A winless champion could be trouble for NASCAR Nationwide Series

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The good news: a NASCAR Nationwide Series regular will win the 2013 series championship this weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

The bad news: the potential exists that champion could finish the 2013 season winless.

So long as Austin Dillon finishes ahead of Sam Hornish Jr. – the Richard Childress Racing prodigy leads Penske Racing’s Hornish by eight points entering Saturday’s Ford Ecoboost 300 – and doesn’t win, he’ll be the champion. To Dillon’s credit, that would give him titles in both Nationwide and the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series (2011).

NASCAR can spin it all it wants, as in “Dillon’s incredible consistency carried him to the title” or some such. But a winless champion would be the first all-time in any of NASCAR’s three top tiers, and a potential nightmare scenario from a marketing or PR standpoint.

After all, the Chase for the Sprint Cup was introduced a year after Matt Kenseth won a solitary race in 2003, building his lone title triumph on consistency rather than race wins and dominance.

Nationwide has, for better or worse, traditionally allowed the influx of Sprint Cup regulars to compete in its races. And while Cup drivers can’t register driver points, they can play major dividends in both the driver and owner championships.

The dominant teams entering this weekend are the No. 22 Penske Racing Ford and the No. 54 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota teams; Penske lead JGR by 4 owner points, 1256-1252. Both teams have 12 wins; Busch has all 12 for the 54 while four different drivers (Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, AJ Allmendinger, Ryan Blaney) have won in the 22. That’s a full 24 of 32 races thus far won by just these two cars (75 percent), and in total, 27 of 32 won by Cup regulars. Dillon’s and Hornish’s teams rank only third and fourth in the owner points, by contrast.

That’s a majority of the races where the 54 and the 22 have received the most ink, the most press, and the most coverage, instead of the series’ actual full-timers.

Knowing and learning how to win races should be part of a training ground, and so long as the Cup regulars continue to dominate the scoreboard, it’s always going to be difficult for Nationwide drivers to gain that skill before moving up.

Perhaps a “maximum race cap” gets introduced for Cup regulars, or the schedule itself designates only a certain number of races where Cup regulars will be eligible. That’s a topic for another day, though.

Still, it’s no coincidence that some of the most intriguing Nationwide races this year – Iowa and the road courses at Road America and Mid-Ohio, for instance – have featured less than a full handful of Cup regulars in the field. And all three were won by drivers not competing in Cup full-time.

You could properly see how well Dillon and Hornish fared against their Nationwide peers in those races compared to the majority, populated by Cup regulars, where all they really needed to do was finish “best in class” to keep building the points.

Hornish has finished second five times this year, and third four times. Of those nine races, the No. 22 Penske Racing Ford driven by Keselowski, Logano or Allmendinger has won five of them (Hornish finished second to the No. 22 three times, third twice). He finished best in class, but you could argue he left points on the table in ending behind the team car. Indeed, it’s more than 20 points that have gone begging as a result, and right now, those points would be pretty valuable heading into Homestead.

Sponsorship is the main reason Hornish doesn’t have a 2014 contract in place, although he plans to remain in NASCAR. But those missed winning opportunities have to loom large to potential suitors.

Perhaps Hornish overcomes the deficit this Saturday, and a win with Dillon outside the top five would do just that. For his and the series’ sake, it would be welcomed, to give him his second win of 2013. Or, Dillon could reduce the potential angst of a winless champ with a win of his own.

Either way, game on this Saturday.

Bottas joins F1’s Finnish stars with Russian GP win

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SOCHI, Russia (AP) Formula One has a new Finnish iceman on top of the podium.

Valtteri Bottas kept his cool under pressure in Sunday’s Russian Grand Prix to claim his first F1 victory, swooping past Sebastian Vettel for the lead on the first lap, and keeping the hard-charging German behind him on the final lap.

“When I drive, there’s not much emotion in there,” Bottas said after his win. “I’m just trying to get everything right and get every lap, every corner perfect.”

Bottas joins an illustrious list of Finnish winners, including Kimi Raikkonen who joined Bottas on the podium after finishing third. Raikkonen has long been nicknamed “The Iceman” for his cool demeanor, but Bottas showed he can be just as chilled. Long considered a potential winner, he’d made the podium 11 times before with Williams and Mercedes, but the top step was always just out of reach.

Bottas doesn’t go in for wild celebration, but he radiated calm satisfaction with a job well done.

“Hearing the Finnish national anthem is something quite special for me,” he said. “I always trust in my ability but it’s nice to get a confirmation.”

Just like Raikkonen, Bottas can occasionally get irritated by well-meaning advice from his team over the radio, and that happened Sunday.

“I had to ask for a bit more radio silence from the guys on the pit wall,” he said, “just for me to get on it and focus for it, and to feel a bit more like home. Nice and quiet, and that helped.”

A country of 5.5 million people, Finland has long punched far above its weight in international motorsport.

Just eight Finns have ever started a Formula One race. Of those, seven have made the podium at least once, five have won a race and three – Keke Rosberg, Mika Hakkinen and Raikkonen – became world champions.

Last year’s champion, Nico Rosberg, raced as a German but is the son of 1982 champion Keke.

It was his decision to retire in the winter that opened the door for Bottas to move to Mercedes from Williams. In his fifth Formula One season, Bottas now has a car capable of fighting for regular wins and hopes Sunday will prove “the first of many.”

