Harvick wins at Phoenix; Johnson on verge of 6th Cup title

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Kevin Harvick won the Advocare 500 at Phoenix International Raceway after Carl Edwards ran out of fuel while leading with two laps to go.

But Jimmie Johnson may be an even bigger winner as he took a commanding lead in the Chase for the Sprint Cup ahead of next weekend’s season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Edwards assumed control of the lead with 35 laps to go after a lengthy green-flag cycle of stops ended. But with two laps remaining, he suddenly slowed down the backstretch, which enabled Harvick to pass him for the lead while coming to the white flag.

Harvick went on to win by 1.8 seconds over Kasey Kahne after leading a race-high 70 of 312 laps.

Meanwhile, Johnson survived two major run-ins on the track and rallied to a third-place finish, while Matt Kenseth was unable to overcome both handling and pit road problems and finished 23rd, one lap off the pace.

As a result, Johnson’s lead over Kenseth in the championship has ballooned to a margin of 28 points with just one race remaining.

If Johnson can finish 23rd or better in South Florida, he’ll secure his sixth Sprint Cup and inch closer to seven-time Cup champions Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt, Sr.

“I really had to fall back on my dirt-driving skills from racing in the desert for all the years that I did in both of those instances,” Johnson told ESPN while referring to those two potential disasters he avoided.

On Lap 1, Johnson fell from the pole to sixth place after contact with Joey Logano in Turn 3 knocked him out of the groove. Then on Lap 163, Edwards made contact with Johnson that sent the two up the race track and forced Johnson to make another save.

Johnson tumbled to 26th after his incident with Edwards, which happened just before a caution came out for a spinning J.J. Yeley. But he got some help when under that yellow, Kenseth suffered a 25-second pit stop that began with confusion over whether he should take two or four tires, and then got worse when he ran over an air hose, forcing him to back up in his pit box.

Kenseth fell from seventh to 29th, and was unable to completely recover as his car simply wouldn’t come around to him. Meanwhile, Johnson quickly cut through the field and advanced back into the lead pack as multiple pit strategies played out across the field in the race’s second half.

“The 20 [Kenseth] wasn’t having the best day, so after that issue [on Lap 163], we came to pit road and left, and I expected him to be well ahead of me and he was behind me,” Johnson said.

“At that point, I knew I was in good shape relative to the championship battle. I knew that I had a good car and I could get through traffic, and it was just about getting points on [Kenseth] at that point.”

Now, Kenseth has no choice but to go for broke at Homestead – and hope Johnson breaks as well.

“I’m disappointed, obviously,” Kenseth said. “The way our season’s gone, kinda being in the championship hunt, we hoped to go down to Homestead and race for it on performance.

“On the other hand, I’m really proud of our team. There’s not another car I’d rather be driving…We’ve had an amazing, incredible season and we’ve still got one week left.”

IMSA: Sebring test notes

Photo courtesy of IMSA
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Ahead of next month’s Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring, teams from the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship took to Sebring International Raceway to round out a week of IMSA testing at the 3.74-mile road course.

Below are news highlights from Friday and Saturday at Sebring.

Derani Aiming for a Repeat of 2016 Victory

Tequila Patrón ESM’s Pipo Derani burst onto the American racing scene in 2016 with standout performances at the Rolex 24 and 12 Hours of Sebring to lead the ESM team to victory at both races.

His Sebring triumph was particularly impressive as he charged from fourth to first in the final ten minutes to secure the victory in one of the most thrilling finishes the race has ever seen.

Now two years removed from those successes, Derani appreciates the impact those 2016 triumphs had on his career.

“If you’re talking about sports car racing, you’re talking about Daytona, Sebring, Le Mans, Petit and those races that are known worldwide,” said the now 24-year-old Derani. “After winning Daytona and immediately coming here at Sebring – which if I’m not wrong, I was the first guy winning both on debut and the first Brazilian, probably to win back-to-back on those two races. It definitely changed my career. It opened many doors for myself and I’m really glad that it happened. Nothing comes easy. I’m really glad that ESM gave me the chance in 2016 to be in those races. Two years later, I can’t wait to win again.”

With testing now in the rearview mirror, Derani hopes he and the ESM team have found the right setup package to give them another chance at a victory.

