Footsteps closing in on Jimmie Johnson, but he maintains grip on first place

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Jimmie Johnson has to hear the footsteps getting closer and closer.

Johnson remains atop NASCAR’s Sprint Cup standings for the 12th consecutive week after Sunday’s race at Kentucky, but his lead in the points is definitely tightening.

Johnson’s high point this season was a 51-point edge over Carl Edwards after JJ’s win at Pocono three weeks ago. After Sonoma, it was 31 points in front of Edwards, but went back up to 38 points after Kentucky.

But the rest of the pack is closing in: Clint Bowyer is only 41 points behind Johnson after Kentucky, Kevin Harvick is 66 points back, Kentucky winner Matt Kenseth is 82 points behind and Dale Earnhardt Jr. is 98 points in arrears.

With 17 races down and nine more to go to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup, a number of drivers are sitting in some pretty uncomfortable positions right now:

* Topping the list of guys starting to worry are defending Sprint Cup champ Brad Keselowski, who fell out of the top 10 after Sunday’s race at Kentucky. Keselowski is now 145 points behind Johnson and in 13th place.

* Three-time Sprint Cup champ Tony Stewart, whose most recent title came in 2011 in the closest season finish in NASCAR history (beat Carl Edwards by a tie-breaker), dropped to 16th after Kentucky, 153 points behind Johnson.

* Four-time Cup champ Jeff Gordon still has a good shot at climbing back into the top 10. While Gordon is 133 points behind Johnson, his Hendrick Motorsports teammate, the driver of the No. 24 Chevy is just two points out of 10th place (Joey Logano).

* Ryan Newman, who may or may not be back with Stewart Haas Racing next season (depending upon sponsorship and a new contract), has fallen to 18th place, 162 points behind Johnson. With no wins, Newman’s chances of making the Chase grow slimmer with each race.

* Denny Hamlin, who missed four races earlier this season with a neck and back injury, is a massive 281 points behind Johnson, currently in 25th place. To make the Chase as a one of two potential wild cards, Hamlin not only has to climb back into the top 20, he also has to win at least two races in the next nine – a tall order, indeed.

Hamilton leads damp first USGP practice at COTA, Hartley debuts

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Lewis Hamilton continued his impressive Formula 1 record at the Circuit of The Americas by topping opening practice for the United States Grand Prix on Friday for Mercedes.

A four-time winner of the USGP at COTA, Hamilton set the pace in damp conditions in first practice after rain hit the Austin area in the lead-up to the start of the session.

After initially venturing out on intermediate tires, Hamilton made the switch to super-softs at the halfway point in FP1, ultimately posting a fastest time of 1:36.335.

Hamilton’s time saw him finish over half a second clear of Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel, who he could beat to the F1 drivers’ championship at COTA this weekend should results go his way.

Mercedes got two cars into the top three as Valtteri Bottas wound up third in the second W08 car, six-tenths back from Hamilton, while Max Verstappen ended FP1 fourth for Red Bull.

Felipe Massa led Williams into the top 10 with an impressive lap en route to fifth, finishing ahead of Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen and McLaren’s Stoffel Vandoorne.

Vandoorne was left to lead McLaren’s charge after a hydraulic leak sidelined Fernando Alonso for much of the session, limiting the Spaniard to just four laps in total.

Force India managed to get both its drivers up into the top 10 as Esteban Ocon and Sergio Perez finished eighth and ninth respectively, edging out Renault’s Carlos Sainz Jr. who was P10 in his first appearance for the team.

Brendon Hartley enjoyed his first run-out in Toro Rosso’s STR12 car ahead of his grand prix debut on Sunday, taking P14 overall.

The New Zealander had not driven an F1 car since a test with Mercedes in 2012, but put in a solid first display in practice, even though his race hopes are set to be hindered by a grid penalty.

Second practice for the United States Grand Prix is live on the NBC Sports app from 3pm ET today.