NNS: Jeffrey Earnhardt, Blake Koch land full-time rides

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On the eve of Preseason Thunder testing for the NASCAR Nationwide Series, Jeffrey Earnhardt (pictured) and Blake Koch have each been signed to full-time drives in NASCAR’s No. 2 national series.

24-year-old Jeffrey, the son of former driver Kerry Earnhardt and grandson of the late seven-time Sprint Cup champion Dale Earnhardt Sr., will drive the No. 4 JD Motorsports with Gary Keller Chevrolet this season alongside teammate Landon Cassill in the No. 01 Chevy.

It will mark Jeffrey’s first full-season program in a NASCAR national series after running partial seasons in both Nationwide and the Camping World Truck Series in recent years. Last year, he made 17 NNS starts with a top finish of 16th at Talladega Superspeedway; altogether, he has 27 career NNS starts under his belt.

“It’s a great opportunity for me,” Jeffrey said in a statement. “This sport runs in my family, and it’s where I want to be every week. Racing with [owners] Johnny [Davis] and Gary [Keller] and the guys will give me a shot at running well every week and adding on the experience I need.

“I’ve sort of gotten my feet wet, but I need to be out there every race getting to know the ins and outs. JD Motorsports with Gary Keller has been there and done that. I think we can do good things together.”

As for Koch, he’ll be driving for TriStar Motorsports this season after making 28 starts last year in the NNS. Koch made some noise in the 2013 season finale at Homestead-Miami, where he qualified on the front row and finished 11th for RAB Racing in a one-off following the team’s release of then-regular driver Alex Bowman.

“I’m extremely excited, blessed and proud to join TriStar Motorsports,” said Koch, who finished 25th in the NNS standings last year despite missing some races. “[Team owner] Mark Smith has been in NASCAR for a long time and is respected by everyone in the garage. His team has evolved into a quality race team with continuous growth and a great reputation.

“There are talented people in place to build fast race cars and we will have strong Toyota engines supplied by his company, Pro Motor Engines. I’m also looking forward to working with teammates that I can lean on like Mike Bliss and Eric McClure. Daytona can’t come soon enough.”

Koch has 86 career NNS starts to his credit.

F1: Lewis Hamilton qualifies No. 1 for U.S. Grand Prix, on verge of winning 5th title

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Lewis Hamilton took a big step toward earning his fifth Formula One championship on Saturday, qualifying No. 1 for Sunday’s U.S. Grand Prix at Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas.

Hamilton and his Mercedes have won five of the previous six U.S. Grand Prix’s held at COTA, including the last four races there.

The Great Britain native comes into Sunday’s race leading the F1 point standings and is seeking to tie Juan Manuel Fangio for second-most F1 career championships. Michael Schumacher has the most with seven crowns.

Sebastian Vettel is Hamilton’s sole remaining challenger for the title, trailing Hamilton by 67 points with four races to go, including Sunday’s race.

Vettel must win Sunday’s race or finish within seven points of Hamilton to prevent the latter from winning the title and pushing a possible clinching scenario to next week in Mexico.

Vettel qualified second Saturday, but due to a red-flag three-position grid penalty sustained during Friday’s morning practice, will start fifth on Sunday’s grid.

As a result of Vettel’s penalty, Ferrari teammate Kimi Raikkonen will start alongside Hamilton on the front row for Sunday’s race.

Hamilton’s Mercedes teammate, Vallteri Bottas, will start third, while Daniel Ricciardo will start fourth.

Rounding out the top 10 were Esteban Ocon, Nico Hulkenberg, Romain Grosjean, Charles Leclerc and Sergio Perez.

Here’s how qualifying played out:

POS NO DRIVER CAR Q1 Q2 Q3 LAPS
1 44 Lewis Hamilton MERCEDES 1:34.130 1:33.480 1:32.237 20
2 5 Sebastian Vettel FERRARI 1:34.569 1:33.079 1:32.298 18
3 7 Kimi Räikkönen FERRARI 1:34.703 1:32.884 1:32.307 15
4 77 Valtteri Bottas MERCEDES 1:34.518 1:33.702 1:32.616 17
5 3 Daniel Ricciardo RED BULL RACING TAG HEUER 1:34.755 1:34.185 1:33.494 14
6 31 Esteban Ocon FORCE INDIA MERCEDES 1:34.876 1:34.522 1:34.145 18
7 27 Nico Hulkenberg RENAULT 1:34.932 1:34.564 1:34.215 18
8 8 RomainGrosjean HAAS FERRARI 1:34.892 1:34.419 1:34.250 17
9 16 Charles Leclerc SAUBER FERRARI 1:35.069 1:34.255 1:34.420 17
10 11 Sergio Perez FORCE INDIA MERCEDES 1:35.193 1:34.525 1:34.594 17
11 55 Carlos Sainz RENAULT 1:34.891 1:34.566 12
12 20 KevinMagnussen HAAS FERRARI 1:34.972 1:34.732 12
13 10 Pierre Gasly SCUDERIA TORO ROSSO HONDA 1:34.850 DNS 13
14 28 Brendon Hartley SCUDERIA TORO ROSSO HONDA 1:35.206 DNS 13
15 33 Max Verstappen RED BULL RACING TAG HEUER 1:34.766 4
16 14 FernandoAlonso MCLAREN RENAULT 1:35.294 6
17 35 Sergey Sirotkin WILLIAMS MERCEDES 1:35.362 6
18 18 Lance Stroll WILLIAMS MERCEDES 1:35.480 8
19 9 Marcus Ericsson SAUBER FERRARI 1:35.536 8
20 2 StoffelVandoorne MCLAREN RENAULT 1:35.735 6

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