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Another battle’s ongoing for Top 5 result in Chase

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While Jimmie Johnson vs. Matt Kenseth will be the focal point of today’s Advocare 500 at Phoenix International Raceway, the drivers behind them in the Chase for the Sprint Cup are engaged in a fight of their own.

Fifth-place Dale Earnhardt Jr. (pictured, right), sixth-place Jeff Gordon (pictured, left), seventh-place Clint Bowyer and eighth-place Greg Biffle are all jockeying to grab a Top-5 finish in the championship.

It’s neck-and-neck among this quartet of drivers, as the gap that separates Earnhardt to Biffle is just 11 points; Earnhardt is up seven on both Gordon and Bowyer specifically.

All of these competitors are starting in the top half of the grid for today’s 312-lap race at PIR, with Gordon and Bowyer together in Row 3, Earnhardt starting in 11th, and Biffle going off from 18th.

Earnhardt, who currently holds that last Top-5 spot in the standings and comes off a runner-up performance last week at Texas, said after Friday qualifying that he hasn’t paid much attention to how the points picture looks.

“We are just trying to give it all we can each week, and see what we accomplish,” he said. “We’ve already come a lot further than I thought we would after Chicago. I’m really proud of the team, and how they’ve hung in there, and they have done their best work in the last six weeks or so.”

As for Gordon, he’ll be keen on bouncing back from his Texas crash that effectively ended his shot at a fifth Sprint Cup. He’s won twice at PIR in his career, and has logged a pair of Top-10s in his last three starts there.

Bowyer finished sixth at PIR in the spring, but it hasn’t been one of his best tracks historically. In fact, he hasn’t led a lap there since the 2006 spring race. However, he did lead final practice yesterday, so if he can keep out of trouble (like, say, this sort of trouble), he may the speed to contend.

Then there’s Biffle, who, like Gordon, has grabbed Top-10s in two of his last three PIR races. “The Biff” led 39 laps early in the spring race at PIR, but finished 17th.

Report: No Mexico, 16 races expected on 2016 IndyCar schedule

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IndyCar chairman Mark Miles doesn’t expect the 2016 Verizon IndyCar season to begin in Mexico in February next year, according to a report by USA Today.

Though Miles said the Mexico race was “unlikely,” he believes the final schedule will 16 races at 15 venues over the course of seven months.

Miles said the series is waiting for a “highly, highly likely” event to be approved by a board around Oct. 13, going on to say it wasn’t Pocono Raceway.

“If we had to, we probably could put this out, in theory, sooner, but we want to go through the formality and respect the process of a formal approval from one of the promoters,” Miles said.

Miles said the Mexico City race has been put on hold due to concerns for proper promotion for the event, which would be the series’ first outside the United States since racing in Brazil in 2013.

“The process they needed to go through to get everything lined up has not really left a lot of time to be confident that everything can be done to properly promote the first race,” Miles told USA Today. “So I think the conversation is very much about ‘17. We just kind of ran out of time for ‘16.”

This is what is know about the 2016 IndyCar schedule so far.

Either the track, IndyCar, or an IndyCar support series (Pirelli World Challenge) have announced these dates for 2016:

March 13: St. Petersburg, Fla.
April 17: Long Beach, Calif.
April 24: Birmingham, Ala.
May 14: Indianapolis, In. (Indy GP)
May 29: Indianapolis, In. (100th Indy 500)
June 4-5: Detroit, Mich.
June 11: Fort Worth, Texas
June 26: Elkhart Lake, Wis.
July 31: Lexington, Ohio
Sept. 4: Boston, Mass.
Sept. 18: Sonoma, Calif.

These dates are not formal but are highly likely for 2016, per media reports:

April 2: Phoenix, AZ
July 17: Toronto, Ontario

These tracks have been rumored, but are yet to announce the status of IndyCar races for 2016:

Iowa Speedway
Pocono Raceway
The Milwaukee Mile
Gateway International Raceway

Williams hopes to improve on 2014 performance in Russian GP

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At this weekend’s Russian GP, Williams Martini Racing is looking for more of the same from Valtteri Bottas and a little improvement from Felipe Massa.

Last year, Bottas started and finished third while Lewis Hamilton ran away with the win, finishing 13 seconds over Nico Rosberg and 17 over Bottas in the inaugural race at the Sochi Autodrom.

Meanwhile, Massa started 18th after a fuel flow issue knocked him out of the first round of qualifying and managed an 11th-place finish.

Bottas and Massa enter the Sochi race fifth and sixth in the driver standings.

“We had a good result last year in Russia so we’re expecting another strong weekend and a good collection of points,” said Bottas in a release. “We all know the track now and it has a really good flow, with the long straights a good fit for our car.”

Bottas has finished in the top five in each of the last three races, two of which were won by Hamilton.

“Pace-wise we were close to Mercedes in Japan and I think we can be close again in Sochi, just like we were in 2014,” Bottas said, who also noted after Japan the team is set to turn its focus to its 2016 car.

Massa, who has two podium finishes this year, will try to bounce back from a DNF at Marina Bay and a 17th-place finish in Japan.

“I hope to make amends for qualifying last year and I’m confident we can have a competitive race,” Massa said in a team release.

“Russia is a very nice track with a few long straights which makes it interesting for overtaking,” Massa said of the 18-turn track. “The circuit has almost everything, starting with a straight and then moving into high-speed corners and then very slow corners in the middle sector. This makes setting up the car really important and the importance of downforce evident.”

The Russian Grand Prix can been seen on NBCSN on Sunday at 7 am ET.