Texas Update: Title contenders Johnson, Kenseth up front

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Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth, tied for the Sprint Cup championship, are running first and second respectively as the AAA Texas 500 – the eighth race in the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup – has crossed the halfway point.

Johnson took the lead from pole sitter Carl Edwards on Lap 10 and held it up to a debris caution at Lap 15. However, Edwards – taking advantage of the No. 1 pit stall – was able to nip Johnson coming out off of pit road to take back the advantage for the re-start at Lap 19.

On Lap 33, Johnson pulled even with Edwards down the backstretch before taking the lead on the inside of Turn 3. He would lead until the yellow flag came out for Kyle Busch, who slid up the track and hit the Turn 3 wall flush while battling for second spot with Matt Kenseth.

The second wave of pit stops ended like the first, with Edwards again barely beating Johnson out of the pits – while Busch fell all the way back to 29th after his incident.

After an extended caution due to NASCAR coming across stray bits of debris, the green finally re-emerged on Lap 65. Edwards quickly pulled a gap but Johnson again took the lead at Lap 72. Two laps later, Hendrick Motorsports teammate and fellow title contender Jeff Gordon blew a tire and hit the Turn 2 wall to bring out the yellow.

After taking two tires on the subsequent pit stops, Brad Keselowski led the field to the green at Lap 80. But on Lap 91, Johnson, who had re-started third, got past Keselowski to assume control of the lead for the fourth time today.

Johnson led Keselowski at Lap 100, but shortly afterwards, Kenseth peeled off second from the 2012 Cup champion and the top two in the standings were running 1-2. Meanwhile, Busch had been quietly but steadily making his way up the pylon after his early run-in with the wall, rising up to 14th at that point.

On Lap 125, Johnson pitted from the lead under green, with Kenseth briefly taking the lead (good for a bonus point) before he too ducked in for service at Lap 126.

When the cycle ended, Johnson was again out in front with Kenseth in the runner-up spot and the Penske teammates of Joey Logano and Keselowski in third and fourth, respectively. Also, Martin Truex Jr., one of the key contenders in this year’s spring race at Texas, had cracked the Top 5 following the cycle.

Kevin Harvick grabbed fifth from Truex shortly before the halfway mark at Lap 167, but the top four remained Johnson, Kenseth, Logano and Keselowski.

Lance Stroll set for Australia grid penalty after gearbox change

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Formula 1 rookie Lance Stroll has been forced into a gearbox change ahead of qualifying for the Australian Grand Prix following a crash in final practice at Albert Park.

Stroll lost the back-end of his Williams FW40 car coming out of Turn 10, hitting the wall and causing damage to the right-hand side and rear of his chassis in the process.

The crash brought out a red flag that ultimately caused FP3 to end early, with Stroll returning to the pit lane on the back of a marshal’s moped.

After bringing the car back to the pit lane, Williams confirmed that it would have to change Stroll’s gearbox ahead of qualifying, which will trigger a five-place grid penalty for the Canadian.

Stroll’s crash comes after a mixed pre-season program that saw him suffer three shunts in the opening week in Barcelona, raising concerns about his readiness for F1.

Stroll bounced back in the second week of running, racking up plenty of mileage in Williams’ 2017 car to back up his extensive private test program in the team’s 2014-spec F1 car last year.

At just 18 years old, Stroll is set to become the second-youngest F1 driver on Sunday, trailing only Red Bull’s Max Verstappen whose first start came at the age of 17 in 2015.

Vettel, Ferrari strke back to dominate final Australia F1 practice

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Sebastian Vettel made up for a disappointing Friday by dominating proceedings in the final Formula 1 practice session ahead of the season-opening Australian Grand Prix for Ferrari.

Vettel arrived in Australia as one of the favorites for victory following an impressive pre-season that saw Ferrari finish as the fastest team, concerning defending champion outfit Mercedes.

Ferrari’s winter pace was nowhere to be found during FP1 and FP2 on Friday in Melbourne, though, as Lewis Hamilton moved half a second clear at the front of the pack for Mercedes.

Both Vettel and teammate Kimi Raikkonen insisted they had more pace in hand for qualifying and the race, and both drivers were able to display that in FP3 as times tumbled.

Vettel ran high up the order early on before turning in a lap of 1:23.380, marking the fastest time of the weekend so far, 0.240 seconds faster than Hamilton’s benchmark from Friday.

Both Hamilton and Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas fitted a set of ultrasoft tires in a bid to try and catch Vettel at the top, yet neither could get close.

Bottas finished the session P2, 0.479 seconds shy of Vettel’s time, while Hamilton was a further 0.011 seconds back in third place, leaving Mercedes’ advantage looking precarious ahead of qualifying.

Mercedes was unable to put together a late ultra-soft run after the session was red flagged with 10 minutes to go following a crash for Lance Stroll.

Stroll lost the rear-end of his Williams FW40 coming through the end of the second sector, damaging the right-hand side of his car and bringing his session to a premature end.

The session was otherwise devoid of major incident, the other stoppage coming courtesy of Kimi Raikkonen, although the Finn was able to get his car back going swiftly.

