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.

Ricciardo: Red Bull ‘not really that close’ to Mercedes in Austin

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 22:  Daniel Ricciardo of Australia and Red Bull Racing waves to the crowd after qualifying in third position during qualifying for the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 22, 2016 in Austin, United States.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Daniel Ricciardo is doubtful that Red Bull can challenge Mercedes for victory in Sunday’s United States Grand Prix in Austin, Texas, believing Ferrari to be the team’s closest challenger.

Red Bull currently sits second in the Formula 1 constructors’ championship, having won two races this season – notably the only two not to have been won by Mercedes – with Ricciardo and Max Verstappen.

Both drivers enjoyed impressive outings in practice, with Ricciardo’s race pace on Friday and Verstappen’s one-lap run on Saturday in FP3 hinting that a close fight at the front of the pack may be on the cards.

However, Mercedes stretched its legs when it came to qualifying as Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg locked out the front row of the grid. Ricciardo was left to settle for third place, finishing half a second shy of Hamilton at the front of the pack.

Red Bull opted to split the strategy of its cars in Q2, meaning Ricciardo will start on the super-soft tire while Verstappen is set to take softs to the line, giving the latter more strategy options.

“I’m not concerned. We expected it to go like this,” Ricciardo said of Verstappen’s tire choice.

“Max wanted to try the soft, I was happy to go on super-softs. I was more comfortable on this tire so that was the reason. Hopefully it gives me a better launch off the line.

“Not really that close to the Mercedes, but we should have a good battle with Ferrari. The car works pretty well for us. We’ll see what happens. Hopefully a bit of friendly grip off the line.”

However, Ricciardo agreed that the long-run pace of the Red Bull during practice on Friday was strong, offering the team a boost heading into the race.

“It was pretty delicious, I would say,” the Australian told NBCSN.

“Track conditions changed a bit. Maybe it affects what happened on Friday, but we’ll be ready to go tomorrow.

“Let’s show y’all how it’s done.”

Verstappen was also surprised by the gap to Mercedes in qualifying, and was left disappointed to be only fourth on the grid.

“Not great to have three cars in front of you. Could have been better,” Verstappen told NBCSN.

“To be honest, I expected us to be closer in qualifying. We were not that close. They start on the softs. Hopefully a good start and we’ll see what happens in the race.”

The United States Grand Prix is live on NBC and the NBC Sports app from 2:30pm ET on Sunday.

Rosberg ‘annoyed’ to see Hamilton on USGP pole after ‘good lap’

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 22:  Nico Rosberg of Germany and Mercedes GP in the garage during final practice for the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 22, 2016 in Austin, United States.  (Photo by Lars Baron/Getty Images)
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Nico Rosberg was left feeling “annoyed” after seeing Mercedes teammate and Formula 1 championship rival Lewis Hamilton beat him to pole position for the United States Grand Prix on Saturday afternoon.

Rosberg arrived in Austin, Texas leading the drivers’ standings by 33 points with four races remaining in the 2016 season.

The German scored pole position at the Circuit of The Americas in 2014 and 2015, but was denied a three-peat by Hamilton in the dying stages of qualifying on Saturday.

The two drivers matched each other for pace through all three legs of qualifying, with Rosberg’s final effort giving him provisional pole ahead of Hamilton.

However, Hamilton was able to hit back and ultimately go two-tenths of a second faster, handing him his ninth pole position of the year.

After the session, Rosberg was very matter-of-fact about his qualifying, saying that he was happy with his own lap.

“Nothing specific,” Rosberg said when asked where he had fallen short.

“Sector 1, Lewis was just quicker. Pretty simple.

“Good lap I did nonetheless. Annoyed when Lewis came over the line, but that’s the way it goes sometimes.

“Nevertheless, qualifying isn’t all-important. From P2, we still have a good chance tomorrow.”

Rosberg’s recent surge in points has been largely down to his strength off the line, with Hamilton dropping back in Italy and Japan, easing the pressure on his teammate in the battle for victory.

The United States Grand Prix is live on NBC and the NBC Sports app from 2:30pm ET on Sunday.

Hamilton left feeling ‘amazing’ after ending COTA pole drought

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 22: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP waves to the crowd after qualifying in pole position during qualifying for the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 22, 2016 in Austin, United States.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Lewis Hamilton was left feeling “amazing” after scoring his first pole position at the Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas on Saturday, giving his fading hopes of a fourth Formula 1 title a boost.

