NNS: Sam Hornish Jr. rides again at Talladega

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An opportunity is still an opportunity, even if it isn’t exactly the one you may be looking for.

Sam Hornish Jr. narrowly lost out on last year’s NASCAR Nationwide Series championship to Austin Dillon, and a lack of sponsorship forced him to leave Team Penske.

No doubt he’d like to have a full-time ride, especially in the Sprint Cup Series, where he ran full-time from 2008 to 2010.

Instead, he has a part-time Nationwide drive – but it’s definitely primo. He has a seven-race run with Joe Gibbs Racing in the No. 54 Toyota that’s normally run by Kyle Busch, and his first go-round in the Monster Energy-backed machine comes this weekend at Talladega Superspeedway.

Since last fall’s season finale at Homestead-Miami, Hornish has kept busy. He and his wife now have a third child, and on the track, he filled in for an injured Denny Hamlin in the March Sprint Cup race at Fontana (he finished 17th in Hamlin’s No. 11 FedEx Toyota).

But now comes the chance to capitalize on running with some of the best equipment in the NNS.

“I have to say that you really would think that it felt like a very long time since Miami being that it’s closing in on six months, but the fact of having a third child…and also switching teams, it’s seemed to go by very fast,” he said yesterday at ‘Dega.

“I really feel blessed and fortunate that I’ve had the opportunity to get my foot in the door at JGR, to be able to be in the Monster Energy car, to have a sponsor that makes a product that I use on a daily basis and I feel like it’s just very exciting.”

Hornish was 12th and 13th on the time sheets in yesterday’s two Nationwide practices on the 2.66-mile oval. Qualifying will take place later this evening at 6:40 p.m. ET.

As for his goals at ‘Dega, Hornish is hoping to get to know his JGR compatriots even further.

“I’ve gone to a few races starting off the season [and] had the opportunity to listen to Kyle and [crew chief] Adam Stevens work together and this is — I feel like a lot of ways the practice, the qualifying and the first half of the race or first three-quarters of the race — is me getting to know the team and all of those things,” he said yesterday.

“[I’m] just super excited about the opportunity that I’m given and had a lot of fan support about how much people say they want to see me back in the car full-time – and believe me, I want to be in it.”

Hornish noted differences between how JGR and Penske go about their operations in the Nationwide Series, with the former housing their NNS program in a separate building while Penske has their entire stock car program in the same building.

However, Hornish believes there’s nothing lacking at JGR, which had its No. 54 car battle with Penske’s No. 22 machine in a thriller for last year’s owner’s championship (Penske won out by a single point).

“At Penske there’s a little bit more of that trickle-down effect from the Cup side,” he explained. “But, I feel like when you look at the strength that JGR has had for so long in the Nationwide Series I don’t feel like there’s nothing lacking there other than maybe needing more space to be able to throw everybody together if they wanted to do that.

“When I look at the cars, I feel like there’s definitely differences in people’s mindsets as far as what’s important to be fast and the big thing for me is this is still going to be my first time in a JGR Nationwide car when I go out there this weekend.”

Monaco apartment bet gives extra spice to race for P5 in Russia

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Remember that episode of Friends where Joey and Chandler go up against Rachel and Monica in a crazy quiz that ends in them swapping apartments for a while?

Well, Formula 1 might be doing its own version on Sunday in Russia.

With Ferrari and Mercedes over one second per lap clear of the rest of the pack, the top four positions seem settled, leaving Williams and Red Bull to battle for P5.

Red Bull has been the third-quickest team for much of the season so far, yet Williams looks more competitive in Russia, with Felipe Massa charging to sixth place in qualifying to split Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen.

“I predicted them to be quick here. It’s been one of their stronger circuits the last few years, and Massa’s always been pretty handy around here,” Ricciardo said of Williams.

“He got close, split Max and myself. I expect that battle to remain tomorrow. Not expecting to have the battle for the win, I think that’s between Ferrari and Mercedes, but we could have a nice little battle within ourselves for the top five.”

To add an extra twist to things, it turns out that Ricciardo, Massa and Verstappen all live inside the same apartment complex in Monaco – so why not add some extra incentive to the battle?

“I was saying whoever maybe wins our battle tomorrow can get the… Massa or Verstappen, they’ve both got pretty good-sized apartments, so maybe they can give the winner their apartment for the weekend as a bit of a token gesture!” Ricciardo joked to NBCSN after the session.

“Yeah I can give a good party and I will join,” Verstappen added.

Massa laughed before saying: “I hope I will win and I cannot give!’

The race between Red Bull and Williams may be tight, but somehow we doubt remembering that the TV guide goes to Miss Chanandeler Bong or that his job is a transpon… transponster (“that’s not even a word!”) will be much help to Ricciardo, Massa or Verstappen on Sunday.

The Russian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 7am ET on Sunday.

F1 Paddock Pass: Russian Grand Prix, Saturday edition (VIDEO)

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Life as a rookie in Formula 1 is always tough, but for Williams’ Lance Stroll, his arrival on the grid has been particularly challenging.

Entering F1 as its second-youngest debutant and after an extensive private testing program with Williams last year, big things were expected of Stroll when he made his debut in Australia.

However, his first three races in F1 have been far from ideal, all of them ending in retirement.

The DNF is Australia was the result of a brake issue, while incidents in China and Bahrain – both of which were hard to pin on Stroll – mean the Canadian is without a classified finish to his name.

So how has he dealt with the struggles? To find out, Will Buxton brings you a special edition of NBC Sports’ original digital series ‘Paddock Pass’ to lift the lid on Stroll’s start to life in F1.

You can watch the video in full above.

