Penske backs Logano in latest team NASCAR controversy

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NASCAR is only five races into its 2013 Sprint Cup Series season but for the third consecutive year, the driver of Penske Racing’s No. 22 Shell-sponsored entry is in the headlines for all the wrong reasons.

The last two years have seen Kurt Busch enter hot water with Penske after a verbal confrontation ahead of an interview with ESPN pit reporter Jerry Punch at Homestead, then last year AJ Allmendinger had his contract terminated for failing a random drug test ahead of the July race at Daytona International Speedway.

Now, Joey Logano is the latest to enter the controversy sweepstakes. His contact with Denny Hamlin at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. on Sunday left Hamlin hospitalized with a vertebrae fracture and drew the ire – and fists – of an irate Tony Stewart in post-race.

Still, Logano’s team boss Roger Penske told USA Today Sports he’ll back his driver regardless of the situation.

“I’m 150% behind my driver, and I think he’s a real star on the team,” Penske said.

Stewart said of Logano in the same story, “It’s time he learns a lesson. He’s run his mouth long enough and done this double standard, but he’s nothing but a little rich kid who has never had to work in his life.”

Times: F1, IndyCar, Red Bull GRC all on NBC, NBCSN this weekend

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This is NBC Sports Group’s first tripleheader weekend of the 2017 motorsports season, with all of Formula 1, the Verizon IndyCar Series and Red Bull Global Rallycross in action across NBC, NBCSN and CNBC this weekend. The full release with more information is linked here, via the NBC Sports Group Press Box website.

The IndyCar race is first up, as it airs Saturday night from Phoenix International Raceway, with the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix on 9 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

Formula 1 then heads to Russia for the Russian Grand Prix, with coverage beginning Sunday morning on NBCSN at 7 a.m. ET with F1 Countdown.

Red Bull GRC’s kickoff to its 2017 season at Memphis airs at 1 p.m. ET on NBC.

The full breakdown of this weekend’s motorsports coverage is below. Streaming is also available for all shows on NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports App, with links available via NBCSports.com/live.

Following is this week’s motorsports coverage schedule on NBCSN:

Date Program Network Time (ET)
Thurs., April 27 NASCAR K&N Pro Series East – Bristol NBCSN 11 p.m.
Fri., April 28 F1 Russian Grand Prix – Practice 1 Streaming* 4 a.m.
F1 Russian Grand Prix – Practice 2 NBCSN 8 a.m.
Mecum Auctions – Monterey (Encore) NBCSN 12 p.m.
IndyCar Phoenix Grand Prix – Qualifying Streaming* 11 p.m.
Sat., April 29 F1 Russian Grand Prix – Practice 3 Streaming* 5 a.m.
F1 Russian Grand Prix – Qualifying CNBC 8 a.m.
F1 Russian Grand Prix – Qualifying (Encore) NBCSN 6 p.m.
IndyCar Phoenix Grand Prix – Qualifying (Encore) NBCSN 7:30 p.m.
IndyCar Phoenix Grand Prix NBCSN 9 p.m.
IndyCar Post-Race NBCSN 11:30 p.m.
Sun., April 30 F1 Countdown NBCSN 7 a.m.
F1 Russian Grand Prix NBCSN 7:30 a.m.
F1 Extra NBCSN 10 a.m.
Red Bull Global RallyCross – Memphis NBC 1 p.m.
F1 Russian Grand Prix (Encore) NBCSN 4:30 p.m.

INFOGRAPHICS

F1 (Leigh Diffey, David Hobbs, Steve Matchett, Will Buxton)

INDYCAR (Rick Allen, Townsend Bell, Paul Tracy, Marty Snider, Kevin Lee, Katie Hargitt, Robin Miller)

RED BULL GRC (Toby Moody, Anders Krohn, Will Christien)

Vettel tips Mercedes to strike back at Ferrari in Russia

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SOCHI, Russia (AP) Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari have had the upper hand so far in Formula One.

They don’t expect to have it against Lewis Hamilton this weekend at the Russian Grand Prix.

