Matt Kenseth most definitely has the Sprint Cup trophy in his sites for 2014 after coming so close last season.

Kenseth: “It’s too early to really pick favorites” for Chase

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Matt Kenseth didn’t do anything to lower the championship expectations upon him last Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway, where he opened the 2013 Chase for the Sprint Cup with his sixth victory of the season.

But in a NASCAR teleconference earlier this afternoon, Kenseth, the top seed in the Chase, declared that now is no time for choosing a clear-cut winner.

“I think it’s too early to really pick favorites,” said Kenseth. “I think there’s a ton of competition. When you look at the finishing positions last Sunday, 10 of the top 12 were all drivers in the Chase.

“You’re going to have to run really good every week to be able to beat that, because they’re in the Chase for a reason – because they’ve been the best-running cars all year. You’re going to try to figure out how to beat all of them and they’re all going to be really tough.”

Kenseth is looking to claim his second Sprint Cup after attaining his first title with Roush Fenway Racing (then known as, simply, Roush Racing) in 2003, which was the final year before the Chase format began.

This year, the Chase turns 10 years old, and during that span, some have credited – or blamed – Kenseth for its creation after he took the ’03 championship with lots of consistency (11 Top-5s, 25 Top-10s) but not a lot of winning (a single victory at Las Vegas).

When asked about wanting to put the grumbling to rest by winning in the “new” format, Kenseth said that earning a title is the top priority regardless of the system.

“If you come up short of that, I think it’s always somewhat disappointing, a little disappointing,” he said. “That’s always your goal no matter what the format is.

“The format, we all know what it is before the year starts. It’s the same for everybody. The rules don’t change as you go along. Sure, we’d love to win it in the new format.”

And if you’re expecting him to issue a mea culpa about his role in changing how NASCAR crowns its Sprint Cup champ, forget it.

“There’s certainly no apologies for the way we won that championship,” he said. “We had an unbelievable season [in 2003]…If we could have won more races that year, been quicker, had circumstances go our way, we would have loved that to happen.

“It wasn’t like we weren’t trying to win more races. We had an incredible year that year, like I said. Didn’t have the wins, but had a lot of good finishes.”

Ricciardo takes maiden F1 pole position in Monaco

MONTE-CARLO, MONACO - MAY 28: Daniel Ricciardo of Australia driving the (3) Red Bull Racing Red Bull-TAG Heuer RB12 TAG Heuer on track during qualifying for the Monaco Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit de Monaco on May 28, 2016 in Monte-Carlo, Monaco.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Daniel Ricciardo will start Sunday’s Monaco Grand Prix from pole position after surprising the Mercedes duo of Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton in qualifying on Saturday.

Ricciardo displayed an impressive pace in practice, and was able to carry this form into Q3 to produce a stunning lap of 1:13.622 that was good enough for his first pole position in Formula 1.

Ricciardo came under intense pressure from Rosberg and Hamilton late in the session, the former finishing less than two-tenths of a second shy to end the day P2.

Hamilton’s luckless start to the season looked set to continue when he reported a loss of power on his car at the start of Q3. Mercedes was able to resolve the issue and send him out with five minutes remaining, but the Briton opted to bide his time before having one final push with just seconds remaining in the session.

However, Hamilton could only manage third with his final run, handing Ricciardo pole position for Red Bull, marking not only his first but also that of Red Bull in the V6 turbo era.

Ricciardo will also start the race on the super-soft tire after completing his quickest run on the compound in Q2, meaning he will be able to go longer in the race before pitting compared to his rivals.

Nico Hulkenberg qualified an excellent fifth for Force India ahead of Kimi Raikkonen, the latter set to drop five places due to a grid penalty. Carlos Sainz Jr. finished seventh for Toro Rosso ahead of Sergio Perez and Daniil Kvyat, while Fernando Alonso reached Q3 once again for McLaren, ending the session 10th.

