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Sports car aces set to run NASCAR Xfinity race at Mid-Ohio

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One of the cool elements of the NASCAR Xfinity Series’ run of road course races in August between Watkins Glen International, Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course and Road America is that it provides an opportunity for sports car stars to take up residence in some of the cars on the grid.

Some of the notable ones to watch for this weekend include Andy Lally (No. 07 Branson Supply Chevrolet), Matt Bell (No. 90 ACTEVMotors.com Chevrolet), James Davison (No. 20 SportClips Toyota) and Justin Marks (No. 42 Katerra Chevrolet).

Marks won the Mid-Ohio Xfinity Challenge last year and has driven a number of IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship races this year with the Turner Motorsport team. He returns to the Chip Ganassi fold this weekend as he looks for a repeat in Xfinity.

Lally and Bell compete full-time in IMSA, Lally with the Michael Shank Racing Acura NSX GT3 team in the WeatherTech Championship and Bell with the Stevenson Motorsports Chevrolet Camaro GT4.R team in the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge.

Photo courtesy Sunday Group Management

Lally starred here last year and finished seventh driving for Mario Gosselin, and now will run an Alan Kulwicki throwback livery in his No. 07 car this weekend for Bobby Dotter. Bell, meanwhile, will take over Gosselin’s No. 90 car.

“Mid-Ohio is a really exciting and challenging place to race a stock car,” said Lally. “It is tight and twisty which does not suit the higher weight of these stock cars and that makes it difficult to put a solid lap in. For me personally, stock cars on road courses are the most fun combination of race car and track there is.

“Winning a NASCAR race in one of the top three series is the only thing missing on my list of goals in auto racing and I have to thank Branson Supply, Motorcrush, TruForce, Pennington & Associates General Contracting and my friends at Aase Sales for jumping on board to help our small underdog effort.

“I’m racing the No. 07 this weekend with SS Greenlight Racing and since the colors matched and the number was very close we chose to make it an Alan Kulwicki tribute scheme. The car looks amazing, now our job is to make it as fast as it looks.”

Photo courtesy Sunday Group Management

Bell said of his weekend prospects, “Andy (Lally) helped me a lot even before we were teammates when I ran at Road America for the first time in a stock car – he was a huge help there. Andy drove this No. 90 car last year and he’s already offered to give me some pointers since he has experience with this exact car.

“I’ll try to learn as much as I can from him and Justin Marks, who I’ve known for years. Andy is a huge help with his knowledge about the team, and about the car, and about the track. It’s a really friendly sport and really anybody you talk to is friendly and happy to give you pointers. It’s pretty awesome.”

Photo: IndyCar

Davison, who’s had a hodgepodge season of racing some in IndyCar (with Dale Coyne Racing at the Indianapolis 500), and some in IMSA and Pirelli World Challenge (with TRG and DIME Racing), now saddles up for what will be his best opportunity to win in Xfinity competition.

He made his Xfinity debut in, you guessed it, the No. 90 car at Road America last year.

“I’m excited to wheel the No. 20 for Joe Gibbs Racing at Mid-Ohio and Road America,” Davison said in a media release. “The team’s level of professionalism has been fantastic to be a part of and I look forward to getting down to business.”

Some of the others who could be considered “road course ringers” include Sheldon Creed, Josh Bilicki, Enrique Baca, Anthony Kumpen and Greg Vandersluis.

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.