Kyle Busch holds off Chase Elliott to earn pole for Friday night’s Nationwide Series race at Darlington

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Kyle Busch held off rookie Chase Elliott to earn the Coors Light Pole Award Friday afternoon for that evening’s VFW Sport Clips Help a Hero 200 Nationwide Series race at Darlington Raceway.

Busch recorded a best speed of 173.681 mph in the second of his final two qualifying laps around Darlington’s unique 1.366-mile, egg-shaped oval.

It was Busch’s 37th career Nationwide Series pole, and also extends a string where he has earned at least one pole in each of the last 11 NNS seasons that he’s competed in.

“To win another pole in another season is pretty good, and we’d like to come out of here with another win tonight,” Busch said.

Not only is he on the pole, but Joe Gibbs Racing is the likely overall favorite, having won seven of the last eight NNS races at the so-called Track Too Tough to Tame.

Elliott, who earned his first career NNS win last week at Texas, was just a tick away from Busch, recording the second-fastest speed at 173.448 mph.

“(Busch) just put up a little bit better lap than I did,” Elliott said. “I just have to improve and try to do a better job next time. Regardless, we got a good starting spot for us. We just have to make sure we hold on to track position tonight.”

Another JGR driver, Matt Kenseth, was third (173.106), followed by fourth-fastest Kevin Harvick (171.662) and Ty Dillon as the fifth-fastest (171.249).

Among those that failed to reach the final 12-driver knockout round were Texas Sprint Cup winner Joey Logano, Dylan Kwasniewski, Brendan Gaughan, James Buescher and Ryan Reed.

With just over a minute left in the third and final qualifying round, Kyle Larson’s broke loose, spun and he kissed the inside retaining wall with the right side of his Chevrolet.

Damage did not look significant, and even though the race was due to start just over two hours later, his team is going to try and repair Larson’s Chevrolet so he can take advantage of his 12th-place qualifying position before the wreck occurred.

That was not the case for Larson earlier Friday, when he wrecked his primary car in the first of two Sprint Cup practice sessions, forcing him to go to a backup car for Saturday night’s Bojangles’ Southern 500 race.

The green flag for Friday night’s NNS race drops at 7:30 pm ET and will be televised on ESPN2.

Here’s how Friday night’s VFW Sport Clips Help a Hero 200 stacks up:

Row 1

Kyle Busch 173.681 mph, Chase Elliott 173.448

Row 2

Matt Kenseth 173.106, Kevin Harvick171.662

Row 3

Ty Dillon 171.249, Chris Buescher 170.922

Row 4

Brian Scott 170.857, Regan Smith 170.572

Row 5

Elliott Sadler 170.283, Trevor Bayne 169.631

Row 6

Cale Conley 168.914, Kyle Larson 132.112

Row 7

Brendan Gaughan 169.836, Ryan Sieg 169.789

Row 8

Joey Logano 169.543, Landon Cassill 168.810

Row 9

Dylan Kwasniewski 168.602, Ryan Reed 168.538

Row 10

Josh Wise 168.526, Mike Bliss 168.394

Row 11

Jeremy Clements 167.853, James Buescher 167.476

Row 12

J.J. Yeley 167.436, David Starr 166.259

Row 13

Dakoda Armstrong 166.631, Jeffrey Earnhardt 166.518

Row 14

Mike Wallace 166.349, Tanner Berryhill 166.236

Row 15

Todd Bodine 166.197, Eric McClure 165.693

Row 16

Kevin Lepage 165.009, Joey Gase 164.490

Row 17

Matt DiBenedetto 163.696, Tommy Joe Martins 163.462

Row 18

Derrike Cope 161.790, Carlos Contreras 160.816

Row 19

Matt Carter 160.507, Jeff Green 160.397

Row 20

Mike Harmon 157.808, Blake Koch 156.015

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

F1 Preview – 2018 French Grand Prix

Photo: Getty Images
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It’s hard to believe that the French Grand Prix, the oldest grand prix event on the planet, as it dates back to June of 1906, was ever removed from the Formula 1 calendar.

Alas, not since 2008 at Magny-Cours has Formula 1 held a race on French soil. Yet, that all changes this weekend, as Formula 1 visits the Circuit Paul Ricard for its first French race in a decade.

Formula 1 teams are not strangers to Paul Ricard. It has been a popular testing facility for years, as evidenced by the below photo from 2016, featuring Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari in a wet tire test.

LE CASTELLET, FRANCE – JANUARY 26: Sebastian Vettel of Germany and Scuderia Ferrari drives during wet weather tire testing at Circuit Paul Ricard on January 26, 2016 in Le Castellet, France. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

However, in terms of racing, Paul Ricard has also been absent from the calendar for quite a long time – the last time Formula 1 race at Paul Ricard was in 1990. Alain Prost won for Ferrari that day.

