Martin Truex Jr. leads five-driver pack to exceed 200 mph in first Sprint Cup practice at Talladega

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It’s rare a driver gets a second chance in NASCAR, but Martin Truex Jr. did during Friday’s first practice session at Talladega Superspeedway for Sunday’s Aaron’s 499.

Truex sat on the outside pole for the season-opening Daytona 500 back in February, but his hopes and dreams of a win in the Great American Race ended after just 30 laps when the oil pump on his Furniture Row Racing Chevrolet broke.

End of story, end of race for Truex, who ultimately finished last in the 43-driver field.

But in the first of two practice Sprint Cup sessions on Friday, Truex reached back for some of the same magic he had during qualifying at Daytona.

The New Jersey native, who is in his first season at FRR after a four-year stint with Michael Waltrip Racing, was the fastest in the early afternoon practice.

Not only that, Truex cracked the 200 mph mark in doing so, leading the 47 cars that took part in the practice session with a top speed of 200.721 mph.

Truex is currently 27th in the Sprint Cup standings heading into Talladega, 159 points behind series leader Jeff Gordon.

And while his record at Talladega is far from stellar – he’s managed to finish just nine of his prior 18 starts there, Truex is optimistic that he can build upon Friday’s practice time.

“The car is fast, and we knew it would be as fast as it was in Daytona,” Truex said after the first practice session. “We just didn’t have a chance to show the speed at Daytona.

“It’s good that we still have the speed in it.  We put ourselves in the right spot today to hit the big number. I think we only did nine or 10 laps and everything felt good so we’re ready to go and qualify tomorrow.”

As a result, Truex said he would not take part in Friday’s second practice session.

As for qualifying Saturday, Truex said there’s more from where Friday’s practice speed came from.

“We would like to be in the same position as we were today,” he said. “At the start of practice we got in front of a line of cars and were able to make a run up there.

“The difference (during Saturday’s qualifying) is that we don’t know what everyone else’s plan is going to be.  Everyone will be trying to do what we did in practice today and that’s to be in the right position to get the fastest speed.

“And at the same time, it’s going to be a risky session. Our No. 1 goal right now is to make sure this Furniture Row/Denver Mattress Chevrolet races on Sunday. If we feel like we’re in a danger zone, we’ll abort. It really doesn’t matter where you start here.”

Truex is coming off a season-best finish of 10th at Richmond last Saturday, had plenty of company as four other drivers also cracked 200 mph:

Justin Allgaier (200.666), last year’s ‘Dega spring race winner David Ragan (200.599), Marcos Ambrose (200.540) and super rookie Kyle Larson was fifth-fastest (200.372).

Sixth through 10th were Carl Edwards (199.921), Michael Waltrip (199.875), David Gilliland (199.666), Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (199.654) and Danica Patrick was 10th-fastest at 199.625 mph.

On the flip side, several drivers struggled to find speed in the first session. Kyle Busch was 41st-fastest (195.389 mph), Dale Earnhardt Jr. was right behind (195.337), six-time and defending Sprint Cup champ Jimmie Johnson was 45th-fastest (190.537) and J.J. Yeley brought up the rear of the field at an almost glacial 187.331 mph.

Chevrolet dominated the first practice session from a manufacturer’s standpoint with 11 Chevy-powered drivers among the fastest in the top 20.

Ford had seven drivers while Toyota continued its struggles with only one driver in the top 10 (Waltrip, seventh-fastest) and Clint Bowyer (18th-fastest).

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New Chip Ganassi driver Marcus Armstrong will team with boyhood idol Scott Dixon

Marcus Armstrong Scott Dixon
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Marcus Armstrong was a Scott Dixon fan his entire life, and when he was 8, the aspiring young racer asked his fellow New Zealander to autograph a helmet visor that he hung on his bedroom wall.

Next year, Armstrong will be Dixon’s teammate.

Armstrong was named Friday as the fourth IndyCar driver in the Chip Ganassi Racing lineup and will pilot the No. 11 next season on road and street courses.

A driver for the five oval races on the 17-race schedule will be named later.

The No. 11 is essentially the No. 48 that seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson drove the last two seasons, with Chip Ganassi making the change to run four cars numbered in sequential order. Indianapolis 500 winner Marcus Ericsson drives the No. 8, six-time champion Dixon drives the No. 9, and 2020 IndyCar champion Alex Palou drives the No. 10.

So just who is the second Kiwi in the Ganassi lineup?

A 22-year-old who spent the past three seasons in Formula One feeder series F2, a Ferrari development driver in 2021, and former roommate of Callum Illot and former teammate of Christian Lundgaard – both of whom just completed their rookie IndyCar seasons.

“I’ve always been attracted to the IndyCar championship because it’s one of those championships that’s been really well televised in New Zealand since I was young, mainly because of Scott and his success,” Armstrong told The Associated Press. “As time progressed, as I got closer to F1 and single-seaters, the attraction to IndyCar grew just because of how competitive the championship is – I like to challenge myself and the level of competition in IndyCar is remarkably high.”

Armstrong, from Christchurch, New Zealand, was set to travel from his current home in London to Indianapolis this weekend to meet his new team. He won’t need an introduction to Dixon, the 42-year-old considered the best IndyCar driver of his generation and Armstrong’s unequivocal childhood hero.

Last season, Dixon earned his 53rd career victory to pass Mario Andretti for second on the all-time list. Dixon has driven for Ganassi in all but 23 of his 345 career starts.

“For a long time I’ve been a Scott Dixon fan. I don’t want to make him cringe with our age difference,” Armstrong told the AP.

Despite the two-decade age difference, Armstrong never considered someday racing with Dixon a fantasy.

He convinced his father after winning five national karting championships to allow him to leave New Zealand for Italy at age 14, where he moved by himself to pursue a racing career. Armstrong said as soon as he’d received parental permission, he’d never look back.

Armstrong was in Formula 4 two years after his move to Italy and won that title in his first season. He won four races and four poles in F3 in the 2018 and 2019 seasons, then collected four wins and eight podiums in three seasons of F2.

“Maybe it’s a strength, or maybe it’s a weakness, but I always thought I was capable of doing great in the sport,” Armstrong told the AP. “I think you probably have to succeed in the sport, you need to believe in yourself. I always pictured myself being in IndyCar.

“As Scott’s teammate? I can’t specifically say I saw that. It’s an extraordinary chain of events.”

Armstrong becomes just the latest driver to leave Europe, where F1 is the pinnacle but has only 20 seats each year. Alexander Rossi began the trend in 2016 when the American left F1 and won the Indianapolis 500 as a rookie. He’s been followed by Ericsson, last season’s Indy 500 winner, Romain Grosjean, Illot, Lundgaard, and on Thursday three-time W Series champion and Williams F1 reserve driver Jamie Chadwick was announced as driver for Andretti Autosport in IndyCar’s second-tier development series.

Armstrong said he could have remained in F2 for a fourth season, but he’d been watching IndyCar for so long, and after conversations with Illot and Lundgaard, he decided to make the move to what he believes is the most balanced racing series in the world. He tested for Dale Coyne Racing at Sebring in October.

He doesn’t know if European racing is done for good, just that he wants to be in IndyCar right now.

“I don’t want to think too far into the future, I’m just grateful for this opportunity that is standing right in front of me,” Armstrong said. “I want to perform as well as I can in the near future and just consolidate myself in the fantastic chance that is IndyCar and just do my best.

“I’m not looking at F1 as a landing spot – I am looking at IndyCar, and that’s exactly why I am here.”