The long straights in Sochi suit Mercedes, which has won all three races to date around Olympic Park.

With two wins from three races, Vettel is seven points ahead of Hamilton in the standings, but expects that lead to come under pressure from the Mercedes drivers on Sunday.

“On paper, it’s a very, very strong circuit for them,” Vettel said. “A lot of straights, a power-sensitive circuit, so we’ll see, but there’s also a lot of corners where I believe last year already the (Ferrari) car was very good.”

Vettel’s wins in Australia and last time out in Bahrain have already disrupted the Mercedes dominance of the previous three seasons. Turning those promising signs into a serious title challenge over the remaining 17 races is a different proposition.

“We had a great start, yes. We’re very happy about it, yes. But have we, you know, achieved anything yet? No,” said Vettel, a four-time champion with his previous team Red Bull. “Head down and full steam for this race.”

Hamilton said he was hoping for a “counterattack” in Russia, but warned that Mercedes’ history of dominance in Sochi doesn’t mean an easy win is on the cards.

“If we win, it’s going to be earned, and we’re here to earn it,” he said. “We’re just going to have to drive the socks off the car.”

Hamilton and Vettel have beaten their respective teammates Valtteri Bottas and Kimi Raikkonen in all three races this season. As the title race takes shape, Bottas and Raikkonen face being forced to sacrifice their own opportunities to help a more successful teammate’s title chances.

When Mercedes teammates Hamilton and Nico Rosberg fought for last year’s title with other teams far behind, letting them fight it out on the track carried less of a risk. In 2017, Ferrari and Mercedes know that if one of their drivers fights his teammate, it could allow the other team to steal valuable points.

Raikkonen, a former champion who hasn’t won a race since 2013, said he’d help Vettel’s title hopes “if it comes to that at the end of the year,” but doesn’t see himself as No. 2. Vettel said it was too early in the season to talk team orders.

At Mercedes, there’s a stark contrast between Bottas and Rosberg, who had a fierce rivalry with Hamilton for years before winning the 2016 title and promptly retiring.

“Our job is to get maximum points (for the team). If I’m ordered to move over, I will,” Bottas said. “But I’m working to make sure I’m not in that position.”

No fan of team orders, Hamilton said Mercedes will order one of its drivers to let the other pass only in “special circumstances,” but added: “Our approach is, the team needs to win.”

Bottas was ordered to let Hamilton, who was on fresher tires, pass in Bahrain so that the British driver could attack Vettel.

“Whilst it was very tough for him, he was a great gentleman about it,” Hamilton said, adding he’d have done the same for Bottas if ordered to.

The Finn admitted he’s still learning how to get the most out of the car after joining Mercedes in January at short notice when Rosberg announced his retirement.

“It’s all about fine details in the fight between us and Ferrari and obviously it’s also very close between teammates as well, so every little bit helps,” Bottas said. “These 100 days, I’ve never in my life learned so much.”

The only team capable of challenging Mercedes and Ferrari so far is Red Bull, which showed its potential with third in China for Max Verstappen.

However, reliability has stopped Red Bull gathering much momentum, with brake failure for Verstappen at the last race in Bahrain, and a fuel pressure issue for Daniel Ricciardo in Australia.

Ricciardo said he’s hoping for “a bit of a bullet” when promised upgrades arrive at the next race in Spain. That could make the championship a “three-way fight” with Ferrari and Mercedes, he added.

Valtteri Bottas: No need to talk about team orders with Mercedes

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Valtteri Bottas says there is no reason to talk to Mercedes about the use of team orders in Formula 1 despite being asked on two occasions to move over for teammate Lewis Hamilton at the last race in Bahrain.

Bottas was given the call to let Hamilton through in a bid to keep Mercedes’ win hopes alive in Bahrain, with Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel charging ahead at the front of the pack.

Hamilton was unable to catch Vettel, but the incident with Bottas did spark conversation about the use of team orders once again, with both Mercedes and Ferrari appearing to have one chief contender for the championship.

