Racing, the timing couldn’t have been more perfect for Truex. He moved into a ride that appeared, at least on the surface, maybe even better than what he had at MWR.

But what Truex hoped for and what has turned out in actuality in the first five races of the season are 180 degrees apart.

Things looked like they’d start out great when he qualified on the outside pole for the season-opening Daytona 500.

Unfortunately, he ultimately wound up finishing last when his engine blew up just 30 laps into the race.

He finished 22nd at Phoenix, 14th at Las Vegas, fell back to 36th at Bristol and left Fontana this past Sunday 23rd.

Add those five races together and Truex’s average finish thus far this season is 27.6.

At the same time, he’s back to 30th in the overall standings, 82 points — almost two full races of points — behind series leader Carl Edwards.

There’s an old saying in NASCAR that how you do in the first five races of the season is usually a reflection of how the rest of your season is going to be like.

If that’s the case, The Mayetta, N.J., native is in big trouble heading into Sunday’s race at Martinsville, because the .526-mile bullring is one of his worst-performing tracks.

“We need to start finding a rhythm with this Furniture Row Racing team,” Truex said earlier this week. “Things have not gone our way so far this season.

“Some of it is our fault and a large part has been some very tough luck.”

While Truex obviously hopes he’s ready to break out, his past record at Martinsville appears to indicate he’ll suffer more of the same fate he’s had both this year overall, as well as throughout his career thus far at the southern Virginia track.

“Going to Martinsville presents another challenge,” Truex said this week. “To be honest, Martinsville is a place I still haven’t figured out. I have had some good runs over the years there, but it has been very inconsistent. I’ve been hooked up at Martinsville sometimes and other times I couldn’t get out of my own way.”

Even before Saturday’s washed out day of both Sprint Cup practices as well as the Camping World Trucks Series race (postponed until after Sunday’s Sprint Cup event), Truex was expecting a different kind of track.

Now with the rain having washed away all collected rubber, a completely green track is not in Truex’s favor, either.

“The biggest challenge about Martinsville is the track changes so much throughout the weekend,” he said. “And the track is never on Sunday what it was like all weekend.

“As soon as they drop the green flag, the track is completely different than it was the day before when you feel you have your car dialed in for the race. Though brakes aren’t as big of an issue as they use to be at Martinsville, you still need to take care of them. If not, you can burn them up.”

Truex needs a big lift this weekend, especially after last weekend’s race at Fontana. Not only did he crash in practice, forcing him to go to a backup car for the race, he ultimately finished a lot worst – 23rd – than what he felt his secondary ride was capable of.

“Every time we felt the momentum swing our way, we seemed to take a punch in the gut,” Truex said. “Finishing 23rd is never acceptable for us because we feel that we are a Chase-caliber team. But considering the incidents that we were faced with, I can honestly say that we fought for every inch of that 23rd-place result.

“Not a good weekend, but I am proud of the way we kept on bouncing back from all of the adversity. We’re going to be ok. We’re just going through a rough streak right now.”

For his sake, hopefully that rough streak will end Sunday.

“We understand the challenges and the uncertainty of Martinsville,” Truex said. “But when this Furniture Row team goes to a race, we feel confident that we can put together a strong race and be a contender. This weekend is not any different.”

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

Raikkonen leads topsy turvy first free practice session in Russia

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Kimi Raikkonen has topped the timesheets in the first 90-minute free practice session for this weekend’s Russian Grand Prix, although times are never entirely representative in this first running of the weekend on the notoriously low-grip to start Sochi Autodrom.

Naturally then it took longer for the fastest times to come in. Raikkonen posted a 1:36.074 on Pirelli’s supersoft tires, with just under half an hour remaining, which eclipsed the pair of Mercedes AMG Petronas entries of Valtteri Bottas and Lewis Hamilton, who were 0.045 of a second and 0.607 of a second behind, respectively.

