Federated Auto Parts 400 - Qualifying

One day later, Clint Bowyer addresses NASCAR penalties (UPDATED)

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NASCAR may have severely punished Michael Waltrip Racing for “manipulating the outcome” of Saturday’s Chase-deciding event at Richmond International Raceway, but it would appear that a wide margin of people believe NASCAR didn’t do enough.

Clint Bowyer, the man who started all of this controversy when he spun out with seven laps to go in the Federated Auto Parts 400, may have been docked 50 points along with his MWR teammates, Martin Truex Jr. and Brian Vickers. But Bowyer’s still in the Chase, whereas Truex no longer is.

However, Bowyer will still have to face constant questions about his actions Saturday night. That questioning began today, when he made a visit to ESPN as part of NASCAR’s “Chase Across America” media tour.

Before Bowyer’s lunch-time appearance on SportsCenter, Ryan Newman told ESPN that he had received a call from him regarding the events of Saturday night.

According to Newman, who ascended to the second Wild Card spot after Truex was booted out of the Chase, Bowyer apologized – telling him that he had been “sick to his stomach” over the matter.

But while Bowyer felt that the phone call “needed to be made,” he wouldn’t answer a question about whether the call was an admission that he had spun out intentionally at RIR.

“Let’s not dig too much into this,” Bowyer said. “I’ve dealt with that the last couple of days – there are a lot of opinions on the things that happened. Obviously, I gave my interview after the races of what happened.

“You know, we’ve been penalized – the biggest penalty in NASCAR history. We’re gonna get through this as a race team. There’s a lot of racing left with what’s going on. The Chase is alive, it starts this weekend. And somehow, through all of this, I’ve got to get my focus back onto the Chase – business as usual.

“I have a lot of fans that have followed us through this and have been behind me, and I appreciate that. For the fans that don’t agree or are upset, I apologize.”

A follow-up question on what exactly he was apologizing for yielded a response from Bowyer that wasn’t especially clear.

“I went from leading the race into the middle of a disaster,” he said. “I’m extremely disappointed in the way the race was. I could’ve easily have been in Victory Lane. It’s a bad deal, a bad deal all the way around for MWR. Again, we’ve been penalized for this. We stand by our actions and we own up to them, and we’re gonna get through this together and go on.”

Bowyer then got grilled by Cup driver-turned-ESPN analyst Ricky Craven, who asked him about how he plans to deal with his fellow racers at Chicagoland Speedway this weekend.

“I’m gonna go there like I always have – I’m gonna go there, put my helmet on, and compete and race as hard as I can for a win for [sponsor] 5-Hour Energy, for Toyota and for all of our partners,” Bowyer said.

“It’s a bad situation. It is. If you think I can look into a crystal ball and tell you everything that happened after that race and do all of this, it’s crazy to think that. We’re all competitive, we’ve all been in this sport a long time and we’ve all seen a lot of wild things happen over the years…There’s only one thing that I can promise you: Chicago’s gonna happen this weekend and I’ll be ready.”

Bowyer also talked about how he and MWR will deal with the issue as a team moving forward, noting the inherent pressures involved in NASCAR’s championship stretch.

“Let me tell you something, people don’t realize how much pressure is around the Chase,” he said. “I don’t want this story to be the story of the Chase. There’s tremendous amounts of pressure.

“There’s a lot on the line for a lot of race teams, and a whole year’s work went into this. We were locked into the Chase weeks ago. We’ve been preparing for this for a long time, and I feel like we’ve got a shot, and I’m excited.”

But Craven, who said he’d give Bowyer the “benefit of the doubt,” still got in some words that likely resonate with the portion of the NASCAR fan base that believes Bowyer was in the wrong at Richmond.

“You wanna talk about pressure? Look at the economy and the people that spent their hard-earned money to fly to Richmond, to buy a ticket, to participate in the weekend, and they might have felt like they got robbed,” he said.

“I’m only bringing that point up to suggest that this is much bigger than any one of us. What happened Saturday night put into play the integrity of the sport.”

UPDATE (1:56 p.m. ET): Clint Bowyer had a second live SportsCenter interview in which he talked about the Chase controversy surrounding him and Michael Waltrip Racing. As you’d figure, some of the territory covered in “Round Two” was relatively the same as that of “Round One.”

But there were some differences:

1) In the second interview, Bowyer directly addressed a tweet from Jeff Gordon that said he did not agree with “the guy who started all of this” not losing his spot in the Chase. While doing so, he referenced their infamous post-race confrontation last fall at Phoenix.

“Everybody knows Gordon and I have had our issues. I got wiped out of the championship chase with two races to go and he got penalized. No different than I got penalized at MWR.”