Speaking ahead of this weekend’s Russian Grand Prix, Bottas confirmed that he has not spoken to Mercedes about being a number two to Hamilton, and feels there is no need to do so.

“No, we have not the conversation because I don’t think there is any need to. This team has never had number one and number two drivers and is not planning to,” Bottas said.

“It has always tried to give equal chances to both drivers, but what is different for the team this year compared to the last three years is that the gap to the second quickest team has been bigger, so maybe every single detail, letting the drivers race hard or one being stuck behind the others at times, hasn’t cost them anything.

“But I do understand the fact that this year it can cost points if for any reason, like for me in Bahrain, the pace of the other car is not good, then the team needs to think and be clever not to lose any points.

“But we have only had three races this year and I feel that all my good results are on the way, so I’m not thinking about anything like that and I’m sure the team thinks there is no need to.”

Bottas said that while team orders are not something he likes, he would be willing to help out Hamilton as he did in Bahrain if it was clearly for the good of Mercedes.

“If I had some issues in this race for whatever reason or we are on a different strategy and Lewis is stuck behind me or something, if the team tells me to move over I will, because we are doing this as a team and our target is to get maximum points for the team,” Bottas said.

“Of course, as a driver I will do everything I can not to be in that position and make sure I have my own race and personal result as well. But I’ve always been a team player and in the long-term that is going to reward you and the team.

“But in terms of what is going to happen in the future between me and Lewis and team orders and so on, we are not planning anything like that and I’m sure we are going to be racing very hard together on track.

“This year the team needs to be more careful and maybe more clever in terms of how we collect every point possible in the race and on that one I understand. So, there’s not much more to say.”

PREVIEW: Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix

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AVONDALE, Ariz. – The Verizon IndyCar Series concludes its April stretch this weekend with its third race (plus a Texas Motor Speedway test) in four weeks this month. Saturday night’s Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix on the 1-mile Phoenix International Raceway oval (9 p.m. ET, NBCSN) provides the first glimpse at an all-left-hand turn race this year.

However, the downforce levels applied to both the Chevrolet and Honda aero kits have been locked in from 2016, which will make passing difficult if not outright impossible under the lights.

Here’s what to look for on Saturday night:

2017 Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix – Talking Points

Wide-open points race

What enters as a 15-point spread between points leader Sebastien Bourdais, ahead of Scott Dixon, Josef Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud and James Hinchcliffe figures to increase after Saturday night’s race. If the Chevrolets are as strong as they were in testing and last year, it’d tend to favor Newgarden and Pagenaud on paper of those top five. Of course, Dixon won here last year, thanks in large part to his Ganassi crew. It’s a big test for the Bourdais and Coyne package.

Helio Castroneves (sixth, 33 points back) sits nicely positioned if he can end his near three-year winless drought. Meanwhile for Chevrolet’s other drivers, Phoenix could present an opportunity for Will Power (14th, 67 off the lead), Carlos Munoz (15th, 69) and Conor Daly (19th, 76) to make inroads. JR Hildebrand returns and Ed Carpenter makes his first start of 2017, but both had speed in the test here in February.

Late days at the office

It’s an interesting schedule for IndyCar and a tight turnaround from racing in Birmingham this past weekend, then driving back to the West Coast for all teams and drivers. There’s only one two-hour practice from 4 to 6 p.m. PT on Friday afternoon, a two-hour gap, and then night qualifying from 8 to 9 p.m. This will certainly be closer to race temperatures rather than qualifying during the day, as was originally projected for this race and was done last year – and perhaps helps the Hondas, which struggled in the heat of the day both last year and in this year’s test, but were better at night.

It’ll make for a lot of hurry-up-and-wait though, with none of the Mazda Road to Indy series joining on the weekend. The only support action are USAC Silver Crown cars and vintage IndyCars.

Fortunately, the field had two full test days here in February so they’re not short on track time. But it’ll be interesting to see what, if anything, translates from them because it will be hotter and the track has been through a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race weekend since.