“(Thursday) was a day that we managed to get a lot of information,” he explained. Most importantly, we ran a lot. We were out on track, and that is really good for us. Hopefully, this work is going to pay off really, really soon.”

United Autosports Continues American Odyssey at Sebring

Although two-time FIA Formula 1 world champion Fernando Alonso won’t be in the mix, United Autosports will be continuing the American adventure they started at January’s Rolex 24 with entries at the three other Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup events in 2018, beginning with March’s 12 Hours of Sebring.

The No. 32 Ligier JS P217 Gibson will be the team’s entrant at the remaining NAEC events and they will look to build on a fourth-place finish at the Rolex. However, while fourth looks like a strong result, team co-owner Richard Dean felt a victory may have been within their reach.

“We were a little bit disappointed in the end, even though we finished fourth because I think with three hours to go we sat in third place and the two Cadillacs were looking like they were struggling, we felt like we had an opportunity that 24-hour races can give you,” said Dean. “But everybody’s got a story, so we came out of there with a fourth place.”

Drivers Phil Hanson and Paul Di Resta returned to the team to complete the Sebring test, while Alex Brundle filled in for an ill Bruno Senna, who is scheduled to race with the team at the 12-hour enduro.

Dean emphasized, though, that Senna’s previous experience around the track should make up for his absence.

“Bruno couldn’t travel, he wasn’t well enough, and there was just no point in him getting on a plane and being ill here,” Dean asserted. “He knows the track. Of the three drivers we’ve got, he’s the one who needed the least laps around here.

Dean added that the team is beginning to get a better foothold on American soil, citing help from Andretti Autosport, which should improve their prospects for the remaining NAEC rounds.

“We feel a little bit more organized, we’ve got our own truck now, and we’ve got a little base here, and (Andretti Autosport) have been helping us out an awful lot, so our little collaboration or alliance with Andretti has certainly steadied the ship a little bit for us and helped us,” Dean said. “We’re excited to do these remaining races, and now that we’ve got Daytona experience with us, it’s definitely going to help us do a much better job in the approach for Sebring, Watkins Glen and Petit.”

Lally Samples New Continental Tire Design

Continental Tire, the current tire supplier for the Prototype and GT Daytona classes in the Weathertech Championship, rolled out a new tire design for the Sebring test, and Magnus Racing’s Andy Lally was the first to sample it on Thursday.

“Basically, we’re all going through sweeps right now and feeling things out. What does the tire feel like when you’re in qualifying mode versus full-fuel mode?” Lally said after the initial running. “There are all sorts of stuff when you get such a change like what we’ve got here. This is a relatively big change for the GT cars. Maybe for the Prototypes, it’s not as big a change, but for the GT3 cars, it’s quite a different feel on the platform. We’re just going through that.”
The new tire design comes after a Rolex 24 that was plagued with tire problems, as several teams suffered failures, especially on the left-rear, during the 24-hour race. Wayne Taylor Racing even elected to retire their No. 10 Konica Minolta Cadillac DPi-V.R after suffering five tire failures.
Miller, Bechtolsheimer Sample New CJ Wilson Racing Acura NSX GT3
Marc Miller and Till Bechtolsheimer got to work quickly with new Weathertech entrant CJ Wilson Racing, with both drivers sampling their new Acura NSX GT3 on Thursday and Friday.
Miller is a veteran of GT3 machinery and has won big races before – he was a GTD class winner at the 2016 Motul Petit Le Mans. Bechtolsheimer, however, is all new to GT3 machinery, having primarily raced vintage cars along with forays into the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge.
“I’ve not driven anything close to a GTD car before,” quipped Bechtolsheimer. “The first time driving it properly here at Sebring is kind of fitting because the first time I drove a car on slicks was at Sebring two years ago in moving to Continental Tire, which was at least as daunting at the time as moving into GTD now.
“The first time I turned a lap or two in the car, even though I was just trying to figure out where all the switches were and so on, I straight away felt that this is a car that’s going to be fun to drive. It’s going to take me time to build up to be on pace, but it’s a confidence-inspiring car and its yeah, it’s a lot nicer than perhaps I was expecting.”
The Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring rolls off on March 17.