Kenseth hangs on to Chase lead despite Sunday struggle

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Chase for the Sprint Cup leader Matt Kenseth probably feels lucky that he’s still atop the standings after a bizarre Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway.

In addition to having to deal with a record 15 cautions, Kenseth also had to fight with an ill-handling No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota and overcome a speeding penalty on pit road in order to claim an 11th-place finish.

As a result, Kenseth holds a three-point lead over Jimmie Johnson in the Chase; Johnson was able to finish sixth.

“It was a struggle all day – even when we were in front, it was a struggle. I’ve been so incredibly spoiled this year – I haven’t had to drive a car like that in a long time,” said Kenseth, who charged from 28th position off a restart with 35 laps to go in order to salvage his afternoon.

“Everybody was on the same tires – you can’t really blame that – but it was just incredibly treacherous and I was just so loose I was ready to crash pretty much at all times of the race, so [crew chief] Jason [Ratcliff] did a nice job with some strategy calls and I still lost all our track position, but good adjustments at the end.

“We drove back to 11th, which definitely isn’t what we wanted or what we need to contend for this thing, but it was a good save for as bad as we were.”

Going into Sunday, Kenseth had been struggling to cope with the second version of Goodyear’s “zone tread” tires, which were used this weekend as right-side tires in Kansas. Afterwards, the former Cup champion said that they were “obviously not the answer.”

“That’s the worst conditions I’ve raced in I don’t know how long – probably since they paved Charlotte probably and had that hard tire,” Kenseth said. “I’m sure [race winner] Kevin’s [Harvick] happy, but other than that, I think everybody kind of struggled with [the zone tire].”

Still, it could’ve been much worse for Kenseth, something he himself noted. Also helping the Wisconsin native was Johnson’s power failure with two laps to go, which forced him to basically coast for the remainder before he wound up sixth at the checkered flag.

That sequence likely helped Kenseth retain the points lead heading into Charlotte Motor Speedway next weekend.

Hamilton and Vettel already focused on 2018 F1 title battle

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ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates (AP) Championship rivals Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel are already looking forward to fighting each other for a fifth Formula One title next year.

With Hamilton wrapping up this year’s title two races ago, the pressure is off this week at the season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

Both are projecting to 2018, where the four-time champions get back to the serious business of trying to catch Argentine great Juan Manuel Fangio on five titles.

“Certainly we will never match him in how successful he was in such a short space of time,” Vettel said on Thursday at a news conference. “Back then racing was different. The cars were not that reliable and he still managed to be successful. (He was) the best we’ve ever had in terms of putting it all together and skill.”

Only Michael Schumacher with seven titles has won more than Fangio, who drove in F1 from 1950-58.

“It was the most dangerous period of time in motorsport. I feel honored to be so close to such a great sporting icon,” Hamilton said of Fangio. “He should be celebrated more for his success. He’s not mentioned a huge amount. He’s kind of the godfather of the sport for the drivers.”

Some may come to revere Hamilton like that in time.

He has won 62 races – second only to Schumacher’s 91 – and holds the record for pole positions with 72. The 32-year-old British driver has won three of the past four titles – losing to Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg in 2016 – and was at the peak of his powers this season.

After trailing Vettel at the halfway point, he pulled away after the summer break and leads the German driver by 43 points.

Hamilton is arguably the fiercest competitor around and is already thinking about how Vettel plans to turn the tables.

“Whatever weakness Sebastian had, he’ll work on those over the winter. No one’s perfect, even I have things to work on,” Hamilton said, without a trace of irony. “He’s going to raise the bar next year and I’ll have to as well, otherwise things won’t be the same.

“Ferrari had a very, very good season. Half the season they were in the lead and that wasn’t down to luck,” Hamilton added. “Red Bull is also going to be (competing for the title) next year.”

Considering how poor Ferrari was in 2016, this year can still be viewed as a success with Vettel winning five races compared to none last year.

Vettel joked that winning the title in 2018 will be “a walk in the park” if Ferrari improves by the same amount, then took a more serious view of the situation.

“That final step is always the hardest. But the team is ready and fired up,” said Vettel, who won four titles with Red Bull from 2010-13. “We made the biggest step of all. We lost out as the season progressed. In the end we weren’t good enough to take it to the last race, but there’s so much potential still.”

He accepted that he ultimately fell short because “Lewis made less mistakes” than he did.

Poised to regain the championship lead, he crashed out of the Singapore GP from pole position back in September – turning the tide in Hamilton’s favor. Reliability issues plagued Ferrari at the next two races. He started last and finished fourth at the Malaysian GP and then qualified third before retiring from the Japanese GP.

In June, the rivals were embroiled in their most heated clash at the Azerbaijan GP in Baku.

Vettel drove alongside Hamilton’s Mercedes as they waited behind the safety car for the restart, and was adjudged to have deliberately nudged the side of him. Tempers frayed and barbs were exchanged. Vettel initially denied it was deliberate but subsequently apologized for dangerous driving.

That incident genuinely threatened to spoil their healthy rivalry, but they joke about it now.

Asked on Thursday what their highlight of the season was, both drivers – sitting next to each other – laughed easily when Baku was suggested.

Referring to the upcoming end-of-season F1 awards, Vettel put himself forward for three.

“I should get (overtaking) move of the year, personality of the year, and fair play … maybe not.”