Wild night: Denny Hamlin avoids 9-car wreck, pace car fire en route to Sprint Unlimited win

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After winning last year’s season finale at Homestead Miami Speedway, Denny Hamlin picked up where he left off by starting the new 2014 season with a win in Saturday’s Sprint Unlimited at Daytona International Speedway.

Hamlin, who started the night from the pole, was the class of the field, leading 27 laps across the three segments of the 75-lap exhibition race to win the entire event.

It was further affirmation that Hamlin is fully back from last year’s devastating wreck early in the year at Fontana, Calif., that knocked him out for four races and forced him to drive in pain for most of the remainder of the season.

But his win at Homestead was the best medicine Hamlin could ask for and provided momentum and motivation not only coming into Saturday night’s race, but certainly for next Sunday’s Daytona 500 and the rest of the 36-race season.

“The best car won, that’s for sure,” Hamlin said of his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota Camry. “We’re two in a row and building on something. It was survival of the fittest, for sure. With three (laps) to go, we were at the tail end of a very small pack and it’s really hard to get a run, but this car was just phenomenal.”

What started as an 18-driver field ended with only eight cars remaining at the end. Brad Keselowski finished second, followed by Kyle Busch, Joey Logano, Kevin Harvick, Jamie McMurray, Marcos Ambrose and Ryan Newman.

With a full moon shining down on the track, it was perhaps one of the strangest nights of racing NASCAR has seen in a long time.

It started with defending Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson spinning out by himself and ending his night early by slamming into the inside retaining wall on the final lap of the first segment, a 30-lap affair.

On the sixth lap of the 25-lap second segment, a massive nine-car wreck brought out a race-stopping red flag. The mayhem began when Matt Kenseth cut down on the front end of Joey Logano, triggering the wreck.

Drivers involved in the wreck were Danica Patrick, Carl Edwards, Kenseth, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick, Logano, Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch.

The night grew even stranger when the final part of the big wreck resulted in Stenhouse slamming into the side of his girlfriend’s car.

Stenhouse was unable to see where he was going due to damage incurred in the first split seconds of the crash. To her credit, Patrick avoided all of the slamming and banging around her and slid to a stop – only to have her boyfriend run into her and end her night.

Earlier in the day, hours before the Sprint Unlimited during practice for Sunday’s front row qualifying session, Patrick and Stewart suffered motor failure in engines leased from Hendrick Motorsports. Patrick and Stewart drove different cars with different motors in the Sprint Unlimited.

But wait, it got even stranger: As Hamlin and the other eight drivers that were left to start the final segment came to the green flag, the pace car caught fire! (See video below)

The pace car was quickly brought to a halt and track fire and safety personnel converged upon it to put out the small blaze — certainly nothing like the inferno that took place in the 2012 Daytona 500 when Juan Pablo Montoya slammed into the rear of a track jet dryer.

Other things of note in Saturday’s strange night:

* Kyle Busch went on a wild single-car ride when he spun out in the third segment, but was able to regain control and continue on early in the final segment, rallying for a third-place finish.

* Dale Earnhardt Jr. was knocked out of the race midway through the final 20-lap segment when he was hooked into the outside retaining wall by Marcos Ambrose.

Before taking his mangled car to the garage, Earnhardt managed to catch up with Ambrose on the track and expressed his displeasure at what happened.

But after climbing from his car and watching a TV replay, Earnhardt backed off on fully blaming Ambrose for the incident.

“It looks like I was trying to get down there and Marcos went to the outside and I didn’t know he was there,” Earnhardt said. “Hard racing and I hate to have it happen.

“I was upset with him, but I can’t really say it was his fault. He was going to the outside and I didn’t know he was up there. I thought he was staying with me because he’d been pushing me down the straightaway. I thought he was committed to that situation, and a lot was happening right there, and we just got turned around.”

While Earnhardt’s night was over at that point, Ambrose was able to continue on.

All in all, the Sprint Unlimited may not have played out the way many had hoped, but in the end a strange night ended with an exciting finish and a great storyline for the winning driver. We can only hope that next Sunday’s Daytona 500 plays out that well.

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Ferrari’s F1 pre-season pace hard to find in Australian GP practice

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Following one of the most impressive pre-season performances in recent times, Ferrari headed into the new Formula 1 season facing the expectation and anticipation of a title challenge against Mercedes, the sport’s incumbent team to beat.

Kimi Raikkonen and Sebastian Vettel finished as the two fastest drivers in Barcelona earlier this month, with the SF70H appearing to have locked in well to the new technical regulations for 2017.

For the first time since – one may argue – 2008, Ferrari entered the season looking like a serious title threat; perhaps even the fastest team.

Yet you would not have thought so judging by its Friday form in Australia as F1 got its official running underway for 2017.

FP1 saw both Vettel and Raikkonen lose track time due to some minor problems with their cars, the pair only getting in a couple of quick laps to leave them P5 and P6 overall.

Most expected a clearer picture to emerge in FP2 when both qualifying and race simulations would be completed by Mercedes and Ferrari, with Vettel and Raikkonen getting a chance to impress on low fuel and the ultra-soft tire compound.

But once again, they could not match the pace of three-time champion Lewis Hamilton, who led Mercedes’ charge. Vettel finished the session second and beat Valtteri Bottas in the second W08 – but it was the half a second gap to Hamilton that sparked concern. Perhaps Ferrari testing form wasn’t all that it seemed.

Vettel downplayed the importance of Ferrari’s Friday display after the session, telling reporters that it would be Saturday in qualifying when its battle with Mercedes would play out in full.

“Today is not really that important. It’s very important but not if you look at the final standings and one lap only,” Vettel said.

“I think overall it’s been OK. We had some small trouble this morning that cost us some track time, so it took us a bit longer to get into the groove.