Williams’ poor qualifying form in Monaco continued as Valtteri Bottas and Felipe Massa finished 11th and 14th respectively in Q2. The British team has not qualified inside the top 10 in Monaco since 2011.

Esteban Gutierrez outqualified Romain Grosjean for the first time this season, finishing 12th while his teammate lagged behind in P15. Jenson Button was unable to match Alonso’s pace, qualifying down in P13 for McLaren.

Renault endured another difficult qualifying session as Jolyon Palmer was once again eliminated in Q1, finishing 18th. Kevin Magnussen narrowly made it through to Q2 at the expense of Sauber’s Marcus Ericsson, but could only qualify 16th on the grid for tomorrow’s race. The Dane is also under investigation after appearing to leave the pit lane under a red light in Q1.

Manor had another fairly routine qualifying, gaining positions thanks to the mistakes of others. Rio Haryanto outqualified highly-rated teammate Pascal Wehrlein for the third time this season, finishing 19th in Q1.

Spanish Grand Prix winner Max Verstappen suffered a dramatic change in fortunes when he crashed out in Q1 before posting a lap time. The Red Bull driver clipped the wall on the inside of the Swimming Pool chicane, sending him into the barrier on exit and bringing out the red flag.

Verstappen walked away unharmed, but was classified 21st overall, only ahead of Sauber’s Felipe Nasr who suffered an engine failure earlier in the session that also warranted a red flag stoppage.

The Monaco Grand Prix is live on NBC from 7:30am ET on Sunday, with F1 Countdown beginning on NBCSN at 7am.

‘Halo’ F1 cockpit protection set for 2017 introduction

MONTMELO, SPAIN - MARCH 03:  Kimi Raikkonen of Finland and Ferrari tests the new halo head protection system on track during day three of F1 winter testing at Circuit de Catalunya on March 3, 2016 in Montmelo, Spain.  (Photo by Getty Images/Getty Images)
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Formula 1 chiefs have agreed to introduce the ‘Halo’ cockpit protection device for the 2017 season, according to reports.

Following the deaths of Jules Bianchi and IndyCar’s Justin Wilson in 2015 from head injuries sustained while racing, the FIA has placed improving cockpit safety high on its agenda.

The Halo was given its first public run-out during pre-season testing, the structure being attached to the cockpit at three points.

Reviews of Mercedes’ design were mixed, with concerns also being raised about the obstruction of the driver’s vision and the time it would take to leave the cockpit.

Red Bull offered its solution to improving head protection in practice for the Russian Grand Prix, debuting the ‘aeroscreen’ that acts more like a canopy in a fighter jet.

The aeroscreen again split opinion, but was deemed to be a viable option for possible implementation in 2017 by the FIA after significant progress had been made in its development.

However, multiple reports ahead of qualifying for the Monaco Grand Prix claim that a decision has now been taken to introduce a refined version of the Halo next season.

BBC Sport reported that the aeroscreen remains on the table and may be introduced in 2018, but has been shelved for next year after an “unexpectedly poor performance in a recent test”.

The Halo will undergo further testing before a final decision is taken over the summer, with approval from the F1 Strategy Group, the F1 Commission and the FIA World Motor Sport Council required.

Vettel quickest in closely-fought final practice in Monaco

MONTE-CARLO, MONACO - MAY 28: Sebastian Vettel of Germany driving the (5) Scuderia Ferrari SF16-H Ferrari 059/5 turbo (Shell GP) on track during final practice ahead of the Monaco Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit de Monaco on May 28, 2016 in Monte-Carlo, Monaco.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel closed out practice for the Monaco Grand Prix with the fastest time after edging out his Mercedes and Red Bull rivals in a tight battle on Saturday morning.

Red Bull had led the way on Thursday as Daniel Ricciardo put the Pirelli ultra-soft tires and his upgraded Renault engine to good use, but it could not repeat this form ahead of qualifying.

