Ryan Newman rockets to top of speed charts (179.167 mph) in Darlington Happy Hour

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NASCAR’s rocket man, Ryan Newman, lived up to his nickname in Friday’s Happy Hour final practice for Saturday’s Bojangles’ Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.

In his first season for Richard Childress Racing, Newman took just nine laps of practice, but his seventh lap was the overall fastest of the entire field at 179.167 mph. No other driver exceeded 179 mph in the one hour session.

Second-fastest was a surprisingly stout effort by Richard Petty Motorsports driver Marcus Ambrose, who grazed the wall once during his five-lap spin, yet still managed to top everyone else in the field other than Newman at 178.978 mph.

Sprint Cup points leader Jeff Gordon was third-fastest at 178.906 mph. Gordon is the winningest active driver at Darlington with seven career Cup wins there.

NASCAR Hall of Famer David Pearson holds the all-time wins mark at the so-called “Track Too Tough to Tame” with 10 victories during his illustrious career.

He’s looking not only for his eighth career win there Saturday, but is also seeking to become the eighth different race winner in the Cup series in as many races this season.

Kyle Busch was fourth-fastest at 178.802 mph, followed by Monday’s race winner at Texas, Joey Logano, at 178.731 mph.

Other runs of note:

* Aric Almirola, RPM’s other driver, was sixth-fastest at 178.562.

* Dale Earnhardt Jr., still smarting from the driving mistake he made at Texas that left him with a last-place finish, was 11th-fastest at 178.200 mph.

* Three-time Darlington winner and six-time Sprint Cup champ Jimmie Johnson was 13th-fastest at 177.955 mph.

* Rookie Kyle Larson, who hit the wall in the first practice session Friday morning, bounced back for 16th-fastest in the second session at 177.742 mph.

* While most drivers put in between five and 20 runs, Kevin Harvick, who has struggled since his win earlier this season at Phoenix, did an eye-popping 63 laps around the so-called Lady In Black.

Here’s the complete run-down of the 44 drivers who took practice laps. Remember, qualifying for Saturday’s race will be tonight.

1 Ryan Newman 179.167 mph

2 Marcos Ambrose 178.978

3 Jeff Gordon 178.906

4 Kyle Busch 178.802

5 Joey Logano 178.731

6 Aric Almirola 178.562

7 Austin Dillon 178.543

8 Jamie McMurray 178.439

9 Kasey Kahne 178.400

10 Kurt Busch 178.206

 

11 Dale Earnhardt Jr. 178.200

12 Clint Bowyer 177.974

13 Jimmie Johnson 177.955

14 Brian Vickers 177.916

15 Paul Menard 177.762

16 Kyle Larson 177.742

17 Martin Truex Jr. 177.665

18 Justin Allgaier 177.595

19 Denny Hamlin 177.435

20 AJ Allmendinger 177.396

 

21 Casey Mears 177.358

22 Greg Biffle 177.185

23 Carl Edwards 177.070

24 Tony Stewart 176.759

25 Brad Keselowski 176.714

26 Matt Kenseth 176.549

27 David Ragan 176.006

28 Josh Wise 175.786

29 Kevin Harvick 175.779

30 Parker Kligerman 175.466

 

31 Ricky Stenhouse Jr. 175.334

32 Alex Bowman 174.954

33 Dave Blaney 174.941

34 Danica Patrick 174.711

35 Michael Annett 174.699

36 David Reutimann 174.303

37 Ryan Truex 174.007

38 Cole Whitt 173.920

39 David Gilliland 173.773

40 David Stremme 173.571

 

41 Travis Kvapil 173.522

42 Reed Sorenson 173.430

43 Joe Nemecheck 173.399

44 Landon Cassill 170.691

 

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Graham Rahal tries to get up to speed in IndyCar iRacing Challenge

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Although he’s just 31 years old, Graham Rahal has been driving an Indy car since the 2007 Champ Car Series season when he still a teenager.

When it comes to the virtual world, however, Rahal is an admitted “newbie.”

The Rahal Letterman Lanigan driver hopes to get up to speed in time to be competitive in Saturday’s Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama virtual race. It’s part of the INDYCAR iRacing Challenge and will be televised live by NBCSN at 2:30 p.m.

