Aric Almirola sets new Darlington track record, starts P3 tomorrow

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For the sixth time this season, a Sprint Cup track record was set in qualifying as Aric Almirola became the fastest man ever at venerable Darlington Raceway this evening.

Almirola logged a lap of 184.145 miles per hour in the No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Ford Fusion during the second round of the three-round knockout qualifying for tomorrow’s Bojangles Southern 500.

That made him tops among the 12 drivers that advanced to the final round, but Kevin Harvick and Joey Logano were able to beat him in those last five minutes, putting Almirola third on the starting grid.

“We just missed it a little bit [in the final round],” Almirola said. “We made one adjustment right there before that third session and I don’t think we went far enough. We were just a little bit too tight, but that was a heck of a lap by Harvick.

“That track record lap actually didn’t feel – I felt like I was going faster in the third session than I did in the second session, and I went faster in the second session. It was a great lap for us.”

Lately, RPM has focused on its intermediate program, which has lacked so far this year in comparison to the team’s work on short tracks.

Today, it paid off with Almirola qualifying third and teammate Marcos Ambrose qualifying alongside him in fourth.

“Typically, we’ve not run really well on short tracks and our mile-and-a-half program has where we’ve been best. But the roles are kind of reversed this year, and we’ve put a lot of effort into our mile-and-a-half program, and we ran a lot better at Texas.

“[We’re] still not where we need to be, but ran a lot better and then brought a race car here this weekend…[that] has a lot of speed in it. I feel really good about it.”

Almirola also wants to do well for his crew chief, Trent Owens, who is having a homecoming weekend at the track “Too Tough To Tame.” Owens grew up just a few miles from Darlington.

“I told him before we ever got here that he was gonna have to carry me this weekend because I do not like this race track and I tend to struggle here,” Almirola said. “So far, he’s carrying me pretty good. He brought me a really good car that’s got a lot of speed in it.

“Now we’ve gotta make it last 500 miles.”

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.