(AP photo/Steve Helber)

Action, significance abound in Coca-Cola 600 top storylines

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The countdown to Sunday night’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway has begun.

The green flag is slated to drop at approximately 6:07 p.m. ET for the longest and most grueling race on the Sprint Cup schedule — 400 laps (barring a green-white-checker finish that might extend that number) around the 1.5-mile oval.

Among the top storylines to watch for in the race:

* How will Kurt Busch fare after finishing a quite respectable sixth in the Indianapolis 500? Busch is the first driver to attempt the so-called “Double” since Robby Gordon last tried it in 2004.

* How will Jeff Gordon’s (photo) back feel after spasms forced him to cut short his first practice run and completely miss the entire second practice session Saturday? If Gordon cannot start, or if his spasms worsen during the course of the event, Regan Smith is on standby to replace Gordon if need be.

* Danica Patrick is coming off not only her best-ever Sprint Cup finish two weeks ago at Kansas (seventh), she qualified fourth for tonight’s race and was consistently in the top 10 in both of Saturday’s practice sessions. Is she poised to continue that recent success and potentially pull off one of the biggest surprises and upsets in Sprint Cup history with a win tonight? If she stays out of trouble, it’s a definite possibility.

* Kasey Kahne is in the hunt for his fourth career Coca-Cola 600 win. If he’s able to turn the trick, he’d also earn his first win of the 2014 season.

* Speaking of drivers without wins in 2014, pole-sitter and six-time and defending Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson is still seeking his first visit to victory lane this season, along with Matt Kenseth (who led the Sprint Cup series last season with seven wins), Tony Stewart, Clint Bowyer, Greg Biffle and Sprint All-Star Race winner Jamie McMurray among others.

* Kyle Busch wrecked his primary car in Saturday’s second practice session, forcing his team to bring out his back-up car. As a result, the younger Busch brother will start from the back of the field, even though he qualified seventh. Busch has finished third three different times but is still seeking his first win in the 600.

* Will the 600 turn into a fuel-mileage battle? Teams will typically attempt to go 45 laps per stop, meaning there will likely be at least nine pit stops during the course of the race. But some teams will try to stretch the fuel window, especially in the first half of the race, to assure they’ll have enough fuel so as not to have to worry about running out of gas in the closing laps.

* Sunday’s race marks the 12th event and the one-third point of the season. After Sunday’s race, there will be 14 left in the regular season to qualify for the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup.

* Will Toyota start to get back on track? Chevrolet has won five races, Ford four and Toyota just two in the first 11 races of the season.

Yes, the Coca-Cola 600 is the longest race of the season and the racing can be both exciting and monotonous at times (particularly in the middle part of the event). But in a true test of man and machine, it doesn’t get better than what we’re going to see tonight.

But let’s not forget the biggest storyline of all, one that has absolutely nothing to do with tonight’s race: Please keep in your mind and prayers those who have fought for, continue to fight for you and those who made the supreme sacrifice so that we can enjoy things like NASCAR racing.

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

Ricky Taylor makes his IndyCar test debut today at Homestead

BRASELTON, GA - OCTOBER 03:  Ricky Taylor, C, sits with member of his crew before qualifying for Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta on October 3, 2014 in Braselton, Georgia.  (Photo by Brian Cleary/Getty Images)
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It seems to be the winter of all-stars from other racing disciplines testing in IndyCar.

Today Ricky Taylor joined the list of those stars from the closed-top sports car or touring car world on the winter IndyCar test list, with a one-off guest test for Team Penske in defending Verizon IndyCar Series champion Simon Pagenaud’s No. 1 PPG Chevrolet.

The older of two Taylor brothers, who completed a star turn at this year’s Rolex 24 at Daytona en route to delivering the No. 10 Konica Minolta Cadillac DPi-V.R an overall win with brother Jordan, Max Angelelli and Jeff Gordon, made his maiden laps at the Homestead-Miami Speedway road course.

Chevrolet and General Motors extended the test offer to Ricky Taylor for this opportunity. Fittingly for Pagenaud, it’s the second time in not even a year he’s given up his seat to another member of either the GM or Penske family; Brad Keselowski made a similar out-of-nowhere one-off test at Road America last year.

“Every driver dreams to be an Indy car driver,” Taylor said, via IndyCar.com. It can’t hurt to be involved with (Team Penske); there are no negatives to that. To get to know all the guys and get to drive the car and get an actual feel for it in a low-pressure environment is a great opportunity for me. Even if it doesn’t lead to anything, it’s a big learning opportunity.”

With Ricky Taylor completing this test and with Robert Wickens and Pipo Derani set to test next week at Sebring’s short course, there’s been a sudden series of additional interest in the final few runs before the IndyCar season opens on March 12.

And with Ricky Taylor in Homestead today, it was left to Jordan Taylor and the Konica Minolta team’s new third driver, Englishman Alex Lynn, to run solo today as part of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship February test at Sebring’s full course. Lynn will make his U.S. race debut in the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring, to be held March 18. Ricky Taylor would be expected back at Sebring for the second day of the test, held Friday.

