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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.”

Yamaha, Ducati enjoy launches ahead of new MotoGP season

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© Yamaha MotoGP
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MotoGP heavyweights Yamaha and Ducati geared up for the new season of motorcycle racing’s premier championship with launches this week.

Yamaha and Ducati both enter 2017 with a new line-up following Jorge Lorenzo’s decision to move from the former to the latter, acting as one of a number of shake-ups in the rider market.

Three-time MotoGP champion Lorenzo replaces Andrea Iannone at Ducati, who sought refuge at Suzuki after a seat was freed up by Maverick Viñales following his move to Yamaha in replace of – the man who started the merry-go-round all – Lorenzo.

Yamaha was the first to take the covers off its new bike at a launch in Madrid on Thursday, with Viñales being joined by nine-time world champion Valentino Rossi for the unveiling of the YZR-M1.

The new bike features a darker blue as its main livery color, as well as greater presence for title sponsor Movistar.

“I had the first test in Valencia after the race, but particularly after we moved to Sepang and we could have more kilometers and [do] more work on the new bike,” Rossi said.

“We discovered a very good potential. It looks like we can be stronger. For sure now it’s important to work in the three tests before the first race, and try to arrive ready in Qatar. But the first impression is very good.”

Ducati followed suit earlier today by unveiling its new livery for 2017, with Lorenzo making one of his first official appearances in the team’s colors following the expiration of his Yamaha contract on December 31.

The team presented its 2016 bike, the Desmosedici GP16, in ’17 colors, as well as removing the controversial – and now banned – winglets from its model.

The new MotoGP season begins in Qatar on March 26, with pre-season testing set to start at the end of January in Malaysia.

Neuville leads Ogier midway through Monte Carlo Rally

Thierry Neuville (BEL) competes during the FIA World Rally Championship 2017 in Monte Carlo, Monaco on January 20, 2017
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MONACO (AP) Belgian driver Thierry Neuville took a 45-second lead Friday over defending world rally champion Sebastien Ogier midway through the season-opening Monte Carlo Rally.

Overnight leader Neuville won three of Friday’s six special stages, while Ogier struggled early on before pegging Neuville back by winning the last two. Ott Tanak of Estonia is third.

Four-time champion Ogier is now driving for Ford M-Sport after switching from Volkswagen last month. The Frenchman was eight seconds behind Neuville’s Hyundai overnight and quickly under pressure.

Tanak, who also drives for M-Sport, won Friday’s first special stage – the third of 17 overall – ahead of Neuville, with Ogier in ninth.

Difficult morning conditions saw snow and sheet ice on the roads. With all the top drivers fitting studded winter tires, Ogier still went off into a ditch.

“It happened at a junction, it was very, very icy. I pulled the handbrake but the car never turned,” Ogier said. “I slipped into the ditch and became stuck.”

Neuville won the next three specials – with Ogier second on 4 and 5 – but Ogier finally found his best form to trim back the deficit from 1:12 to 45 seconds. He also overtook Tanak, who is a fraction of a second behind Ogier.

Conditions were slushy in the afternoon as the icy roads began melting.

“For me this was more tricky than this morning and difficult to know what rhythm to go,” Neuville said.

A spectator was killed on Thursday night after being hit by a car during the first stage.

Organizers said the spectator was struck by a car driven by New Zealand driver Hayden Paddon during the first of two night stages.

That stage was canceled but the second went ahead, with Neuville beating Ogier.

There are six specials Saturday with the race concluding Sunday lunchtime.

Last year, Ogier won by nearly two minutes ahead of then-teammate Andreas Mikkelsen of Norway.

Ogier announced last month that he was going to drive the Ford Fiesta for M-Sport this season. A fifth title would move him into outright second place on the all-time list behind countryman Sebastien Loeb, who won nine straight titles.

The 33-year-old Ogier, who has won 38 career races, is tied with Finnish drivers Tommi Makinen – who won four straight – and Juha Kankkunen.

The next event in the 13-race season is in Sweden in three weeks.