Sitting third in the standings after four races, could a world championship be within Bottas’ grasp?

As he said on the podium, “for me that’s the only goal in my career.”

Red Bull GRC: Speed leads VW, Andretti 1-2 in Memphis opener

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The new Red Bull Global Rallycross season is underway but it’s the same driver who has ended the last two years on top, Scott Speed, who kicks off 2017 in victory lane.

The two-time defending series champion, driving the No. 41 Oberto Volkswagen Beetle GRC for Volkswagen Andretti Rallycross, led home his teammate Tanner Foust in GRC’s trip to Memphis to kick off the new season. The win is also Speed’s 12th in the series, most in Global Rallycross history. Speed and Foust also won their respective semifinals.

“(Being the winningest GRC driver in history) is a great stat, but those wins are all part of having a great team – starting with Tanner Foust, I have an incredible teammate. The whole Volkswagen Andretti Rallycross team just worked this offseason. We put in the work, and when we wanted to stop we worked some more. When you show up to the first race and you put this kind of performance down, it just makes all that work worthwhile. Big shout out to Circle K and Oberto for coming on this year, and obviously Rockstar – thanks so much, guys,” Speed said.

Foust was second in the No. 34 Rockstar Energy Beetle, starting his 2017 season one spot worse than he did last year. He swept the Phoenix doubleheader a year ago.

Steve Arpin, in his first race under the rebranded and phased Loenbro Motorsports effort, took the privateer No. 00 Jacob Companies Ford Fiesta ST onto the podium in third place. Arpin was the most consistent threat to the Volkswagen pair last year and has done well to carry that momentum into the start of 2017.

Rookies Mitchell DeJong and Oliver Eriksson finished fourth and fifth in superb efforts for Honda Red Bull Olsbergs MSE, taking their Nos. 24 and 16 Honda Civic Coupes to top-five finishes in their first weekend as teammates at the Supercars level for the Andreas Eriksson-led team.

Behind them, last year’s GRC Lites champion Cabot Bigham eighth in his first Supercars start for Bryan Herta Rallysport while Sebastian Eriksson limped to seventh in the third Honda with damage in the final. Chris Atkinson retired from the race with three laps to go in the first of two Subaru Rally Team USA WRX-STis, on what was a tough day for that team.

The final only saw eight cars take the start. Mechanical issues knocked Austin Dyne out of the weekend early in his first start with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, while damage on the initial start cost Patrik Sandell any hope of a result in his first final with Subaru.

In the 10-lap final around the 1.18-mile circuit which primarily utilized the Memphis International Raceway oval with a shorter dirt section, Speed and Foust both got the jump on a start, and were never headed the rest of the way.

The battle was for third between Arpin and DeJong, with Arpin taking the Joker on Lap 5 of 10 to move past the 2014 GRC Lites champion in his second Supercars weekend – DeJong debuted at Los Angeles last year.

GRC stays down south for its next race, Round 2 at Louisville, to be held on Sunday, May 21.

F1: Russian Grand Prix post-race interviews (VIDEO)

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The Russian Grand Prix is in the books, with Valtteri Bottas scoring his first career victory at Sochi.  Bottas had both a dynamic start and a dynamic defense for Mercedes against Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel to win in his 81st career start, and fourth with Mercedes since changing over from Williams.

NBCSN F1 pit reporter Will Buxton caught up with a number of drivers either during or after the race. Those interviews are below.

More videos will come in the fourth and final weekend installment of Paddock Pass, the NBC Sports Group original digital series. Stay tuned for that in the next day or so on NBCSports.com.

Anyway, Russia post-race interviews are below:

WIN. Valtteri Bottas

2. Sebastian Vettel

4. Lewis Hamilton

5. Max Verstappen

9. Felipe Massa

DNF. Daniel Ricciardo

DNS. Fernando Alonso

Hinchcliffe endures tough night in Phoenix to finish 12th

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James Hinchcliffe, off to one of the best starts he’s ever had in the Verizon IndyCar Series (certainly his best since his two wins in four races to start 2013) endured possibly the most frustrating race of his 2017 season Saturday night at Phoenix.

Down on pace to the Chevrolet cars, particularly those from Team Penske, Hinchcliffe had resigned himself to aim for “best in class,” and he had enough speed to run solidly in the top ten. However, as he explained, poor fuel mileage saw him be the first driver to pit during green flag pit stops, which elongated his final stint and forced him to make a late stop for fuel, dropping him to 12th at the end.

“Man, we just weren’t getting the mileage the other guys were. It’s too bad because the ARROW Electronics car was actually pretty strong,” he told NBC Sports. “We survived that first turn thing; it was unfortunate to see Mikhail (Aleshin) caught up in that.

“And we had decent pace, we were kind of hanging with Scott (Dixon) there in the first stint and ended up just having to pit way before anyone else. And five or six laps a stint compounding, we just never got the yellow at the right time to equalize the field and put us on the same page as everyone else. And at the end, we had to come in for that splash and go.”

Of course, the night could have been much worse, as he barely avoided the first turn pileup that collected five cars after teammate Mikhail Aleshin spun in Turn 2. “It was close, man. I saw Mikhail start to spin and come down, and then Marco (Andretti) hit the brakes and locked up and went around. I was lucky to avoid it, to be honest,” he said of the incident.

Despite finishing 12th, Hinchcliffe held onto fifth place in the standings, 39 points behind new championship leader Simon Pagenaud.

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