Local drivers put NASCAR racers in their place in Denny Hamlin’s Short Track Challenge

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Score one – actually, score a lot – for the local guys over the big NASCAR stars, as Matt Bowling, of Ridgeway, Va., won Denny Hamlin’s Short Track Challenge Thursday night at South Boston (Va.) Speedway.

In fact, local drivers who are weekend racers around Virginia dominated the seventh annual event, which is held to raise funds for Hamlin’s Cystic Fibrosis Research Lab at the Children’s Hospital of Richmond at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Bowling rallied to grab the lead five laps from the finish on the .20-mile track and held on to defeat Whelen All-American Series and Virginia driver Matt Waltz, who finished second, followed by another Virginia racer, Nick Smith, in third.

Waltz had led all of the first 195 laps, according to Adam Hainsfurther of the Danville (Va.) Register & Bee, until Bowling slid in front of him and held on for the remainder of the race.

That local drivers did so well in the late-model race wasn’t surprising, according to Camping World Trucks Series Timothy Peters, who finished 27th after a late wreck with fellow truck driver Jeb Burton, who finished 25th.

“It’s hard for the guys in the upper three (NASCAR) series to come back and run one of these cars and be competitive,” Peters told the Danville (Va.) Register & Bee. “It’s just that much more difficult to drive than a truck or a Nationwide [Series] car or a Cup car.

“You’ve got the best of the best here in my opinion. To come in here and mix it up with these guys — you’ve done something. Any of these guys’ credentials could put them in the top three series. It’s just all about that big break.”

The highest-finishing NASCAR driver was Sprint Cup star Kyle Busch, who wound up fourth, falling short of defending his win in the event last year.

Busch has won four of the first seven races in the event’s history, which was held for the first time at South Boston on Thursday.

Matt Kenseth was fifth, Hamlin finished eighth and David Ragan was 20th.

“We’ve had more presale tickets this year — about triple what we’ve ever had — so South Boston’s really done a great job of hosting this event,” Hamlin told the Register & Bee. “It’s a venue that we’re looking to stay at for at least a few years and continue to grow it.

“Every year we’re able to give more and more money to these children’s charities that benefit from it. … It’s definitely been really good to get this program running and every year to just keep growing it.”

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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.