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Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. like expected changes to Chase

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — NASCAR officials have heard the criticism for years, that the Chase for the Sprint Cup format has given Jimmie Johnson an unfair advantage, and that’s why he’s won six titles in the last eight seasons.

NASCAR officials have also seen at-track attendance, TV ratings and overall fan interest in the Chase decline in recent years.

Now with rumored changes to the Chase format expected to be announced Thursday in the final day of the annual NASCAR Media Tour, Johnson joked that perhaps those changes may be partly geared to slow him down or stop him from winning a seventh championship or more.

“It’s crossed my mind, I’m not going to lie to you,” Johnson said, before turning serious and adding, “I don’t think I’m the reason that things have declined in our sport and why viewership is down. And I don’t think NASCAR is picking on me and keeping me from winning a championship.”

On top of changes to qualifying announced last week by NASCAR, numerous media reports – and several Sprint Cup drivers have already alluded to possible changes during the first two days of the media tour – have the 10-year Chase format taking on a dramatic new look in 2014.

First is that the 12-driver field would be potentially be expanded to 16. Next, there would be elimination phases, with the likelihood of four drivers each being eliminated after the third, sixth and ninth races of the 10-race Chase.

That would set up a four-driver, winner-take-all season finale at Homestead Miami Speedway, something Johnson endorses. If one of the four drivers wins the race, he’s crowned champion. If none of the four wins, the highest finisher would become the champ.

“You change the odds by 16 cars being in there, but in the postseason you have to win,” Johnson said. “And the champion has always won races and you have to win a lot. That’s how we’ve won our championships, so I don’t think a lot changes there.”

This would be the most significant change in Chase history.

“I was shocked to hear what was being proposed,” Johnson said. “It kind of caught me from left field. But if that’s the bullet we need, then I’m for it. We need our grandstands full, we need the (TV) viewership numbers to be through the roof and we need our sponsors getting the best return on their investment.

“I don’t know if this is it, we’ll find out. It’s certainly going to be exciting to shake things up and hopefully that brings eyeballs to what we do.”

Count Johnson’s teammate and car co-owner, Jeff Gordon, as being in favor of a new format.

And why wouldn’t Gordon be in favor of it? He might actually steal a championship away from Johnson, something Gordon hasn’t been able to do during Johnson’s reign. Gordon’s fourth and last Sprint Cup title was in 2001.

“It’s all about entertainment and I think this is definitely a big step toward keeping the entertainment factor very, very high,” Gordon said. “I love (NASCAR’s new) qualifying procedure. I’ve been a big fan of knockout qualifying in Formula One for a number of years and I think it’s fantastic and I can’t wait for us to get that started. We still have to walk through it a few times before we really see how it works in NASCAR, but all in all, I think everybody’s going to be very entertained, including the drivers.”

The rumored changes also get Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s approval.

“If this thing creates a lot of storylines, that’s good for the sport and keeps the fan interest going throughout the season,” Earnhardt said. “I’m excited about it.”

Like Johnson, Earnhardt even paused to inject some levity to a change that the sanctioning body hopes fans will embrace.

“I wasn’t really excited about change that much up until a lot of change started happening,” Earnhardt said with a laugh. “You kind of had to get used to it. Now, let’s just change it all. I’m all for it.”

Johnson hopes fans give any changes a chance, particularly since it’s been fans that have clamored for changes to the Chase in recent years.

“When the Chase came along, it was a significant change that helped in a lot of ways,” Johnson said. “And then we’ve seen some minor changes since that haven’t really moved the needle. In my opinion, many share the same opinion that something big needed to happen. Here it is, we think it’s going to be this and we’ll find out soon. Something big needs to happen, and something big is going to happen.”

Renault won’t rush decision on 2017 F1 line-up

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY - JULY 24:  Kevin Magnussen of Denmark driving the (20) Renault Sport Formula One Team Renault RS16 Renault RE16 turbo makes a pit stop during the Formula One Grand Prix of Hungary at Hungaroring on July 24, 2016 in Budapest, Hungary.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Renault Formula 1 chief Frederic Vasseur says a decision on the French marque’s driver line-up for the 2017 season will not be rushed as ‘silly season’ begins to ramp up.

Renault returned to F1 as a constructor in 2016 after five years away after taking over the financially-ailing Lotus operation at Enstone.

Jolyon Palmer and Kevin Magnussen were signed as drivers for 2016, but both have struggled for form with the R.S.16 car.

