Denny Hamlin outlasts Kenseth, Dale Jr. for Homestead win

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After enduring a season from Hell, Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin finally found a bit of Heaven in tonight’s Sprint Cup season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Hamlin took the lead from Dale Earnhardt Jr. with 24 laps to go and went on to win the Ford Ecoboost 400 by eight-tenths of a second over teammate Matt Kenseth, who came up 19 points short of ninth-place finisher Jimmie Johnson in the 2013 Sprint Cup championship.

That title was something Hamlin was expecting to contend for at the beginning of the season, but a last-lap crash at Auto Club Speedway in March left him with a compression fracture in his back that forced him out of the next four races before he returned to start his No. 11 JGR Toyota at Talladega in May.

Hamlin then strung together finishes of second and fourth in his first two full races back from the injury, but then hit a very rough patch as he could only muster one Top-10 finish in the next 18 events.

However, the Virginia native closed strong with three Top-10s in the four races before his breakthrough tonight at Homestead. With the triumph, Hamlin has now won at least one race in eight consecutive seasons.

“Man, I wanted to keep that streak alive,” Hamlin told ESPN in Victory Lane. “The whole FedEx team has stuck with us…They said I won a 25-foot Contender boat, so that’s awesome. It’s just a heck of a way to go out.”

As for Kenseth, he raced valiantly on Sunday, pacing a race-high 144 laps and surviving a stack-up with 74 laps to go that almost ruined both his day and Johnson’s.

The 2003 Cup champion fell back several spots after the incident, but fought back to fourth by the final restart with 28 laps to go and then took down a game Dale Earnhardt Jr. for second in the closing moments.

While he was unable to overtake Johnson and win a second Cup crown, Kenseth was still thrilled with his season altogether, which saw him and the No. 20 JGR squad win a series-high seven times.

“It was just an unbelievable year for us,” Kenseth said. “Obviously, we wanted to finish it off and win the championship as good as we ran all year. But I couldn’t be more proud of the whole Dollar General/Home Depot team. They did a spectacular job all season, all day today. I’m super-happy for Denny to get his win here tonight. He really needed that. Denny and Kyle [Busch] are awesome teammates, and I’m looking forward to getting into next season.”

“The day overall was really good for us – really dominant when the sun was out but when it got dark, we were off a little bit and then had the mishap on that restart that kind of got us behind. But, overall, I don’t think you could ask for much more.”

Earnhardt finished third to complete a fine Chase for him that saw him collect five Top-5 and eight Top-10 finishes. With the result, he secured fifth place in the championship standings behind Johnson, Kenseth, Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch.

In his final race with Michael Waltrip Racing before moving to Furniture Row Racing in 2014, Martin Truex Jr. capitalized on his strong practice pace to finish fourth ahead of his now-former teammate, Clint Bowyer, in fifth.

Lewis Hamilton sees off Vettel challenge to take Australian GP pole

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Lewis Hamilton saw off challenges from Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel and Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas to pick up the first Formula 1 pole position of the year in Australian Grand Prix qualifying.

Hamilton topped the timesheets on Friday to give Mercedes hope of continuing its impressive qualifying form from 2016, when it took 20 poles from 21 races.

However, Ferrari looked poised to strike and take its first pole position since Singapore 2015 as Vettel led final practice, setting up a close battle in qualifying.

Hamilton took provisional pole with his first Q3 run, going three-tenths faster than Vettel, and was able to find a further three-tenths on his second run to make pole all but his.

Vettel refused to back down, producing a rapid final sector to gain plenty of time on Hamilton, but it was not enough to deny the Briton his 62nd F1 pole.

On his Mercedes debut, Bottas put in an impressive display to take third on the grid, finishing three-tenths off Hamilton’s time. Fellow Finn Kimi Raikkonen ended the session fourth in the second Ferrari.

Max Verstappen led Red Bull’s charge in fifth, while Haas driver Romain Grosjean put in a stellar display to take sixth on the grid. Felipe Massa will start his comeback race from seventh ahead of the Toro Rosso pair of Carlos Sainz Jr. and Daniil Kvyat.

Local favorite Daniel Ricciardo’s difficult home race weekend continued as he crashed out at Turn 14, wrecking the rear of his Red Bull RB13. While Ricciardo was physically unharmed, the Australian’s ego was left bruised as he was resigned to starting the race from 10th on the grid.

Sporting is bright pink livery, Force India failed to light up the gloomy conditions in Melbourne as it suffered a double-elimination in Q2. Sergio Perez qualified 11th, while rookie teammate Esteban Ocon will make his first start in Australia from 14th on the grid. Nico Hulkenberg saw his 13-race streak of Q3 appearances ended as he could only qualify P12.

One of the biggest talking points from the early part of qualifying was Fernando Alonso’s titanic effort to put his McLaren-Honda 13th on the grid. Following a tough winter marred by reliability issues, Alonso dragged his car through to Q2 and did “all he could”, yet the issues faced by the team meant no Q3 berth was forthcoming.

Sauber enjoyed an impressive start to the year as Marcus Ericsson made it through to Q2, eventually qualifying 15th. Last-minute substitute Antonio Giovinazzi was poised to also get out of Q1 on debut, only for a mistake on his final lap to leave him 16th overall.

Haas driver Kevin Magnussen failed to get in a late lap, leaving him 17th on the grid for his first race with the American team, while a fuel flow issue meant Stoffel Vandoorne could only qualify 18th for McLaren.

