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With second straight Nationwide win, Chase Elliott melts the normally cold, cruel heart of Darlington’s Lady In Black

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The Lady in Black – a.k.a. Darlington Raceway – hates almost everybody. That’s why so many of NASCAR’s best over the last five decades have been brought to their knees by her curse-like power and icy demeanor.

But at the same time, she has been known to have a few favorites.

She absolutely loved NASCAR Hall of Famer David Pearson, gracing him with a record 10 trips to victory lane during his Winston Cup career.

It’s also pretty clear the Lady likes Jeff Gordon (seven wins, most of any active driver at Darlington).

On Friday night, the old grand dame of NASCAR racetracks practically melted into a blushing schoolgirl, because the way young Chase Elliott won the VFW Sport Clips Help A Hero 200 Nationwide Series race proves that she’s quickly gotten sweet on him, too.

Competing in his first-ever race at Darlington – the same place his father Bill won at five times in his illustrious Winston Cup career – the younger Elliott ignored things like Darlington’s hardest walls in all of NASCAR, drove like he didn’t need the mandatory yellow rookie stripe, and he barely walked away with an infamous Darlington stripe, as well.

And when the Lady in Black wiggled her finger, as if to tell young Chase to follow her to victory lane, the dark-haired Elliott returned her gaze with an impish grin. It was enough to melt the Lady’s heart as she cheered him on to the last lap win over another Elliott – Elliott Sadler.

While it may be hard to believe that an 18-year-old kid drove the way he did Friday night, it’s also clear that this is not just any regular 18-year-old kid.

He’s the progeny of one of NASCAR’s greatest drivers ever, a likely prospect to be a first-ballot vote next month into the NASCAR Hall of Fame’s 2015 induction class.

And it’s pretty clear that Awesome Bill from Dawsonville taught his young son some very valuable lessons, because the way Chase rallied forward from sixth place to  the checkered flag in the last two laps wasn’t just him, it was vintage Bill, as well. As team owner Dale Earnhardt Jr. whispered off-camera about Elliott to ESPN announcer Dave Burns, “He’s REALLY good.”

“Holy cow, man, that was crazy,” Elliott said in the kind of fashion you’d expect a guy who is still an 18-year-old high school senior to respond. “Here in the stands and at home on TV, that had to be fun to watch. I know it was fun to be part of (as a driver).

“It just worked out our way and away we went. … This is just unreal.”

With his win last week at Texas, Elliott becomes the seventh driver in Nationwide Series history to earn his first career wins in back-to-back fashion. Even more, in the first seven NNS races of his career, Elliott has two wins, another top-five, three top-10s and his worst finish thus far was 15th in the season opener at Daytona.

Even when Sadler got loose on the final lap and threatened to take out his young rival, the younger Elliott did exactly what his father used to do behind the wheel: kept the pedal mashed to the floor and hung on for dear life.

“I can’t believe it,” Elliott said. “I can’t believe last week (at Texas), much less here at Darlington. This truly is a dream come true.

“This is a place that I’ve already loved watching races (at), probably my favorite racetrack to watch a race at for a long, long time, and just to come and be a part of this race is unbelievable. But to come and win this thing is a feeling I’ll never forget.”

Darlington also carries the nickname of the Track Too Tough to Tame. But Elliott certainly tamed it with his impressive win.

You know what, maybe the Lady In Black just has a thing for the Elliott family. After all, in 52 career starts there, Chase’s father Bill compiled an outstanding record of five wins, 22 top-fives and 35 top-10 finishes.

And with the way the younger Elliott drove more like his dad than an average 18-year-old kid Friday night, it proved without a doubt that the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree.

Right, Lady in Black?

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Hamilton fastest, Mercedes gaps field in opening USGP practice

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 21: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo on track during practice for the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 21, 2016 in Austin, United States.  (Photo by Lars Baron/Getty Images)
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Lewis Hamilton made an impressive start to the United States Grand Prix weekend in Austin, Texas by topping the first Formula 1 practice session on Friday morning at the Circuit of The Americas.

Hamilton arrived in Austin trailing Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg by 33 points at the top of the drivers’ championship, having not won a race since the end of July.

The Briton is a three-time victor at COTA, as well as claiming the last F1 win at Indianapolis Motor Speedway back in 2007, making the United States a happy hunting ground for the defending champion.

Hamilton and Rosberg came out of the blocks early in FP1, immediately pulling clear of the field with laps on the super-soft tire.

Hamilton enjoyed an early edge over his teammate, only for Rosberg to go fastest upon switching to the soft compound Pirellis and going for a lighter fuel run.

Rosberg’s spell at the top of the timesheets did not last long, though, as Hamilton bounced back with a lap of 1:37.428 that was good enough to give him P1 come the end of the session.

Rosberg finished three-tenths of a second further back, but it was the gap to third that was most indicative of Mercedes’ strength at COTA: 1.5 seconds separated Rosberg in P2 and Max Verstappen in P3.

Kimi Raikkonen finished fourth for Ferrari, trailing Red Bull’s Verstappen by just 0.028 seconds, while Nico Hulkenberg led Force India’s charge in fifth.

