Chris Buescher only driver to eclipse 170 mph in Thursday’s second Nationwide Series practice at Darlington

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In his first full season on the Nationwide Series, Chris Buescher was the fastest in Thursday’s second NASCAR NNS practice session at Darlington Raceway for Friday’s VFW Sport Clips Help a Hero 200 race.

The 21-year-old Roush Fenway Racing driver was the only driver to both exceed 169 mph and 170 mph, clocking in at 170.365 mph.

After failing to qualify for the NNS season-opener at Daytona, Buescher has finished 15th, 9th, 16th, 14th and 27th in his last five starts. He is ranked 11th in the Nationwide points standings heading into Friday night’s race at Darlington.

Sprint Cup regular Kyle Busch was second-fastest at 168.758 mph, followed by Ty Dillon (168.469), Trevor Bayne (168.296) and last week’s winner at Texas, Chase Elliott (168.117).

Texas Sprint Cup race winner Joey Logano, who was the fastest in the first practice session Thursday afternoon, was seventh-fastest in the second session.

Here’s how Thursday’s second Nationwide Series practice session played out:

1 Chris Buescher 170.365 mph

2 Kyle Busch 168.578

3 Ty Dillon 168.469

4 Trevor Bayne 168.296

5 Chase Elliott 168.117

6 Brian Scott 168.031

7 Joey Logano 168.025

8 Kyle Larson 167.705

9 Matt Kenseth 167.442

10 Kevin Harvick 167.197

11 Elliott Sadler 167.072

12 Regan Smith 167.010

13 Cole Conley 166.862

14 Ryan Reed 166.721

15 Brendan Gaughan 166.309

16 David Starr 166.259

17 JJ Yeley 165.531

18 Landon Cassill 165.275

19 Dakoda Armstrong 165.148

20 Jeremy Clements 164.948

21 Ryan Sieg 164.948

22 Dylan Kwasniewski 164.749

23 James Buescher 164.689

24 Mike Wallace 163.936

25 Mike Bliss 163.664

26 Tanner Berryhill 163.132

27 Josh Wise 162.883

28 Kevin LePage 162.485

29 Eric McClure 162.292

30 Todd Bodine 161.694

31 Matt DiBenedetto 161.524

32 Jeffrey Earnhardt 160.769

33 Tommy Joe Martins 160.318

34 Carlos Contreras 160.151

35 Derrike Cope 159.652

36 Matt Carter 157.889

37 Blake Koch 157.303

38 Joey Gase 157.252

39 Mike Harmon 151.199

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MRTI: Herta standing tall, riding wave of momentum in Indy Lights

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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It would be hard to top the month of May that Colton Herta is coming off of.

The 18-year-old, now in his second year competing in the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, enjoyed a sweep of the three Indy Lights races at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, winning both events on the IMS Road Course – charging through the field to do so (he fell back as far as sixth and fourth between Race 1 and Race 2) – and outdueling Andretti Autosport stablemates Pato O’Ward and Dalton Kellett to win a frantic Freedom 100.

In short, it was a near perfect month for the young Herta.

“It’s super special to win in Indy and to get do the triple there at a place that’s so nostalgic, it’s a pretty cool feeling,” Herta told NBC Sports about his Indy success.

And all three were thrilling drives in which Herta spent the entire time battling with rivals – Santi Urrutia on the IMS Road Course, and the aforementioned O’Ward and Kellett, and Urrutia as well, in the Freedom 100.

Colton Herta edged Pato O’Ward to win the Freedom 100. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Herta is no stranger to winning – he won twice in 2017 (Race 2 at St. Petersburg and Race 2 at Barber Motorsports Park) – both times in dominant fashion.

As he explained, it isn’t necessarily more challenging to dominate a race versus battling rivals the entire way, but different mindsets are required to survive each.

“It’s a different skill set,” he asserted. “Obviously when you start up front, there’s a lot more pressure to perform, so it’s more about managing the gap to the guys behind. Whereas you’re not as nervous when you’re in the back of the pack, because you can’t go any further back. So there’s less nerves going into the race. And it’s more about attacking the whole time and taking a little more risk.”

In discussing his Indy victories more, Herta detailed that outdueling opponents in intense duels – like the ones at Indy – comes down to thoroughly analyzing one’s opponents and making aggressive, yet smart passes.

“You can see what the guys are doing ahead of you, and obviously if you follow them for a lap or two you can see where they’re struggling and you can make up ground on them,” he explained. “And that’s the biggest thing: going for an overtake that you can make – especially when you’re in the running for a championship fight like this – going for an overtake that you know you can make without taking a massive risk, and kind of seeing the tendencies of the car in front of you and where they’re struggling and when you’re making up time.”

Herta’s run of recent success comes as more evidence of a driver who appears to be more polished than he was last year. While blisteringly fast – Herta captured seven poles in 2017 – there were also a number of errors that kept him from making a more serious championship challenge.

Though Herta began 2018 with a somewhat ominous crash in Race 2 at St. Pete, the rest of his season has been much cleaner. He finished third in Race 1 at St. Pete and second and third at Barber Motorsports Park before his run of victories at IMS.

Still, despite the appearance of a more polished driver, Herta explained that his approach is no different than it was in 2017.

“Not much has changed,” he asserted. “The mindset obviously is still the same because, especially with a (seven car field), you need to win races and you need to win quite a few of them to win the championship. (Staying out of trouble is about) just kind of settling in and knowing that a second or third place, or even a fourth or fifth place, isn’t terrible to take every now and then.”

And because the field in Indy Lights is small this year – only seven cars are entered at Road America – Herta revealed that maintaining a hard-charging style and going for race wins is paramount, in that the small fields make it harder to gap competitors in the title hunt.

“It’s hard to create a gap. On a bad day, you’re still going to be closer (to the guys ahead of you). Like Pato O’Ward in Indy (on the road course) had an awful weekend and finished in the back in both races (fourth and seventh), but I’m only at a (six point) lead. It’s tough to get ahead, so you want to minimize mistakes. It’s tough to make a gap, but it’s also tough to fall behind.”

As such, Herta is most certainly focused on bringing home an Indy Lights crown in 2018, which would propel him into the Verizon IndyCar Series, but he isn’t putting undue pressure on himself to force it to happen.

“In the second year, you have to get it done, and it’s tough to move up to IndyCars without that $1 million scholarship. So yeah, it’s important, but there’s no need to put more pressure on myself for how it is. I just got to keep doing what I’m doing, keep my head down, and if we can replicate what happened in May more and more, we should be in IndyCar next year,” he detailed.

And a potential move to IndyCar is certainly on the minds of Herta and Andretti-Steinbrenner Racing, even if the Indy Lights title ends up in the hands of someone else.

“We are thinking about it for sure, and we have some sponsors already committed on this year that I think we could bring up into IndyCar,” Herta revealed. “But, if we win the Indy Lights championship, we’re going to race (IndyCar), whether it’s the four races that we’re given or whatever it may be.”

Herta will look to improve upon his results from last year at Road America, when he finished 12th in Race 1 and third in Race 2.

Follow@KyleMLavigne