Kevin Harvick wins at Phoenix in just second start for new team

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Kevin Harvick said he wanted to win as quickly as possible this season for his new team, Stewart Haas Racing.

It didn’t take long.

In just his second start driving the No. 4 SHR Chevrolet, Harvick won his record fifth Sprint Cup event at Phoenix International Raceway in Sunday’s The Profit on CNBC 500.

“This has been a great racetrack for us through the years before the repave, after the repave,” Harvick said. “I feel like when I come here with Trucks, Nationwide, Cup, these are the types of racetracks I was brought up on. We used to come here for the Copper Classic, the Winston West days.  This was our Daytona 500. It’s fun to come here. I feel like the flat track stuff is something that we’ve had a good knack at. Over the years, we’ve been able to race a lot of different series and spend a lot of time on this racetrack.  You learn and apply that race after race after race and hopefully you can learn something each week.”

It was Harvick’s second straight win at PIR, having also done so last November in his second-to-last race for Richard Childress Racing.

“This just solidifies so many things and so many decisions,” Harvick said, alluding to leaving RCR at the end of last season for SHR.

Even though he led the final 78 laps, a number of late restarts due to cautions caused Harvick some angst, especially with fourth-place finisher Joey Logano, who was the biggest thorn in Harvick’s side on those restarts.

“The 22 (Logano) was able to time the restarts and I knew he was going to take a shot down low,” Harvick said of the final restart. “Man, this is awesome.”

After finishing 13th in the season-opening Daytona 500, Harvick dominated Sunday’s race, leading 224 of the 312 laps in the 500-kilometer race.

“I’m just the lucky guy that gets to drive the car around the racetrack when they’re dialed in like they were today,” Harvick said. “Luckily, we were able to put it all together.”

Logano led the second-most laps (71).

“The back of Kevin’s car says ‘Freaky Fast,’ and they weren’t lying,” Logano said. “It was freaky fast because he just drives away from me. … He’s got something really figured out here and knows what he needs from his race car and was able to deliver. I went to school behind him a little bit, learned a little bit but I didn’t have enough to beat him.”

It was the 24th win of Harvick’s 14-year Sprint Cup career, and qualifies him along with Daytona 500 winner Dale Earnhardt Jr. for this year’s reformatted Chase for the Sprint Cup.

Harvick, whose winning average was 134.524 mph, beat runnerup Earnhardt to the finish line by a margin of .060 seconds.

“We got running side-by-side for second, I just let Kevin get out a little too far,” Earnhardt said. “They did a great job all weekend. We ended up where I thought we should have finished. We were a little faster by the end, but they were stellar, impressive. We worked our butts off.”

Finishing third through 10th were Penske Racing teammates Brad Keselowski (who was also the pole-sitter) and Logano, Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jeff Gordon ad Jimmie Johnson, Ryan Newman, Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch and Jamie McMurray.

Of all the drivers that had the best chance to potentially catch Harvick at the end, Logano seemed to have the edge, but ultimately came up short.

“I tried really hard,” Logano said. “With the new points structure, a win means so much to get you into the Chase. I was sitting there third and I knew my restarts were really good all day and I was able to push him along.

“I wasn’t sure if I had enough to get three-wide and go for it, but on the last restart, you go for it, you’ve got nothing to lose. Third place doesn’t mean nothing today. … It just didn’t work out.”

Johnson was disappointed not to get a top-five finish.

“We were decent all day long, we just need a little more time with the new package of this race car,” the six-time Sprint Cup champ said. “Strategy was on our side. We were certainly making up some time. Solid day. We’ll take it. Looking forward to next week’s race in Las Vegas.”

Other key elements of Sunday’s race:

— Kurt Busch had a strong run early, but apparently lost an engine cylinder early in the second half of the race, which ultimately led to the motor in his No. 41 Chevrolet blowing up with 15 laps. Busch ended up with a disappointing 38th place finish.

— Still recovering from last summer’s broken leg, and even with his No. 1 hero, A.J. Foyt, cheering him on, Tony Stewart finished 16th.

