NNS Notes: Regan Smith retains early points lead

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After winning the season opener at Daytona International Speedway one week ago, Regan Smith continued his solid start to 2014 by retaining the Nationwide Series points lead with an eighth-place showing today at Phoenix International Raceway.

The JR Motorsports driver now holds a five-point lead over Trevor Bayne, who finished one spot ahead of him in seventh place.

Altogether, it was another solid day for JRM, which had Kevin Harvick racing in their No. 88 car today. Harvick, always strong at Phoenix, was able to come away with a runner-up finish, while rookie driver Chase Elliott earned his first Top-10 finish in Nationwide competition with a ninth-place result.

After the race, Harvick said he was simply trying to “maintain” the second-place position due to his car being loose on restarts.

[Winner] Kyle [Busch] had the best car today,” he told the NASCAR Wire Service. “We probably finished where we should have.”

Brad Keselowski finished third from the pole position but a run-in with Daryl Harr on Lap 20 had the former Sprint Cup champion feeling some remorse.

Harr appeared to come down to the inside of Turn 1 but Keselowski was unable to slow himself down enough and tapped Harr, sending him spinning into the wall.

“It’s a lot like going down the freeway – you’re in the left lane, someone’s in the right lane and they switch lanes while you’re going a little bit faster,” Keselowski told ESPN in the first moments of the red flag that came out for rain with 32 laps to go (the race would not be restarted).

“You can’t react but it’s your fault because you’ve hit him from behind. I couldn’t slow down enough to keep from hitting him from behind and causing him to wreck. I feel bad for those guys. I know they’re trying their best to make it in this series, and it’s unfortunate.”

Keselowski suffered some front-end damage in the incident and had a long stop in the pits to tape it up. However, his pace was strong enough to make up the track position he lost.

Later in post-race, Keselowski talked about the loss of his Sprint Cup crew chief, Paul Wolfe, for tomorrow’s The Profit on CNBC 500. Wolfe has flown back to North Carolina to be with his wife for the birth of their first child.

“We were definitely prepared [for that], but that doesn’t mean we aren’t concerned,” Keselowski said. “There is always concern. There is a reason Paul is the crew chief on the 2 car. He is a great guy, knows what he is doing and is our best guy from that perspective.

“There is always a concern there but you prepare the best you can and try to understand the personal significance of what it is to go through what he is going through. Hopefully it all goes great.”

Keselowski will look to win from the pole tomorrow.

Marchionne: ‘About time’ Ferrari returned to winning ways in F1

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Ferrari president and CEO Sergio Marchionne was quick to congratulate Sebastian Vettel on his victory in Sunday’s Australian Grand Prix, saying it was “about time” the Italan manufacturer won again in Formula 1.

Vettel fought from second on the grid to leapfrog Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton through the pit stops and win the opening race of the 2017 season by almost 10 seconds.

The result marked Ferrari’s first victory since the 2015 Singapore Grand Prix, and the team leads the constructors’ championship for the first time since the start of 2013.

“It was about time,” Marchionne said in a statement issued after the race.

“I am delighted for the team and for our Tifosi who stood by us throughout this whole period. We’ve been waiting for this victory for almost a year and a half. Hearing the Italian national anthem again was very moving.

“Sebastian delivered a great race and I am sure Kimi [Raikkonen, P4] will be soon up there battling alongside his teammate.

“Of course, this victory is something to share with the entire team, both at the circuit and back in Maranello, because teamwork is the only way to achieve major goals.

“Now, however, it is absolutely essential to remember that this is not the destination but the first step on a long road that must see us all focused on improving each and every day.”

Bottas takes podium on Mercedes debut, eyes room for improvement

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Valtteri Bottas claimed a comfortable podium finish in his first Formula 1 appearance for Mercedes on Sunday in Australia, but has already identified areas for improvement in his display.

Bottas joined Mercedes for 2017 following world champion Nico Rosberg’s shock decision to retire at the end of last season, making his first race appearance this weekend in Australia from third place on the grid.

Bottas ran a trouble-free race en route to third, catching Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton towards the end but falling 1.2 seconds shy of the Briton. Race winner Sebastian Vettel was a further 10 seconds up the road for Ferrari.

“I think it is a start and there’s always things that could’ve gone better, but you know I think it is a good starting point for the jorney for me driving for Mercedes,” Bottas said.

“I think the main things were obviously yesterday in qualifying I didn’t get everything perfect, but it was the first qualifying with the team and this track hasn’t really been fantastic for me ever in qualifying.

“There’s a long season ahead and today I think the race was good I think we as a team we did a good job with the car we had. I think Ferrari was quicker today, there’s no doubt about that. So they’ve obviously done a great great job as well and a better job for this race.”