The session offered a raging battle between Red Bull, Mercedes and Ferrari as all three teams enjoyed spells at the top of the timesheets. Ricciardo’s pace shone through once again early in the session, but it was Vettel who ultimately finished fastest.

A lap of 1:14.650 was enough to edge out Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton by just 0.018 seconds, with Nico Rosberg following in the sister Mercedes a further one-tenth of a second behind.

Ricciardo was forced to settle for P4 for Red Bull as traffic prevented him from completing a late qualifying simulation, while teammate Max Verstappen finished just behind in P5.

Verstappen was fortunate not to damage his Red Bull RB12 car when he locked up at Massenet and bumped into the wall. Remarkably, the glancing blow only damaged his front wing, leaving Verstappen’s team with a minimal repair job ahead of qualifying.

Toro Rosso continued its strong start to the weekend as Daniil Kvyat and Carlos Sainz Jr. finished sixth and seventh respectively, finishing within striking distance of the leading three teams.

Sergio Perez ended the session eighth-fastest for Force India, while Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen and teammate Nico Hulkenberg rounded out the top 10.

Final practice saw a number of drivers making use of the slip roads as they found the limit during their qualifying simulations.

Esteban Gutierrez, Sergio Perez and Nico Hulkenberg all ran wide at points, while Renault had another miserable session after Jolyon Palmer spun at the Swimming Pool chicane and damaged the rear of his car.

Up front though, with just one second separating the top nine cars and less than two-tenths covering Vettel, Hamilton, Rosberg and Ricciardo, the stage appears to be set for a close battle for pole position later today.

Qualifying for the Monaco Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and Live Extra from 8am ET on Saturday.

Pirelli offers first public glimpse of wider F1 tires for 2017

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Pirelli has revealed its new wider tire models for the 2017 Formula 1 season, harking back to the rubber used in the 1970s and 1980s.

As part of the overhaul being undertaken on the technical regulations for next year, Pirelli was asked to produce wider and more durable tires, and received 25 days of testing to prepare for their implementation.

At an event in Monaco on Saturday morning, Pirelli offered a public glimpse of the new tires for the first time, fitted to a show car.

The Italian supplier also released an accompanying video and statement explaining the changes.

“Pirelli has already begun track testing tires in the current size but with constructions and compounds for 2017, using cars that are two or three years old,” the statement read.

“From roughly the beginning of August, current or 2015 cars will be tested on track equipped with the first prototype F1 tires in the new size. And we’re talking about a considerable increase: the front tire grows from 245 to 305 millimeters wide (which is nearly the same width as the current rear) while the 2017 rear grows from 325 to 405 millimeters.

“The diameter stays more or less the same, with a slight increase from 660 millimeters to 670 millimeters (the same as the current rain tire diameter, except with a slick rather than patterned surface). The wheel size remains the same as it has always been: 13 inches, giving Formula 1 a unique look that it doesn’t yet want to renounce.

“Nonetheless, as a showcase of what is possible, Pirelli has already successfully demonstrated 18-inch tyres on track and remains open to investigating even larger sizes in future.

“In order to give an idea of the scope of the changes without getting too bogged down in mathematics, the front tire will become nearly 25% wider, while the rear tyre becomes more than 30% wider. There will be a corresponding increase in the tire footprint: the amount of tire that is physically in contact with the ground at any given point.

“This is where the extra grip comes from, enhancing each car’s ability to put its power down onto the ground, leading to more performance through corners as well as under acceleration and braking.”

Ferrari reserve driver Jean-Eric Vergne completed a test with the new compounds earlier this month at Fiorano using a 2014-spec car.

The Frenchman was impressed by Pirelli’s developments, telling NBC Sports that he thought 2017 would be “great” for F1 tires.

The wider tires will undoubtedly help F1’s drive to make the cars look more aggressive, while the additional grip will contribute to the multiple second gain in lap time that is coveted.