Richmond Update: Brad Keselowski strong so far

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Brad Keselowski has already led more than 100 laps and was the halfway leader in tonight’s Toyota Owners 400 for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.

The race started with a bang as Clint Bowyer sought to take the lead from pole sitter Kyle Larson on the first turn of the first lap – only to wind up spinning Larson out.

While Larson got started on trying to return to the front, Brad Keselowski led at the restart on Lap 8 and held the point until Harvick, the defending spring race winner at Richmond, assumed control at Lap 32.

Despite an odd run-in on the backstretch with Josh Wise a few laps later, Harvick would lead as the competition caution for tire wear came out at Lap 40.

Harvick was the first out of the pits and thus led the field back to green at Lap 47, only to have Keselowski reclaim P1 on Lap 55. The 2012 Cup Series champion would pace the field all the way to Lap 99, when the caution came out for debris on the frontstretch – and just a few laps after Bowyer pitted under green for what he thought was a tire going down.

Another round of stops ensued with Keselowski tumbling to sixth, while Jeff Gordon picked up the lead in time for the Lap 105 restart. Keselowski steadily rose back toward the front though and went past Harvick for second at Lap 135.

On Lap 158, rookie Cole Whitt began to slow down with right front tire issues. He was able to get off the track but upon his return, he left behind bits of burning rubber at the end of pit road, causing NASCAR to throw the caution at Lap 161.

At that point, Bowyer also pitted with his right-front wheel well on fire, which ultimately did enough damage to that area of his No. 15 Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota that the team opted to pull him behind the wall.

The pits opened on Lap 166 and Gordon and Keselowski maintained first and second respectively after their stops. Gordon, who sometimes struggles in restart situations, appeared to have pushed Keselowski behind him following the return to green at Lap 171.

But two laps later, Keselowski dusted Gordon on the backstretch to once again take the lead. Joey Logano briefly took second from Gordon as well, but the four-time Cup champion got the spot back before the halfway point.

At Lap 200, Keselowski held a lead of eight-tenths of a second on Gordon. Logano was third, followed by Harvick in fourth, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. in fifth.

As for Larson, he’s made a steady climb after his Lap 1 disaster and sat 20th at halfway.

Schmidt Peterson aiming high with Hinchcliffe, Wickens

Photo: IndyCar
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The new Schmidt Peterson Motorsports duo of James Hinchcliffe and Robert Wickens expressed a high amount of confidence during Wednesday’s confirmation of Hinchcliffe’s return and Wickens’ signing, as the pair looks to return the Sam Schmidt and Ric Peterson co-owned team to prominent status within the Verizon IndyCar Series.

“We’re hoping to give Toronto and Ontario and Canadian sports fans in general something to cheer about over the next season,” Hinchcliffe quipped during a teleconference on Wednesday.

Granted, there are likely to be several challenges to overcome, notably for Wickens, who returns to single-seater competition for the first time since 2011, when he was a champion of the Formula Renault 3.5 series and served as test driver for the now defunct Manor Racing (then known as Marussia Virgin Racing).

Having spent every year since then in DTM, where he won a total of six races and finished as high as fourth in the championship (2016), Wickens knows returning to open wheel competition will be an adjustment. However, he explained that the history of Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, specifically its Indy Lights history, speaks to their ability to help a driver adapt, and he rates the program they’re putting together very highly.

“I think Schmidt Peterson Motorsports have a fantastic driver development program. They showed that in their multiple Indy Lights championships along the way. I think we will have a strong program in place. I have a feeling that the simulator will be my new best friend,” Wickens said when asked about getting reacquainted with an open-wheel car.

Of course, having an experienced teammate like Hinchcliffe to lean on will undoubtedly help the transition, something Wickens readily admitted.

“I’m very fortunate that I have James as my teammate because he’s so experienced, I can learn off him. Because we already have such a good off-track relationship, I feel like you can just take his word, trust him, kind of move forward with it,” he revealed.

They’ve been teammates before, both in karting where they first met in 2001, and then in the now-defunct A1 Grand Prix series in 2007-2008, a series that pitted nations against each other in spec open-wheel cars. Funnily, that A1GP type of vibe returns as Schmidt Peterson Motorsports now has that with its “Team Canada” mantra while all four of Andretti Autosport’s full-season drivers are American.

For Hinchcliffe, Wickens’ background, even if it hasn’t been in the single-seater realm since 2011, was a big selling point in adding him to the team.

“In Robby, we have a proven winner at a very high level. The level of technical expertise that he comes with from his time in DTM is very impressive,” he said of Wickens’ technical background.

Hinchcliffe added that Wickens’ ability to analyze the car and its setup was evidenced in two outings: one at Sebing International Raceway in March, in part of a “ride swap” between the two longtime friends, and a second at Road America, when he subbed on Friday practice for Mikhail Aleshin.

Wickens sampled Hinchcliffe’s No. 5 Arrow Electronics Honda earlier this year. Photo: IndyCar

Hinchcliffe revealed that Wickens’ feedback to the team and his ability to quickly adapt to the chassis took everyone somewhat by surprise.

“We did our ride swap. He had two hours in the car, hardly anything even resembling a test day, and his performance was pretty impressive. No doubt the time in Road America helped because that really gave us a better sense of his technical feedback, integrated with the team a little bit more. Everybody was happy to work with him on that day,” said Hinchcliffe.

Further still, Hinchcliffe is firm in his belief that the 2018 aero kit and its reduction in aerodynamic downforce will fall right into Wickens’ wheelhouse, based on Hinchcliffe’s own take after sampling Wickens’ DTM Mercedes earlier this year.

“In all honesty, I was saying earlier today, the 2018 car is probably better suited for him than the 2017 car because of the experience he’s had the last handful of series,” Hinchcliffe asserted.

“The (aero kit) was such high downforce, it would be a big change coming out of DTM. But with the loss of downforce that we’ve seen, the car is moving around a little bit more, brake zones, things like that, it won’t be as big a transition I think. Just based on the experience that I got in our ride swap, I think he’s going to adapt very quickly, be comfortable very quickly, and as a result be competitive very quickly. So it’s going to be exciting.”

As for expectations heading into next year, team co-owner Schmidt did not mince words and expects the team’s performance to resemble what they did in 2012, 2013, and 2014, when they won a total of four races (with driver Simon Pagenaud) and finished in the top five in the championship each year.

“We had a stint in ’12, ’13, ’14 where we finished fifth in the points (or better. I think we want to get back to that level of competition,” Schmidt added. “We felt like we were missing things in having two cars with equal funding and equal drivers and equal capabilities. We think this gets back there.”

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