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All square between Kenseth, Johnson with three to go in Chase

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Martinsville Speedway was where Chase for the Sprint Cup leader Jimmie Johnson (an eight-time Martinsville winner) would dominate and second-place Matt Kenseth (who has never won at Martinsville) would try to minimize the points damage.

But instead, both men will be heading to Texas Motor Speedway for next Sunday’s AAA Texas 500 tied atop the championship. Kenseth’s runner-up finish to race winner Jeff Gordon was enough to erase the four-point deficit he had going into today to Johnson, who led 123 laps before turning in a fifth-place result.

The two were the class of the field in the first half, but Kenseth faltered in the middle stages, dropping as far back as 16th place. However, the 2003 Cup champion was able to climb back up the pylon during a rash of caution periods and re-claimed the lead at Lap 374.

Kenseth held the point through pit stops under yellow with 83 laps remaining and stayed up front until Gordon’s late challenge. Gordon eventually took the lead for good with 21 laps to go and Kenseth was left to duel with Clint Bowyer for second – a duel that he would win by inches on the final lap.

While admitting disappointment at not being able to hold off Gordon, Kenseth knew that the weekend had been a successful one in regards to the championship.

Only three events remain in the season at Texas, Phoenix International Raceway (Nov. 10), and Homestead-Miami Speedway (Nov. 17), and Kenseth feels confident of his chances.

“I always feel [the loss is] on me because they put me there and gave me the shot, but overall, what a great weekend,” he said. “I really felt like if we came out of here in the [Chase] lead or tied or close to it, I really felt like we got what it takes to race in the last three races.

“I feel like when my team is at its best and we do everything right, I feel like we can race anybody at these next three tracks.  I feel good about that. Anything can happen, but man, we’re in it, and we’re going to three really good tracks, so hopefully we can perform here the next three weeks and have a race.”

As for Johnson, he found himself stymied repeatedly on restarts in which he’d have to line up on the outside. On several of those occasions, he would lose multiple positions before finally getting to the inside line and work to get the spots back.

After the race, he said that he expected his championship battle with Kenseth and Gordon – now third in the Chase after his triumph this afternoon – to continue being the dogfight it has been.

“It’s been a great battle with the 20 car [Kenseth] and the 24 [Gordon] has really shown that he wants to be a part of this deal,” Johnson said to ESPN. “There’s no other way I’d want to go racing for a championship, and it’s exactly what the fans want to see.”

F1 Paddock Pass: German Grand Prix (VIDEO)

HOCKENHEIM, GERMANY - JULY 28: Sebastian Vettel of Germany and Ferrari laughs in the Drivers Press Conference during previews to the Formula One Grand Prix of Germany at Hockenheimring on July 28, 2016 in Hockenheim, Germany.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Formula 1 makes its long-awaited return to Hockenheim this weekend for the German Grand Prix after a two-year absence.

Lewis Hamilton arrives in Germany leading the drivers’ championship for the first time in 2016 following his victory in Hungary last weekend.

Five wins in the last six races have seen Hamilton wipe away Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg’s 43-point lead in the title race, turning it into a six-point advantage ahead of F1’s summer break.

With the driver market beginning to fall into place for next year and the F1 Strategy Group having met earlier today, this weekend’s race is due to feature a number of key storylines.

Previewing the weekend with all the latest interviews, news and analysis, Will Buxton brings you the latest edition of Paddock Pass.

John Force gets ‘gorilla’ off back, ready to become King Kong again

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(Photo: Gary Nastase Photography)
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John Force admits he’s probably been watching politics a little bit too much of late, particularly some of Donald Trump’s rhetoric.

After he won this past Sunday at Denver, the 16-time NHRA Funny Car champion couldn’t contain himself.

“I was like a little kid, I got kinda stupid,” he said. “I’m yelling it out, ‘We’re live on Fox. We’re going to make NHRA drag racing great again.’”

Force paused, and then sheepishly added, “It just kinda came out of me.”

But Force had good reason to be caught up in the moment: he had just won his first NHRA national event in over a year.

For a guy who has now won a record 144 races, going more than a year without a win was tantamount to coming out of a dark forest after being lost for nearly 13 months.

“I did a recent interview and the guy said, ‘Boy, you’re back.’ But I never really left. Mentally, I never left.

“But the problem is when you get in that battle and you’re getting whipped every week, whether it’s the Schumacher’s or Pedregon, Wilkerson or Kalitta that are beating you up, there ain’t a whole lot to say.

“You take your whipping and just keep fighting it. Now I have something to say.”

Indeed, Force has something to say – but then, he always does. The most popular and outspoken driver in NHRA history wants to make sure that the fans, and especially his fellow competitors:

“I didn’t just get a monkey off my back, I got a gorilla off it,” he quipped.

And now it’s Force who is ready to get back to his old King Kong form.

“Without a doubt, I’m going after a championship,” Force said. “That’s how (teammates) Robert Hight and my daughters think. That’s what we do.”

NHRA Drag Racing
John Force, left, after defeating daughter Courtney in the final round of this past Sunday’s race in Denver.