Short ovals hard to project, outside of one three-letter acronym – RHR

There’s not really been a rhyme or reason to recent IndyCar winners on oval tracks one mile or less. Here’s a recent rundown in the Dallara DW12 era, with aero kits the last two years and the base chassis from 2012 to 2014:

  • 2016: Scott Dixon at Phoenix (started sixth), Josef Newgarden at Iowa (started second)
  • 2015: Sebastien Bourdais at Milwaukee (started 11th), Ryan Hunter-Reay at Iowa (started ninth)
  • 2014: Ryan Hunter-Reay at Iowa (started 13th), Will Power at Milwaukee (started first)
  • 2013: Ryan Hunter-Reay at Milwaukee (started fourth), James Hinchcliffe at Iowa (started second)
  • 2012: Ryan Hunter-Reay at Milwaukee (started second) and at Iowa (started seventh)

By recent history, short ovals have largely been the domain of Ryan Hunter-Reay – that’s a run of five wins in the last 10 short oval races in IndyCar, with five other drivers splitting the rest one apiece.

“RHR” was about worth the price of admission on his own here last year, but got caught out twice by ill-timed caution flags that negated a potential podium finish. If he can get track position nailed down, he could finally be in to break his own winless run of races.

As ever though, if your car is hooked up, it could be a long night for everyone else. That was Newgarden at Iowa last year, when he led 282 of 300 laps. And at Phoenix, once Dixon’s team got him to the lead on pit stops, no one else was able to beat him as he led 155 of 250 laps on the series’ return.

Firestone’s tire note

From Cara Adams, Chief Engineer of Bridgestone Americas Motorsports in Firestone’s pre-race advance: “Our team of engineers and compounders selected several constructions and compounds to test at PIR last October based on driver feedback, vehicle data from every race held at PIR along with tire analysis. Helio Castroneves, Marco Andretti and Ed Carpenter assisted us in the evaluation of our test tires. We ultimately selected a superspeedway right side construction with a softer short oval compound along with the race-proven 2016 PIR left side tires. We then brought this tire package to the April 11th open test at PIR, and look forward to racing at this unique mile oval racetrack this weekend.”

Lingering questions

  • Do we get a fourth winner in as many races to kick off the new year?
  • Will Sebastien Bourdais and Dale Coyne Racing make it through Phoenix into May, still as points leaders?
  • Can Josef Newgarden carry the momentum from his first Team Penske win to the short oval?
  • Does Will Power snap his career-worst run of five consecutive finishes outside the top-10?
  • Similarly, does Power – or the other drivers without a top-10 this season, Max Chilton (pictured above), Charlie Kimball and Conor Daly – break into the top-10 for the first time?

The final word

From the defending race winner, Scott Dixon: “I’m excited to be going back to Phoenix again. We obviously had a great result here last year, and hopefully, we can duplicate that again with a strong run. It’s a tough track and I know it’s changed a bit over the years with some resurfacing, and we learned a lot last year in terms of how the cars handle now. I love the area and Arizona is a great part of the world. There are a lot of fans in the area and I hope they are as excited as we are to go racing Saturday night under the lights.”

Here’s the IndyCar Weekend Schedule:

At-track schedule (all times PT and local):

Friday, April 28
4-6 p.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice, Livestreamed on RaceControl.IndyCar.Com
8 p.m. – Qualifying for the Verizon P1 Award (single-car format, two laps each), LIVE online; airs NBCSN 7:30 p.m., April 29

Saturday, April 29
5-5:10 p.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series pit stop practice
6 p.m. – NBCSN on air
6:35 p.m. – Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix (250 laps/255.50 miles), NBCSN (Live).

Here’s last year’s top 10:

1. Scott Dixon
2. Simon Pagenaud
3. Will Power
4. Tony Kanaan
5. Graham Rahal
6. Josef Newgarden
7. Max Chilton
8. Sebastien Bourdais
9. Juan Pablo Montoya
10. Ryan Hunter-Reay
11. Helio Castroneves (pole)