Martinsville Update: Yellows, yellows everywhere

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The seventh race of the Chase for the Sprint Cup at Martinsville Speedway has been filled so far with caution periods, causing the race to take on a ragged sort of character during its first half.

Pole sitter Denny Hamlin only led the first two laps before Chase for the Sprint Cup leader Jimmie Johnson took the lead at Lap 3. Shortly afterwards, the caution came out at Lap 7 after Carl Edwards spun out Jeff Burton in Turn 3. The resulting stack-up also left some other cars with various bits of damage.

Johnson led the field down to the green for the restart at Lap 20, but on Lap 25, Kyle Busch got to the inside of Johnson and eventually cleared him to begin his turn at the point. Matt Kenseth soon followed his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate past Johnson for second position, and then on Lap 36, he rose to the lead over Busch.

Kenseth and the rest of the leaders began winding their way through lapped traffic just before Lap 50, and a rhythm was found with Kenseth ahead of the Hendrick Motorsports duo of Johnson and Jeff Gordon. As for Busch, he slipped back to fourth while Juan Pablo Montoya made his way into the Top 5 by Lap 80 after starting 13th.

On Lap 88, contact between Edwards and Travis Kvapil sent the latter spinning and would trigger a wave of pit stops under yellow. Kenseth was able to win the race off pit road and keep his lead, with Gordon, Johnson, Busch and Montoya following him out. All of them, as well as the entirety of the Top 10 coming to the restart at Lap 95, took four tires.

Kenseth quickly sped away from Johnson at the green, while Montoya leaped from fifth to third. But Busch dropped back to seventh before the field strung back out to largely single-file action.

However, Johnson would reel Kenseth back in and grabbed the lead at Lap 111 after taking Kenseth on the inside of Turn 1 and emerging from Turn 2 with the edge. Gordon would then take second from Kenseth, making for a Hendrick 1-2 at Lap 125.

Contact between Bobby Labonte and David Reutimann brought out the yellow again at Lap 140. The leaders once again returned to the pits for service, and Johnson managed to get out first to stay on top.

When the green returned at Lap 147, Johnson on the inside line was stronger than Montoya on the outside and got himself out front. Montoya also lost second and third after the restart to a resurgent Gordon and Kenseth.

A problem for Kyle Larson at Lap 166 slowed the race once more and presented another opportunity for pit stops to the leaders. Johnson once again came out first but with another Hendrick teammate, Dale Earnhardt Jr.,right behind him.

Burton did not pit under the yellow, allowing him to assume the lead for the restart at Lap 181. Johnson was able to get around Burton, but then a multi-car incident ensued in Turn 1 to force another yellow. Among those taking damage were Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr., Aric Almirola and Kasey Kahne, whose car needed to be pulled out of the grass between Turn 1 and 2.

Johnson and Kenseth quickly grabbed the top two spots off the restart at Lap 192, and left Montoya to fend for himself in third. But the yellow would come back again shortly after Lap 200 when Kurt Busch spun out in a Turn 3 battle with Jamie McMurray and then skidded into an oncoming Mark Martin.

The Top 8 stayed out under caution while Gordon led a group of cars to the pits at Lap 205. He would line up 13th for the restart at Lap 210, while Johnson, Kenseth and Montoya again stretched out their 1-2-3 position.

On Lap 217, Kenseth was able to get position on the inside of Johnson and take the advantage from the Chase leader. Another yellow for Kvapil at Lap 219 allowed Earnhardt, who had fallen outside of the Top 10, to come to pit road for service.

Kenseth was able to take the lead off the restart at Lap 223, while Montoya and Johnson fought each other for second behind him. Johnson would lose the battle as well as third and fourth spots before he finally settled to the inside line in fifth behind Joey Logano.

Another Reutimann spin triggered the yellow (stop us if this sounds like a broken record). Under this yellow, Johnson opted to go to the pits along with Kyle Busch and others. Kenseth and the rest of the lead pack stayed out, while Johnson was 16th at the Lap 236 restart.

Two laps later, Clint Bowyer worked his way around Kenseth for the point, and at Lap 250 of 500, he was the leader of the race.

Daniel Ricciardo frustrated to crash out of home F1 qualifying

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Daniel Ricciardo made no secret of his frustration after crash out of Formula 1 qualifying for the Australian Grand Prix, resigning himself to a 10th-place start for his home race on Sunday.

Ricciardo entered the Melbourne weekend aiming to become the first Australian to finish on the podium at his home race since the event became part of the F1 world championship in 1985.

Despite struggling with the setup on his RB13 car on Friday, Ricciardo looked poised to claim a top-five grid slot for Sunday’s race, only to lose control of his car at Turn 14 in Q3 and end the session in the wall.

“That was a tough one today. I don’t crash into the barriers often and the last place I want to do that is at home,” Ricciardo said after the session.

“But I feel I crashed for the right reason, as I was basically pushing and trying to find the limit and these things happen, so let’s say I’m not disappointed by the approach, it was just more of a frustrating outcome, starting 10th instead of being under the top five.”

Ever the optimist, Ricciardo said the difficult qualifying will only serve as greater motivation to fight back up the order and give his home fans a result to celebrate on Sunday.