Valtteri Bottas was sixth-fastest for Williams ahead of Daniel Ricciardo in the second Red Bull, with Sebastian Vettel following in P8 for Ferrari. Daniil Kvyat and Carlos Sainz Jr. rounded out the top 10 for Toro Rosso.

It proved to be an eventful session for Vettel, who narrowly missed hitting Jolyon Palmer early in the session before almost losing a wing mirror, only to grab it with his left hand so he could return it to the pits.

Renault’s Palmer was one of two drivers to have an off-track moment, spinning out at Turn 18. Toro Rosso’s Kvyat made a similar error later in the session, finding the limits of adhesion through the long right-hander.

Haas’ first outing on American soil ended under a cloud as both Romain Grosjean and Esteban Gutierrez stopped at the end of the pit lane with a couple of minutes remaining. They were ultimately classified P14 and P15.

Second practice in Austin is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 3pm ET on Friday.

Kvyat stresses ‘respect’, ‘loyalty’ to Red Bull as 2017 talks continue

SUZUKA, JAPAN - OCTOBER 08: Daniil Kvyat of Russia and Scuderia Toro Rosso sits in his car in the garage during final practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Japan at Suzuka Circuit on October 8, 2016 in Suzuka.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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Daniil Kvyat has stressed his “respect” and “loyalty” towards Red Bull’s Formula 1 programs as talks regarding his plans for the 2017 season continue.

Kvyat was demoted from Red Bull’s senior team to its junior outfit, Toro Rosso, following the Russian Grand Prix in May.

The Russian driver struggled to get to grips with life further down the grid, scoring just two points in the run to the summer break, but bucked the trend by qualifying seventh in Singapore before finishing ninth.

Toro Rosso team boss Franz Tost has long expressed a desire to keep Kvyat with the team for 2017, but Red Bull chiefs Helmut Marko and Dietrich Mateschitz will make the final call and may elect to promote GP2 driver Pierre Gasly into a seat.

Kvyat has been linked with moves elsewhere on the F1 grid, but said on Thursday in Austin ahead of the United States Grand Prix that his focus lay with remaining in the Red Bull setup.

“My aim is to be in F1 next year, but it’s too early to comment. We will have discussions behind closed doors,” Kvyat said.

“I have a lot of respect for and loyalty to Red Bull. Sooner or later I would like to have more details.

“Red Bull has managed me through my junior career and it is still number one on my list. I am looking for a drive where I can show what I can do.

“Toro Rosso is a fantastic team, we are one family and I feel very comfortable here.”

WATCH LIVE: USGP FP1 at 11 a.m., FP2 at 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 20:  Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP walks into the paddock with his dog, Coco, during previews ahead of the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 20, 2016 in Austin, United States.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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AUSTIN, Texas – Free practice kicks off today for the United States Grand Prix from Circuit of The Americas in Austin, and you can see both sessions LIVE on NBCSN and streamed via and the NBC Sports App (for participating providers).

First practice runs from 11 a.m. ET to 12:30 p.m. ET, leading into the premiere of Off the Grid: Austria at 12:30 p.m.

Then second practice runs from 3 to 4:30 p.m. ET.

Austin is on CT, so local times are 10 to 11:30 a.m. and 2 to 3:30 p.m., respectively.

Leigh Diffey, David Hobbs and Steve Matchett are in the commentary booth with Will Buxton patrolling the pits and paddock for today’s coverage.

Again, that’s 11 a.m. ET and 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN for LIVE coverage of free practice from Austin.

Full times and details for the weekend are linked here.

Hulkenberg: Renault move ‘the right step in my career’

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 20: Nico Hulkenberg of Germany and Force India walks in the Paddock during previews ahead of the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 20, 2016 in Austin, United States.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Nico Hulkenberg believes that his move to Renault for the 2017 Formula 1 season is the “right step” for his career after deciding to leave Force India.

Hulkenberg had been set to remain with Force India next season, but Renault announced last week that it had signed the German driver for 2017 after agreeing a deal to release him from his contract.

Speaking in Thursday’s FIA press conference ahead of the United States Grand Prix, 2015 Le Mans winner Hulkenberg said he is looking forward to taking on a new challenge.

“I believe that it’s the right step in my career at this point,” Hulkenberg said.

“I feel I have come a long way with Force India – it’s my fifth year with them. We’ve had some good success together. But I felt that it’s time for a new challenge.

“Since I’m in F1 I’ve always wanted to race for a manufacturer team and this is a really good opportunity. The timing was pretty good too. So I think it was a good decision I think from my side.”

Renault has struggled during its first season back in F1 as a constructor after six years away, scoring just eight points to sit third-from-bottom of the teams’ standings.

However, Hulkenberg is confident that, given time, Renault’s might as a manufacturer can help him score his first podium finish in F1 and his first victory.

“I think them being a manufacturer, they are under some expectations to eventually be successful and be at the front and compete for wins and that’s obviously what I’m looking for,” Hulkenberg said.

“We know at the moment there is still a long journey ahead of them, to climb back to the top because it’s been a difficult year and where they’ve come from.

“When they bought Lotus last year was not the easiest it will take time to rebuild the team and to get back to the top but obviously what I see there is a good future, definitely a big challenge, a massive challenge.

“But I’m very much up for that – and why not build a new success story with them?”