Homestead Update: Kenseth up front, but Johnson not far behind

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Pole sitter Matt Kenseth is doing all he can do to erase a 28-point deficit to Sprint Cup championship leader Jimmie Johnson, but the five-time Cup champ is in the midst of a Top-5 effort in today’s season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

As of the halfway point (Lap 134 of 267), Kenseth had paced all but nine laps of the Ford Ecoboost 400 and was holding a narrow lead over Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Denny Hamlin. Johnson, though, was running in fifth.

After leading the first 12 laps, Kenseth gave up the point to bring most of the leaders to pit road under caution. He won the race off pit road ahead of Kevin Harvick, but Denny Hamlin chose not to pit and brought the field to the restart at Lap 15.

The front-runners quickly disposed of Hamlin and after a brief tussle with Kevin Harvick, Kenseth got back in front at Lap 16. Meanwhile, Johnson was also progressing from his starting position of seventh and was in the runner-up spot when the yellow came out for a Travis Kvapil spin at Lap 24.

The leaders once again took advantage of the caution to pit for fresh rubber, and Harvick used a two-tire stop to get out ahead of the pack. Johnson dropped a few spots after taking four tires, but did come out ahead of Kenseth (who also took four tires), who also grabbed four.

David Ragan took the field back to green at Lap 27, but was dispatched by Kurt Busch almost immediately for the lead, with Kenseth, Kyle Busch and Johnson getting past Harvick on the restart. On Lap 32, Kenseth once again moved to P1, leaving the Busch brothers and Johnson to race for second.

Johnson would win the fight and once again, the top two Chase contenders were 1-2 on the pylon. Kenseth’s lead stabilized around one to 1.5 seconds, but while that was happening, Jeff Gordon – the defending champion of this Homestead race – had already made his way into the Top 5 by Lap 50 after starting 26th.

Green flag stops had begun around Lap 66 before the yellow came out at Lap 68 for debris. On the subsequent pit stops, Kenseth and Johnson were able to maintain their first and second positions, and shortly after the race resumed at Lap 73, the two proceeded to scrap on the track for the top spot.

But after a bit of nose-to-tail action, Kenseth won out and Johnson settled into second once again until Lap 88, when Kyle Busch got by him to put Joe Gibbs Racing in the top two spots. Shortly after that, caution No. 4 was triggered by a Turn 2 spin involving Dave Blaney – one of several drivers that may be saying goodbye to Sprint Cup racing this afternoon.

Another yellow meant another set of stops, which ended with Kyle Larson getting out ahead of Kenseth and Kyle Busch – but only because he missed his pit stall (he had to return a second time for service). As a result, Kenseth and Kyle Busch were atop the leaderboard at the Lap 95 restart.

At Lap 98, Denny Hamlin continued his recovery from a tough start to the race by dusting Kyle Busch for second. Johnson then came up to try and make the low line work in a fight for third against “Rowdy,” and on Lap 104, he finally got the position.

But while Kenseth and Johnson raced at the front, Harvick continued to slide further into the pack and out of the Top 20 thanks to handling issues on his car. A snippet of Harvick’s radio communications (via Bob Pockrass of The Sporting News):

Eventually, Harvick had to pit from 25th place under green at Lap 117 for an air pressure adjustment and tires according to ESPN. He lost a lap in the process.

F1 Preview: 2017 United States Grand Prix

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The Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas may only have hosted the United States Grand Prix since 2012, yet it has quickly made itself a big part of Formula 1’s recent championship stories.

Results at COTA have played a crucial part in all but one of the F1 championship races – the exception being 2013 when the drivers’ title had long been settled – with the track also being the site of Lewis Hamilton’s third title win two years ago.

Hamilton arrives in the Lone Star State on the verge of taking a fourth world title, and could reclaim the crown this Sunday should results fall his way.

For a driver with such an affinity for the United States as Hamilton, clinching the title in Austin would be very significant.

This race is also a significant one for F1’s owner, Liberty Media, as its first on home soil since completing its $8 billion takeover of the sport back in January.

The United States has long been a target growth market for F1 after a patchy history. Significant progress has been made in the last five years, but seeing how Liberty plays the US GP will be of interest to those with an eye on F1’s future.

Here are the key talking points ahead of this weekend’s United States Grand Prix.

