Coke Zero 400 - Qualifying

Jimmie Johnson: “I’m just not going to put my guard down”

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Two races remain in the 2013 Sprint Cup season and Jimmie Johnson is atop the standings. But he knows that nothing is settled as he and title rival Matt Kenseth prepare to continue their duel for the championship this weekend at Phoenix International Raceway.

Johnson’s bid for a sixth Sprint Cup effectively collapsed last fall at PIR, when he suffered a late-race tire failure and hit the wall. Brad Keselowski logged a Top-10 finish to leapfrog Johnson for the points lead, and one week later, he clinched his first Cup crown in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

This past March, Johnson finished second at PIR to Carl Edwards. But that was then and this is now.

“I’m just not going to put my guard down,” Johnson said in a teleconference this afternoon. “We need to go into Phoenix and race well. We finished second there in the spring, so I feel strong about our set-up and the performance we should have there. But that doesn’t guarantee us anything and we need to go out and have a good, strong, clean weekend.”

Johnson has claimed four Cup victories at PIR, the most of any active driver. However, all of those wins came before “The Desert Jewel” was reconfigured and given more progressive banking in 2011.

That runner-up result in March has Johnson believing that he and the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team are figuring out how to unlock performance at the “new” PIR. Nonetheless, he admitted to having less confidence at PIR than he did in seasons past.

“If there was one guy sad to see the old configuration and asphalt go away, it was me,” he said. “We just had something that worked there and fit my driving style, and we were able to win a lot of races.

“A part of our sport is dealing with change, and we have cars changing and surfaces changing, and I feel like we’re going in the right direction with the race track. Hopefully, we can capitalize on that this weekend.”

And should he do so and pull off a second consecutive victory, that could provide him with the points cushion he needs going into the last race of the year at Homestead.

But Kenseth has been a more-than-worthy adversary for Five-Time during the post-season, and the two of them will likely be close to each other throughout Sunday’s Advocare 500.

This year, Johnson is battling for title No. 6 against a driver that, like him, has earned the title of Sprint Cup champion – whereas, last year, Johnson faced a driver that hadn’t raced for a Cup title prior to then.

When asked about how the experiences compared, Johnson didn’t say which was a less stressful situation to handle for him, only saying that he’s “found a lot of peace” in expecting the best from his rivals.

However, he noted that there’s something different about going for a first Cup title.

“It’s really hard to know the truth in it all, but I do feel a driver and team competing for their first is dealing with stress and pressure that someone that’s racing for their second, third, fourth, that they just don’t have that same pressure,” he said. “I only know that from my own experience. My first was far more stressful than anything I’ve done in my life.”

Grosjean delighted to sign off from Lotus with points

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 29:  Romain Grosjean of France and Lotus is pushed onto the grid by his team before the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 29, 2015 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)
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Romain Grosjean was delighted to end his long-running association with Lotus by picking up two points for ninth place in Sunday’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

Grosjean started back in 19th place after being hit with a gearbox penalty on Sunday morning, but managed to fight his way through the order to stand on the brink of the top ten in the closing stages.

With fresher tires, the Frenchman battled past Carlos Sainz Jr. and Daniil Kvyat to move up into ninth place, securing two points for Lotus in his final grand prix for the team.

The result also ensured that Grosjean finished the year 11th in the Formula 1 drivers’ championship ahead of his move to Haas F1 Team for 2016.

“It’s been an emotional journey for me and I’m so happy to be able to reward everyone at Enstone with points in my final race for the team,” Grosjean said.

“I had to push all the way and it wasn’t always plain sailing as there was a lot to manage on the car. The calls from the pit wall were great and my pit stops were fantastic.

“I owe a lot to this team and it really feels like a family to me. I hope to be back one day in the future. This has been the best season of my career.”

Teammate Pastor Maldonado’s race ended at the first corner after he was crashed into by Fernando Alonso, leaving him with terminal suspension damage.

“It’s sad to end the race in the first corner because we were looking good for the race,” Maldonado said. “Today we had a good strategy to go with our better race pace, but anyway this is racing and it can happen.

“I didn’t see the contact I just felt it in the back of the car from Fernando. I tried to restart but then I saw the suspension damage. Imagine if that incident had been the other way round, it would’ve been big news then!”

