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 Paddock Pass: Australian Grand Prix post-race (VIDEO)

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And so, the 2017 Formula 1 season is officially underway with the Australian Grand Prix. Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari are on top, having beat Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes both on strategy and on pace to kick off this new era in the sport’s history.

A recap of the day from the Albert Park circuit in Melbourne occurs below in the latest edition of the NBC Sports Group original digital series, Paddock Pass, as F1 pit reporter and insider Will Buxton and producer Jason Swales go into the paddock to run down the stories of the day.

MORE: Full Australian Grand Prix event replay; Mosaic replay

The podium saw Vettel ahead of Hamilton, with Mercedes’ new driver Valtteri Bottas coming third on debut for the team.

Other interviews that occurred during NBCSN’s post-race coverage on F1 Extra included with Kimi Raikkonen and Max Verstappen, who came fourth and fifth respectively, with Force India’s Esteban Ocon who scored his first career point, and with McLaren’s Fernando Alonso, who doggedly dragged his McLaren Honda into a potential points-paying finish before a late-race retirement.

Paddock Pass is in three parts and can be viewed below.

Haas’ sophomore F1 season starts badly with double DNF in Australia

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The Haas Formula 1 team’s sophomore campaign got off to a bad start on Sunday as drivers Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen were both forced to retire from the Australian Grand Prix.

NASCAR team co-owner Gene Haas took his eponymous operation into F1 last year, making its debut in Australia 12 months ago.

Grosjean scored a memorable sixth-place finish on that day in Melbourne, and looked poised to repeat the result in 2017 after qualifying sixth on Saturday.

A poor start was Grosjean drop to seventh, but he managed to hold position through the opening stint of the race ahead of the pit stop cycle.

However, Grosjean had no chance to wield some strategic genius as Haas did last year, with a water leak forcing him to retire while inside the top 10.

“I suddenly lost a lot of power. I told the guys, then the next thing I knew I had to slow down the car,” Grosjean explained.

“It’s a pretty disappointing result, but again, right now I’m hot and we’re all disappointed to lose a seventh-place position, but the car was there in qualifying in P6. The start wasn’t ideal, so we need to improve that. I felt I was faster than the Williams, so there’s huge potential in the car.

“I guess the key for us is to keep the momentum and get the consistency we didn’t have last year, where I’d be fifth in Bahrain then 19th in China. I really want to improve on that and get more consistency in terms of results. If we do that, then I’m sure there are going to be plenty of races where we can score good points.”

Grosjean’s new teammate for 2017, Kevin Magnussen, suffered an early setback when he clashed with Sauber’s Marcus Ericsson on the first lap, and ultimately retired due to a suspension issue stemming from the incident.

“I had Ericsson on the outside and I understeered into the side of him, which was unfortunate. I lost my front wing and damaged the car a little bit,” Magnussen said.

“We changed the front wing and then I went for a long test session to feel the car and learn a bit more about it, which was good. It feels good and the car is fast.

“That’s the really positive thing from this weekend. The car is there. We just have to make it finish and score points.”

Team principal Guenther Steiner added: “Not the race we wished for, or we expected. With Romain it looks like we had a water leak. We don’t know yet where that came from.

“Obviously, Kevin’s race was destroyed in the third corner after the contact with Ericsson. He then ended up later with a suspension failure, which we still have to investigate why.

“The good thing we take out of here is that the car seems to be fast. We need to work on a few parts and, hopefully, we can get back strong again in China in two weeks.”

Sam Posey previews 2017 with ‘The Winds of Change’ (VIDEO)

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As the 2017 kicks off from Australia, our resident poet laureate Sam Posey has penned his latest essay on what’s to come ahead of the new year.

Here’s a look ahead to the new season, with Posey’s “The Winds of Change” looking at the vast transformation in the sport that occurred over the winter, from the change in ownership, to the change in cars, to the change in the lineups… and to the change in the pecking order.

An archive of Posey’s 2016 essays are linked here.

Sprint car veteran Dave Steele killed in accident at Desoto Speedway

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Open-wheel veteran and occasional NASCAR racer Dave Steele was killed Saturday night in an accident at Desoto Speedway in Bradenton, Florida during a sprint car race. The veteran driver out of Tampa was 42 years old.

According to SPEED SPORT, Steele reportedly crashed while driving for position in his winged sprint car, in the Southern Sprintcar Shootout Series event.

The track confirmed Steele’s passing in a Facebook post, writing: “Desoto Speedway owners and staff are saddened by tonights passing of David Steele in the Sprint car feature. Thoughts and prayers go out to his family and friends who were all in attendance, to see him try to win his 100th florida race.”

Steele made three starts in the Indy Racing League in 1998 and had been brought on by Panther Racing as a development driver for the team’s first crack at a two-car effort, then teammate to Scott Goodyear, the last two races of that season. He was entered as a second car for the 1999 Indianapolis 500 but did not qualify. He also drove in the Indy Lights series a few years later in a handful of races.

In USAC though, Steele was regarded as one of the top drivers on the circuit, with a sterling record. As of the end of 2016, he had 26 USAC National Sprint Car wins, 16 Silver Crown wins (third all-time) and 18 National Midget wins, for a total of 60 wins that proved his versatility in USAC’s three primary types of cars, both on pavement and on dirt.

A number of tributes and condolences have already come in on social media. Note the one from Michael Lewis, an up-and-coming sports car driver out of California who’s won races in Pirelli World Challenge, and whose father Steve Lewis was the architect of the old Beast/Pink entries, which Steele used to drive for.