Dale Earnhardt Jr. tops speed charts in first practice for Sprint Unlimited

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Can you say, “Junior, Junior, Junior!”?

If anyone doubts that Dale Earnhardt Jr. is more determined than he’s ever been to not only win his first Sprint Cup championship but also to send Steve Letarte out a winner in his final year as a NASCAR crew chief before moving to an analyst role on NBC Sports in 2015, think again.

The winner of the 2004 Daytona 500 made it very clear Friday in the first practice session for Saturday’s Sprint Unlimited that he intends on going fast and – more importantly – win in 2014.

Earnhardt topped the 18-driver field late Saturday afternoon with a best lap of 198.421 mph on the 20th of 30 laps he turned in practice.

Kyle Busch, who many media members are predicting as perhaps Jimmie Johnson’s biggest challenge for the 2014 Sprint Cup championship, was second-fastest at 198.255 mph, turning his fast lap on the 21st of 30 laps. The younger Busch brother and Earnhardt were the only drivers to complete 30 laps of practice.

In total, six drivers eclipsed the 198 mph mark, with the other four being: Kurt Busch (198.124), Kevin Harvick (198.111), Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (198.094) and Matt Kenseth (198.024).

In his first appearance in a race car since his horrific crash in a sprint car last August 5, Tony Stewart did very well, all things considered, turning a best lap of 197.377 mph, good for 10th in the session.

Danica Patrick, who won the pole for last year’s Daytona 500, was right behind her boss and Stewart Haas Racing teammate with the 11th fastest speed at 197.118 mph.

Surprisingly – or could it be a case of sandbagging – Johnson was the slowest with a top lap of just 190.359 mph in 12 total laps.

Check back with NBCSports.com’s MotorSportsTalk again later this evening for results of the second practice session.

Here’s the top lap speeds for all 18 drivers:

1. Dale Earnhardt Jr. 198.421 mph

2. Kyle Busch 198.255

3. Kurt Busch 198.124

4. Kevin Harvick 198.111

5. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. 198.094

6. Matt Kenseth 198.024

7. Ryan Newman 197.954

8. Marcos Ambrose 197.850

9. Denny Hamlin 197.420

10. Tony Stewart 197.377

11. Danica Patrick 197.118

12. Carl Edwards 197.096

13. Joey Logano 196.846

14. Brad Keselowski 196.812

15. Jamie McMurray 196.812

16. Jeff Gordon 196.730

17. Terry Labonte 190.852

18. Jimmie Johnson 190.359

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With 200 IndyCar wins in the books, Penske looks for No. 201 at Indy

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The history of Team Penske at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is a storied one that features 16 Indy 500 wins, including a pair of four-time winners in Al Unser and Rick Mears, and number of utterly dominant performances.

Yet, they’ll head to this year’s 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500 looking to avenge a pair of relatively subpar performances in each of the last two years.

Power was the only Penske driver to finish in the Top 10 in 2016, with Helio Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud finishing 11th and 19th after fuel strategy intervened late in the race. And last year, all the Penske cars were somewhat down on pace compared to other teams, notably the Honda cars.

Power was the only Penske driver to qualify for the Fast Nine Pole Shootout last year – he qualified ninth. Juan Pablo Montoya and Helio Castroneves were 18th and 19th in the grid, while Josef Newgarden and Simon Pagenaud were 22nd and 23rd.

And only Castroneves was in winning contention in the final laps as he battled eventual winner Takuma Sato – Montoya was sixth, while Pagenaud was 14th and the only other Penske running at the end. Both Newgarden and Power crashed out on Lap 183.

This year, however, could see a return to the dominant form we’re used to seeing from the Penske outfit. All four cars entered – Pagenaud, Power, Newgarden, and Castroneves – qualified inside the top nine, with Pagenaud and Power on the front row.

They have all been near the front of the time sheets, especially in laps without a tow from another car, and the indication is that the Penske cars may be the fastest ones in the field.

All told, it leads to very high expectations for a team that already expects highly of itself.

Leading the way for Penske is current points leader and defending IndyCar champion Josef Newgarden. Newgarden’s best Indy 500 finish is third in 2016, but he only has one other Top 10 there – ninth in 2015.

But, with an IndyCar title now under his belt, Newgarden has his eyes set on an Indy 500 win.

Josef Newgarden looks to add an Indy 500 crown to his 2017 championship. Photo: IndyCar

“I think Indianapolis…is certainly next on the list for me,” he detailed in a press conference ahead of qualifying. “It’s not next on the list for the team, they’ve won it many times. The good thing is we have four great opportunities, especially having Helio back. I think we have one of the best opportunities in the entire field to win this race.”

Pagenaud, like Newgarden, is also looking for his first Indy triumph, though his record there isn’t quite as good. He has been fast at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, but only has two Top 10s to show for it – eighth in 2013 with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports and tenth in 2015 in his first year with Penske.

And a Pagenaud win would be somewhat historic – it would be only the fourth time a French driver has won the “500,” and the first since 1920 (Gaston Chevrolet).

Pagenaud explained that this race always holds a place as a top priority, and that success at Indy is all about preparation.

Simon Pagenaud looks to become only the first French driver to win an Indy 500 since Gaston Chevrolet in 1920. Photo: IndyCar

“It really is our number one goal. In Roger and Tim’s heart, it’s the most important one,” Pagenaud declared. “We prepare really hard. The team does a fantastic job at just understanding every bit and component of this new aero kit, trying to extract the best out of the equipment.”

Pagenaud added, “On the driver side, there’s a lot you can do obviously to review the past races, try to focus yourself, try to put yourself into the race before it happens, try to just improve. That’s what we try to do every day. That’s the goal. That’s why this group is so good. We push each other so hard that you always try to push the limits away.”

Power, the man who delivered Penske his 200th IndyCar win, is no stranger to success at IMS, having won the Grand Prix on the IMS Road Course three times. But, he is yet to find Victory Lane on the oval, and that leaves a void in an otherwise stellar career.

Will Power has won the INDYCAR Grand Prix three times, and looks for his first win at the “500” this weekend. Photo: IndyCar

Power spotlighted the opportunity in front of him, and detailed that running in traffic has been a strength thus far through practice.

“It’s fantastic to have that opportunity. Obviously very focused on (trying to win),” he revealed. “I feel like we have a really good opportunity to win this year. I mean, I think Chevrolet has brought a really good engine. I feel like we’re really fast. Running in traffic and such, I felt like we’ve been pretty strong, especially when you get to the front.”

Castroneves is the only Penske driver with Indy 500 wins on his resume. But, with three wins to his name, Castroneves is more than familiar with IMS glory.

Now a part-time IndyCar driver who races full-time in the IMSA WeatherTech Sports Car Championship with the Acura Team Penske outfit, Castroneves’ sole focus is on getting that elusive fourth win.

Helio Castroneves looks to join the four-time winners club at the Indy 500. Photo: IndyCar

And he has momentum on his side too, coming off a debut IMSA win for the Acura Penske outfit at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. A fourth Indy 500 win would put an exclamation point on the month for Castroneves.

“I think about it every day,” he said when asked about how often he ponders getting that fourth win. “It was one of those incredible ones, I have phenomenal car, the Pennzoil car was really strong last year. Obviously coming back here, first of all, I want to thank Roger and (team president Tim Cindric) for giving me the opportunity to be back at the Indy 500. It’s such a special place for so many people. Just to be back and able to continue our goal and pursue for the number four, it’s incredible.”

Pagenaud and Power will flank pole sitter Ed Carpenter on the front, starting second and third respectively. Newgarden starts fourth, while Castroneves will start eighth.

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