Magnussen’s seventh-place finish in Russia remains Renault’s only points finish of the season so far.

Speculation has been growing about the future of both Magnussen and Palmer at Renault, with a number of drivers out of contract and available for next season.

Renault also has an extensive junior program featuring drivers such as Esteban Ocon, Sergey Sirotkin and Oliver Rowland, all of whom are vying for their F1 debuts next year.

With so many options and many drivers to consider, Vasseur is keen to take some time before making any call on Renault’s line-up for 2017.

“We are at that time of year when we are asked these questions, but the questions and the speculation often happen before any decision is made,” Vasseur said.

“What I can say is we have two good drivers, who are improving weekend after weekend. Let’s not forget that Jolyon is a rookie and that Kevin only had one year driving full-time at McLaren then a year not racing.

“They are both doing a strong, solid job and work very well within the team. I have a strong relationship with them both and they know what is expected of them.

“Within the team we are very happy together. We will make our decisions for 2017 in our own time.”

Time on Perez’s side in race for top Formula 1 seat

HOCKENHEIM, GERMANY - JULY 29: Sergio Perez of Mexico driving the (11) Sahara Force India F1 Team VJM09 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo on track during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Germany at Hockenheimring on July 29, 2016 in Hockenheim, Germany.  (Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images)
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Sergio Perez believes that time is on his side as he looks to secure a seat with a top Formula 1 team in the future, with his plans for 2017 still yet to be defined.

Perez has led Force India’s charge in 2016, scoring two podium finishes to lift the team to fifth place in the constructors’ championship behind Williams.

Perez’s impressive form led to speculation about a possible move up the grid for 2017, the Mexican being tipped as a possible replacement for Kimi Raikkonen at Ferrari.

Ferrari opted to stick with Raikkonen for next season, but Force India team owner Vijay Mallya said at Silverstone he had already signed Perez and teammate Nico Hulkenberg up for 2017 anyway.

Perez has stated on multiple occasions that a firm decision on his future has not been taken, and will be discussed with his sponsors over the summer.

Speaking to the official F1 website, Perez said that although his backing from Mexican telecoms giant Carlos Slim helps, the teams he wants to race for do not take financial backing into serious consideration.

“Top teams are always looking for the best possible drivers,” Perez said.

“But I also know that I am in a privileged position as I have that support that not many drivers have.

“But to be honest: the teams that I am eyeing are not really to be impressed by money – only performance.”

After being re-signed by Ferrari, Raikkonen said he took pleasure in ending the hopes of drivers who may have wanted his seat. Perez responded to this by saying he had time on his side at just 26 years old.

“Well, regardless of seeing Kimi’s pleasure having signed for one more year, it is only one more year,” Perez said.

“And time is on my side!”

While question marks remain when it comes to Perez’s future at Force India, Hulkenberg confirmed on Thursday in Germany that he will be racing for the team next year.

Rosberg quickest in opening German GP practice

HOCKENHEIM, GERMANY - JULY 29: Nico Rosberg of Germany driving the (6) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo on track during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Germany at Hockenheimring on July 29, 2016 in Hockenheim, Germany.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Nico Rosberg made an impressive start to his home grand prix weekend by leading first practice at Hockenheim for Mercedes on Friday.

Rosberg heads into the German Grand Prix trailing teammate Lewis Hamilton in the drivers’ championship for the first time this season after the Briton’s victory last weekend in Hungary.

Rosberg won the last German Grand Prix in 2014, delighting home fans at Hockenheim, and brought a smile to those scattered across the grandstands on Friday morning by topping FP1.

A fastest lap of 1:15.517 was enough to give Rosberg P1 by three-tenths of a second, with Hamilton trailing in second place.

The rest of the pack was left far behind, with Sebastian Vettel leading the charge for Ferrari in third place. His time was over a second slower than Rosberg’s best lap, suggesting that Mercedes is set to dominate proceedings once again in Germany.

Kimi Raikkonen followed Vettel in the second Ferrari, finishing fourth ahead of the Red Bull duo of Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo.

Fresh from finishing every session of the Hungarian Grand Prix weekend in P7, Fernando Alonso finished FP1 seventh for McLaren, with teammate Jenson Button close behind in P8. Daniil Kvyat and Carlos Sainz Jr. rounded out the top 10 for Toro Rosso.

Second practice for the German Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 8am ET on Friday.