Alexander Albon moves up to GP2 with ART Grand Prix

2016 GP2 Series Test 3
Yas Marina Circuit, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.
Friday 2 December 2016.
Alexander Albon (THA, ART Grand Prix) 
Photo: Zak Mauger/GP2 Series Media Service.
ref: Digital Image _X0W3990
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2016 GP3 Series runner-up Alexander Albon has announced that he will move into GP2 for 2017 with ART Grand Prix, completing the team’s line-up.

Albon, 20, finished second behind Ferrari junior Charles Leclerc in GP3 last year with ART, racking up four race wins through his rookie campaign.

The Thai youngster will now continue with ART in GP2, partnering McLaren youngster Nobuharu Matsushita through 2017.

“I am really excited to be working with ART Grand Prix for a second year. I learnt a huge amount last year and we have become one big close family,” Albon said.

“Moving up to the GP2 series is an important step in anyone’s career and I am extremely fortunate to be with a top team who already understand me.

“There’s a lot to learn coming from GP3, and the experience and method of working at ART Grand Prix is the reason they have won so many titles. I hope I will continue to proudly wear Thailand’s colours and those of my faithful Thai partners.

“I look forward to the new challenge and cannot wait for the season to begin!”

The new GP2 season will begin in Bahrain on April 15.

Sergey Sirotkin set for more F1 practice chances through 2017

SOCHI, RUSSIA - APRIL 28: Sergey Sirotkin of Russia and Renault Sport F1 in the Paddock during previews ahead of the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on April 28, 2016 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)
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Sergey Sirotkin is poised to enjoy more Formula 1 practice opportunities through 2017 with Renault after the team confirmed he would continue in a reserve role.

Sirotkin, 21, joined Renault in 2016 as a test driver after previously working with Sauber and falling short in a bid to be on the grid for 2015.

The Russian enjoyed two practice run-outs through 2016 behind the wheel of the Renault R.S.16, but will enjoy an expanded program in the forthcoming campaign.

“For Sergey, stability is important and we are happy to continue the development program after a very good GP2 season,” Renault F1 managing director Cyril Abiteboul said.

“He will continue to focus on his development role as a reserve, and he will have more opportunities to run in the car on Friday.

“His attention to detail and his appetite to be at the factory, looking at the simulator, his focus and his mentality, we’re happy to maintain at the team.”

Sirotkin is yet to confirm his racing plans for 2017, having spent the past two seasons in GP2, but has his sights firmly set on an F1 race seat next year.

“I don’t think anyone would be surprised if I said that my main target for the 2018 season is to have a seat as a Formula 1 race driver and that’s what I’m working towards,” Sirotkin said.

“I’m here to learn and be an asset to the team as well as show that I am worthy of further opportunities.”

VTB Group becomes title sponsor for Russian Grand Prix

SOCHI, RUSSIA - MAY 01: Nico Rosberg of Germany driving the (6) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo leads Kimi Raikkonen of Finland driving the (7) Scuderia Ferrari SF16-H Ferrari 059/5 turbo (Shell GP), Valtteri Bottas of Finland driving the (77) Williams Martini Racing Williams FW38 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo and the rest of the field at the start during the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on May 1, 2016 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Russian finance group VTB has been named as the new title sponsor for the Formula 1 Russian Grand Prix for 2017, set to take place on April 30.

Russia first joined the F1 championship calendar back in 2014, with the Sochi Autodrom being constructed in the city that hosted the Winter Olympics earlier that year.

For 2017, the race will feature a title sponsor for the first time, with an announcement being made by the VTB Group and F1 officials on Thursday.

As per a statement on the official F1 website: “The company’s branding has been included in the race’s logo and VTB has obtained additional advertising, marketing and communication options.”

“The right to be the title sponsor of such a major international project opens up new opportunities for both VTB Group and the Russian round of the FIA Formula One World Championship,” first deputy president and chairman of VTB management board Vasily Titov said.

“I am confident that our cooperation will become an example of an effective sponsorship in the area of motorsport for many companies. We are looking forward to seeing everyone at the 2017 Formula 1 VTB Russian Grand Prix in Sochi on 28-30 April.”

“The 2017 Formula 1 VTB Russian Grand Prix is not only a great event to attend to enjoy high-tech sporting battles and a wide range of entertainment, but is also a business platform of the highest level,” race promoter Sergey Vorobyev added.

“We are grateful to Bernie Ecclestone for making the decisions necessary for the development of this partnership and look forward to successfully working with Chase Carey and the new Formula 1 management team.”

Carey became F1’s new CEO last month following Ecclestone’s resignation, and was pleased to confirm the deal for VTB to become the Russian Grand Prix’s title sponsor.

“We are delighted to welcome VTB into the Formula One family as it becomes Event Title Partner of the Formula 1 Russian Grand Prix,” Carey said.

“VTB’s involvement will only add to the continued success of the event and we look forward to this being the start of a long and successful relationship.”