“I knew the crowds would have also preferred to see me further up the grid and it would have been nice to put on a better performance than that but tomorrow is where the points are,” Ricciardo said.

“It’s a chance to create a bigger headline if I have a good race so that’s what will motivate me to do better tomorrow. I made it a bit more difficult for myself but it’s going to be alright.

“To get a good start in the race will be the key. I saved a set of ultra-softs in Q2, I know that not everyone in front of me has, so maybe that gives me a chance.”

The Australian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports App from midnight ET.

Valtteri Bottas disappointed with P3 start for Mercedes F1 debut

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Valtteri Bottas came away from qualifying for the Australian Grand Prix feeling disappointed despite securing third place on the grid for his first Formula 1 race as a Mercedes driver.

Bottas joined Mercedes over the winter following world champion Nico Rosberg’s decision to retire from racing, and made his first official race weekend appearance for the Silver Arrows on Friday.

The ex-Williams driver made a splash in qualifying by running teammate Lewis Hamilton and Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel close, but was left to settle for third on the grid after finishing three-tenths of a second off the pole time.

“Third position is not ideal. In general I’m not happy with the result,” Bottas admitted after qualifying.

“But what I’m really happy about and proud about [is] what the team has done again with this car. I only saw a very small part of the preparation with the new car and the new era of Formula 1, and it’s really nice to see that all the work has paid off and we’re fighting at the very front.

“It seems to be very close this year, especially here. Myself I didn’t get any perfect laps in, so not that satisfied.

“Tomorrow’s the day that matters. It seems like in the race starts we’ve been quite strong. If we can keep that form I had in practice, and have a nice and clean race and get some really good points.”

Bottas’ best finish in Australia currently stands at fifth place in 2014 with Williams, with the Finn never qualifying any higher than sixth at Albert Park in his four previous attempts.

The Australian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports App from midnight ET.

Vettel: Front-row grid slot for Australia proof of Ferrari’s progress

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Sebastian Vettel believes that his charge to second place on the grid for Sunday’s Australian Grand Prix acts as proof of the progress Ferrari’s Formula 1 operation has made over the winter.

Vettel arrived in Australia as one of the favorites to take pole following an impressive showing in pre-season testing, prompting three-time champion Lewis Hamilton to name Ferrari as the leading team.

Hamilton rallied in qualifying to take pole position for Mercedes, beating Vettel by two-tenths of a second, but the Ferrari driver managed to fend off Valtteri Bottas in the second Silver Arrow and clinch a front-row berth.

The result marked Ferrari’s best qualifying result since the 2015 Singapore Grand Prix – Vettel’s and Ferrari’s last pole and victory in F1 – and the German was encouraged by the result.

“I think we have a good car. I think we are working well as a team,” Vettel said.

“Things are improving. Obviously it’s nice to see that things are working, the car is working. I had a mixed day yesterday, but the confidence in the car was there from testing and I think we showed that again today.”

Vettel conceded that he felt his final lap in qualifying could have been faster, but doubts it would have been enough to catch pole-sitter Hamilton.

“In the end I was not entirely happy with my lap. I was pretty happy with the end, maybe not so much with the opening of the lap where we lost a bit too much,” Vettel said.

“But I think Lewis did a very good lap. I would have loved to, but I don’t think pole was up for grabs. Tomorrow I think we can do something in the race. The car feels good, we’ve improved it so the pace should be much better than it was yesterday when we had practice.

“It’s been a big winter for us, lots of change we’ve gone through as a team in the last 12 months, and for the better. I think the team is getting stronger.

“Obviously everyone is pushing very hard and it’s not so easy to come here with a long journey to get to Australia, but I think people are fired up and we are motivated for tomorrow.

“I think it’s the first good opportunity.”

Hamilton buoyed by sixth Australia F1 pole, ready for tight race

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Three-time Formula 1 world champion Lewis Hamilton was buoyed by his charge to pole position in Australian Grand Prix qualifying on Saturday, but is braced for a tight race at the front of the pack.

Hamilton saw off a challenge from Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel and new Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas to capture his sixth pole at Albert Park, and the 62nd of his F1 career.

Hamilton had doubts over Mercedes’ advantage over Ferrari heading into the new year, making his charge to pole all the more meaningful as he paid tribute to the team members after qualifying.

“It’s been a fantastic weekend so far. It’s quite amazing to come here for I think the 11th time, and it feels like it was only yesterday that I came here and had my first race here in 2007,” Hamilton said.

“I’m just incredibly proud of my team. This rule change has been huge and such a massive challenge for everyone. The guys have just worked so hard to make this car what it is today.”

Despite taking pole by almost three-tenths of a second in Q3, Hamilton is braced for a close fight on Sunday with Vettel and Bottas, the latter starting his first race for Mercedes from third on the grid.

“Valtteri did a fantastic job given it’s his first qualifying session with the team. He did a great job and it’s great for Mercedes,” Hamilton said.

“Looking forward to the race, it’s close between us all. As you can see, there’s going to be a tight race this year I think.

“I think tomorrow is about putting all the work that’s gone in over the winter, all the work that’s gone through testing and this whole weekend and really put it to work tomorrow.

“I’ll make sure I get a good night’s sleep and come back tomorrow stronger than ever.”

The Australian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports App from midnight ET on Sunday.