Austin Dillon doing what he has to do so far in rookie year

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Going into the Easter break, Kyle Larson leads Austin Dillon in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Rookie of the Year standings after earning three Top-10s in the last four racesincluding a runner-up at Fontana.

And over in the Nationwide Series, Chase Elliott has gotten the NASCAR Nation buzzing after back-to-back victories at Texas and last Friday night at Darlington.

So has Dillon, who entered the season with the most controversy of any NASCAR rookie thanks to his and car owner Richard Childress’ revival of the famous No. 3, become the forgotten young gun?

Hardly.

While Larson has certainly had the more eye-popping moments in their duel for Cup ROTY honors, Dillon is doing the No. 1 job of any rookie and that’s logging laps and getting the car home in one piece.

Dillon has just one Top-10 (a ninth in the season-opening Daytona 500) to Larson’s four, but has earned six finishes inside the Top 20 and has no DNFs.

Larson’s been more up-and-down, with finishes of 38th at Daytona and 27th at Martinsville; additionally, before claiming his first Top 10 at Bristol, his best finish in the first three races was a 19th at Las Vegas.

As a result, Dillon sits 10th in the overall Sprint Cup championship, while Larson’s a bit farther back at 15th.

Dillon’s 11th-place showing at Darlington was, strangely enough, his third 11th-place finish of the season. So it’s not as if he’s that far off from Larson in regards to the more attention-grabbing results.

“We’re certainly on the cusp of finishing within the top-10,” he said on Saturday night. “We’ll take it. We worked hard tonight and I’m learning each week.

“I can’t wait to come to Darlington Raceway, and all of these tracks on the schedule, for the second and third times. We will be a very tough team the second half of this season.”

We’ll see if he’s right. He – and Larson – would be in the Chase Grid if the Sprint Cup regular season started today.

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.