1990: Alain Prost of France punches the air in celebration after passing the chequered flag in his Scuderia Ferrari to win the French Grand Prix at the Paul Ricard circuit in Le Beausset, France. Mandatory Credit: Pascal Rondeau/Allsport

As such, despite being a known quantity as a testing facility, how a race weekend will shake out is anybody’s guess.

And what’s more, it marks the beginning of three consecutive race weekends – The French Grand Prix, The Austrian Grand Prix, and The British Grand Prix – which F1 teams and drivers are calling “the triple header.”

Talking points ahead of the French Grand Prix are below.

A Journey Into the Unknown?

Like all new venues, or resurrected and refurbished ones in this case, the Circuit Paul Ricard represents somewhat of an unknown, as there’s no available race data to make predictions off of.

And the 3.61-mile, 15-turn track itself represents a range of challenges. It has fast corners, like Turns 1 and 2 (S de la Verrerie), a technical section between Turns 3 and 7 (Virage de l’Hotel through the Mistral Straight Start), and a 1.1-mile straightaway in the Mistral Straight, though it is separated by a chicane (Turns 8 and 9).

Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff discussed the challenge of the circuit, highlighting the lack of data to build off of as well the tough three-race stretch ahead as especially challenging, in a preview on Formula 1’s website.

“France should be an interesting race. We don’t often get to race on a track where we have little to no historical data. It makes preparing for the weekend a bit trickier than usual, but that element of the unknown also adds to the challenge. The French Grand Prix marks the first race of the triple header, which will test all F1 teams to their limits, but also offers the chance to score a lot of points over the course of three weeks – which is precisely what we’re setting out to do,” said Wolff.

That element of the unknown makes Paul Ricard one of the biggest wildcards on the 2018 F1 calendar, and a championship shake up could be in the cards as a result.

Ferrari, Mercedes Continue Their Back and Forth

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA – MARCH 25: Sebastian Vettel of Germany driving the (5) Scuderia Ferrari SF71H leads Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes WO9 on track during the Australian Formula One Grand Prix at Albert Park on March 25, 2018 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

Ferrari and Mercedes have traded jabs throughout the 2018 season, with neither able to pull away from the other so far through seven races.

Sebastian Vettel enters the French Grand Prix with a one-point lead over Lewis Hamilton, and holds a slight edge in victories – three to Hamilton’s two – and comes off a thorough domination of the Canadian Grand Prix.

Vettel led every lap at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve on his way to victory, while Valtteri Bottas had to carry the Mercedes flag in finishing second. Hamilton languished in fifth, a surprising and disappointing result given his previous success there.

The aforementioned Toto Wolff described it as a “wake up call,” though Mercedes will roll out a power unit upgrade this weekend – Ferrari and Renault, which also powers Red Bull Racing, rolled out upgrades of their own in Canada.

With four long straightaways present at Paul Ricard, power will certainly be at a premium, so such upgrades will be vital in giving Mercedes a chance to make amends after Canada’s disappointment.

Trio of French Drivers Look to Impress on Home Soil

It comes hardly as a surprise that the three French drivers – Romain Grosjean, Pierre Gasly, and Esteban Ocon – are keen to make an impression at their home race.

And all three could certainly use a boost. Gasly has only one finish inside the points (seventh in the Monaco Grand Prix) since his stellar fourth place effort in the Bahrain Grand Prix. Ocon is coming off back-to-back points finishes (sixth in Monaco, ninth in Canada), but he has only one other finish inside the points this year (tenth, in Bahrain). And Grosjean, despite showing the speed to finish in the points, is yet to score any in 2018.

As such, all three are hoping for big things in their home race this weekend.

“I want to get a good weekend, have some luck, get my first points of the season, and get a lot of support from the fans,” said Grosjean. “I think we should be in a nice place at Paul Ricard. I’m always looking forward to jumping back in the car. I just love driving an F1 car.”

Ocon, who has raced and won at Paul Ricard in the past, expects his prior experience could be a big help.

“I did race at Paul Ricard early in my career – it was actually where I had my first victory in single seaters in 2013 so I have some fantastic memories of the place,” Ocon described. “I hope we can add some more success this weekend. Having been there in the junior categories makes getting used to a new track in a Formula One car much easier. I think I will find my rhythm quite quickly.”

Gasly’s excitement level obviously matches that of his French compatriots, with the added bonus that the return coincides with his rookie F1 effort.

“For me it will be absolutely incredible that my first full season of Formula 1 coincides with the return of a French Grand Prix to the calendar for the first time in 10 years,” said Gasly. “That has to be a reason for me to be very happy and I’m really excited to be racing in my home country. I can tell it will be a special feeling going out on track and actually, I have spoken to Jean Alesi and Alain Prost about it and they both told me that it will feel really special and something that you really have to experience as a Frenchman racing in France.”

Qualifying for The French Grand Prix begins at 9:55 a.m. ET on Saturday, with Sunday’s race at 9:30 a.m. ET.

Follow@KyleMLavigne