Gordon was fined $100,000 and lost 25 points for his role in the 2012 Phoenix incident.

2) In the first interview, Bowyer seemed to dance around the question of whether he had spun intentionally at Richmond. But in the second interview, when he got the same query, he responded “No.”

He was then asked about the matter of no one else being around him at the time of the spin.

“Again, how did we go from a car fast enough to lead the race – we couldn’t even line up,” Bowyer replied. “I went straight backwards. Trust me, when the 15 car’s on the race track, it goes forward, and if it doesn’t, something’s wrong.”

Pla powers to unofficial lap record at Petit Le Mans night practice

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BRASELTON, Ga. – Cooler conditions produced the fastest lap times yet this weekend for the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season finale in night practice, and Olivier Pla kept the No. 60 Michael Shank Racing Ligier JS P2 Honda at the top of the charts.

A 1:13.541 is an unofficial lap record for IMSA (note times were quicker in the American Le Mans Series, but we’re talking post-mergification in 2014 when ALMS and GRAND-AM came under one roof) as Pla dropped the hammer Thursday night in the car he shares with Ozz Negri and John Pew, in Shank’s 250th and last scheduled prototype start. It also gave Shank a Thursday three-practice sweep of the top of the timesheets.

“I’m very happy with the performance today. I love this track, Road Atlanta, and the car has been great from the beginning. We just kept improving the car during each session. All of the changes we made were very positive so thank you to the team for that. I think it’s looking good for the race,” Pla told IMSA Radio.

Other class leaders at night included 2015 IndyCar driver Stefano Coletti, in the third Starworks Motorsport entry in Prototype Challenge, Dirk Mueller in GT Le Mans in the No. 66 Ford Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GT and Marco Seefried in GT Daytona in the No. 44 Magnus Racing Audi R8 LMS.

Night practice, like the two day sessions that preceded it, was largely uneventful – a welcome departure from last year’s nightmarish day of crashes and rain on Thursday.

A final pre-qualifying practice occurs on Friday before qualifying later Friday afternoon.

Session three times are linked here.

Stefan Johansson’s latest blog: Rosberg’s ascendance, Pagenaud’s title

SOCHI, RUSSIA - MAY 01:  Nico Rosberg of Germany and Mercedes GP speaks with his team-mate Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP as he celebrates his win on the podium during the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on May 1, 2016 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)
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Stefan Johansson’s latest blog entry previews the forthcoming Formula 1 title battle between Mercedes AMG Petronas teammates Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton, recaps the IndyCar title just won by Simon Pagenaud, and addresses some other topics from both worlds as well.

Per usual, it’s the latest conversation with Jan Tegler live on Johansson’s website, and continues with what we’ve been chronicling throughout the year on NBCSports.com.

On the Rosberg vs. Hamilton title title, Johansson notes that the narratives around the two keep popping up depending on who’s winning and losing on-track.

“Nico really dominated this one, no doubt,” Johansson wrote of Rosberg’s peerless weekend in Singapore. “He had a flawless weekend throughout qualifying and the race and never put a foot wrong.

“But what’s funny is that again some of the pundits are back saying that Lewis is finished because he’s partying too hard, he’s not focused, etc. I say leave the guy alone. What we’re seeing is the normal, natural dynamics over the course of a 21-race season. You’re going to have good and bad races.

“Rosberg was certainly off-the-boil too for a few races mid-season and the pundits were saying he’s not mentally strong enough and this and that. The changing of momentum back and forth is completely normal but I guess some people just don’t have enough to talk about. Because there is effectively only two of them at the moment with a realistic chance of winning and they are so incredibly closely matched all the time it doesn’t take a lot for the momentum to swing one way or the other.”

Johansson also acutely notes how Sebastian Vettel has taken advantage of 2017 Pirelli tire testing to perhaps gain a leg up on the competition next year.

He writes of Vettel and Scuderia Ferrari’s test runs on the newer 2017 rubber, among other things, “What’s more interesting is that Sebastian Vettel has been doing every test lap for Ferrari that has been available. I guarantee you that this will give him an advantage next year. Every time you run a car you gain some level of knowledge. Racing and F1 in particular is no different than any other business in that it relies on human interaction and relationships to get the best results.

“The fact that Pirelli has Vettel doing testing, making every single run he can make will pay off. I’ve done lots of tire testing in the past and it’s absolutely the best way to move things forward for driver or a team performance.”

On Simon Pagenaud’s IndyCar title, Johansson praised the 32-year-old Frenchman who’s come into his own this year:

“Pagenaud ended the season in a pretty impressive way. There’s no doubt that he went to Sonoma to win the race as well as the championship. He did a superb job all weekend and the Penske team definitely has the momentum now. Ganassi had the momentum for several years but it seems to have swung toward Penske now. They also have four very strong cars with any one of them capable of winning any race under right circumstances, Ganassi doesn’t have that at the moment.”

