Samuel Deeds 400 At The Brickyard

Brad Keselowski ready to prove 2012 championship was not a fluke

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Brad Keselowski had a memorable season in 2012 and one he’d just as soon forget in 2013.

Such is the unpredictable nature of NASCAR Sprint Cup racing from one season to the next. While he was the talk of the sport after winning the Cup championship in 2012, after a disappointing 2013, Keselowski is bound and determined not to be perpetually known as a one-hit wonder going forward.

As in one-time champion – a.k.a. one and done.

“Not winning the championship is disappointing,” Keselowski said Wednesday during the third day of the four-day NASCAR Media Tour. “That’s my goal, I want to win the championship, I want to win races. If you’re looking at it in a whole season sense, to not win a championship is absolutely disappointing and it should be. And I don’t want anyone working on my team that’s not disappointed when you don’t win a championship.”

Keselowski and Team Penske have made numerous changes to bounce back from 2013 to a more successful 2014. They’ve done a wholesale facelift of the pit crew (only two members remain from 2012’s unit), added an “athletic director” to monitor the workouts of crew members, and have done considerable realignment within the mechanical department to minimize what were far too many broken parts and strategy missteps last season.

“You have to compare your success to your failures and try to understand the difference,” Keselowski said. “There wasn’t one (failure last season), there was a series across the board, and it’s our job to resurrect that and I think the approach has been so to do that.”

The differences between his championship season of 2012 and failing to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup in 2013 are stark.

In bringing Penske his first Cup championship in three decades of trying in 2012, Keselowski won five races, had 13 top five and 23 top 10 finishes in the 36-race schedule.

In 2013, however, he won just one race (and that didn’t come until the 31st event of the season, at Charlotte), had only nine top five and 16 top 10 showings. He also failed to make the Chase and defend his previous year’s title, eventually winding up as the highest finishing driver that didn’t make the Chase (14th place).

Still, that was little consolation to the driver of the No. 2 Miller Lite Ford.

“We had situations out of our control that we didn’t execute on,” Keselowski said. “It seemed like at any given point of the year, we were this close, but not there. We had too many mechanical failures, we certainly addressed those. … We had too many issues on pit road and I had too many issues behind the wheel. If we (improve) any one of them, we feel we’re right where we need to be a championship contender.”

Team owner Roger Penske concurs.

“We’ve here to win the championship,” Penske said. “We’ve got some work to do. The competition has never been tougher. Our goal is to be at that head table in Las Vegas in 2014 (at the NASCAR Awards Banquet).

“(Last season was) a big disappointment. We knew we were better than we showed. We didn’t have the reliability with the pit crew, the car and the engine. To me, I think it’s a learning curve, I think it makes (Keselowski) better because he has to come back now and show people it wasn’t just a fluke in 2012.”

With Keselowski and Joey Logano (who finished eighth in the Chase last season when Keselowski faltered) as the team’s two representatives in the Sprint Cup Series and Ryan Blaney running a part-time schedule in the Nationwide Series, youth is definitely being served at Team Penske this season.

“As I look at 2014, consistency and continuity are key from the standpoint of our team,” Penske said. “And when I think of our drivers, I think of youth. You take our two Cup drivers and then you put Ryan Blaney in there and (the average age is) 24 years old. These drivers have the ability to win, they were winners in their series in 2013 and we expect a lot in 2014.”

And right at the top of the list of expecting a lot – especially from himself – is Keselowski.

“Last year, I feel like I ran some of the best races of my life, and in a lot of ways I was a better driver than I was in 2012,” Keselowski said. “But this is not an individual sport. You can very easily argue that the team side carried me for part of 2012, and vice-versa in 2013. It’s a team sport and it’s a collective evolving. It was our responsibility to get it done and we didn’t. But that doesn’t mean we don’t think we can. I think we can.

“It’s a new opportunity. We’re ready to get going here in 2014 and I do think we have a lot of continuity. We think we’re where we need to be to run for another championship. I feel like we’re reloaded.”

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
(Photos courtesy NHRA)
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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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