From Daytona to the desert

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This weekend marks the start of the grind for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.

Preparing for and running the Daytona 500 is very much like a season in itself. But with “The Great American Race” in the rear view mirror, the fight for the Sprint Cup can truly begin.

The next battleground is decidedly different from Daytona’s sprawling superspeedway. Phoenix International Raceway is shorter (one mile) and has less banking, which will create a much bigger focus on downforce and handling this weekend.

Phoenix will also begin what should be an interesting few weeks of maturation for the new “Generation-6” cars. While it can’t be said that they put on a really exciting show last Sunday at Daytona, the drivers were also understandably playing it safe until the final stages.

“We’ve all crashed so many times and have torn up so much stuff that a lot of that falls on the driver’s shoulders,” said Daytona winner Jimmie Johnson on Sunday. “…I just believe a lot of the competitors just wanted to get to that last pit stop and race for it.”

But we’ve yet to see how the new cars will race on short and intermediate tracks.

March’s schedule has four facilities that fit this particular category: Phoenix, Las Vegas (1.5 miles, variably banked), Bristol (.533 miles, high-banked) and Fontana (two miles, mid-banked). If the Gen-6 cars can put on a good show in these upcoming events, NASCAR should take it as an encouraging sign of progress.

Another thing to keep an eye on: The tempers. One wonders if last Sunday’s post-race Twitter war between former Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano (now with Penske Racing) will continue to play out on the track.

If it does, it wouldn’t be the first time Phoenix has played host to controversy. The last time NASCAR visited in November of 2012, the post-race headlines didn’t focus on Kevin Harvick’s victory, but on a brawl between the crews of Clint Bowyer and Jeff Gordon after the two drivers had tangled repeatedly during the final laps.

When all the dust settled, track president Bryan Sperber dubbed the race as the greatest in PIR’s history. Talk about a tough act to follow.

Subway Fresh Fit 500k at Phoenix International Raceway
Sunday, 3 pm ET

Track Specs
1-mile oval
Turns 1-2: 11 degrees of banking
Turns 3-4: 9 degrees
Frontstretch: 3 degrees
Backstretch: 9 degrees

Race Distance: 312 laps/312 miles (500 kilometers)

Defending Race Champion: Denny Hamlin

Lewis Hamilton comes home to Mercedes factory after fourth title

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On Monday, the Formula 1 schedule finally allowed teams to be in Europe before heading to Abu Dhabi for this weekend’s season finale.

And as such, that provided a window for now four-time World Champion Lewis Hamilton to return to the Mercedes AMG Petronas factories in Brackley and Brixworth to be celebrated for taking the driver’s title, as Hamilton an Valtteri Bottas delivered Mercedes its fourth straight constructor’s title.

Hamilton was at Brixworth, the home of Mercedes-AMG High Performance Powertrains (HPP) and its highly successful Mercedes-Benz Power Units first before heading to Brackley, where he was welcomed with a “guard of honor” as the entire team came out to greet him.

The champion was overwhelmed at the response and the welcome.

“This a very emotional day. I was not expecting this, thanks everyone for the warm welcome,” he said. “Today is something that I will never forget, turning up at the front gate of the factory and seeing everyone out on the street to welcome me – I’m blown away.

“This has been an incredible year, it’s been an incredible journey together. There’s a huge amount of respect and appreciation I have for everyone. I’ve been in the sport for a long time now, but to see the work ethic in Brixworth and Brackley really inspires me. Every time I come around, I see everyone operating at 100%, which encourages me to bring my best performance.

“Thank you all for helping me achieve my dreams, it would not have been possible without you. This is the best championship year, because we’ve been fighting another team and because we’ve had the difficulties and challenges we’ve had – that just makes it so much greater.”

A social roundup of images and videos are below, all via Hamilton and the Mercedes team on social media.