Vettel was fifth without really getting a proper lap in – more than one second back of his not-under-fire but perhaps under-duress teammate – just behind Red Bull’s Max Verstappen in fourth.

This marks the last race that Verstappen will be racing as a member of Red Bull Racing for the first time, as it marks the one-year anniversary since local hero Daniil Kvyat’s first-lap nightmare here last year. The Toro Rosso driver in his special edition “torpedo” helmet he’s made this weekend clocked in 11th.

Raikkonen’s fastest time was more than two seconds up on FP1’s fastest time last year, and times will only get quicker the rest of the weekend.

Both Hamilton and Vettel got away with “moments” during the session. Early on, Hamilton had had a quick moment over the Turn 2 curbs but landed without damage. In the final 15 minutes Vettel spun as well at Turn 17, but again without hitting anything. Hamilton then ran wide at the exit of Turn 14, looping his car, but stopping it before it hit the barriers.

Meanwhile Ferrari stated both Vettel and Raikkonen are using new turbochargers this race, and didn’t cite any potential reliability concerns as a reason why.

Raikkonen’s overall best time looked set to be bettered before the first red and only flag of the session occurred in a fairly abnormal manner.

With less than 25 minutes to go in the session, a bizarre incident occurred as Esteban Ocon’s engine cover off the back of his Force India Mercedes popped off as he closed his DRS on the run to Turn 2. Ocon limped the wounded Force India back to the pit lane with no additional damage but it put the session under a red flag, which thus provided a green flag for Twitter snark.

Meanwhile the young Frenchman wasn’t the only driver with issues this session. Stoffel Vandoorne reported in a loss of power to his Honda-powered McLaren inside the final 10 minutes of the session; the Belgian has had woeful luck of late with power units, notably at Bahrain, and the team was hopeful it had made a step forward in the post-Grand Prix test there. A grid penalty would loom with another power unit change.

To start the session, Renault test driver Sergey Sirotkin, in a run-out in his home Grand Prix weekend, didn’t even get to complete a timed lap as he stopped on the backside of the circuit with a mechanical issue. Reboot attempts failed and left him without a lap, same as the driver he was filling in for in Nico Hulkenberg, who will be back in for FP2.

Speaking of, FP2 comes up live at 8 a.m. ET, 5 a.m. PT on NBCSN and the NBC Sports App.

Times are below:

NASCAR Truck drivers feel the earth move sitting in NHRA powerhouses

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Several NASCAR Camping World Truck Series drivers got to see how the other half lives – namely, their counterparts in the NHRA – on Thursday at Charlotte Motor Speedway and across the street at zMax Dragway.

To say it was an eye-opening experience is putting it mildly.

Top Fuel drag racers Shawn Langdon and Troy Coughlin Jr., as well as Funny Car driver J.R. Todd – all from one of the top teams in the NHRA, Kalitta Motorsports – are in Charlotte for this weekend’s 4-Wide Nationals at zMax Dragway.

NASCAR Trucks driver Noah Gragson gets to feel the 10,000 horsepower of a Top Fuel dragster.

Thursday, they invited NASCAR drivers Ryan Truex, Christopher Bell, Grant Enfinger and Noah Gragson to show how it’s done NHRA-style.

Todd, Langdon and Coughlin started the day taking Toyota Camry pace cars around the 1.5-mile CMS oval.

Then everyone moved across the street to see some real horsepower, namely, 10,000 horses worth – which is roughly about 13 times the power they have under the hood of their race trucks.

Truex and Bell got a chance to “warm up” Todd’s Funny Car, while Enfinger and Gragson did the same with Langdon’s Top Fueler.

 

Meanwhile, Todd and Langdon both did smoky burnouts that, if the Truck guys thought they could do burnouts, they learned a lot to the contrary.

“It was a cool to do a big smoky burnout,” Todd said. “It was cool to see the guys reactions. We had a great time today and I think we created several new fans.”