— Danica Patrick had a rough day, finishing 36th. First she got into a minor wreck with Justin Allgaier and then about a dozen laps later, she went for a single-car spin after flat-spotting her left rear tire.

— Kyle Busch, who dominated in winning his third straight Nationwide Series race at PIR on Saturday, wound up ninth in the Sprint Cup main event.

— Denny Hamlin, who finished second at Daytona, was never really a factor at Phoenix, ending up with a 19th-place finish, the second-to-last driver on the lead lap.

— Logano, made a somewhat unusual pit stop 80 laps from the checkered flag, taking four tires and a full load of fuel. While the pit window was more like 65 to 70 laps, Logano’s crew chief, Todd Gordon, felt that with the fuel mileage his driver’s Ford Fusion was getting, that the car could make it to the finish line on that tank.

— Kyle Larson was the highest-finishing rookie, ending up in 20th place, the last driver on the lead lap.

— Fellow Sprint Cup rookie Austin Dillon, who started on the pole at Daytona last week, was barely heard from in Sunday’s event. Dillon ultimately finished 24th, one lap off the pace.

— Morgan Shepherd, who reset his own record for oldest driver in a Sprint Cup race (he’s 72), finished last, completing just 28 laps before calling it a day.

Here’s the unofficial finishing order:

1. Kevin Harvick

2. Dale Earnhardt Jr.

3. Brad Keselowski

4. Joey Logano

5. Jeff Gordon

6. Jimmie Johnson

7. Ryan Newman

8. Carl Edwards

9. Kyle Busch

10. Jamie McMurray

11. Kasey Kahne

12. Matt Kenseth

13. Clint Bowyer

14. Casey Mears

15. Aric Almirola

16. Tony Stewart

17. Greg Biffle

18. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

19. Denny Hamlin

20. Kyle Larson

21. Marcos Ambrose

22. Martin Truex Jr.

23. Paul Menard

24. Austin Dillon

25. Brian Vickers

26. AJ Allmendinger

27. Cole Whitt

28. David Ragan

29. David Gilliland

30. Justin Allgaier

31. Reed Sorenson

32. Brian Scott

33. Michael McDowell

34. Michael Annett

35. Ryan Truex

36. Danica Patrick

37. Blake Koch

38. Travis Kvapil

39. Kurt Busch

40. Joe Nemechek

41. Alex Bowman

42. Parker Kligerman

43. Morgan Shepherd

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Lewis Hamilton sets rapid pace to open F1 2017 in Australia FP1

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Lewis Hamilton kicked off Formula 1’s new technical era in style by heading up a one-two finish for Mercedes in opening practice for the Australian Grand Prix on Friday morning in Melbourne.

Despite predictions from many that Ferrari and Red Bull would pose a greater challenge at the top of the timesheets in Australia, FP1 offered a familiar result as Hamilton led home new teammate Valtteri Bottas.

The added downforce of the new-style 2017 cars had the desired effect of slashing lap times, with Hamilton’s best effort of 1:24.220 being less than four-tenths of a second off his pole position time for last year’s race.

Bottas made a good impression in his first F1 weekend session in Mercedes colors, leading the bulk of the session before Hamilton jumped ahead on the ultrasoft tires with around 30 minutes remaining.

Daniel Ricciardo led Red Bull’s charge, finishing third ahead of teammate Max Verstappen, but Ferrari decided against showing its hand early and limited its running, only pushing for fast laps in the final 15 minutes of the session.

Kimi Raikkonen ended FP1 fifth in the SF70H, 1.1 seconds off Hamilton’s best time, while Vettel was a further tenth back in P6.

The session went by without any major incident, although a handful of drivers did have minor technical issues that are part and parcel of the first session of the year.

McLaren’s difficulties continued from pre-season as Stoffel Vandoorne was limited to just 10 laps, while Jolyon Palmer and Esteban Ocon also had their running cut due to problems. All three featured in the bottom five of the standings.

Times are below:

Sean Gelael set for Toro Rosso F1 tests in 2017

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Formula 2 driver Sean Gelael will play a part in this year’s in-season Formula 1 test running after agreeing a deal with Toro Rosso.

