2012 Ford EcoBoost 400

Championship weekend begins today at Homestead-Miami

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A sixth Sprint Cup championship is in reach for Jimmie Johnson, but he’s still gotta go get it. Whether he can do just that – or if Matt Kenseth or Kevin Harvick can somehow stop him – is the top storyline going into Sunday’s Ford Ecoboost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, the grand finale for the 2013 Sprint Cup season.

You know the score by now: Johnson enters Homestead with a 28-point lead over Matt Kenseth after finishing third last Sunday at Phoenix. Kenseth, who failed to overcome a downright evil-handling No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota at Phoenix and finished 23rd, now needs to win on Sunday and have Johnson find trouble. Ditto for Kevin Harvick, who won the Phoenix race but still sits 34 points behind Johnson in third.

Both Kenseth and Harvick have vowed to play everything out at Homestead, but they realize that it’s Johnson’s title to lose. Unfortunately for them, every time he’s entered the season finale with a lead in the championship (2006-2009), he’s been able to lock it up even though he remains winless at this 1.5-mile oval in South Florida.

In fact, the three title contenders have just one Sprint Cup win between them at Homestead – Kenseth’s win in 2007, back in his days with Roush Fenway Racing.

Coming out of the box quick will be crucial for everyone involved in the title fight. After a sole practice session this afternoon (1:30-3 p.m. ET) is qualifying at 6:10 p.m. ET.

Nine of the 14 Homestead Cup races have been won from inside the Top 10 starting positions, and no one wants to open themselves up to a crash while having to wind their way through the pack.

Ask Denny Hamlin, who entered the 2010 finale at Homestead up 15 points on Johnson for the championship, but qualified 37th. On race day, he made contact with Greg Biffle and spun out early, inflicting damage to his front splitter.

His car was never quite the same and Hamlin finished 14th. Johnson finished second, which enabled him to win his fifth Cup championship by 39 points.

“Here, it seems we have a lot of green-flag runs,” said Johnson on Thursday at Homestead. “If you start down on track position and don’t have your car right come race day – [you] don’t make the most of Saturday – you’re going to have a long race and put a lot of pressure on yourself that you don’t want. The race does start with qualifying on Friday.”

There are other stories to keep an eye on this weekend at Homestead. Several notable drivers, like Chase contenders Dale Earnhardt Jr., Clint Bowyer, and Kurt Busch are still searching for their first win of the season.

Then there’s Hamlin, who has one last opportunity to extend his current run of seven straight seasons with at least one victory.

We also will be seeing several top competitors like Harvick, Busch and Ryan Newman in their final rides with their respective teams before moving on to new homes in 2014.

Altogether, there will be plenty of matters to keep us interested this Sunday at Homestead – even if the championship outcome is less than riveting.

F1 radio ban lifted ahead of German GP

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY - JULY 23:  Red Bull Racing Team Principal Christian Horner on the pit wall during qualifying for the Formula One Grand Prix of Hungary at Hungaroring on July 23, 2016 in Budapest, Hungary.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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The restrictions on radio communications in Formula 1 have been lifted ahead of this weekend’s German Grand Prix following an F1 Strategy Group meeting on Thursday.

New rules were introduced for 2016 banning radio messages that could be deemed to breach article 27.1 of the sporting regulations that states drivers “must drive the car alone and unaided”.

The thinking behind the ban was that drivers would have to manage their races more instead of relying on their engineers.

However, it was brought into question at Silverstone when Nico Rosberg was penalized after Mercedes gave him instructions on how to manage a failing gearbox.

Jenson Button called for a review of the rule after receiving what he called a “joke” penalty last time out in Hungary when McLaren informed him that his brake pedal was not working properly.

In a statement issued on Thursday after the meeting in Geneva, it was confirmed that the ban has been lifted, with the exception of the formation lap.

“At the request of the Teams and Commercial Rights Holder, the FIA has agreed to adopt a more liberal approach to the interpretation of Article 27.1 (that a driver must drive the car “alone and unaided”),” a statement from the FIA reads.

”With the exception of the period between the start of the formation lap and the start of the race, there will be no limitations on messages teams send to their drivers either by radio or pit board.

“This approach is aimed at providing improved content for fans and spectators, as teams will now be required to provide the Commercial Rights Holder with unrestricted access to their radio messages at all times that their cars are out of the garage.”

Mid-Ohio offers turnaround opportunity for several Andretti drivers

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It’s been a rough season for the most part for Andretti Autosport.