FIA clear Ferrari, Haas of wrongdoing on aero testing

Ferrari driver Sebastian Vettel of Germany  steers his car during the third free practice at the Yas Marina racetrack in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Saturday, Nov. 28, 2015. The Emirates Formula One Grand Prix will take place on Sunday. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)
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ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates (AP) Formula One stewards have cleared Ferrari and 2016 entrant Haas of any breach of rules limiting aerodynamic testing.

Stewards at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix had been asked by Mercedes to clarify the rules due to fears that teams were skirting regulations that limit time spent in wind-tunnel testing and other aerodynamic development.

Mercedes did not directly accuse any team, but the complaint related to the close ties between Ferrari and U.S. team Haas. Ferrari, as a current competitor, was subject to testing restrictions, but Haas was not, because it enters F1 next year.

Stewards ruled Sunday that there is “no evidence that competitors have not complied” with the rules, but did recommend to the sport’s governing body that future entrants be subject to the same restrictions as existing teams.

Hamilton: Mercedes surpassed all expectations in 2015

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 29:  Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP lifts his trophy on the podium after finishing second in the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 29, 2015 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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Lewis Hamilton believes that the Mercedes AMG Petronas Formula 1 team surpassed all expectations in 2015.

Mercedes entered the new season with a big task of emulating its feats from 2014 when it claimed 16 race wins and 18 pole positions as well as setting a new record for constructors’ championship points.

However, the W06 Hybrid car allowed Hamilton and teammate Nico Rosberg to reach such lofty heights once again, taking another 16 wins and 18 poles while beating last year’s constructors’ tally.

The team finished with 12 one-two finishes and scored 86% of all possible points, both new F1 records.

Speaking on the podium after finishing second in Abu Dhabi, Hamilton paid tribute to the Mercedes team following a season that also saw him claim a third drivers’ title.

“It’s been a good year. I’m happy,” Hamilton said. “I’m happy it’s over for sure, so now we can really enjoy it.

“Really have to take my hat off to the team who once again did an amazing job in building this car. The pit stop today, just the performance through the whole year, they’ve surpassed their own expectations and our expectations.

“We’ve truly shown that Mercedes-Benz is the best team in the world, so I’m proud to be a part of it.”

Hamilton spent much of Sunday’s race toiling behind Rosberg at the front of the field, and tried to get ahead of the German driver by running an alternative strategy in the closing stages of the race.

Mercedes warned Hamilton against trying a one-stop strategy as he requested, but the Briton thinks going as long as he did during his second stint without trying to go to the end was the wrong move.

“I think in hindsight once Nico had pitted I probably would have backed off a little bit and probably made those tires last a lot longer,” Hamilton said.

“The tires were still fine at the end, so I honestly felt I potentially could have taken them to the end.

“But if that didn’t work out, going too longer probably wasn’t the right thing to do, but we gave it a try and did the best job I could with it.”

Rosberg: New season can’t come soon enough

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Nico Rosberg says that the new Formula 1 season cannot come soon enough after capping off 2015 with a third consecutive victory in Abu Dhabi on Sunday.

Rosberg saw his hopes of winning a maiden world championship end in Austin, Texas last month as teammate Lewis Hamilton wrapped up his third title with three races to spare.

Since then, Rosberg has found a second wind to claim his first career hat-trick with victories in Mexico, Brazil and Abu Dhabi.

Speaking on the podium after his most recent success, Rosberg said that he was relishing the start of the new season and that it cannot come quickly enough given his momentum.

“Austin was a low point of the season, it was a tough weekend,” Rosberg said. “Since then I’ve just come back a lot stronger and I’m very happy about that.

“I’m excited about how the end of the season went, and next year can come any moment – it could start tomorrow for me, no problem, I don’t need any holidays!

“Anyway it’s great to end the season like this, go on holiday like this. Thank you so much, you’ve been awesome again this weekend for all your support and everything.

“Thanks to my team, absolutely stunning car you’ve all given me again today, unbelievable. I’m ecstatic.”

Rosberg struggled to compete with Hamilton for much of the year, but said that his recent successes were all the sweeter given the ability of his Mercedes stablemate.

“It’s always tough to race Lewis, he’s doing an awesome job and is one of the best out there,” Rosberg said.

“Even better feeling to win definitely against such opposition. It’s a great battle internally all of the time, and that’s what I race for, this battle. I look forward to more next year.”