The six-time NTT IndyCar Series race winner got his virtual racing rig before last week’s American Red Cross Grand Prix at Watkins Glen International but was still learning the nuances of the iRacing platform. He started 12th and finished 14th out of 25 cars in the contest. The first 12 finishers were on the lead lap. Rahal was one lap down.

“I had never done it before,” Rahal said Friday. “At least it probably had been 10 years since I had driven any sort of sim. It’s addicting…rather addicting. Second of all, it’s bad for your marriage, but it’s a great way to kill a day of quarantine.

“But I think it’s been a big challenge just to get used to the way that you feel a car, the way that you drive a car in the sim, it’s all completely different than real life. To get used to that sensation, to get everything set up right is a huge part of it.”

Inside the cockpit of his No. 15 Honda at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, Rahal feels at comfortable in his own element. It has taken him time to find that comfort level in the virtual world.

“For me it has been a challenge to just figure out the right settings, what to do from afar, too,” Rahal said. “Obviously you don’t have anybody here (at his home) that plays iRacing or anything to help you firsthand. It’s been a bit of a challenge; but I’ve really enjoyed it.”

Next up is Barber Motorsports Park, which in the real world is a very challenging course but it puts on some of the best road course racing on the real IndyCar schedule. Rahal believes it will also be quite a challenge on iRacing.

“I think Barber is going to be actually more difficult than Watkins Glen,” Rahal said. “The track has a little bit less grip than Watkins Glen did last week. Although everybody was still crashing at Watkins Glen, I think you can get away with more than what you can at Barber. In real life it’s that way, too.

“I’m looking forward to it. I think it will be fun.”

Rahal is married to former drag racing star Courtney Force. Both are playing it safe by staying home by statewide order from Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb. But Rahal still has to find the balance between husband and virtual race driver.

By contrast, some of the other IndyCar drivers are spending 10-12 hours a day practicing on iRacing.

“That’s the challenge,” Rahal said, responding to a question posed by NBCSports.com. “I could definitely spend way more time on it. My line to Courtney is, ‘Just give me two laps.’ Then, one hour and 45 minutes later I’m still sitting there. It’s frustrating.

“As Robbie Wickens said, the frustrating part is you go out, you put in a good lap, then it’s, ‘I need to go beat that.’ You spin and you spin, and you spin. Then you get mad. The competitiveness in you, two more laps, two more laps. You try to go and go and go.

“You sit there for hours and hours and hours.”

Rahal admits he can’t stay away from iRacing for long. He is genuinely curious and interested in seeing what the competition is doing.

“I go on pretty frequently to see what’s going on,” Rahal said. “A lot of guys are on all the time. Scott Dixon, Sebastien Bourdais has been on a load, Tony Kanaan, Willie P (Will Power). I think everyone is enjoying it. But it’s a huge challenge.

“There are a couple of guys that are clearly quicker than everybody else, Will being one of those. I’m trying to figure out where and how to find the lap time. I’m telling you, it’s so different than reality in that way.

“But it’s been fun, man. I’ve enjoyed the challenge. It’s good for the exposure, good because people are paying attention. You can see it on our Instagram. If you look at the clicks or page views in the last seven days, they’ve been doubled since we started to do this stuff. While it’s great for that, it also does help kill a ton of time.”

These are unique times as the world has essential shut down because of the COVID-19 pandemic. As more and more humans are testing positive of the potentially deadly virus, the threat becomes more real.

It has also created a tremendous void as people try to find something to do to pass the long times of isolation.

By giving race fans a few hours of entertainment, even if it is virtual instead of real, then Rahal believes it’s worth it.

“I think a lot of people are just dying for something to do, something to watch,” Rahal said. “The competitiveness in all of us wants to see some sort of sport.

“I know there are other buddies like hockey players that are watching it because they just want to watch something. They need something to do. So, I think that’s a big part of it.

“I think it’s great that NBC Sports is covering it this weekend other than just being online. I think it will be tremendous to see how that turns out.

“This is very realistic. When you see the cars on track, you watch a replay, see the photos, it’s eerily real looking. I did a race at St. Louis last weekend. It was extremely entertaining I think for the drivers that were participating. Other than 400 yellow flags, which happened early in the race, it was really, really entertaining to be a part of. People who watched that race would have loved the show that they had been seeing. I think there’s a lot of realism to it.

“I think it’s also people just want something right now. The desire and the demand is there to log in or tune in and see something competitive on TV.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500