Sure, Verizon IndyCar Series rookie Alexander Rossi won the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 in May, but highlights other than that have been few and far between.

Still, with five races left in the season – beginning with Sunday’s Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio – there’s still time for all four drivers in the Andretti stable to improve where they are currently.

Let’s break down each driver and his season to date heading into Mid-Ohio:

ALEXANDER ROSSI (No. 98 Castrol Edge/Curb Honda), 7th place: Rossi made IndyCar history when he won the Indy 500. But the other 10 races he’s competed in have produced a mixed bag of results.

The 2016 ESPYS - Arrivals

His highest finish outside of Indy was sixth at Iowa. Next was a pair of 10th-place finishes in the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis and Belle Isle Race 1.

Sandwiched around his sixth-place finish at Iowa, Rossi is coming off runs of 12th (Belle Isle Race 2), 15th (Road America) and 16th in the most recent race, at Toronto nearly two weeks ago.

While Rossi has struggled in qualifying (16.2 average start), his average finish is just outside the top 10 (11.9).

The California native has raced several times at Mid-Ohio in other series and hopes that past experience will lift him to a good finish Sunday.

“Looking forward to going back to Mid-Ohio,” Rossi said in a team media release. “It’s the second track on the schedule I have a history at, so the familiarity should make the adaptation a lot easier on Friday.

“I know the team has been working really hard the past couple weeks to improve the car and hopefully it can lead to a positive road course result.”

CARLOS MUNOZ (No. 26 Andretti Autosport Honda), 10th place: In his third full-time IndyCar season, Munoz for the most part has primarily been a 10th to 15th place finisher (six of 11 races). His best finish was a stout runner-up showing at Indianapolis for the second time in his career (also did so in 2013).

Firestone 600 - Qualifying

His average start is 12.5, including winning his first career IndyCar pole for the weather-suspended race at Texas that will be completed next month.

In addition to his Indy runner-up and sixth at Belle Isle Race 1, the Colombian driver has two other top 10 finishes: eighth in the season opener at St. Petersburg and 10th at Road America. Overall, he has an average finish of 11.8.

After a disappointing 17th place finish at Toronto nearly two weeks ago, Munoz looks to get back on track at Mid-Ohio.

“Mid-Ohio is one of the tracks I like the most in America,” he said. “It is a very challenging track and I’m looking forward to seeing how the weekend goes for us.

“We’ve had a really disappointing last few races and we really need a good result at Mid-Ohio. Hopefully we can change our luck around.”

RYAN HUNTER-REAY (No. 28 DHL Honda), 12th place: After back-to-back season finishes of sixth and sixth in 2014 and 2015, Hunter-Reay had high aspirations coming into 2016. But somewhere between the season opener in St. Petersburg (he finished third) and the most recent race nearly two weeks ago at Toronto (finished 12th), things went sideways.

Verizon IndyCar Series Firestone 600

Even his best consecutive race run of the season – seventh and third at Belle Isle Races 1 and 2 and fourth at Road America – barely moved the needle for him in the standings (went from 13th to 11th – and now he’s back to 12th heading to Mid-Ohio).

Mid-Ohio has been an excellent track over the years for RHR. Including one start in the defunct Champ Car World Series, Hunter-Reay has zero wins, one pole, two podiums, four top-fives and five other top-10s at the 2.258-mile road course.

In fact, in all 10 starts he’s made at Mid-Ohio, Hunter-Reay has finished outside the top 10 just once (24th in 2012 due to engine problems). His average start there is 6.8, and average finish is 8.9.

Is it any wonder he’s looking forward to this weekend?

“It’s always a special weekend on the Verizon IndyCar Series calendar,” Hunter-Reay said. “Mid-Ohio has been a big part of my career from my teenage years in Skip Barber to my first-ever Indy car podium finish.

“This place is certainly one of my top three favorite racetracks and is one of the best as an overall event as well. We’ll be looking to improve on our fourth-place finish at Road America a few weeks ago and getting the DHL Honda back on the podium.”

MARCO ANDRETTI (No. 27 Snapple Honda), 17th place: There’s no other way to say it – mired in 17th place in the standings, Marco Andretti is having the worst season of his IndyCar career.

Firestone 600 - Qualifying

In 11 races, the grandson of Mario Andretti and son of Michael Andretti has had little to be happy about: zero wins, zero podiums, zero top fives and just two top 10s (ninth at Belle Isle Race 2 and 10th in the most recent IndyCar race nearly two weeks ago at Toronto).