Cruz Pedregon aims to land knockout punch in battle for playoff spot

2016_Cruz_Pedregon_Action
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He may be one of the nicest guys in drag racing, but Cruz Pedregon has a fighting side to him.

He’s a big fan of the fight game, including pro boxers like Floyd Mayweather, Manny Pacquiao and others.

But it’s Pedregon who will be gearing up for quite a brawl during this weekend’s Toyota Sonoma Nationals at Sonoma (California) Raceway.

Ranked 12th in the standings and with just four races remaining to crack the top 10 and qualify for the NHRA’s six-race Countdown to the Championship playoffs, the two-time Funny Car champ is strapping on the gloves tight and plans to come out swinging this weekend.

Given where he’s ranked, some might consider Pedregon an underdog to make the playoffs. Right now, he’s 188 points out of 10th place (held by Alexis DeJoria), the final qualifying spot for the Countdown.

But make no mistake about it: the Southern California native, a winner of 35 national events, knows what to do to keep his title hopes alive.

2016_Cruz_Pedregon head shot

“My favorite fighter was Muhammad Ali (and) I feel like this time right now for me and our team is like Ali-Frazier 1,” Pedregon said in an NHRA media release. “Joe Frazier hit Ali with a big left hook right on the chin and (knocked) him down.

“Ali took a breath and got right back up and that’s what we have to do, just take a deep breath and get up, and keep fighting for these round wins and points.”

There’s no question Pedregon has struggled in 2016: he’s failed to advance past the first round in 11 of the season’s first 14 races, including eight of the last nine.

And while he reached the semifinals four times last season (finished ninth in the overall season standings), he hasn’t won a race since 2014 at Englishtown, New Jersey (finished 10th in the season standings).

But if there was ever a time for a turnaround, it’s this weekend, as Pedregon is sponsored by Toyota and this is a Toyota-sponsored race.

There has been one bright spot this season for Pedregon: he reached the finals at Charlotte, but fell short of winning. Still, it showed his 10,000-horsepower Camry has what it takes to challenge for wins.

“The most frustrating part about the entire thing is just not having the runs we all know we are capable of running,” Pedregon said. “We are a 3.90s car, we are a 3.80s car, and we just haven’t been able to completely show our full potential.

“It also frustrates me for our team. I have the best group of guys I’ve ever had work on my car. There is no quit in them and even when they are frustrated like me they put their heads down and work harder because they want to win, they want to show people what we have here and I think that speaks to the core leadership on our team.”

But don’t think Pedregon is going to take a dive or roll over this weekend. He’s going to be punching from the first qualifying session until the final round – and he hopes to be the last man standing in Sunday’s eliminations.

“Our mindset for these next few races is first, figure out the little things that (are) happening to us and get them straightened out,” Pedregon said. “Second is just going out and running how I think our Snap-on Tools/WIX Filters Toyota is capable of running.

“I know we have a fast car, everyone knows we have a fast car, it’s just these little things jump up and happen to us and it’s frustrating. We go out to each qualifying session with the goal of top five in mind and we will fight for each round to get into the Countdown.”

Even though he’s in a catch-up position, Pedregon isn’t letting the pressure get to him. He’s one of the best drivers in the sport when the pressure is the highest.

In fact, Pedregon thrives on pressure. That, combined with a good fight, could turn things around in a hurry for him. And he has the perfect example of past history to prove how solid a punch he can land.

“Every qualifying session, every round of racing means something,” Pedregon said. “If you feel as if you’re under pressure, people tend to tense up and lose focus and miss their mark.

“You can control only what you can control and that’s all you can do. (In) 1992 I won five straight races to clinch a title and in 2008 I won four.

“That’s not because I felt the pressure of needing to win, it was the mentality of going out and everyone doing the same routine over and over, like chopping a tree down. I believe in my team and in my race car.”

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TOYOTA NHRA SONOMA NATIONALS FACT SHEET

WHAT: 29th annual Toyota NHRA Sonoma Nationals, the 15th of 24 events in the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series. Drivers in four categories – Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle – earn points leading to 2016 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series world championships. The NHRA Lucas Oil Series also will be featured at this event.

WHERE: Sonoma Raceway, Sonoma, Calif. The track is located at the intersection of Highways 37 and 121.

COURSE: Championship drag strip; Track elevation is 15 feet above sea level; Track direction is north to south.

WHEN: Friday through Sunday, July 29-31

SCHEDULE:        

FRIDAY, July 29 – LUCAS OIL SERIES qualifying

MELLO YELLO SERIES qualifying at 4:30 and 7 p.m.