To say Force was excited after winning is an understatement:

“I was jacked. I started yelling, and I never do that if it’s my daughter or Robert Hight, if I’m lucky enough to beat ‘em. I don’t want to do that, I don’t want to rub it in, but man, my heart was pounding.

“I jumped out of the car at the end of (his winning) run and I wanted to be like Ron Capps. He always jumps up on his hood when he wins a race and he doesn’t hurt it.

“I wanted to jump up on that hood, I got out of the car, and I about fell off the side of the car. They had to catch me. … It was so funny. One of my guys said, ‘Old man, get off there, you’re going to kill yourself, get off that roof.’ I said, ‘No, I’m going to stand up there like Capps, I want to do this for live TV.’ I’ll tell you, I got a little crazy there.”

Winning at Denver brought back memories of the 1992 season, when Force was going for a third consecutive Funny Car championship.

“I remember we won championships in 1990 and 1991 and then here comes Cruz (Pedregon) with the hamburger stand from hell. He was sponsored by McDonald’s, and he beat us in ’92. I was having fits.

“We were going up to the race in Seattle, were in a McDonald’s drive-thru and my daughter Ashley said, ‘Dad, I want one of those McDonald’s cars.’ I wanted to break it. My wife said, ‘Are you losing your mind?’ I told her, ‘You don’t understand what it’s like.’ This kid came out of nowhere.

“(Former crew chief Austin) Coil said, ‘Force, relax, he’d have to win the last five and we’d have to lose in the first round each time.’ And that’s what happened. Cruz just won everything. He found magic and we found stupidity.

“Then, the next year, we went out and won 10.”

That’s where Force is at now. One win down, nine to go – or at least he hopes in the remaining 10 races on the NHRA schedule.

While he may not win nine races, what he showed at Denver means Force and his team are capable of winning many more races in what had been a challenging season up until last weekend.

When he came off the mountain at Denver, Force had improved from ninth to eighth in the Funny Car point standings. But he still has more mountains to climb ahead of him, as he’s 299 points behind points leader Ron Capps.

But on the flip side, Force is only 60 points out of fourth place, currently occupied by two-time champ Matt Hagan.

That’s why Force is looking forward to this weekend’s Toyota Sonoma Nationals at Sonoma Raceway.

“The hill was big for us but when we got on that mountain (last week’s race at Denver), for some reason we had it all right,” Force said. “But trust me, when we get to Sonoma this weekend, they’ll (his Funny Car rivals will) be back. They didn’t like getting beat. They’ll all be back but we’re still learning, we’re still turning that corner.”

Force and Top Fuel counterpart, eight-time champ Tony Schumacher, both earned their first wins in over a year at Denver. So as the so-called Western Swing (Denver, Sonoma and Seattle) continues this weekend, Force and Schumacher both want to continue their newfound winning ways.

“The Western Swing is pretty special,” Force said. “Schumacher told me after Denver that we’re going to try to win the Swing, him and me. But he said, one thing if we don’t, nobody else can. So, we’ve fought everybody by this first win.”

Even though he’s now 67 in age, Force said he feels much younger in performance. He claims he never thought that his win at Epping, New Hampshire a year ago in June potentially could have been the last of his career.

“Nope, never did,” Force said. “First of all, I took a big financial hit.”

That he did. Force lost his two primary sponsors after the 2014 season when Castrol Oil (which had been with him for more than 30 years) and Ford (20 years) both decided to reallocate resources in other directions.

“You’ve got to be financial to stay alive,” Force said. “I put all that back together. That was my focus. Then I started building teams again.

“I told Jim Campbell (U.S. Vice President, Performance Vehicles and Motorsports) at Chevrolet that this wasn’t going to happen overnight. It’s going to take me time to put together. It fell apart. Financially, it killed me. I had big overhead and couldn’t pay it. I lost people, we weren’t able financially to test as much.

“Now we’re back in the game and we’re starting to turn the corner. I’ve got a team that’s young, with so much heart and hungry.”

Force had a number of drivers to get past en route to his win at Denver, none more important – or close – to him than his opponent in Sunday’s final round: his daughter Courtney.

The win over his youngest daughter was both bittersweet and humorous, and only Force can tell those stores in his own inimitable fashion.

First, the bittersweet aspect:

“You know what’s funny, I didn’t even know I’d won. She (Courtney) was right out my window all the way to the (finish) lights. I kept saying to myself, ‘Come on, baby, keep it in the groove, keep it in the groove, don’t be looking over at her.’ I promised I wouldn’t look over at her, I didn’t want to know she was there, because I get emotional (when he races) my kids and then you don’t fight the fight to win.

“You got to go in there like you want to tear their throat out, but how do you do that to your baby girl? I did look over and thought, man, she’s right out the window, and I knew she was faster than me.

“She did her job, she was right there. But when we cleared the lights, I didn’t see her anymore because she likes to drive by me (in the shutdown area).