JR Hildebrand returns in career-best third on grid at Phoenix

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AVONDALE, Ariz. – The last first-time winner in the Verizon IndyCar Series came on an oval, when Alexander Rossi captured last year’s 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

The guy who could well have captured his first career victory five years earlier in 2011, JR Hildebrand, remains in search of ‘ol first win number one. But he’s got a good chance to do so tonight in his No. 21 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet, as he’ll roll off from a career-best third on the grid in the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix (9 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

The qualifying result for Hildebrand eclipses a previous best set twice: fourth at Iowa in 2011, and at Fontana in 2012, both with Panther Racing but in separate iterations of cars. This marks Hildebrand’s first top-five start since that Fontana race in September of that year, and easily eclipses his other 2017 starts of 19th and 15th on the two street course races to start the year.

In some respects Hildebrand’s pace this weekend is not a surprise; he was the pace-setter during the open test here in February. However, after missing Barber owing to his broken bone in his left hand, the more important aspect of his performance this weekend is that he’s back on song and comfortable – best as he can be – for today’s 250-lap race.

“I think with the kind of injury that I’m dealing with and the surgery that I had, an oval definitely is a little easier just literally turning left versus turning right even,” Hildebrand said after practice, when he was second to Josef Newgarden – who will start alongside him tonight on Row 2.

“So it felt better than honestly I thought it would in practice. I didn’t have any, like, major issues. I got a couple of different braces that I’m kind of playing around with and stuff like that. But felt like I got it pretty dialed in. Feel good about qualifying today and then the race tomorrow as well.”

Hildebrand was in a unique situation at Barber where he watched someone else in his car – a situation he hadn’t been afforded since Panther showed him the door after the 2013 Indianapolis 500. His starts since, it’s been Hildebrand in either a fill-in or extra entry, usually at Ed Carpenter Racing.

“It was definitely different to be watching in that situation than it was last year, you know, or in years past when I’ve been stepping in for testing or whatever and doing that on behalf of other guys,” he said. “It was painful to sit there and watch, but I think was in the end the only, you know, feasible kind of way to get through that weekend.”

That being said, Hildebrand wound up playing the mentor role well to Zach Veach, who methodically and consistently improved over the weekend on debut. It flashed back nicely to Hildebrand’s own debut at Mid-Ohio 2010 under nearly identical circumstances.

“I filled in for Mike Conway at Mid-Ohio back in 2010 in sort of similar conditions,” Hildebrand explained.

“Yeah, I mean, knowing this was going to be sort of a short-term thing, in particular, I wanted for the team’s sake to be able to get as much as they could out of having Zach in the car in my absence. That in some ways sort of requires that Zach is up to speed.

“But being a driver myself, being in that situation before, I know that it helps a lot to have somebody that, you know, is kind of just there to help you through whatever those difficulties and challenges are.

“Barber is a really tough place. He had some testing time at Sonoma, which is not really super relevant going into Barber. And on top of that, like, we were not great there when we tested there previously.

“You know, he was in for an uphill battle going in. He had a great attitude about the whole thing. I thought he made evident progression through the weekend. You know, was definitely helpful for the team and did a good job for himself.”

Hildebrand also noted that he wouldn’t have been in this position in the first place had he not had the contact with Mikhail Aleshin at Long Beach that put him into the wall and caused the hand injury.

“Yeah, he came over and told me he didn’t block me while I was still sitting in the car. Then he got a penalty 30 seconds later for doing that. Whatever,” Hildebrand deadpanned.

“I don’t have hard feelings about it, for sure. But, you know, I think that there’s definitely a track record that, you know, he’s begun to build up.”

Hildebrand will look for his second career podium at least if he can finish where he starts – in a weird quirk, his only career IndyCar top-three finish has come at a race where there is not the traditional podium ceremony for top-three finishers, that aforementioned 2011 Indianapolis 500.

Tonight gives him a great opportunity to break that run of tough luck and get a result to match his determination and will to return.

Alonso counting on incidents, torpedo repeat for Russia F1 points

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Fernando Alonso is skeptical of McLaren’s top-10 chances in Sunday’s Russian Grand Prix, believing it will take an incident or two for the team to score its first Formula 1 points of the season in Sochi.

Alonso and McLaren teammate Stoffel Vandoorne have endured a miserable start to the 2017 season due to a number of issues with the Honda power unit, which lacks both performance and reliability.

Alonso had another difficult qualifying in Russia on Saturday, finishing 15th as he dropped out in Q2 for the fourth race in a row, but the Spaniard was pleased with his own performance.

“I felt a good qualifying, I felt a good balance on the car,” Alonso told NBCSN. “I was able to push on the corners. The car was grippy and I think we performed a good laps, especially the Q1 lap, it was quite a good one.

“I was seven-tenths in front of Stoffel. He won all the categories to Formula 1, so I think my performance right now is quite OK and I feel very competitive.

“But yeah, we were losing 1.3 seconds on the first straight this morning, around 2.5 seconds on the straights in the whole lap. But that’s what it is at the moment.”

When asked about his points chances, Alonso admitted that a top-10 finish was unlikely barring some kind of incident such as the one caused by Daniil Kvyat in last year’s race, with the Russian driver earning the nickname ‘torpedo’.

“I think the deficit is too much. Also the fuel consumption will be huge for us due to the lack of power,” Alonso said.

“So I think it’s going to be difficult. To be in the points is going to be hard, so we need some help from the guys in front. Sometimes it happens like last year. The torpedo went into Turn 3 and we gained a lot of positions.

“We will do a good start and we will do a good strategy, and we will see what we can do at the end of the race. Hopefully a top 10.”

When jokingly told he should have a word with Kvyat, Alonso said: “I will!”

The Russian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 7am ET on Sunday.