SATURDAY, July 30 – LUCAS OIL SERIES eliminations

MELLO YELLO SERIES qualifying at 1:10 and 4:15 p.m.

NHRA PRO BIKE BATTLE AT SONOMA RACEWAY at 1, 3 and 4:50 p.m.

SUNDAY, July 31 – Pre-race ceremonies, 10 a.m.

MELLO YELLO SERIES eliminations begin at 11 a.m.

TELEVISION:      

Friday, July 29, FS1 will televise one hour of qualifying coverage at 7:30 p.m. (ET).

Saturday, July 30, FS1 will televise one hour of qualifying coverage at 10 p.m. (ET).

Sunday, July 31, FOX will televise three hours of live finals coverage at 4 p.m. (ET).

2015 EVENT WINNERS: Antron Brown, Top Fuel; Jack Beckman, Funny Car; Chris McGaha, Pro Stock, Eddie Krawiec, Pro Stock Motorcycle.

MOST VICTORIES AT SONOMA: John Force, 7, FC; Doug Kalitta, 5, TF; Greg Anderson, 4, PS; Antron Brown, 4, TF; Ron Capps, 4, FC; Darrell Alderman, 3, PS; Warren Johnson, 3, PS; Eddie Krawiec, 3, PSM; Jason Line, 3, PS; Jim Yates, 3, PS.

TRACK RECORDS:

Top Fuel – 3.707 sec. by Antron Brown, July ‘15; 329.10 mph by Dave Connolly, July ’15.

Funny Car – 3.921 sec. by Jack Beckman, July ‘15; 325.77 mph by Matt Hagan, July ‘15.

Pro Stock – 6.499 sec. by Chris McGaha, July ’15; 213.00 mph by Shane Gray, July ‘15.

PS Motorcycle – 6.785 sec. by Eddie Krawiec, July ’12; 198.79 mph by Hector Arana Jr., July ’15.

NATIONAL RECORDS:    

Top Fuel – 3.676 sec. by Brittany Force, May ’16, Topeka, Kan.; 332.75 mph by Spencer Massey, Aug. ’15, Brainerd, Minn.

Funny Car – 3.862 sec. and 335.57 mph by Matt Hagan, May ’16, Topeka, Kan.

Pro Stock – 6.455 sec. by Jason Line, March ’15, Charlotte, N.C.;  215.55 mph by Erica Enders, May ‘14, Englishtown N.J.

PS Motorcycle – 6.728 sec. by Andrew Hines, Oct. ’12, Reading, Pa.; 199.88 mph by Hector Arana Jr., March ’15, Charlotte, N.C.

TICKETS: For tickets call (800) 870-RACE (7223). Tickets may also be purchased online atwww.sonomaraceway.com.

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Point standings (top 10) following the 14th of 24 events in the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series::

Top Fuel: 1.  Antron Brown, 1,145; 2.  Doug Kalitta, 1,088; 3.  Steve Torrence, 982; 4.  Brittany Force, 953; 5.  Tony Schumacher, 916; 6.  Shawn Langdon, 800; 7.  J.R. Todd, 799; 8.  Clay Millican, 681; 9. Richie Crampton, 660; 10.  Leah Pritchett, 553.

Funny Car: 1.  Ron Capps, 1,120; 2.  Courtney Force, 998; 3.  Jack Beckman, 976; 4.  Matt Hagan, 881; 5. (tie) Robert Hight, 877; Del Worsham, 877; 7.  Tommy Johnson Jr., 855; 8.  John Force, 821; 9.  Tim Wilkerson, 793; 10.  Alexis DeJoria, 733.

Pro Stock: 1.  Jason Line, 1,548; 2.  Greg Anderson, 1,466; 3.  Bo Butner, 955; 4.  Allen Johnson, 885; 5. Vincent Nobile, 758; 6.  Drew Skillman, 753; 7.  Chris McGaha, 661; 8.  Shane Gray, 658; 9.  Jeg Coughlin, 613; 10.  Alex Laughlin, 595.

Pro Stock Motorcycle: 1.  Eddie Krawiec, 742; 2.  Andrew Hines, 633; 3.  Angelle Sampey, 534; 4.  Jerry Savoie, 500; 5. Chip Ellis, 386; 6.  Hector Arana, 375; 7.  LE Tonglet, 364; 8.  Matt Smith, 290; 9.  Steve Johnson, 268; 10.  Michael Ray, 262.

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