Talladega Update: Johnson, Kenseth, Dale Jr. mixing it up

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As expected, the field has been constantly fluctuating today at Talladega Superspeedway in the Camping World RV Sales 500 – the sixth race of the 2013 Chase for the Sprint Cup.

With the field lined up by first practice speeds after the rainout of qualifying on Saturday afternoon, Aric Almirola and Jeff Burton led the grid to the green flag at NASCAR’s biggest track under sunny skies.

On Lap 3, the first caution of the day emerged as Tony Raines suffered an engine problem. Many drivers – including Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kyle Busch, Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer – came down to pit road under the yellow to top off on fuel and make small adjustments to their cars.

The green came back out at Lap 8 with Almirola and Burton still leading the way. Burton’s train of cars on the high line propelled him to the lead shortly afterwards, with Chase leader Matt Kenseth following Burton into second position.

On Lap 11, the high line re-emerged for Kenseth, and with help from Kurt Busch and his Wonder Bread-themed homage to Talladega Nights, he pulled ahead of Burton on the low line for the point.

Greg Biffle and Joey Logano then rose up to mount a challenge against Kenseth as the race crossed the 25-lap mark. The leaders then settled into a single-file formation with two-lane racing continuing on toward the middle and rear of the pack.

Green flag stops began at Lap 41, with Kenseth abandoning the lead for service one lap later; Jimmie Johnson, one of Kenseth’s main rivals in the Chase, also pitted at Lap 42.

During the cycle, Kyle Busch was unable to cross over toward his pit box thanks to Jamie McMurray, forcing him to come back again to make his stop. Additionally, last week’s winner, Brad Keselowski, was hit with a drive-thru penalty for speeding on pit road.

When the cycle ended, the order shook out with Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. duking it out for the lead before Johnson assumed control and Earnhardt fell back slightly to around fourth.

On Lap 53, Denny Hamlin then took a brief turn at the front, with Johnson coming back to P1 on the next go-round. Earnhardt and Kenseth then came back to fight the No. 48.

The pack swallowed up Keselowski and put him a lap down at Lap 62. At this point, Johnson had fallen back and Kenseth had assumed the lead on the high line. He would then drop to the low line by Lap 65 to hold back Johnson and Denny Hamlin, while Earnhardt became the new lead car up top.

Kyle Busch and Kasey Kahne were the next ones to fall one lap down around Lap 67, but with Hamlin directly behind him, Busch settled in as he tried to become the potential beneficiary for the free pass.

Shortly afterwards, Kenseth got hung out on the high line and fell out of the Top 10, allowing Johnson to take control. Once again, the leaders went into single-file formation ahead of another wave of stops.

Kenseth was able to cut his way back to the lead on the low line and was able to catch the draft from Johnson to return to the Top 5 close to Lap 80. On Lap 78, the long green-flag run ended with a multi-car incident on the frontstretch as Marcos Ambrose lost control of his car while moving to the high line and then skidded down the track and into the side of Juan Pablo Montoya.

With Kyle Busch earning the free pass as a result, the pits opened for the leaders. Earnhardt led the pack into pit road, but came out behind Johnson and Kenseth, who, like Earnhardt, took two tires.

The green came back out at Lap 84, and Earnhardt quickly stuck his nose to Johnson’s bumper, pushing him past Kenseth for the lead. But Kenseth would not go away and used the high line to pass Johnson back before dropping low to clear him.

He wouldn’t hold that lead for long as Johnson and Earnhardt teamed up yet again to pull ahead on the inside line by Lap 88. The two were still up toward the front at the halfway point, but Clint Bowyer and Aric Almirola were starting to make noise against them on the inside…

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.