“I told them, don’t talk about my daughter to me in the final. Everybody mentioned she was next to me, but I wanted to forget about her. I didn’t even want to look over to see her team. I needed to go do my lane, be a tiger and go after it.

“I didn’t want to know it was her, I gave it everything I got and the good Lord got us there. But I’ll take it because I needed it.”

And now, as the late Paul Harvey used to say, here’s the rest of the story on his win over Courtney – with the kind of humorous twist that only John Force can put on it:

“After the race, our teams went out to dinner. Courtney went to a pizza place with her team; she wouldn’t go to dinner with me. I said to her, ‘Are you still mad at me, honey?’ She said, ‘Dad, you just aggravate me.’

“I told her, ‘I needed it, I needed to get you.’ She said, ‘I know, you needed to win for Peak and Chevy to prove you were okay.’

“I told her, ‘They’re all looking at you. They love you, you’re beautiful, like your mom. You ain’t homely looking like me. I needed a win. Now, I need more. And she knows.’”

And so does every other Funny Car driver out there.

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Rosberg surprised by Hamilton’s sudden interest in F1 safety

HOCKENHEIM, GERMANY - JULY 28:  Nico Rosberg of Germany and Mercedes GP walks in the Paddock during previews to the Formula One Grand Prix of Germany at Hockenheimring on July 28, 2016 in Hockenheim, Germany.  (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)
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Nico Rosberg is surprised by Lewis Hamilton’s sudden interest in Formula 1 safety as their dispute over the yellow flags shown in qualifying for the Hungarian Grand Prix continues.

Hamilton was forced to abandon his final Q3 lap in Hungary after a spin for Fernando Alonso sparked double waved yellow flags at Turn 8.

Mercedes teammate Rosberg was one of the last drivers to come across the double waved yellow flags, lifting briefly through the incident site before taking pole by one-tenth of a second.

The stewards investigated the incident late in the day, reportedly at Hamilton’s behest, but felt that Rosberg slowed sufficiently despite setting a session-best middle sector.

Hamilton said on Thursday that the lack of penalty given to Rosberg has now set a precedent for all other drivers to follow, before airing concerns about the safety of the ruling.

“He’s not someone who’s regarded for being interested in safety up to now, so quite a change there which I just noted,” Rosberg told NBCSN on Thursday in Germany.

When asked if that was a widely-held opinion, Rosberg said: “I have no idea,” before telling NBCSN pit reporter Will Buxton: “I’m sure you would share the opinion with me.

“There’s nothing to be biased about, it’s just a reflection. You can have the same one.”

Rosberg remained adamant that the rules regarding yellow flags in F1 are clear, reasoning his actions during Q3 in Hungary.

“It has been very clear, which is why I followed instructions totally and there was no issue,” Rosberg said.

“There’s no grey area – as long as you significantly slow down where there’s the incident where there’s the double yellow.

“Setting a purple lap on a drying track has nothing to do with the incident because the sector is huge.

“What’s important is you slow down in that one corner to keep things safe and that’s not changed. That’s the same as always.”

Hamilton: Hungary stewards’ Rosberg ruling sets precedent for all

HOCKENHEIM, GERMANY - JULY 28:  Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP talks to the media during previews to the Formula One Grand Prix of Germany at Hockenheimring on July 28, 2016 in Hockenheim, Germany.  (Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images)
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Lewis Hamilton believes the FIA stewards’ ruling on Nico Rosberg’s pole position lap partly set under yellow flags in Hungary sets a precedent for all other Formula 1 drivers.

Hamilton was forced to abandon his final Q3 lap in Hungary after a spin for Fernando Alonso sparked double waved yellow flags at Turn 8.

Rosberg was one of the last drivers to come across the double waved yellow flags, lifting briefly through the incident site before taking pole by one-tenth of a second.

The stewards investigated the incident late in the day, reportedly at Hamilton’s behest, but felt that Rosberg slowed sufficiently despite setting a session-best middle sector.

Speaking on Thursday about the incident, Hamilton once again questioned the way in which the regulations regarding yellow flags are interpreted.

“The rule has been written and I’m pretty certain even before my time, but since I started racing when I was eight, the rules have been written exactly the same since then and meant the same since then,” Hamilton told NBCSN.

“They just seem to be interpreted differently from year to year. I think that’s really what’s in question.”

Hamilton believes that the lack of action taken over Rosberg’s pole lap has set a precedent to all other drivers about what is acceptable under double waved yellow flags.

“Right now, it’s clear from the last result that’s I think how all us drivers can approach it the same way as the precedent was set in the last race unless it’s rectified this weekend,” Hamilton said.

“That’s the precedent that’s been set. We’ve not been told any other way so all you have to do is do that little lift which is not good in the big scheme of things. It’s not good.”

Hamilton believes that the leniency could backfire in the future, but hopes it will not take an incident to prompt the stewards to get tougher on yellow flags.

“That’s why I made so much noise about it at the last race,” Hamilton said.

“One day there’s going to be someone on the track. Then they’re going to be like ‘you have to slow down half a second and not go faster in the sector’.

“But hopefully they’ll make that decision before then.”