Gelael, 20, raced full-time in GP2 last year before the championship evolved into F2, scoring one podium finish in Austria.

The Indonesian driver also appeared in the final three rounds of the FIA World Endurance Championship, scoring an LMP2 podium for Extreme Speed Motorsports in Shanghai.

Gelael will race in F2 this year with Arden, but will also get his first taste of F1 machinery in the upcoming tests for Toro Rosso.

All F1 teams will get four days of in-season running this year (two in Bahrain, two in Hungary following their respective races) as well as the traditional end-of-year test in Abu Dhabi.

Gelael will feature in all three for Toro Rosso, having undergone a seat fitting at Faenza earlier this week.

All F1 teams are required to allocate at least half of their in-season running to junior drivers who have made fewer than two grand prix starts.

Gelael will make his first appearance for Toro Rosso following the Bahrain Grand Prix, with running set to take place at the Bahrain International Circuit on April 18 and 19.

More speed, but will Formula 1 be more of the same?

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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) Faster cars and fiercer competition are the great expectations of the new regulations in Formula One, yet the championship outlook hasn’t altered much ahead of the season-opening Australian Grand Prix.

Lewis Hamilton remains the hot favorite to win another title for Mercedes.

Hamilton won 10 GP events last season and was close to claiming his fourth drivers’ title but was narrowly beaten by his teammate Nico Rosberg, who secured Mercedes a third consecutive championship and then retired.

While Hamilton talked about wanting more drivers competing for the title, and even tipped Ferrari to be quickest this weekend, he’s already lining up a victory he thinks would be unprecedented.

“I don’t believe (any) team has won back-to-back through rule regulation changes,” Hamilton said Thursday during the first official news conference ahead of Sunday’s race. “So that’s our goal as a team. We’re here to win. We’re here to do what no-one else has done.

“I have every belief in my team that we can do that.”

Ferrari driver Sebastian Vettel won four consecutive season titles from 2010-13 while he was racing for Red Bull, so he knows what it’s like to be in Hamilton’s position. He has no doubt who is favorite this season, regardless of the rule changes that dictated wider tires, greater aerodynamics, bigger fuel loads and increased downforce and which are expected to make the heavier cars faster.

“Obviously Mercedes has been in a very, very strong form the last three years and even with changes to the rules and regulations, if the team is strong then they will build a strong car the year after, no matter what they do,” Vettel said. “It is very clear who is the favorite.

“For all of us sitting here we are obviously trying our best to catch up. As the season goes on obviously, I’m sure the cars will have big progression.”

Ferrari had good results in the eight days of pre-season testing, and Hamilton predicted Vettel and former champion Kimi Raikkonen would have the fastest cars in the first practice sessions Friday and Saturday.

“I see Ferrari being the quickest at the moment – and I think they’ll definitely be the favorites,” said Hamilton, who was joined at Mercedes this season by former Williams driver Valterri Bottas. “It’s interesting to see, Sebastian is usually a lot more hype. I can tell he’s trying to keep a lid on it. But their pace was obviously great in testing.”

Hamilton said he couldn’t judge the pace of the Red Bulls in testing, saying they were “quite far behind” and he didn’t see many upgrades to the cars.

“I’m assuming they’re bringing something new,” he said, “which I’m excited to see.”

Daniel Ricciardo finished as the highest-ranked of the non-Mercedes drivers last season, winning the Malaysian GP and placing third in the season standings. He concedes Hamilton will start favorite, but is hoping for a shakeup at the top.

“I think for everyone it’s like when Red Bull were dominating a few years ago – everyone wanted to see someone else win,” Ricciardo said. “It’s natural that people like change.

“For us drivers, not being in Mercedes, we want to see change as well. Even for the fact to have more cars fighting for the win makes it more exciting.”

Hamilton wanted more frequent changes to the regulations, to keep the cars getting faster and the competition “spicier.”

That’s something on which all the leading drivers could agree.

