Stenhouse scores first career Cup pole at Atlanta

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While he’s regularly been in the news thanks to his relationship with fellow Sprint Cup rookie Danica Patrick, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has had a relatively quiet rookie campaign on the track.

But on Friday night at Atlanta Motor Speedway, he made some noise by taking the pole for Sunday’s Advocare 500 as part of a 1-2 performance in qualifying for Roush Fenway Racing.

Stenhouse threw down a lap at 189.688 miles per hour in the No. 17 Ford to notch his first career Cup pole. Joining him on the front row for Sunday will be the man he knocked off for the honor – his RFR teammate, Carl Edwards, who turned in a lap at 189.021 mph.

While quick not to take it as a sign of progression in his inaugural Cup campaign, Stenhouse feels that he and his team are starting to find a rhythm in a season that has yet to see them earn a Top-10 finish.

“It’s a fast lap on Friday – there’s no doubt about it, it doesn’t translate and doesn’t automatically go into the race,” said Stenhouse. “We’ve got 500 miles here, but I do feel like the last few weeks we’ve been a lot better than we were at the beginning of the year.

“…I’ve learned a lot this year and it’s not fun not running up front and being consistently in the top 10 and top 5, but that’s still our goal.”

Edwards had taken to the high line on his qualifying run, which appeared to be the fast way around the 1.5-mile oval – until Stenhouse managed to beat him by running on the bottom in his attempt.

“I give Ricky a lot of credit for not changing his line after seeing how fast we were on top,” said Edwards. “That’s really tough to stick to your guns and stick to what you know, so he did a great job.”

Juan Pablo Montoya was third-fastest and will be joined on Row 2 by Denny Hamlin, who is competing with a sprained right thumb he sustained in the same crash last weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway that broke the wrist of Martin Truex Jr.

Jeff Gordon and Bristol winner Matt Kenseth make up Row 3, followed by Truex and Dale Earnhardt Jr. in Row 4, and Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson in Row 5.

F1 Preview: 2018 Australian Grand Prix

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Save for two occasions, in 2006, and 2010, the Australian Grand Prix has served as the season-opening event for the FIA Formula 1 World Championship since 1996, and this weekend’s event will be the 21st time that the city of Melbourne has kicked off the Formula 1 campaign.

The 2018 season is the fifth one of the current hybrid power unit era, the second season of the current aero regulations, and the second under Liberty Media’s guidance.

Last year saw titans Mercedes AMG Petronas and Scuderia Ferrari duel for supremacy for most of the season before Mercedes distanced Ferrari late in the season to take the constructor’s title and the driver’s title, with Lewis Hamilton, who is now tied with Sebastian Vettel on four world championships apiece.

Four drivers on the grid have Formula 1 world championships to their name: Hamilton, Vettel, Kimi Raikkonen, and Fernando Alonso. Scuderia Toro Rosso’s Brendon Hartley also has a world championship to his name as a two-time titlist in the FIA World Endurance Championship.

So, what can viewers expect from the 2018 curtain-raiser in Australia? A handful of things to watch are below?

2018 Australian Grand Prix – Talking Points

Does Anyone Have Anything for Mercedes?

Only on one day during pre-season testing did a Mercedes driver lead the way – Lewis Hamilton was fastest on the final day of Week 1 at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya.

However, all indications were that was by design, with the team focusing the majority of the second week, if not the entire second week, on long runs with their W09 EQ Power+ chassis.

Such a decision is an ominous one, in that it indicates the team is very comfortable with the amount of speed in the car and did not see a need, or desire, to show their hand during testing.

With that in mind, the Mercedes duo of Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas may yet again have the best and fastest cars, and the team looks poised to potentially make it five constructor’s and driver’s championships in a row.

Ferrari and Red Bull Look to End Mercedes Reign

The biggest threats to Mercedes are undoubtedly Ferrari and Red Bull, the only other teams to win in 2017.

And both teams displayed a lot of pace during testing, particularly in the “one-lap speed” category. Ricciardo set a lap record around the Catalunya circuit during the second week, only for Vettel to supplant that mark later in the week. Teammate Kimi Raikkonen led the way during the final day of testing.

It is unknown how that pace will translate over the course of a race distance. Mercedes appeared to have an edge on both Ferrari and Red Bull over long runs and race simulations, but there is also a theory that neither Ferrari nor Red Bull had their true long-run form on display.

Still, if a team is going to knock off Mercedes, it will likely be either Ferrari or Red Bull.

McLaren on the Rebound?

Put simply, the previous three seasons for McLaren F1 Team were a bit of a disaster. Their partnership with Honda yielded point totals of 27 (2015), 76 (2016), and 30 (2017) in a three-year venture that was defined by poor reliability and underwhelming power.

The relationship hit a boiling point last year and both entities parted ways ahead of the 2018 season, with McLaren signing a new power unit deal with Renault.

Testing went better than in previous years, though the team continued to battle reliability problems. However, all issues appeared to be minor, needling issues rather than more significant, foundational problems, as the other Renault teams (Red Bull and Renault Sport F1 Team) had solid runs with few reliability issues.

The car does appear to have speed in it, so if the reliability problems are behind them, McLaren could be in for a rebound season.

Stuck in the Midfield Again

Formula 1’s battle amongst the midfield is set to be as fierce as ever as a host of a several teams have a chance at being “best of the rest.”

Sahara Force India has been the frontrunner from the the midfield teams each of the last two years, finishing fourth in the constructor’s title in both 2016 and 2017, though if the steady conflict between drivers Esteban Ocon and Sergio Perez continues through 2018, it could hamper their efforts significantly.

Renault Sport F1 Team and Haas F1 Team look to improve on their 2017 form, while Toro Rosso is in a new partnership with Honda power units…and has experienced a surprisingly smooth pre-season as Honda’s 2018 platform looks significantly better, with the team enjoying a solid run of testing with few, if any, reliability problems.

Williams Martini Racing and Alfa Romeo Sauber appear to be at the back of the pack entering the season, but both could battle for points finishes if those ahead of them falter.