Hendrick Motorsports power romps with Jeff Gordon win and five other top-9 finishers

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Jeff Gordon’s 89th career Sprint Cup win in Saturday’s 5-Hour Energy 400 at Kansas Speedway was only part of a bigger overall story for Hendrick Motorsports.

Gordon led a HMS juggernaut with all four of the company’s drivers finishing in the top nine — and two other drivers with an affiliate team ending up runner-up and in seventh-place.

Gordon HMS teammate Kasey Kahne wound up with a season-best (and first top-five finish) third-place showing, Daytona 500 winner Dale Earnhardt Jr. was fifth and six-time and defending Sprint Cup champ Jimmie Johnson finished ninth.

“Yeah, it went really good for us,” Kahne said in a post-race press conference. “We had a fast Farmers Insurance Chevy throughout the race, worked our way up. Some of the pit strategy and things, sequence more than anything.

“We got to the front there for a little bit, led some laps, felt really good at that point in time, and then we got a little tighter later and didn’t free up or tighten up enough there at the end when we put four tires back on. We just tried to run rights for too long.

“It was still a really solid run. Nice to run up front and be able to race hard the whole night. It was good for us.”

Kahne has struggled much of this season, but you could see a turnaround beginning in his prior two races, finishing 14th at Richmond and eighth at Talladega last Sunday.

Now that he has a season-best and first top-five, Kahne’s confidence is sure to grow even stronger heading into next Saturday’s Sprint All-Star Race and then back to points racing in the season’s longest race of the year, the Coca-Cola 600, on May 25 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

“Our biggest deal is we’ve just been slow this season,” Kahne said. “Really haven’t been inconsistent or anything like that, we’ve just been slow each week. We tested here, we had that Goodyear tire test, and I felt like from that point on, we’ve actually had really fast cars.

“Richmond we were good, we had some things go on late in the race on pit road that we ended up 14th, but we had a top six or seven car, I felt like, that entire race.

“We ran well at Talladega and then came here and ran up front. We were good in practice. I think the Goodyear test here, for whatever reason, we were able to try some things and just look at stuff a little differently than what we had been, and it helped the 5 team, my guys, myself and Kenny and Chris, our communication together. It’s helped us a lot since then. I feel like that’s been the key, and ever since we tested here, we’ve ran much better and been a lot more competitive.”

While having all four HMS drivers in the top-nine was a big story in and of itself, two other drivers who drive for the HMS-affiliated Stewart Haas Racing were also powered to strong top-7 showings by HMS motors and chassis.

“The relationship that we have at Hendrick with Stewart-Haas is a very tight one that we share a lot of information,” race winner Jeff Gordon said. “Those guys have been so strong. We have been strong, it’s fun to go out there and race those guys for a win like that.”

Kevin Harvick came close to winning his third Cup race of the season, finishing second, less than two car lengths behind Gordon.

And Harvick’s SHR teammate, Danica Patrick, likely felt like a winner, earning the highest finish of her brief Sprint Cup career, ending up seventh in the race (the other two SHR drivers, Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch, struggled to finishes of 20th and 29th respectively at Kansas).

“It felt good,” Patrick said. “My goal at the beginning of the race was really just to stay up in that lead group. … What can I say? I’m really overall proud of the team for building cars like these, and it was so good.

“I know we haven’t had the best of times, but it’s days like today that we work hard for and it’s days like that when we do this enough, it’s the kind of things that materializes in wins.

“We just have to keep hanging around and doing what we’re doing and I’m just proud of everybody working hard and believing in me. We’re in the top 10 – yeah!”

That showing surpassed Patrick’s previous high finish of eighth in the 2013 Daytona 500.

“I think for her it’s just the confidence in knowing exactly what the car is going to do,” Harvick said. “Obviously, she’s run well all weekend, qualified well, raced well all night, and it’s just — there’s a lot of hurdles to overcome for her to make up that experience. I feel like we can help her speed that process up by just telling her some of the things that she should expect and do.

“As she went through the weekend, she kept her track position on the restarts. That’s probably the biggest thing. But I guess the one thing I did tell her was just to quit thinking about it and smash the gas.

“Sometimes your car is never going to be perfect, and you just have to take what it’ll give you and expect that every time you pit it’s going to be better, and if it’s not you adjust and move on.”

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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.