Lance Stroll’s baptism of fire in F1 continued as he finished 2.9 seconds off the pace in P19 for Williams, while Renault’s Jolyon Palmer was made to pay for his lack of track time, rounding out the grid in P20.

The Australian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports App from midnight ET.

Lance Stroll set for Australia grid penalty after gearbox change

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Formula 1 rookie Lance Stroll has been forced into a gearbox change ahead of qualifying for the Australian Grand Prix following a crash in final practice at Albert Park.

Stroll lost the back-end of his Williams FW40 car coming out of Turn 10, hitting the wall and causing damage to the right-hand side and rear of his chassis in the process.

The crash brought out a red flag that ultimately caused FP3 to end early, with Stroll returning to the pit lane on the back of a marshal’s moped.

After bringing the car back to the pit lane, Williams confirmed that it would have to change Stroll’s gearbox ahead of qualifying, which will trigger a five-place grid penalty for the Canadian.

Stroll’s crash comes after a mixed pre-season program that saw him suffer three shunts in the opening week in Barcelona, raising concerns about his readiness for F1.

Stroll bounced back in the second week of running, racking up plenty of mileage in Williams’ 2017 car to back up his extensive private test program in the team’s 2014-spec F1 car last year.

At just 18 years old, Stroll is set to become the second-youngest F1 driver on Sunday, trailing only Red Bull’s Max Verstappen whose first start came at the age of 17 in 2015.

Vettel, Ferrari strke back to dominate final Australia F1 practice

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Sebastian Vettel made up for a disappointing Friday by dominating proceedings in the final Formula 1 practice session ahead of the season-opening Australian Grand Prix for Ferrari.

Vettel arrived in Australia as one of the favorites for victory following an impressive pre-season that saw Ferrari finish as the fastest team, concerning defending champion outfit Mercedes.

Ferrari’s winter pace was nowhere to be found during FP1 and FP2 on Friday in Melbourne, though, as Lewis Hamilton moved half a second clear at the front of the pack for Mercedes.

Both Vettel and teammate Kimi Raikkonen insisted they had more pace in hand for qualifying and the race, and both drivers were able to display that in FP3 as times tumbled.

Vettel ran high up the order early on before turning in a lap of 1:23.380, marking the fastest time of the weekend so far, 0.240 seconds faster than Hamilton’s benchmark from Friday.

Both Hamilton and Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas fitted a set of ultrasoft tires in a bid to try and catch Vettel at the top, yet neither could get close.

Bottas finished the session P2, 0.479 seconds shy of Vettel’s time, while Hamilton was a further 0.011 seconds back in third place, leaving Mercedes’ advantage looking precarious ahead of qualifying.

Mercedes was unable to put together a late ultra-soft run after the session was red flagged with 10 minutes to go following a crash for Lance Stroll.

Stroll lost the rear-end of his Williams FW40 coming through the end of the second sector, damaging the right-hand side of his car and bringing his session to a premature end.

The session was otherwise devoid of major incident, the other stoppage coming courtesy of Kimi Raikkonen, although the Finn was able to get his car back going swiftly.

Raikkonen ended the session fourth-fastest in the second Ferrari, six-tenths off Vettel at the top, while Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg rounded out the top five.

Red Bull struggled for pace throughout the session, with Daniel Ricciardo finising up sixth ahead of Haas’ Romain Grosjean and the Toro Rosso pair of Carlos Sainz Jr. and Daniil Kvyat. Haas’ Kevin Magnussen rounded out the top 10.

Times are below, and qualifying is at 2 a.m. ET, live on NBCSN.

Sauber’s Wehrlein rules himself out, Giovinazzi to sub at Australian GP

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After Friday’s practice sessions and after having been originally cleared to race for the Australian Grand Prix, it has been determined that Sauber F1 Team’s Pascal Wehrlein will not be able to continue in the rest of the weekend. He opted to rule himself out due to his fitness level.

“My fitness level is not as it should be for a full race distance because of my training deficit. I explained the situation to the team yesterday evening. Therefore, the Sauber F1 Team has decided not to take any risks. It is a pity, but the best decision for the team,” Wehrlein said in a release.

Wehrlein missed the opening test at Barcelona before resuming for the second test. He’d had a back injury sustained in an accident at the Race of Champions event in Miami in January.

As for that opening test, Antonio Giovinazzi, the Italian Ferrari reserve driver, will fill in for the German. This was meant to be Wehrlein’s first race with Sauber; instead, it will be Giovinazzi’s Grand Prix debut.

“We have great respect of Pascal’s openness and professionalism. This decision was definitely not an easy one for him, it underlines his qualities as a team player. The focus is now on his fitness level, and in such a situation we do not take any unnecessary risks. Pascal will be in China as planned,” team principal Monisha Kaltenborn added.

This isn’t the first injury fill-in to race in F1 in recent years; twice, Fernando Alonso has missed a race each of the last two years.

After a testing crash at Barcelona in 2015, Kevin Magnussen filled in in Alonso’s McLaren Honda, although was unable to start the race with a mechanical before the lights even went out. Meanwhile Alonso missed last year’s Bahrain Grand Prix after his accident at Melbourne, which opened the door for Stoffel Vandoorne to make his debut, and the Belgian promptly scored a point.

Giovinazzi has no prior experience at the Albert Park circuit and so will have to learn the track during FP3, which runs at 11 p.m. ET on the NBC Sports App. Qualifying takes place at 2 a.m. ET on NBCSN.

Here’s pics and notes from NBCSN pit reporter and insider Will Buxton, who is on the ground in Melbourne: