Austin Dillon tops lone day of Sprint Cup Preseason Thunder testing

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It may be just for one day of preseason testing, but the midnight-black No. 3 Chevrolet is back on top of a Sprint Cup leaderboard.

Richard Childress Racing rookie Austin Dillon, charged by his grandfather/car owner with returning the iconic number to NASCAR’s top series this season, threw down a single-car lap of 195.109 miles per hour around Daytona International Speedway to lead the lone day of Sprint Cup Preseason Thunder testing.

Rain played a major impact on what was supposed to be a two-day session at Daytona. Instead, Thursday was a complete washout and today’s action didn’t get underway until a little before 1 p.m. ET because of the wet stuff. That caused NASCAR to extend today’s session all the way to 9 p.m. ET with no breaks along the way.

After the lights went on at DIS, a mini-drafting session broke out within the final 90 minutes, with Aric Almirola, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jamie McMurray, Kasey Kahne, and Kyle Larson among those spotted in the pack. However, teams mostly focused on single-car work today.

In a NASCAR statement, Dillon once again reiterated his pride in reviving the No. 3, which was driven by the late Dale Earnhardt to six of his seven Cup championships.

“I’m honored to be in the 3,” he said. “This is special and walking into this Cup garage this weekend is pretty cool. There are so many heroes in this garage for me, and just being in this garage is going to be pressure.”

RCR compatriots Brian Scott and Matt Crafton were also stout, posting the second and third-quickest times in the session. Scott turned in a single-car hot lap at 194.582 mph in the No. 33 Chevy, while Crafton, the reigning NASCAR Camping World Truck Series champion, dropped a 194.342 in Paul Menard’s No. 27 Chevy; Crafton was a last-minute sub for Menard, who was forced to deal with the aftermath of a burst pipe at his home according to Fox Sports.

Chevrolet drivers posted eight of the 10 fastest laps on Friday, with Richard Petty Motorsports’ Almirola leading the Fords in fourth (193.828 mph) and Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin leading the Toyotas in ninth (193.071 mph). Larson, expected to be Dillon’s main rival for Sprint Cup Rookie of the Year honors in 2014, was fifth-fastest for Chip Ganassi Racing (193.411 mph).

In all, 41 drivers turned laps during today’s session (including Rusty Wallace, who shared the No. 2 today with regular driver Brad Keselowski). Kahne (14th, 192.893) ran the most laps out of all of them with 106. Second to Kahne was one of his Hendrick Motorsports teammates, defending Cup series and Daytona 500 champion Jimmie Johnson, who logged 95 laps and posted the 11th-fastest time (193.021).

Stewart-Haas Racing newcomers Kurt Busch and Kevin Harvick turned their first Daytona laps with their new squad, which expands to four cars this season. Both posted decent laps – Busch with the seventh-best (193.249), Harvick with the 12th-best (192.988).

Also getting acclimated to a new team was Ryan Newman, now with RCR after leaving Stewart-Haas. The Indiana native was 17th-fastest today (192.448).

SPRINT CUP PRESEASON THUNDER – FRIDAY TIMES

New Chip Ganassi driver Marcus Armstrong will team with boyhood idol Scott Dixon

Marcus Armstrong Scott Dixon
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Marcus Armstrong was a Scott Dixon fan his entire life, and when he was 8, the aspiring young racer asked his fellow New Zealander to autograph a helmet visor that he hung on his bedroom wall.

Next year, Armstrong will be Dixon’s teammate.

Armstrong was named Friday as the fourth IndyCar driver in the Chip Ganassi Racing lineup and will pilot the No. 11 next season on road and street courses.

A driver for the five oval races on the 17-race schedule will be named later.

The No. 11 is essentially the No. 48 that seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson drove the last two seasons, with Chip Ganassi making the change to run four cars numbered in sequential order. Indianapolis 500 winner Marcus Ericsson drives the No. 8, six-time champion Dixon drives the No. 9, and 2020 IndyCar champion Alex Palou drives the No. 10.

So just who is the second Kiwi in the Ganassi lineup?

A 22-year-old who spent the past three seasons in Formula One feeder series F2, a Ferrari development driver in 2021, and former roommate of Callum Illot and former teammate of Christian Lundgaard – both of whom just completed their rookie IndyCar seasons.

“I’ve always been attracted to the IndyCar championship because it’s one of those championships that’s been really well televised in New Zealand since I was young, mainly because of Scott and his success,” Armstrong told The Associated Press. “As time progressed, as I got closer to F1 and single-seaters, the attraction to IndyCar grew just because of how competitive the championship is – I like to challenge myself and the level of competition in IndyCar is remarkably high.”

Armstrong, from Christchurch, New Zealand, was set to travel from his current home in London to Indianapolis this weekend to meet his new team. He won’t need an introduction to Dixon, the 42-year-old considered the best IndyCar driver of his generation and Armstrong’s unequivocal childhood hero.

Last season, Dixon earned his 53rd career victory to pass Mario Andretti for second on the all-time list. Dixon has driven for Ganassi in all but 23 of his 345 career starts.

“For a long time I’ve been a Scott Dixon fan. I don’t want to make him cringe with our age difference,” Armstrong told the AP.

Despite the two-decade age difference, Armstrong never considered someday racing with Dixon a fantasy.

He convinced his father after winning five national karting championships to allow him to leave New Zealand for Italy at age 14, where he moved by himself to pursue a racing career. Armstrong said as soon as he’d received parental permission, he’d never look back.

Armstrong was in Formula 4 two years after his move to Italy and won that title in his first season. He won four races and four poles in F3 in the 2018 and 2019 seasons, then collected four wins and eight podiums in three seasons of F2.

“Maybe it’s a strength, or maybe it’s a weakness, but I always thought I was capable of doing great in the sport,” Armstrong told the AP. “I think you probably have to succeed in the sport, you need to believe in yourself. I always pictured myself being in IndyCar.

“As Scott’s teammate? I can’t specifically say I saw that. It’s an extraordinary chain of events.”

Armstrong becomes just the latest driver to leave Europe, where F1 is the pinnacle but has only 20 seats each year. Alexander Rossi began the trend in 2016 when the American left F1 and won the Indianapolis 500 as a rookie. He’s been followed by Ericsson, last season’s Indy 500 winner, Romain Grosjean, Illot, Lundgaard, and on Thursday three-time W Series champion and Williams F1 reserve driver Jamie Chadwick was announced as driver for Andretti Autosport in IndyCar’s second-tier development series.

Armstrong said he could have remained in F2 for a fourth season, but he’d been watching IndyCar for so long, and after conversations with Illot and Lundgaard, he decided to make the move to what he believes is the most balanced racing series in the world. He tested for Dale Coyne Racing at Sebring in October.

He doesn’t know if European racing is done for good, just that he wants to be in IndyCar right now.

“I don’t want to think too far into the future, I’m just grateful for this opportunity that is standing right in front of me,” Armstrong said. “I want to perform as well as I can in the near future and just consolidate myself in the fantastic chance that is IndyCar and just do my best.

“I’m not looking at F1 as a landing spot – I am looking at IndyCar, and that’s exactly why I am here.”