Johansson still said Scott Dixon, the 2015 and four-time champion, put together a barnstorming 2016 campaign – but it was one undone by horrific luck.

“As I’ve said, it’s weird but Scott had his best year for many years in some ways. If everything had gone his way, he could have won three races where he had mechanical failures which are almost unheard of now in IndyCar. But he had engine problems at Detroit, Road America and St. Petersburg. There were also a few strategic errors all adding up to a Championship finish that was his lowest for quite some time. If all that hadn’t happened he would have almost dominated the season.”

There are several more great nuggets within Johansson’s latest blog, which you can view in its entirety here.

Previous linkouts to Johansson’s blog on MotorSportsTalk are linked below:

Additionally, a link to Johansson’s social media channels and #F1TOP3 competition are linked here.

Rosberg leads Mercedes 1-2 in shorter Malaysian first practice

KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA - SEPTEMBER 30: Nico Rosberg of Germany driving the (6) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo on track during practice for the Malaysia Formula One Grand Prix at Sepang Circuit on September 30, 2016 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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Despite a near-20-minute red flag for Kevin Magnussen’s fire in pit lane, the Mercedes AMG Petronas pair needed less time to retain their usual positions on the top of the scoreboard for this weekend’s Malaysian Grand Prix.

Nico Rosberg, who regained the championship lead with his third win in a row two weeks ago in Singapore, topped the timesheets at 1:35.227 on Pirelli’s soft tires, which was 0.494 of a second clear of teammate Lewis Hamilton.

The profile of the Sepang International Circuit has changed this year owing to a resurfacing and the angles and lines to some of the corners are different compared to years past. And the race shifts back to October for the first time since 2000.

Juan Pablo Montoya’s race lap record is 1:34.223 set with Williams in 2004 and pole times in the V10 era were in the 1:33s. On harder tires – Pirelli has brought the three hardest compounds on offer with the soft, medium and hard tires this weekend – and times aren’t far off.

In the 90-minute session, Rosberg did have an off with 15 minutes to go; Hamilton had a monster lockup with about 53 minutes to go and Carlos Sainz Jr. went off course just following the session restart.

Magnussen’s pit fire though was the story of the session. The Dane pitted, then scrambled to exit his Renault when smoke and flames emerged from both the airbox in the engine cowling and then from the engine bay. His crew worked wonders to extinguish the flames.

Behind the Mercedes teammates at the top of the charts, Ferrari’s pair of Kimi Raikkonen and Sebastian Vettel were next followed by Fernando Alonso’s McLaren in fifth. Red Bull teammates Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen were sixth and seventh, ahead of the Force India teammates Nico Hulkenberg and Sergio Perez. Perez is hoping a resolution on his F1 future will be revealed sooner rather than later.

Romain Grosjean’s struggles with Haas F1 Team continued as he radioed that “something must not be right” with the car after a late off in the session. He was an unlucky 13th.

Further down the order neither Felipe Massa of Williams or Jolyon Palmer in the second Renault were able to eclipse the two Saubers, and languished in 18th and 19th.

Free practice two runs from 2 a.m. ET on NBCSN and the NBC Sports App, via streaming at f1stream.nbcsports.com for participating providers. Leigh Diffey is back in the booth with David Hobbs and Steve Matchett, with Townsend Bell in the pits. Set your DVRs, or brew some coffee.

Times from FP1 are below:

Renault crew fights, extinguishes Magnussen fire at Malaysia (VIDEO)

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There must be something about the Enstone team and scary pit fires, because Kevin Magnussen had his near-Jos Verstappen at Hockenheim 1994 moment during this morning’s first free practice from the Malaysian Grand Prix.

The young Dane pitted his Renault RS16 just eight minutes into the session because it all went wrong from there. Smoke and flames emanated from out of the roll hoop and in the engine bay, and Magnussen frantically jumped out of the car from there.

He was OK, but in the subsequent minutes that followed, the car lit up several more times as it burned off fuel. The Renault Sport F1 Team crew then took to fighting and fanning the flames with fire extinguishers, and managed to douse it and put it out, in a valiant effort.

The car was wheeled back into the garage and Magnussen, most importantly, was unharmed.

The fire caused a 19-minute delay to the session.

Verstappen’s raging inferno came during a pit stop in the 1994 German Grand Prix, when the team now known as Renault was known as Benetton.

Tweets from the team are below and the video is above. FP2 runs on NBCSN from 2 a.m. ET.