Final pit stop propels Kyle Busch to Atlanta victory

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A great final pit stop helped Kyle Busch take the lead with 36 laps to go, and he was able to hold on to it and score the win tonight in the Advocare 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

With his fourth victory of 2013, “Rowdy” was also able to clinch a berth in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, marking a return to NASCAR’s post-season after missing out in 2012.

“It’s a heck of a lot different than 365 days ago, I’ll tell you that much,” Busch told ESPN in Victory Lane. “I can’t say enough about this team. Their work tonight definitely helped me out tonight.

“I wasn’t happy with the car at all in the beginning of the race. But [crew chief] Dave [Rogers] and the guys made some really good calls and made some great adjustments there tonight to get us back up front.”

The critical moment of the race came on pit road under yellow following a Lap 288 spin for Jimmie Johnson in Turn 4. The leaders came down for service, with Busch in third behind then-leader Joey Logano and Ryan Newman.

But Busch was able to leapfrog them both and win the race off pit road. From there, he was able to maintain the lead through two more restarts with 28 and then, 21 laps to go, before taking the win by just under a second over Logano.

“My boys on pit road – what can I say?,” Busch said. “That’s the same group since 2008, they’re amazing. I love those guys and I’d do anything for ’em.”

Logano lost ground in the final restarts, but came alive once more in the final laps. He peeled off third place from Kurt Busch with six laps to go, and then got around Martin Truex, Jr. for the runner-up spot with three to go.

“Big picture, it’s great, but I feel like I had the race-winning Ford here,” said Logano, who led a race-high 78 laps and jumped two spots to eighth in the standings going into the final regular season race next week at Richmond International Raceway.

“When I restarted third behind Kyle, I didn’t give myself enough room, spun the tires. I got pinned in, the 56 [Truex] put me three-wide and I was in trouble at that point. To go all the way back to sixth and then have to work my way back up – I just we had five or six more laps.”

First Wild Card holder Truex, whose cast on his broken right wrist came apart around his palm during the race, was also able to help his Chase chances with a third-place run. Kurt Busch did the same with a fourth-place effort that puts him 10th in the championship, six points ahead of Jeff Gordon, as Richmond looms. Second Wild Card holder Ryan Newman finished fifth, with Gordon taking sixth.

But reigning Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski suffered a massive blow to his bid for the post-season. While leading the race, his engine began to lose power around Lap 245 and he promptly fell back into the field and off the lead lap.

Eventually, Keselowski was forced to go to the garage before the finish. His 35th-place result knocked him to 15th in the standings, 28 points out of the Top 10 – and also left him needing something of a miracle next week in Virginia.

“Obviously, we don’t dictate our own fate,” he said about his fading playoff hopes.

F1 Preview: 2018 Australian Grand Prix

Photo: Getty Images
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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.