BRDC: Reports Silverstone will definitely drop British GP ‘speculative and wrong’

NORTHAMPTON, ENGLAND - JULY 10:  The grid at the start of the race during the Formula One Grand Prix of Great Britain at Silverstone on July 10, 2016 in Northampton, England.  (Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images)
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The British Racing Drivers Club has issued a statement dismissing suggestions that Silverstone will definitely drop its Formula 1 race following the 2019 season.

Doubt was cast over the future of the British Grand Prix at Silverstone following a leaked letter from BRDC chairman John Grant, in which he admitted to concerns about the cost of hosting the race.

Grant admitted that BRDC officials were considering triggering a clause in Silverstone’s F1 contract that would allow it to end its commitment after 2019 due to “ruinous” costs.

In a statement issued on Friday, the BRDC stressed that no final decision had been made and that suggestions a final decision to drop the race had already been made were incorrect.

“The British Racing Drivers Club wishes to make clear that recent press reports suggesting that talks have been unsuccessful and that the British Grand Prix will definitely be dropped after 2019 are speculative and wrong,” the statement reads.

“Our objective is to preserve the British Grand Prix at Silverstone for many years to come but, of course, we can only do this if it makes economic sense,” Grant added.

“As I have said before, we will be considering over the next six months if we should give notice of our intention to exercise the break clause in our grand prix contract at the end of 2019. No decision has been made, or will be made, until mid-July.

“In the meantime, we will be using this period to explore all interested parties, hopefully in private, various ways in which we might work out a more sustainable proposition.”

Jacques Villeneuve: Indy 500 ‘the biggest, most important race in the world’

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MAY 25: Jacques Villeneuve of Canada driver of the #5 Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Dallara Honda during the 98th running of the Indianapolis 500 mile race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 25, 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)
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1995 CART champion Jacques Villeneuve has called the Indianapolis 500 “the biggest, most important race in the world”, believing that its long-running traditions are key to its enduring appeal.

Villeneuve won the Indy 500 in 1995 en route to the CART title, having finished second at the Brickyard the previous year.

Villeneuve moved into Formula 1 following his CART title victory, becoming world champion with Williams in 1997 before ultimately leaving the series mid-way through the 2006 season.

Villeneuve appeared in his third ‘500 in 2014, finishing 14th for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports (pictured above).

Speaking at Autosport International last week, Villeneuve spoke warmly of his experiences at the ‘500, saying it dwarfed any other race in motorsport.

“[You’re] running at an average speed of 230 mph in traffic, in a place where you’re still allowed to risk your life basically because it’s marginally safer than 20 years ago, and half a million people in the grandstands,” Villeneuve said.

“Back then it was an event that lasted three weeks. You would build on it so the energy was incredible. It felt like a big gladiatorial ring from the Roman Empire. It was very special.

“It is the biggest, most important race in the world. Obviously an F1 championship is bigger, but as a one single event, it’s the biggest one.”

Villeneuve said that he did not appreciate the enormity of the event until he finally raced at the ‘500, having followed F1 more closely as a child by virtue of his father, Gilles, who raced for Ferrari.

“The Indy 500, I didn’t grow up with it. I grew up with Formula 1, so I didn’t really know what it represented,” Villeneuve said

“I didn’t think about it until I raced in Atlantics and I thought ‘oh wow, there’s half a million people here, that’s cool’.

“I still didn’t really understand why there was one toilet where they didn’t put the door because one year there was a driver who didn’t close his door and they decided to keep it like that for the next 40 years.

“There’s lots of stuff in America that’s very important, the history of why things have happened. Why do you drink milk when you’ve won the Indy 500? It’s because – I don’t know which driver – in the past was thirsty and asked for a jug of milk. They gave it to him and it became tradition.

“All these little things keep it alive. To get a race where people come almost daily for three weeks, that takes a lot of passion. But when you’re in it, OK it’s just a race and there’s lots of people, great, but it’s a stepping stone to F1.

“When you’re out of it, you realize first of all I survived it, and then you’ve won it. And then you realize that it’s still present and alive.

“And then you realize that that win was 22 years ago, and then you understand the meaning of what you accomplished.”