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Martinsville a must-win situation for Jeff Gordon

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Jeff Gordon’s drive toward a fifth Sprint Cup championship has hit some bumps in the road over the last couple of weeks.

Two weekends ago at Charlotte, Gordon finished a respectable seventh after starting from the pole. Unfortunately for him, all four of his main rivals in the Chase for the Sprint Cup – Matt Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick – finished better than he did.

Then last Sunday at Talladega, Gordon finished 14th but had Busch, Harvick and Johnson beat him to the stripe (Kenseth finished 20th and lost his points lead to Johnson).

He’s been able to avoid calamity this post-season and that’s made him one of the legitimate contenders still standing with four races to go. But he has to overcome a sizable, 34-point gap to his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Johnson.

With that in mind, Sunday’s race at Martinsville Speedway shapes up as a must-win situation for Gordon, who has not taken a checkered flag this season. But he certainly knows how to emerge victorious at the Virginia short track, with seven wins there in his Sprint Cup career.

Granted, he hasn’t won at Martinsville since 2005. But even so, he’s still been an almost constant presence at the front with 12 Top-5s and 13 Top-10s in his last 15 races there. He has been every bit a force as Johnson, himself an eight-time M’Ville winner (tops among all active Cup drivers).

Naturally, that body of work has him and his No. 24 team feeling confident.

“We come in here feeling really good about this race track and our race team,” Gordon said today before qualifying ninth for Sunday’s Goody’s Headache Relief Shot 500 powered by Kroger.

“We have had a lot of positive things that have happened to us over the last six weeks. Then to come with a good feeling about where we are at as a race team and our race cars and come into one of my favorite race tracks – a track that we have had good results at, not only in the past, but this year – it definitely is something that we come into very excited about.”

But with time running out and the competition stiff as ever, Gordon can’t settle for a Top-10. Heck, a Top-5 might not be enough unless the ones he’s chasing for the title run into trouble.

To keep his championship hopes alive, he has to get the No. 24 to P1 after 500 laps on Sunday.

Formula E: Team Aguri confirms da Costa for second season

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Antonio Felix da Costa has been confirmed for a second season with Team Aguri for the 2015-2016 FIA Formula E Championship, which begins later this month in Beijing.

He won once this past year at Buenos Aires and finished eighth in the points despite missing both the season opener and season finale due to clashes with his DTM schedule.

Said the 24-year-old Portuguese driver, “I am really happy to continue with Team Aguri and Formula E for season two. This championship is earning its respect in the world of motorsport and I am honoured to be involved. Regarding the season, I am really looking forward to getting started.”

Team Aguri team principal Mark Preston added, “It is a great pleasure to have Antonio continuing with the team for season two of Formula E. Antonio brought us our maiden win in Buenos Aires and helped to develop the team from scratch, he will continue to build on that success for season two and beyond.”

The team that bares the name of ex-Formula 1 driver and team owner Aguri Suzuki has not yet confirmed its second driver, which is the last outstanding seat to be filled on the Formula E grid.

Amlin, which had partnered with Aguri last year, is now present with the Andretti Formula E team and its drivers, Robin Frijns and Simona de Silvestro.

Hulkenberg leads shorter than normal FP1 in Russia

Nico Hulkenberg
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Force India’s Nico Hulkenberg posted a 1:44.355 lap of the of the Sochi Autodrom to lead a fairly abnormal, and shorter than usual, first free practice for the Russian Grand Prix.

Hulkenberg posted the time to conclude the usual 90-minute session, to pip Nico Rosberg at 1:44.407 on his final lap. The usual 90-minute session was shortened due to a track delay for cleanup of diesel fuel on course.

Sebastian Vettel, Sergio Perez and Daniel Ricciardo completed the top five.

While the clock started on time for the full 90-minute session, track activity was halted for the opening 30 minutes to clean up diesel spillage on the track at Turn 8.

It left teams and drivers with just a 60-minute first free practice to tackle the Sochi Autodrom, but did not push the session later or affect the timetable for the rest of the day. However, with a damp if not entirely wet track, it made things difficult in FP1.

The delay also meant that teams weren’t able to use an extra set of Pirellis handed out at the start of FP1. Supersofts can be used for the first time in FP2.

During the delay, it did offer a chance for sarcasm, and Manor seized the opportunity following a comment from McLaren Honda’s Fernando Alonso noting that even with Mercedes engines next year, Manor wouldn’t move ahead of them.

NBC’s Will Buxton explained the track surface dilemma drivers would face in this session.

With just under one hour to go in the session, Sauber’s Marcus Ericsson was the first to head out on course, leading several others. Ericsson made the first laps of the weekend at the track where he made his final start for Caterham a year ago.

Both Williams drivers went on course on Pirelli’s wet weather tires for their installation laps. Mercedes’ Nico Rosberg tried the intermediates, and Alonso was first on course in slicks.

No official times were registered until there were less than 40 minutes remaining in the session, with Alonso registering a 2:00.736 time, while putting down a bevy of sparks. He quickly lowered the mark to 1:56.327, and 1:53.854 after that. Ericsson was next in at a 1:58.926, although dropped into the 1:54 range not long after.

Alonso’s teammate Jenson Button clocked in at 1:50.920 with just under 20 minutes remaining and for the first time this year, we could say we had a McLaren Honda 1-2 on track, albeit under abnormal circumstances.

The trsck got busy in the final 15 minutes, with Toro Rosso’s Max Verstappen posting a 1:50.870 to lead before Alonso clocked in a 1:49.240.

A 1:47.959 from Williams’ Valtteri Bottas, then a 1:45.987 from Hulkenberg followed in the final 10 minutes as times firmly began to drop. Vettel got down to a 1:45.491 shortly thereafter, and Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton came up two tenths shy of the mark at a 1:45.691.

Ericsson reported a power cut near the end of the session down at Sauber but otherwise there were no issues through the field, other than a handful of spins, including one from Hamilton on his final flier at the second-to-last corner.

FP2 begins from 7 a.m. ET on NBCSN and NBC Sports Live Extra.