2017 United States Grand Prix – Talking Points

Will COTA be king-maker again for Hamilton?

There is a similar sense of inevitability heading to COTA this weekend as in 2015. It is not a case ofΒ if Lewis Hamilton will win the drivers’ championship, but when.

Ferrari’s remarkable capitulation in the last six weeks has seen Sebastian Vettel go from championship leader to heavy outsider, trailing Hamilton by 59 points with just 100 left to play for this season.

A 16-point swing will see Hamilton clinch a fourth title at COTA – full permutations here – meaning that next weekend’s Mexican Grand Prix is perhaps the more likely site for his coronation.

That said, on Ferrari’s recent form, losing another 16 points would hardly come as a surprise.

Silver linings for Ferrari despite recent losses

The failures that have seen Ferrari throw away a shot at both championships in 2017 will surely lead to heads rolling come the end of the season, having been the Italian marque’s best chance of silverware since 2008.

For now though, the team must do all it can to put the brakes on its collapse and bounce back at COTA, with its race pace form in Malaysia suggesting it may not be as far off Mercedes as once feared this weekend.

Vettel and teammate Kimi Raikkonen have both said there is no track for Ferrari to fear in the closing races this season, meaning that while the titles may already be out of reach, a fighting end to the season would at least save some face.

Alas, with Mercedes very likely to wrap up the constructors’ championship this weekend, for Ferrari to have gone from pre-season favorite with the fastest car to losing the title with three races to spare is a serious failure that will take some recovering from.

Red Bull’s flying finish to continue in Austin?

Red Bull’s late-season form is traditionally pretty good, but the team has been particularly strong in recent races as it looks to build momentum before a renewed title bid in 2014.

Max Verstappen’s dominant victory in Malaysia proved the team can win races on merit and take the fight to both Mercedes and Ferrari, while Daniel Ricciardo has also been on the podium in the last two races.

For a team that was marooned in P3 for much of the season, the updates for the RB13 car have put Red Bull into the thick of the fight at the front – sadly, there is not title race for it to influence.

Nevertheless, Verstappen and Ricciardo will be pushing hard to keep the team’s good late-season form going at COTA. Four years after the team’s last win in the USA, can Red Bull hit the top step again?

Hartley gears up for shock F1 debut

2017 has been full of odd storylines in F1, but Brendon Hartley’s shock debut with Toro Rosso this weekend has to be right up there.

Seven years after being dropped from Red Bull’s junior program, Hartley will line up in the colors of the energy drink giant’s B-team in F1 after Pierre Gasly was forced to stick to his clashing Super Formula commitments in Japan.

Toro Rosso will race with a totally different line-up to two weeks ago at Suzuka, with previously-benched Daniil Kvyat also returning in place of Carlos Sainz Jr., who moves up to Renault.

Heroics cannot be expected of Hartley, who has raced with great success in the FIA World Endurance Championship with Porsche since 2014, but it will be fascinating to see how he gets on back in single-seaters.

The Land of Liberty

Liberty Media’s takeover of F1 back in January was a significant moment for the sport’s future, with a great focus being placed on the United States given the company’s American roots and the importance of the market.

F1 CEO and chairman Chase Carey has made his ambition to make each race a Superbowl-esque event clear for some time, with plans to improve the spectacle around races still in the works.

The US GP has traditionally done very well with its off-track spectacles, with last year’s Taylor Swift concert playing a huge role in breathing new life into the race after a washout in 2015. This year, Justin Timberlake and Stevie Wonder will both be performing at COTA’s amphitheater.

Another big name confirmed to be attending is Usain Bolt, who will act as the official starter for the race, while iconic boxing announcer Michael Buffer will be on-hand for the pre-race driver introductions, a new step for F1.

This weekend will also see the F1 paddock turn pink in aid of Breast Cancer Awareness month and Susan G. Komen, with more information available by clicking here.

2017 United States Grand Prix – Facts and Figures

Track: Circuit of The Americas
Corners: 20
Lap Record: Sebastian Vettel 1:39.347 (2012)
Tire Compounds: Ultra-Soft/Super-Soft/Soft
2016 Winner: Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes)
2016 Pole Position: Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) 1:34.999
2016 Fastest Lap: Sebastian Vettel (Ferrari) 1:39.877
DRS Zones: T2o to T1, T11 to T12

2017 United States Grand Prix – TV/Stream Times