Raikkonen ended the session fourth-fastest in the second Ferrari, six-tenths off Vettel at the top, while Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg rounded out the top five.

Red Bull struggled for pace throughout the session, with Daniel Ricciardo finising up sixth ahead of Haas’ Romain Grosjean and the Toro Rosso pair of Carlos Sainz Jr. and Daniil Kvyat. Haas’ Kevin Magnussen rounded out the top 10.

Times are below, and qualifying is at 2 a.m. ET, live on NBCSN.

Sauber’s Wehrlein rules himself out, Giovinazzi to sub at Australian GP

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After Friday’s practice sessions and after having been originally cleared to race for the Australian Grand Prix, it has been determined that Sauber F1 Team’s Pascal Wehrlein will not be able to continue in the rest of the weekend. He opted to rule himself out due to his fitness level.

“My fitness level is not as it should be for a full race distance because of my training deficit. I explained the situation to the team yesterday evening. Therefore, the Sauber F1 Team has decided not to take any risks. It is a pity, but the best decision for the team,” Wehrlein said in a release.

Wehrlein missed the opening test at Barcelona before resuming for the second test. He’d had a back injury sustained in an accident at the Race of Champions event in Miami in January.

As for that opening test, Antonio Giovinazzi, the Italian Ferrari reserve driver, will fill in for the German. This was meant to be Wehrlein’s first race with Sauber; instead, it will be Giovinazzi’s Grand Prix debut.

“We have great respect of Pascal’s openness and professionalism. This decision was definitely not an easy one for him, it underlines his qualities as a team player. The focus is now on his fitness level, and in such a situation we do not take any unnecessary risks. Pascal will be in China as planned,” team principal Monisha Kaltenborn added.

This isn’t the first injury fill-in to race in F1 in recent years; twice, Fernando Alonso has missed a race each of the last two years.

After a testing crash at Barcelona in 2015, Kevin Magnussen filled in in Alonso’s McLaren Honda, although was unable to start the race with a mechanical before the lights even went out. Meanwhile Alonso missed last year’s Bahrain Grand Prix after his accident at Melbourne, which opened the door for Stoffel Vandoorne to make his debut, and the Belgian promptly scored a point.

Giovinazzi has no prior experience at the Albert Park circuit and so will have to learn the track during FP3, which runs at 11 p.m. ET on the NBC Sports App. Qualifying takes place at 2 a.m. ET on NBCSN.

Here’s pics and notes from NBCSN pit reporter and insider Will Buxton, who is on the ground in Melbourne:

More races, more friction in the future for F1

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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) The new owners of Formula One are planning to have more races and a greater presence in North America, and wouldn’t mind revving up the ratings with some extra friction among drivers.

Sean Bratches, the managing director of commercial operations for the Formula One Group – formerly Liberty Media – which took over the running of the sport in January, is already fielding offers from promotors wanting to buy in.

Lewis Hamilton has suggested Miami and Daniel Ricciardo picked Las Vegas as places they’d like to see new races, and Bratches told a news conference Friday that “there’s no dearth of interest in bringing Formula One to circuits, both track and street, around the world.”

Bratches said he’d had a “number of inquiries from cities, states, municipalities and countries around the world that are interested.”

There are 20 races on the 2017 calendar, starting with the Australian Grand Prix on Sunday, and concluding with Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in November. The debate over the number and location of races has been frequent over the last decade.

F1 racing returned in 2012 to the United States, where it is held at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas, in October. While the bulk of the races remain in Europe and Asia, there are also GPs in Canada, Mexico and Brazil.

“Our interest is in expanding the number of circuits in that marketplace, leveraging Austin – our incumbent and the benchmark in terms of what we’re doing in the States,” said Bratches, adding there was clear demand for it in North America. “We’re excited about all markets around the world, but the United States is going to be a focus.”

Three-time world champion Lewis Hamilton and Ricciardo, an Australian who finished third on the season standings last year, are among the drivers who’d like to see more than 20 races in the F1 series. Veteran Fernando Alonso also doesn’t mind the idea of expansion, although maybe not for a few years.

Ferrari driver Sebastian Vettel, who has won four world drivers’ titles, thinks 16 to 20 would be enough. All agreed that expansion was pointless unless it increases the level of competition. Hamilton and Mercedes dominated the last three seasons, and Red Bull was dominant for the four seasons before that.

There’s always been driver tension in F1, usually between teams but also involving teammates vying for championships. Hamilton and Nico Rosberg, who edged Hamilton for the title last year and then retired, had an openly strained rivalry at Mercedes since 2013.

That’s something former ESPN executive Bratches doesn’t mind.

Responding to a question about the drivers being overly-managed by public relations people, Bratches said: “There’s a number of sports where there’s big personalities that allow sports to punch above their respective pay grades.”

He said the drivers were a big part of the fan engagement.

“Candidly, I would love it if more of the drivers had big personalities, there was more controversy among the drivers – and you kind of unleash them a little bit,” he said. “I think that’s good for all of us.”