If Hamilton “wins a race against four of us as opposed to maybe just his teammate I think that reward is bigger as well,” said Ricciardo, who is aiming to be the first Australian to win the Australian GP since it became part of the world championship in 1985.

“If you can win against more … that feeling of self-accomplishment is greater. Ferrari showed good pace in testing. If they can take a few points away as well it kind of opens up the championship over the long time.”

Faster F1 cars means bigger, stronger drivers for 2017

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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) Renault driver Niko Hulkenberg has the kind of name that sounds like big could be his thing.

In Formula One seasons past, muscle bulk hasn’t really been the key requirement for drivers, with work on endurance being the focus of training in the gym. The new regulations in F1 have made the cars bigger and faster, prefacing an era that has the drivers and fans more excited than usual, and so the pilots have to follow suit.

“The cars are like driving a very fast and spectacular roller-coaster and it’s a lot more demanding than before,” Hulkenberg said ahead of the season-opening Australian Grand Prix. “Now you have to wrestle these cars!

“The tires allow you to push harder every lap, so you can exploit and be on the limit. It’s a lot more work and a lot more demanding. There’s a lot that’s new, but the game is still the same.”

Lewis Hamilton has worked out the game, winning three drivers’ titles, so he’s more than ready to up the ante.

“As racing drivers in general you want to drive the quickest cars in the world and I think you always want to go faster,” the Mercedes driver said. “The cars are faster than what they were last year. The challenge of exploiting that speed with your car on the track is a great challenge and it’s more in the direction of how F1 should be in the sense of the physicality side of it.”

Hamilton, who won back-to-back titles with Mercedes in 2014 and ’15 and narrowly missed out to teammate Nico Rosberg last season, considers himself as much an athlete as a driver.

“F1 should be the most physically demanding sport in terms of all the driving series,” he said. “In previous years that hasn’t been the case – it hasn’t been to the level that we train to, is relatively easy for us to do – now you have to really push the boundaries, which I like.”

The F1 rule changes means wider tires, greater aerodynamics, bigger fuel loads and increased downforce, which have made the cars heavier but also significantly faster.

The tires, which are 25 percent wider, have more grip and are more durable, enabling drivers to push harder through the corners.

Even though Mercedes dominated under the previous regulations, Hamilton was a big advocate for the changes.

“Doing drastic changes kind of spices it up,” he said. “I have never seen the fans so excited about a season as they are this season … we don’t know where the cars and teams are, so more of these kind of experiences would be welcome.”

Toto Wolff, the head of Mercedes-Benz Motorsport, said Hamilton and his teammate Valtteri Bottas were in prime shape to make the most of the changes.

“It’s an exciting time for them because these new cars are a real physical challenge,” he said. “Both felt from testing that the G-Forces are enormous and they are embracing the new challenge.”

Four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel expects his ’17-edition Ferrari to be the fastest car he’s driven.

“For us, what really gives us a good feeling is cornering speed – I think we’re back to the level we’ve been 10 years ago, maybe a bit faster,” he said. “Nice to have the feeling that you’re in the fastest cars that you’ve ever driven.”

Vettel is among the drivers who have been working on neck and shoulder strength in particular, to handle the extra load. Daniel Ricciardo finished third in the season standings for Red Bull last year, behind the two Mercedes. He’s put in extra work to ensure he’s stronger physically, knowing that it could make a serious difference. And while he’s no hulking ball of muscle, he’s noticeably bigger than he was in 2016.

“It’s more physical this year,” he said. “We’ve all done our work in the offseason – it’s been fun to put more emphasis on the training.”

Fernando Alonso is one of the veterans of the circuit, having won back-to-back titles for Renault in 2005-06 and having stints at McLaren, Renault and Ferrari after that and before he rejoined McLaren. He’s had two tough seasons, finishing 17th and 10th, so he doesn’t mind doing the extra gym work as long as his car grows with him.

“I’m incredibly motivated and I can’t wait to see what kind of racing this new shake-up of the sport will bring,” he said. “We already know the sport is a lot more physical and the cars are more challenging to drive – from a driver’s point of view this is exactly what we were looking for in the new regulations. I really hope this will translate to good battles on track.”