Title contender Kenseth struggles at Phoenix, finishes 23rd

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Throughout this year’s Chase for the Sprint Cup, the consistency of Matt Kenseth had kept him fighting toe-to-toe with Jimmie Johnson.

But on Sunday, misfortune finally caught up with the 2003 Cup champion as he endured a dismal Advocare 500 at Phoenix International Raceway.

Plagued by numerous issues, Kenseth finished one lap down in 23rd and lost a whopping 21 points to Johnson, who finished third. Johnson (now ahead of Kenseth by 28 points) only has to finish 23rd or better in next Sunday’s season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway to win this year’s Cup title.

“I can’t say I was overly confident about what we had,” Kenseth told the Associated Press’ Jenna Fryer. “Obviously, it didn’t drive good or we would have been up there with the front group. I just did all I could with it, which wasn’t much.”

Kenseth was never a factor primarily due to handling problems on his No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota that never completely went away during the 312-lap race. At one point, it got so bad that Kenseth dubbed the car “undriveable” over his team’s radio.

Clean air seemed to be the only cure for what ailed Kenseth, so his JGR team played the pit strategy game for track position. For a while, the gamble was working and Kenseth was able to make his way into the Top 10 after staying out on track under a caution at Lap 145.

But everything changed on Lap 163, when the yellow came out again for a spin involving J.J. Yeley just moments after Johnson had saved his car from crashing in Turn 1 following contact with Carl Edwards.

Johnson dropped all the way to 26th, and the door was open for Kenseth to make him pay. Instead, he had a horrendous stop under the caution. In addition to his crew changing the tire call during the stop, Kenseth ran over an air hose that forced him to back up.

By the time it was all over, the stop had lasted almost 26 seconds – tossing him all the way back to 29th. In the second half of the race, Kenseth once again made up some ground by staying out during pit stops but thanks to his seemingly possessed Toyota, he lost the track position back under green-flag conditions.

This time, he wasn’t able to be toward the front when it counted. Afterwards, Kenseth’s crew chief, Jason Ratcliff, defended the No. 20 gang.

“Everybody’s going to say, ‘Oh, the pressure got to them,’ ” he said to the AP. “Just poor execution on a track that’s so hard to pass. You’re trying to make up for something that happened earlier and it just snowballs on you.

“The car wasn’t responding to changes. We’d make a change and wouldn’t help it, so we’d put that back and make a another change and I don’t know if that was better or worse, so I was like ‘Just quit working on the thing, it’s not responding.’ We were just trying to make something out of nothing.”

Now, Kenseth, Ratcliff and Co. will have to try and make a miracle next weekend.

How Hamilton, Mercedes can clinch F1 titles at the United States GP

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Sunday’s United States Grand Prix could go down as a memorable race in Formula 1 history as both Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes bid to clinch their fourth world championships (live on NBC and NBC Sports app from 2pm ET).

Hamilton gave his chances of wrapping up the drivers’ title and re-claiming the crown he lost to Nico Rosberg in 2016 a world of good by charging to pole position on Saturday at the Circuit of The Americas.

However, with chief rival Sebastian Vettel starting second for Ferrari and a 16-point swing required, it seems likely that the title race could continue to next weekend’s Mexican Grand Prix.

Nevertheless, here are the permutations for Lewis Hamilton to win his fourth F1 world title on Sunday in Austin, Texas.

  • If Lewis Hamilton wins the race (25 points) and Sebastian Vettel finishes sixth or lower (maximum eight points), he is world champion.
  • If Hamilton finishes second (18 points), Sebastian Vettel finishes ninth or lower (maximum two points), and Valtteri Bottas does not win the race, he is world champion.

While Hamilton’s coronation seems likely to be postponed until the next race in Mexico, Mercedes looks nailed-on to wrap up its fourth consecutive constructors’ championship in Sunday’s USGP.

The German marque currently leads Ferrari by 145 points in the teams’ standings, and requires a lead of 129 after the race to clinch the crown.

As a result, a double top-four finish from Hamilton and Bottas would be enough for Mercedes to wrap up the title, regardless of how Ferrari fares.

The success would see Mercedes become just the fourth team in F1 history take four straight constructors’ titles, following Red Bull (2010 to 2013), Ferrari (1999 to 2004) and McLaren (1988 to 1991).

The United States Grand Prix is live on NBC and the NBC Sports app from 2pm ET on Sunday.