Added Langdon, “Days like today is what makes me love our sport even more. Bringing these guys over here and letting them hit the throttle and sit in the car when it warms up gives them a look at what we do. To see the smiles on their faces after a badass burnout and how excited they are, just gets me pumped.”

Here’s what the NASCAR guys thought about the experience.

Bell: “J.R. Todd let me sit in his Toyota Camry Funny Car and they even cracked the throttle open for me when we were warming up the motor. It is something that I will remember for the rest of my life. It is a feeling like none other.”

Enfinger: “Just a crazy experience, something I have never done. Been able to do a lot of cool things with Toyota, but it is not every day that you get to make your dad jealous.”

Gragson: “This was awesome. It was the experience of a lifetime. It was great to hang out with J.R. Todd, Shawn and Troy Jr. Definitely a cool experience; one that I will remember forever.”

Truex: “This has probably been the craziest experience that I have ever been a part of. I got to sit in a Funny Car; they hit the throttle, which really scared me. When I was outside the car, I jumped about three feet in the air. It was cool to get inside and experience that. The nitro was all in my face, and I think they gained a new fan with me today.”

Follow @JerryBonkowski

 

F1 drivers split on new ‘shield’ protection

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SOCHI, Russia (AP) Formula One drivers are split over plans to test a new “shield” device to protect against flying debris.

The FIA will trial the transparent screen in the coming months for a potential introduction in 2018, as it pushes for greater head protection for drivers. Recent years have seen major head injuries in several motorsport series.

“I wouldn’t mind trying out the shield, seeing how is the visibility,” Mercedes driver Valtteri Bottas said on Thursday. “In terms of safety it would be a good step compared to what we have now.”

Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo was another supporter, saying “we’ve still got to see a bit more, but first impressions seem OK.”

The FIA previously seemed to favor a metal frame known as the “halo,” which was designed to stop a flying wheel hitting a driver’s head but was criticized by some drivers on aesthetic grounds.

Toro Rosso’s Daniil Kvyat said on Thursday he was “quite against” the shield and the halo. “The way Formula One should look should remain the same,” he added. “We have enough protection.”

Romain Grosjean of Haas voiced concern the “next step” would be completely closed cockpits.

Recent years have seen several high-profile head injuries, including the deaths of Formula Two driver Henry Surtees in 2009 when he was hit by a loose wheel and IndyCar driver Justin Wilson, who was struck by debris, in 2015.

In Formula One, Brazilian driver Felipe Massa missed the second half of the 2009 season when a loose spring from another car hit his helmet, leaving him needing surgery.

Haas changes F1 brake supplier ahead of Russian Grand Prix

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Haas has switched from Brembo to Carbon Industrie brakes ahead of this weekend’s Russian Grand Prix in a bid to remedy its long-running braking issues in Formula 1.

NASCAR team co-owner Gene Haas took his eponymous operation onto the F1 grid in 2016, with Romain Grosjean scoring all 29 of its points through its debut season.

Grosjean and then-teammate Esteban Gutierrez had their efforts spurned on a number of occasions by brake issues which continued to arise through pre-season testing in 2017 and the early races.

Haas pushed to remedy the issue by testing new Carbon Industrie brakes in the post-Bahrain Grand Prix test, with Grosjean and new teammate Kevin Magnussen conducting running.

The team duly decided to fit the new Carbon Industrie brakes for this weekend’s race in Russia, with both VF-17 cars to run with them from Friday onwards.

“To be fair to Brembo, the last update in brakes we had that arrived in China were much better. It took a long time to get them,” Grosjean explained.

“So then I was not screaming to change to Carbone Industrie but it was in the pipeline, so we tried them, and both drivers were pretty pleased with them. We felt like we had more control under braking.

“I’m very sensitive to my left pedal, so I really need to get good brakes to get good confidence and push the car to its maximum limit. So we are going to run them here.

“There is still a little bit of work we need to be doing around the mapping and finding the solution around those brakes but I think yeah, definitely it’s going to help me a little bit to find the last few hundredths.”