Kyle Larson leads Sprint Cup final practice; Kurt Busch going to backup car

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Will this be the weekend Kyle Larson out-hustles the Chasers and claims his first Sprint Cup win?

With finishes of third, second, and sixth in the Challenger Round, Larson’s been threatening to do that throughout the post-season so far. He’ll have some work to do on Sunday at Kansas Speedway with an 18th-place starting position, but he paced today’s final Cup practice session with a lap of 190.295 mph.

Four of those Chasers followed Larson to round out the Top 5 in the session: Sunday’s pole sitter Kevin Harvick in second (189.607), Kasey Kahne in third (189.215), Ryan Newman in fourth (189.102), and Kyle Busch in fifth (189.069).

Kansas native Clint Bowyer, A.J. Allmendinger, two more Chasers in Jeff Gordon and Joey Logano, and Martin Truex Jr. completed the Top 10.

The rest of the Chasers went like this: Carl Edwards in 11th, Denny Hamlin in 13th, Brad Keselowski in 16th, Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 19th, Jimmie Johnson in 21st, and Matt Kenseth in 25th.

Earnhardt may not have been up with the leaders on the time sheets, but still said the practice was good for him. He had the second-fastest 10-lap average behind Harvick’s.

“This is exactly the kind of practice we want, a lot closer to race conditions,” he told Fox Sports. “The practice this morning wasn’t anything like what the track’s gonna be like [Sunday]. I’m really happy with the car. We’ve got race speed. Didn’t hit a good, fast lap to put it up the board there, but the [10-lap] average is great.

“We ran a straight 10-lap run and I really, really like the way [the speed] held on. So, I’m pretty happy.”

About 10 minutes into the session, the red flag came out for Kurt Busch’s spin off Turn 4 into the wet infield grass.

Large chunks of grass were spotted in the wheel wells of the No. 41 Stewart Haas Racing Chevrolet, and perhaps with the soft ground in mind, the safety crew opted to use ropes to pull the car out instead of sending a tow truck to do the job.

Fox Sports reported in the final moments of its practice broadcast that Kurt Busch would have to go to a backup car and abandon his 24th-place starting position for Sunday. SHR confirmed it later on.

A second red flag came out with less than two minutes to go for Alex Bowman tagging the Turn 4 wall, causing NASCAR to slightly extend the session.

Shortly after practice ended, BK Racing also said that Bowman would also go to a backup car; he had been slated to start 33rd.

Sebastien Ogier in driver’s seat for sixth straight World Rally Championship title

Sebastien Ogier leads the way in the WRC title chase. Photo: Getty Images
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COFFS HARBOUR, Australia (AP) — Thierry Neuville finished the sixth stage of Rally Australia on Friday without a rear left tire, damaging his chances of catching five-time defending champion Sebastien Ogier for the World Rally Championship title.

The Belgian driver entered the rally just three points behind Ogier in the closest title fight in 15 years.

He held the upper hand on his French rival, building a near-10 second gap through the first five stages at Coffs Harbour before hitting a chicane and finishing the stage with only three tires on his Hyundai.

Neuville was fortunate the puncture occurred late enough in the day to finish all six forestry stages and avoid a retirement. But the mistake cost him 40 seconds and gave Ogier, who is 33 seconds ahead of him, a clear run at his sixth straight championship.

In his last start with Ford before a move to Citroen next year, Ogier struggled as the first to drive the dusty, slippery forest routes.

“I pushed like crazy, I was on the limit over the jump and everywhere, I can’t do (any) more,” Ogier said. “I was on the limit.”

With Ogier on sweeping duties the back markers flourished, and Mads Ostberg took the lead in his return to the series.

Ostberg was forced to miss the previous round in Spain to make way for rally winner and nine-time world champion Sebastien Loeb, who was making the last of his three guest appearances for Citroen.

Now back in the seat, Ostberg leads Jari-Matti Latvala by 6.8 seconds in the Australian rally, with sixth-stage winner Craig Breen in third.

Ogier was seventh, 38.2 seconds off the pace, but only needs to finish ahead of Neuville to claim the championship title. Neuville is in 10th place after six stages.

Roles will reverse on Saturday, with Ogier to start further back in the field and do his best on cleaner roads to make up the day-one deficit before Sunday’s final stages.

Andreas Mikkelsen, the 2016 Rally Australia champion, was an early dropout after rolling into a ditch in his Hyundai. Mikkelsen had only just avoided a tractor that had found its way onto the course.

Former winner Molly Taylor and co-driver Malcolm Read were also forced out of their event when their Subaru hit a hay bale at high speed on the morning’s second stage. Both reported soreness but suffered no serious injuries.

The 24-stage rally totals 319 kilometers (197 miles). Ten stages are scheduled Saturday with the final six on Sunday, most of them through forests on the New South Wales state’s north coast about 530 kilometers (325 miles) north of Sydney.