Hamilton is a three-time winner at COTA (2012, 2014, 2015), but has never started a race at the track from pole position.

Hamilton last scored pole position on American soil back in 2007 during his rookie F1 season, in what proved to be the final United States Grand Prix to be held at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

The Briton put an end to his barren run of poles in the U.S. on Saturday, finishing two-tenths of a second clear of drivers’ championship leader and Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg.

“I feel amazing. My first pole here. It’s been many years of trying and a lot of people who’ve helped me get that,” Hamilton said after the session.

“For us I want to say a big thanks to the crowd. I could hear them cheering. The energy on the slow down lap was much appreciated.”

Hamilton enters Sunday’s race trailing Rosberg by 33 points in the drivers’ championship and without a win since the end of July, with a number of poor starts proving costly in the meantime.

“We’ve worked hard the last couple weeks. It’s a great feeling to be back up here,” Hamilton said.

“I’ll do the best I can tomorrow. Have had some incredible support from friends, family and the crowd. Been practicing the starts all weekend.”

The United States Grand Prix is live on NBC and the NBC Sports app from 2:30pm ET on Sunday.

Hamilton captures first COTA pole in USGP qualifying

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 22: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo on track during final practice for the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 22, 2016 in Austin, United States.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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Lewis Hamilton stormed to his first pole position at the Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas in qualifying for the United States Grand Prix on Saturday, edging out Mercedes teammate and title rival Nico Rosberg by two-tenths of a second.

Hamilton entered the USGP weekend trailing Rosberg by 33 points in the drivers’ championship, but remained the favorite for victory after his three previous wins at COTA.

However, Hamilton had never started on pole in Austin, offering a statistical anomaly that the Briton sought to rectify on Saturday afternoon.

Rosberg and Hamilton were neck-and-neck throughout qualifying, only for the latter to pull ahead with their first runs in Q3, going 0.072 seconds clear.

Rosberg rallied with his final Q3 lap to take provisional pole, but Hamilton managed to dig deep and produce a lap of 1:34.999 to wrestle P1 away at the checkered flag.

Rosberg was left to settle for second place, while Daniel Ricciardo finished as the best of the rest for Red Bull in third, half a second off Hamilton’s P1 time. Red Bull teammate Max Verstappen qualified fourth.

Both Mercedes drivers were able to make it through to Q3 on the soft compound tire, as was Verstappen, opening up the possibility of a one-stop race for the trio on Sunday.

Ferrari had a difficult session as Kimi Raikkonen and Sebastian Vettel finished over a second off the pace, leaving them fifth and sixth respectively on the grid.

Nico Hulkenberg continued his run of top-10 finishes at COTA over the race weekend, qualifying seventh, while Force India teammate Sergio Perez ailed to P11 after being knocked out in Q2.

Valttei Bottas and Felipe Massa were eighth and ninth for Williams after electing to run just once in Q3, while Carlos Sainz Jr. rounded out the top 10.

Fernando Alonso was McLaren’s sole representative in Q2 after seeing Jenson Button fall early in Q1. Alonso could not make it through to Q3, though, with late laps from the Williams pair leaving him 12th on the grid.

Like Perez, Daniil Kvyat was unable to match the pace of his teammate, finishing three-tenths of a second shy of Toro Rosso teammate Sainz in Q2 to finish 13th.

Haas F1 Team’s first qualifying session on American soil failed to live up to expectations of the home crowd as it failed to get both cars through to Q2 for the first time since the Chinese Grand Prix. Romain Grosjean was knocked out in Q1, qualifying 17th, leaving Esteban Gutierrez to fly the star-spangled banner alone in Q2, where he finished 14th.

Jolyon Palmer made it through to Q2 for Renault after an impressive first run in Q1, failing to improve on his second lap that he called a “f***ing disaster” over the radio. A sole attempt in Q2 left him 15th on the grid ahead of Sauber’s Marcus Ericsson, who opted against a proper qualifying run after making it into the second session.

Kevin Magnussen qualified 18th for Renault ahead of a disgruntled Button, who risked an early run on soft tires at first in Q1 before McLaren mistimed his last flying lap that left him with traffic at the final corner in the form of Palmer.

Pascal Wehrlein and Esteban Ocon endured a fairly routine qualifying for Manor, finishing P20 and P22 respectively as Felipe Nasr slotted into 21st for Sauber, failing to match the pace of Ericsson ahead.

The United States Grand Prix is live on NBC from 2:30pm ET on Sunday.