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 Preview: 2018 Australian Grand Prix

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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.