In a sense, Andretti’s performance is a conundrum of sorts. While he’s completed all but five laps this season, he has yet to lead even one lap.

Up to now, Andretti’s worst season has been 15th in 2012. But with an average start of 18.3 and average finish of 13.5, he’s on track to set a new personal worst.

Still, Andretti hopes he can break out of his funk and have a decent run Sunday at Mid-Ohio:

“Mid-Ohio this year is going to be a physical race with the current aero kits, but I’m looking forward to the competition,” Andretti said. “It’s always a fun event weekend with a lot of fan support and a great turnout for Honda in their backyard.”

With six top-10 finishes in nine career starts at Mid-Ohio, Andretti has little place to go but up.

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F1 Strategy Group rejects Halo introduction for 2017

NORTHAMPTON, ENGLAND - JULY 12:  Pierre Gasly of  France and Red Bull Racing drives the Red Bull-TAG Heuer RB12 fitted with the halo safety device during F1 testing at Silverstone Circuit on July 12, 2016 in Northampton, England.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Formula 1 bosses have rejected introducing the ‘Halo’ cockpit safety device for the 2017 season, according to reports.

F1 driver Jules Bianchi and IndyCar’s Justin Wilson both died in 2015 as a result of head injuries sustained while racing, putting cockpit safety high on the FIA’s agenda moving forward.

The Halo was first trialled over pre-season in Barcelona before more tests through the year, going head-to-head with the ‘aeroscreen’ as a solution that could be introduced for 2017.

F1 drivers were given a briefing on the Halo over the Hungarian Grand Prix weekend ahead of a vote by the F1 Strategy Group on its introduction in Geneva today.

However, the bosses at the meeting voted unanimously in favor of shelving plans to introduce the Halo until 2018 at the earliest.

“The Strategy Group agreed unanimously that the 2018 season will see the introduction of frontal cockpit protection for Formula One cars in order to significantly enhance the safety of drivers,” a statement from the FIA reads.

“It was decided that owing to the relatively short timeframe until the commencement of the 2017 Formula One season it would be prudent to use the remainder of this year and early next year to further evaluate the full potential of all options before final confirmation.

“This will include undertaking multiple on-track tests of the ‘Halo’ system in practice sessions during the rest of this season and during the first part of the 2017 season.

“While the Halo is currently the preferred option, as it provides the broadest solution to date, the consensus among the Strategy Group was that another year of development could result in an even more complete solution.

“Halo remains a strong option for introduction in 2018.”

The F1 Strategy Group comprises bosses from six teams, plus F1 CEO Bernie Ecclestone and FIA president Jean Todt.

More to follow.

Here are your TV times for the Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio

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The Verizon IndyCar Series rolls into Mid-Ohio this weekend for the Honda Indy 200.

Simon Pagenaud heads into the weekend as the championship leader, but with Penske teammate Will Power gaining ground after three wins in the past four races, the title race continues to heat up.

Here are all of your TV and stream times for this weekend on CNBC, NBCSN and the NBC Sports app.

NBC Sports Group continues its exclusive cable coverage of the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series this weekend with live comprehensive coverage from Mid-Ohio, as Will Power (Penske) continues his pursuit of teammate Simon Pagenaud atop the championship standings. Pagenaud sits in first place with 432 points, 47 points ahead of Power, who has won three of the past four races, including the Honda Indy Toronto event on July 17.

Scott Dixon (Target Chip Ganassi) has been dominant at Mid-Ohio in the past decade, recording five wins since 2007. Ohio native Graham Rahal (Rahal Letterman Lanigan) took the checkered flag at his home race last season.

Coverage begins on NBCSN with practice on Friday at 2 p.m. ET, and continues Saturday with live qualifying at 2 p.m. ET. CNBC presents live race coverage on Sunday at 2 p.m. ET, and NBCSN will air an encore presentation Sunday at 5 p.m. ET, immediately following live NASCAR Sprint Cup coverage from Pocono.

Brian Till (play-by-play) will call the action alongside analysts and drivers Paul Tracy and Townsend Bell. Reporters Jon Beekhuis, Katie Hargitt, Robin Miller and Kevin Lee will report from the pits.

Date

Coverage

Time (ET)

Network

Fri., July 29 

IndyCar Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio – Practice

2 p.m.

NBCSN

Sat., July 30

IndyCar Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio – Qualifying

2 p.m.

NBCSN

Sun., July 31

IndyCar Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio

2 p.m.

CNBC

IndyCar Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio (Encore)

5:30 p.m.

NBCSN