Chase duel between Johnson, Kenseth continues at Phoenix

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Today, the weekend at Phoenix International Raceway begins for the Sprint Cup contingent, and that means the resumption of what has been a superb championship battle between Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth (pictured).

As I’ve mentioned this week, unless something completely out of the norm occurs, the Cup is coming down to these two men. And while anything can happen in racing, Johnson and Kenseth have been so consistent during this year’s Chase that it’s hard to imagine seeing one or both of them find trouble this Sunday at PIR.

But again, anything can happen. Just ask Johnson, who saw his seven-point lead over Brad Keselowski disappear last fall at PIR when he blew a tire and hit the wall with 77 laps remaining. Keselowski finished sixth, took a 20-point edge over Johnson, and went on to his first Cup championship in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

This weekend, Johnson holds, again, a seven-point lead over Kenseth after winning at Texas Motor Speedway last Sunday. But while Johnson has had success at PIR (four wins, 13 Top-5s in 20 starts), Kenseth has risen to the challenge time and again this post-season, putting up great results at places you wouldn’t expect like New Hampshire (win) and Martinsville (second).

With that in mind, the fact that Kenseth hasn’t won at PIR since 2002 means nothing. It would be no surprise to see him break that drought this weekend and set up a dramatic conclusion to the Chase in South Florida.

“Phoenix was my first down force race with this group and I thought we ran really well earlier this season,” he said this week, referring to a seventh-place finish he had at PIR in the spring. “…I’m really looking forward to getting back to Phoenix, especially after our success and Loudon and Martinsville this season, and I think that hopefully it will be a good track for us.

“The short flat tracks have been good to us this year and I’m hoping that they continue to be as we look ahead to this weekend.”

As for the potential spoilers outside Johnson and Kenseth, that list has to be topped by Kevin Harvick, who can definitely be in the mix for a win this Sunday; he’s triumphed three times at PIR, including last fall, an accomplishment overshadowed by the post-race antics between Clint Bowyer and Jeff Gordon.

Harvick is still alive in the championship, sitting third at 40 points behind Johnson. But at this point, it goes without saying that he’s going to need to win and also have Johnson and Kenseth falter somehow.

Don’t forget about Carl Edwards, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Denny Hamlin, either. Edwards held off Johnson to win at PIR this past spring so he should be up for a good run. Earnhardt logged a Top-5 at PIR in March, and has been getting very close to a win lately. As for Hamlin, he has notched a win, a second, and a third in his last three PIR starts.

Today will see the Cup teams do a sole practice session (1:35-3:30 p.m. ET) before going into qualifying at 5:40 p.m. ET. Saturday will feature two practice sessions before Sunday’s Advocare 500 (312 laps, 312 miles), which should take the green flag around 3 p.m. ET that day.

Street race in Vietnam could lead Formula One’s Asia expansion

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TOKYO (AP) — Formula One is expected to add more races in Asia, including a street circuit in the capital of Vietnam, a country with little auto racing history that is on the verge of getting a marquee event.

“We think Hanoi could come on in the next couple of years, and we’re working with the Hanoi government to that end,” Sean Bratches, Formula One’s managing director of commercial operations, told the Associated Press.

There is even speculation it could be on the schedule next season, which Bratches rebuffed.

Vietnam would join countries like Azerbaijan, Russia and Bahrain, which have Grand Prix races, little history in the sport, and authoritarian governments with deep pockets that serve F1 as it tries to expand into new markets.

“This (Hanoi) is a street race where we can go downtown, where we can activate a large fan base,” Bratches said. “And you have extraordinary iconography from a television standpoint.”

A second race in China is also likely and would join Shanghai on the F1 calendar. Bratches said deciding where to stage the GP will “be left to local Chinese partners” – Beijing is a strong candidate.

Bratches runs the commercial side of Formula One, which was acquired last year by U.S.-based Liberty Media from long-time operator Bernie Ecclestone.

Formula One’s long-term goal is to have 24-25 races – up from the present 21 – and arrange them in three geographical segments: Asia, Europe and the Americas. Bratches said the Europe-based races would stay in middle of the calendar, with Asia or the Americas opening or ending the season.

He said their positioning had not been decided, and getting this done will be slowed by current contracts that mandate specific places on the calendar for several races. This means eventually that all the races in Asia would be run together, as would races in Europe and the Americas.

The F1 schedule is now an inefficient jumble, allowing Bratches to take a good-natured poke at how the sport was run under Ecclestone.

“We’ve acquired an undermanaged asset that’s 67-years-old, but effectively a start-up,” Bratches said.

Early-season races in Australia and China this year were conducted either side of a trip to Bahrain in the Middle East. Late in the season Formula One returns to Asia with races in Japan and Singapore.

The Canadian GP this season is run in the middle of the European swing, separated by four months from the other races in the Americas – the United States, Mexico and Brazil. These three are followed by the season-ending race in Abu Dhabi, which means another trip across the globe.

“With the right economics, with the right structure and cadence of events across territories, 24 or 25 is probably where we’d like to be from a longer-term standpoint,” Bratches said.

Big changes are not likely to happen until the 2020 season ends. This is when many current rules and contracts expire as F1’s new owners try to redistribute some income to allow smaller teams to compete.

“There’s more interest than we have capacity in the schedule,” Bratches said, firing off Berlin, Paris or London as potentially attractive venues. “We want to be very selective.”

“Those cites from an economic impact standpoint would find us value, as do others around the world,” Bratches added. “It’s very important for us as we move forward to go to locations that are a credit to the Formula One brand.”

An expanded schedule would have to be approved by the teams, which will be stretched by the travel and the wear-and-tear on their crews. The burden will fall on the smaller teams, which have significantly smaller revenue compared with Ferrari, Mercedes or Red Bull.

Bratches also envisions another race in the U.S., joining the United States Grand Prix held annually in Austin, Texas. A street race in Miami is a strong candidate, as are possible venues like Las Vegas or New York.

“We see the United States and China as countries that could support two races,” he said.

Liberty Media has reported Formula One’s total annual revenue at $1.8 billion, generated by fees paid by promoters, broadcast rights, advertising and sponsorship. Race promotion fees also tend to be higher in Asia, which makes the area attractive – along with a largely untapped fan base.

In a four-year cycle, F1 generates more revenue than FIFA or the International Olympic Committee, which rely almost entirely on one-time showcase events.

Reports suggest Vietnamese promoters may pay between $50-60 million annually as a race fee, with those fees paid by the government. Bratches said 19 of 21 Formula One races are supported by government payments.

“The race promotion fee being derived from the government … is a model that has worked historically,” Bratches said.