“Overall I think we can still improve. The car does not yet feel as good as it should and as it can, so I’m confident we can do something.”

Raikkonen – fourth-fastest in FP2 – echoed his teammate’s sentiments.

“I didn’t really expect anything because it’s like in testing, we had no idea what others were doing, we only know what we are doing,” Raikkonen said.

“For sure we cold have done slightly more straightforward running today and small things here and there, but I think overall we have to be happy and we go forward tomorrow.”

The true difference between Ferrari and Mercedes will become clear in qualifying – but until then, it is feasible that the game of bluffs that played out through testing may just be continuing.

Hamilton boosted by ’99 per cent perfect’ F1 practice in Australia

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Lewis Hamilton was given a boost ahead of the first round of the 2017 Formula 1 season in Australia on Sunday by enjoying a near-perfect day of practice at Albert Park.

Hamilton endured a difficult end to pre-season testing in Barcelona two weeks ago as Ferrari drivers Kimi Raikkonen and Sebastian Vettel surged clear in the timesheets.

Ferrari’s pace was such that Hamilton said it was the favorite for victory this weekend in Melbourne, with the SF70H car produced by the Italian manufacturer appearing to have adjusted best to the new regulations for 2017.

Hamilton offered a plot twist in practice on Friday, though, heading up a Mercedes one-two in FP1 before leading once again in FP2, finishing half a second clear of the pack.

“It’s great to be back in Australia and I’m super happy to be back in the car, particularly after a first day like that. It was 99 per cent perfect,” Hamilton said.

“After struggling with some issues in Barcelona, we didn’t know if we’d have the same thing here. What’s really encouraging is that we’ve arrived at the track just a week later and the car is exactly where it should be. It’s feeling great out there and the guys have done a fantastic job.

“We’ve shown good form so far on both the long and short runs and we got every lap done that we wanted to. The tires performed really well today too.”

Hamilton refused to read too much into Mercedes’ advantage over Ferrari in practice, believing the true difference between the two teams will only become clear in qualifying on Saturday.

“Coming into today, we really didn’t know where we’d be,” Hamilton said. “We knew from FP1 that the Ferrari’s weren’t at their maximum. Of course, in FP2 all of a sudden they were quick. We’ll see tomorrow how it really stands.

“I feel very much at home in Melbourne. There’s always a great buzz here and a lot of support. I’m just really happy to see everyone and receive their positive energy. I’ll be pushing as hard as I can to win this race.”

Qualifying for the Australian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports App from 2am ET on Saturday morning.

Williams’ Massa, Stroll prep for new phases of their careers (VIDEO)

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In the video linked above, Williams Martini Racing’s Felipe Massa and Lance Stroll look ahead to what should be an intriguing 2017 Formula 1 season given their respective stages of their careers.

Massa, 35, returns to the Mercedes-powered team after what was meant to be a retirement following last season’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. But the subsequent retirement of Nico Rosberg at Mercedes AMG Petronas opened the door for Massa to come back once Valtteri Bottas left to replace Rosberg there, and has given Massa a second ‘farewell tour.’

Stroll, meanwhile, is just 18 – born a year and three days (October 29, 1998) after Williams won its last World Championship in 1997 with Stroll’s Canadian countryman Jacques Villeneuve. Having blitzed the junior categories, particularly the FIA European F3 Championship last year, Stroll’s arrival to F1 comes with some fanfare and some question marks as he’s been fortunate to have significant family support.

The two of them make up Williams’ team this season and along with deputy team principal Claire Williams, they look ahead to what is to come in 2017.

You can see this pair and the rest of the F1 grid as part of NBCSN’s coverage from Melbourne for the Australian Grand Prix. All times are linked here.

Lewis Hamilton completes Friday F1 practice double in Australia

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Lewis Hamilton continued his march at the top of the timesheets in practice for the Formula 1 season-opener in Australia on Friday afternoon, leading the way once again for Mercedes.

Hamilton entered the weekend unsure about his chances after an impressive display from Ferrari through pre-season testing, prompting the Briton to pick the Italian team as the favorite for victory in Melbourne.

Hamilton set the pace through first practice at Albert Park as the new-style F1 cars got their first official running, heading up a one-two finish for Mercedes with Valtteri Bottas in tow.

FP2 was expected to offer more insight into Ferrari’s true pace after it opted to limit its running through first practice, but it was Hamilton who led the way once again.

Running on the ultra-soft tire, Hamilton produced a stunning lap of 1:23.620 to finish half a second clear of Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel, the German driver unable to respond to his rival’s pace.

Bottas continued his impressive start to life with Mercedes, finishing the session third-quickest, while Kimi Raikkonen rounded out a Mercedes-Ferrari top-four lock-out in the second SF70H car.

Despite Ferrari’s inability to challenge Mercedes, it was Red Bull that came away from FP2 as the biggest disappointment after Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen had scruffy sessions en route to P5 and P6 respectively. Verstappen had been on a quick lap and due to improve his time, only to run wide at Turn 12 and narrowly avoid losing control.

Carlos Sainz Jr. finished a solid seventh for Toro Rosso ahead of Haas driver Romain Grosjean, who was fortunate to keep his car out of the wall as the American team’s brake issues arose once again. Nico Hulkenberg was ninth for Renault, with Daniil Kvyat rounding out the top 10.

FP2 was red flagged early on following a big shunt for Jolyon Palmer at the final corner. The Briton lost the rear-end of his car coming through the right-hander, causing him to slide into the wall and suffer a large amount of damage to his car. Felipe Massa was another driver to hit trouble, with his Williams FW40 grinding to a halt midway through the session, forcing the Brazilian to end his day early, while Marcus Ericsson spun off with five minutes to go, beaching his Sauber.