Like Hamilton, Bottas struggled in the early part of the race on the ultra-soft tire, but hopes to learn from the difficulties ahead of the next race in China on April 9.

“I struggled a lot with the ultra-soft tires, and it felt like I was sliding around and always missing front grip and rear grip especially after ten laps of the first stint.

“So that wasn’t easy but once we’ve put the soft tires on it was actually quite a good feeling with the car, the car was behaving really nicely. It was really nice to drive. Just a bit too late and still missing a little bit of pace.

“But overall I think not a disaster for a first race weekend with the team, but I do have my points I will take and I will be better next time. Looking forward to that.”

Lewis Hamilton: My decision to make early pit stop in Australian GP

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Lewis Hamilton has revealed it was his call to stop early during Sunday’s Formula 1 season-opener in Australia, having struggled to hold on to the lead of the race due to his fading tires.

Despite tipping Ferrari to be the team to beat in Australia, Hamilton took the 62nd pole position of his career on Saturday, beating Sebastian Vettel.

Hamilton retained his lead in the early part of the race from Ferrari driver Vettel, only for the German to turn in a sequence of quick laps ahead of the first round of pit stops.

Fearful of losing the lead on-track to Vettel, Hamilton opted to pit early at the end of Lap 16 so that he could put his fresh tires to good use and try to get the undercut on his rival.

Ferrari did not react immediately, keeping Vettel out until Hamilton hit traffic, with Red Bull’s Max Verstappen holding the Mercedes driver back and creating a bigger gap between the two victory contenders.

Vettel was able to pit and come back out ahead of Verstappen and Hamilton, immediately forging a buffer that would sustain until the end of the race.

Hamilton explained after the race that he decided to come in early due to his tire concerns, believing that Vettel would have overtaken him anyway.

“We had a really good start, which is fantastic, it’s great to have a good getaway – but then we were struggling with the grip from the get-go,” Hamilton said.

“Sebastian was able to always answer in terms of lap time and the majority of the time do faster lap times. Towards the end I got a bit in traffic and overheated the tires and was struggling with grip, so it was to the point that I needed to come in.

“The gap was closing up and I was sliding around so it was my call, because otherwise he probably would have come by anyways. I came in and then I obviously got stuck in some traffic, which was unfortunate but that’s motor racing.”

Hamilton congratulated Vettel on his success, and said the result boded well for a close championship fight between Mercedes and Ferrari.

“A big congratulations to Sebastian and Ferrari, I know it’s been a long time coming to get a result like this,” Hamilton said.

“It shows we’re going to have a race on our hands, which we’re happy to have. I think it’s great for the fans.

“Unfortunately it’s harder than ever to get closer to cars, which is a shame because we can’t have an even closer battle. Who knows, maybe in the future we will.”

Vettel: Australia F1 win ‘a big relief’ to Ferrari after barren 2016

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Sebastian Vettel said his victory in Sunday’s Formula 1 season-opening Australian Grand Prix came as “a big relief” to the Ferrari team following a winless year in 2016.

Vettel qualified second in Melbourne before jumping Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton through the pit stops when Ferrari opted to keep him out longer on the ultra-soft tires.

Vettel opened up a sizeable lead over Hamilton soon after his pit stop, eventually crossing the line 9.9 seconds clear of the Briton to win the opening race of the year.

The result marked both Ferrari and Vettel’s first win since the 2015 Singapore Grand Prix, showing the work that the team has done over the winter to turn things around after struggling last year.

“If you’re not part of the team it’s difficult to realize, but what this team has done in the last six months has been really tough, rough as well, not easy to manage,” Vettel said.

“Today is fantastic, a big reward and big relief for everyone. It’s just the tip of the iceberg though, the foundation has been laid a long time ago.

“I’m sure we’ll have a great night, create some great memories tonight and take it from there. We enjoy what we do, the spirit is great in the team and it’s up to us to keep it up.”

The result marked Vettel’s first win in Australia since 2011 and Ferrari’s first at Albert Park since 2007. In both years, they went on to win the drivers’ title, Ferrari taking the 2007 crown with Kimi Raikkonen.

History may be on Vettel’s side, but the German is not turning his attention to a fifth world title yet.

“No, I’m not interested in that point to be honest,” Vettel said when reminded of Raikkonen’s Australia win and title success in 2007.

“Obviously I was very fortunate so far in my racing career that I had some very good races and good years, but definitely after the first race is not the time to look at the table. We really have to go step-by-step.

“It’s good to know we have a great car but it’s just the beginning. New regulations, new generation of cars so there will be a lot of progress.

“These guys [Mercedes] have proven to be the ones to beat in the last couple of years more and more. We know they have a great engine but they’ve had a great car the last couple of years and they made good steps forward so we’re the ones who need to catch up.

“For today I’m just very happy and for sure whatever happens this year, the race today doesn’t hurt.”