Chase Elliott, Kyle Larson pace NNS practices; Milka Duno seeks to become first Latina to qualify for a NASCAR event

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Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson topped Thursday afternoon’s pair of Nationwide Series practice sessions at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Driving the No. 9 JR Motorsports Chevrolet, Elliott was fastest in the first practice session with a top speed of 123.324 mph. He certainly worked for it, leading all drivers during the session with an almost race-like distance total of 106 laps.

It’s not totally surprising, though, as Elliott seeks to keep his current lead in the NNS standings a 10-point lead over teammate Regan Smith.

Kyle Busch, who wrecked late in Thursday morning’s Camping World Truck Series, finishing 24th and seeing his hopes of a weekend sweep of all three NASCAR touring series races at Bristol, was second-fastest in the first NNS practice at 122.898 mph.

Having won the last three NNS races at Bristol, the younger Busch brother will go for four-in-a-row in Friday’s Food City 300 (7:30 pm ET).

In a rarity, Brian Scott and Kevin Harvick tied for third-fastest speeds with identical marks of 122.178 mph.

Fifth-fastest was Ryan Blaney (122.084 mph).

Of note, former IndyCar driver Milka Duno (seen in above photo) recorded the 41st-fastest speed in the first session. A native of Venezuela, Duno is hoping to become the first Hispanic woman to qualify for a NASCAR national series event.

Duno will have to find more speed in qualifying Friday afternoon, as only 40 cars will make the field for the NNS race later that evening.

As for Thursday’s second practice session, Larson was nearly 2 mph faster than Elliott’s first practice best. Larson cranked off a best-speed of 125.313 mph.

Like Elliott in the first practice, Larson also logged considerable time on track, totaling 90 laps on the high-banked .533-mile short track.

Just like the first practice, Kyle Busch was second-fastest in the second practice, as well, with a best lap of 124.525 mph.

In addition to three straight, Busch has won seven NNS races in his last eight attempts at Bristol.

Brian Scott was third-fastest at 124.339 mph, followed by Blaney (124.242) and Elliott (124.050).

Just like in the first practice session, Elliott logged the most laps of any driver: 126.

Duno improved in the second practice session with a 36th-best speed of 118.598 mph.

A total of 44 cars took to the track in the final practice session.

Qualifying takes place Friday at 3:40 pm ET.

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Coyne transitioning from underdog to Indy 500 threat

Photo: IndyCar
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For most of the team’s existence, Dale Coyne Racing has been the Chicago Cubs of American Open Wheel Racing – a team whose history was more defined by failures, at times comically so, than success.

The last decade, however, has seen the tide completely change. In 2007, they scored three podium finishes with Bruno Junqueira. In 2009, they won at Watkins Glen with the late Justin Wilson.

The combination won again at Texas Motor Speedway in 2012, and finished sixth in the 2013 Verizon IndyCar Series championship. That same year, Mike Conway took a shock win for them in Race 1 at the Chevrolet Dual in Detroit.

Carlos Huertas scored an upset win for them in Race 1 at the Houston double-header in 2014, and while 2015 and 2016 yielded no wins, Tristan Vautier and Conor Daly gave them several strong runs – Vautier’s best finish was fourth in Race 2 at Detroit, while Daly finished second in Race 1 at Detroit, finished fourth at Watkins Glen, and scored a trio of sixth-place finishes at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course, Race 2 at Detroit, and the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

And 2017 was set to possibly be the best year the team has ever had. Sebastien Bourdais gave the team a popular win in the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, and then rookie Ed Jones scored back-to-back top tens – 10th and sixth – at St. Pete and the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach to start his career.

But, things started unraveling at the Indianapolis 500. Bourdais appeared set to be in the Fast Nine Pole Shootout during his first qualifying run – both of his first two laps were above 231 mph –  before his horrifying crash in Turn 2.

While Jones qualified an impressive 11th and finished an even more impressive third, results for the rest of the season became hard to come by – Jones only scored two more Top 10s, with a best result of seventh at Road America.

But, retooled for 2018, the Coyne team is a legitimate threat at the 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500.

Bourdais, whose No. 18 Honda features new sponsorship from SealMaster and now ownership partners in Jimmy Vasser and James “Sulli” Sullivan, has a win already, again at St. Pete, and sits third in the championship.

And Bourdais may also be Honda’s best hope, given that he was the fastest Honda in qualifying – he’ll start fifth behind Ed Carpenter, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power, and Josef Newgarden.

“I think it speaks volumes about their work, their passion and their dedication to this program, Dale (Coyne), Jimmy (Vasser) and Sulli (James Sullivan) and everybody from top to bottom. I can’t thank them enough for the opportunity, for the support,” Bourdais said of the team’s effort.

Rookie Zachary Claman De Melo has been progressing nicely, and his Month of May has been very solid – he finished 12th at the INDYCAR Grand Prix on the IMS Road Course and qualified a strong 13th for the “500.”

“It’s been surreal to be here as rookie. I’m a bit at a loss for words,” Claman De Melo revealed after qualifying. “The fans, driving around this place, being with the team, everything is amazing. I have a great engineer, a great group of experienced mechanics at Dale Coyne Racing.”

While Conor Daly and Pippa Mann struggled in one-off entries, with Mann getting bumped out of the field in Saturday qualifying, Daly’s entry essentially puts three Coyne cars in the race – Daly’s No. 17 United States Air Force Honda is a Dale Coyne car that has been leased to Thom Burns Racing.

Rest assured, the days of Coyne being an “also ran” are long gone, and a Coyne car ending up in Victory Lane at the biggest race of the year would complete the Chicago Cubs analogy – the Cubs won a World Series title in 2016, and an Indy 500 triumph would be the crowning achievement in Coyne’s career.

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