Ricky Stenhouse Jr. to do a little pre-Christmas dirt tracking Saturday in Illinois

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Ricky Stenhouse Jr. wants a checkered flag for Christmas – well, sort of.

The Roush Fenway Racing driver will get back behind the wheel this Saturday, going back to his short-track, open-wheel roots in DuQuoin, Illinois.

Stenhouse will compete in the fifth annual Great Clips Battle at the Center on the one-sixth Mini-Magic Mile at the Southern Illinois Center, located on the grounds of the DuQuoin State Fair. DuQuoin is about 85 miles southeast of St. Louis, Mo.

The Battle at the Center is a non-points all-star race put on by the POWRi Lucas Oil National Midget Series.

It’ll be Stenhouse’s second bid to win at DuQuoin, having finished second in the inaugural Battle at the Center in 2010. He’ll be driving for Bryan Clauson Racing as a tune-up of sorts for next month’s Lucas Oil Chili Bowl in Tulsa, Okla., from Jan. 12-17.

It’ll be Stenhouse’s third try to win the Chili Bowl, having finished ninth in 2012, but failed to advance out of the B feature last year.

“We’re always trying to get him up here for the Battle at the Center to get him in the car and get him in the car before Tulsa and hit the ground running,” Clauson said. “He needs to get the rust off in a midget. This year, his schedule allowed him to do it.”

Stenhouse, 27, was a very successful sprint car driver before his career took him to NASCAR. NASCAR star Tony Stewart hired Stenhouse to drive for his USAC team in 2007, and the Olive Branch, Miss., native responded with five National Midget wins, and two others in USAC National Sprint Car competition in 2008.

Shortly after that, Stenhouse joined Roush Fenway Racing and went on to win back-to-back Nationwide Series championships in 2011 and 2012. He became the Sprint Cup/Sunoco Rookie of the Year in 2013, but struggled to a 27th-place finish in the final standings in 2014.

Others that will be featured in Saturday’s race action include Clauson, 2014 National Midget Driver of the Year Chris Bell, 2012 POWRi Lucas Oil National Midget champ Andrew Felker, and World of Outlaws driver Joey Saldana.

Tickets are $20, with kids 12-and-under free. Doors open at 3 pm CT, hot laps begin at 5 pm CT, with heats afterward leading up to the 40-lap main event feature.

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Max Verstappen shows speed in Austria; Lewis Hamilton lacking pace

Leonhard Foeger/Pool via Getty Images
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SPIELBERG, Austria — Red Bull driver Max Verstappen posted the fastest time Friday, and six-time Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton lacked pace in the second practice session for the Styrian Grand Prix.

Verstappen was 0.043 seconds quicker than Valtteri Bottas – Hamilton’s teammate at Mercedes – and 0.217 ahead of Racing Point driver Sergio Perez.

“The car already feels better than last week, the balance is a lot nicer and we have made a good step,” said Verstappen, who did not finish last Sunday’s season-opening Austrian GP after starting from second.

“It is too early to say how we are looking against Mercedes, but we are quite happy. We have tried a few different directions to understand the car a bit more and we are heading the right way.”

Hamilton was only sixth fastest, about 0.7 seconds slower than Verstappen. Hamilton spent a chunk of time in the garage while his team worked on his car.

“It was quite far off, so there’s a lot of work to do in the background to figure it out,” he said. “Others out there are quick and Valtteri’s obviously got good pace.”

Despite adding a new front wing to its car, struggling Ferrari had a dismal afternoon.

Charles Leclerc was only ninth quickest and 1 second slower than Verstappen, while teammate Sebastian Vettel lagged about 2 seconds behind Verstappen in 16th.

Daniel Ricciardo lost control of his Renault car early into the second session, swerving left off the track and thudding backward into a protective tire wall. He climbed out unharmed, other than a slight limp, but the left rear tire was mangled and the car was lifted off the track by a crane.

Alexander Albon spun twice, the Red Bull driver’s second spin taking him right off the track and into gravel.

Earlier, Perez was fastest in the first practice ahead of Verstappen and Bottas, with Hamilton fourth quickest and Vettel only 10th in sunny conditions.

That session was briefly interrupted when Nicholas Latifi’s Williams car pulled over to the side with a gearbox issue.

The incident brought out yellow flags, forcing drivers to slow down. But McLaren driver Lando Norris overtook Pierre Gasly’s AlphaTauri and got a three-place grid penalty for Sunday’s race.

Norris, 20, finished third at the Austrian GP last weekend, becoming the youngest British driver in F1 history to get on the podium and third youngest in F1.

The upcoming race is changing names from last week but is at the same track. It is surrounded by the Styrian mountains.

A third and final practice will be held on Saturday morning before qualifying in the afternoon, with heavy rain and storms in the forecast.

If third practice and qualifying are washed out, drivers take their grid positions from where they placed in second practice.

“It would definitely suck if we didn’t get to qualify,” said Hamilton, who started fifth and finished fourth last weekend. “It would make it challenging.”

However, qualifying also could be moved to Sunday morning.

“I don’t expect to be on pole position with this (practice) lap,” Verstappen said.