Penske, Ganassi NASCAR programs rise to fore in Phoenix

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The Team Penske and Chip Ganassi Racing NASCAR teams had themselves quite a solid weekend in this weekend’s The Profit on CNBC 500.

Both teams had past experience in knockout-style qualifying with their IndyCar programs. And while NASCAR’s first crack at it wasn’t going to be identical, there were enough similar elements for them to know when to make their runs and set times.

Penske nailed it doubly so, with Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano locking out the front row. For good measure, Keselowski added the pole for Saturday’s Nationwide race as well.

“We had a really fast car, and there is some pride to be taken in being the first one to win a Sprint Cup pole in this format,” Keselowski said after Cup qualifying. “I am sure it will undergo a few adjustments along the way, but it is very rewarding and a testament to my team and how fast of a car they gave me.”

In some respects, their finishing third and fourth was a disappointment. But for Keselowski, it’s his second third-place finish in as many races to open the season, and for Logano, it was his best finish on the reconfigured Phoenix track (finished third in fall 2010 on the old configuration).

Logano went for it on several restarts, with good pushes of Harvick, but couldn’t get any closer.

As for Ganassi’s squad, much was made of the addition of new crew chief Keith Rodden to Jamie McMurray’s No. 1 Cessna Chevrolet, which was a consistent top-five to top-10 performer all weekend.

Rodden, an ex-Hendrick Motorsports engineer, joined up at the start of the year and with Phoenix less of a lottery than the restrictor-plate race at Daytona, the CGR cars were well-prepared for the Phoenix mile. McMurray qualified third and Kyle Larson seventh, so they also put both cars in the final round of knockout qualifying.

McMurray enjoyed a consistent drive to 10th in the race, while Larson took the necessary bounce back step after his rough Daytona 500 and finished best of the eight rookies in 20th.

“This was a really good day for our Cessna team,” McMurray said. “I felt coming here to Phoenix would be the first real test of the season for where we might be as a team. We were fast all weekend and turned that into a strong finish. I am really proud of all the guys on this team and the effort that they put forth this weekend.”

Added Larson, “Our Clorox Chevy showed good speed today, and my guys did a great job on pit road. We got caught a lap down early in the race on one of the long green flag runs. We battled to get position back on the lead lap, but couldn’t seem to catch a break. Finally with just a handful of laps to go we got the lucky dog, but we just didn’t have enough time to make more a of a charge to the front.”

F1 Preview: 2018 Australian Grand Prix

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Save for two occasions, in 2006, and 2010, the Australian Grand Prix has served as the season-opening event for the FIA Formula 1 World Championship since 1996, and this weekend’s event will be the 21st time that the city of Melbourne has kicked off the Formula 1 campaign.

The 2018 season is the fifth one of the current hybrid power unit era, the second season of the current aero regulations, and the second under Liberty Media’s guidance.

Last year saw titans Mercedes AMG Petronas and Scuderia Ferrari duel for supremacy for most of the season before Mercedes distanced Ferrari late in the season to take the constructor’s title and the driver’s title, with Lewis Hamilton, who is now tied with Sebastian Vettel on four world championships apiece.

Four drivers on the grid have Formula 1 world championships to their name: Hamilton, Vettel, Kimi Raikkonen, and Fernando Alonso. Scuderia Toro Rosso’s Brendon Hartley also has a world championship to his name as a two-time titlist in the FIA World Endurance Championship.

So, what can viewers expect from the 2018 curtain-raiser in Australia? A handful of things to watch are below?

2018 Australian Grand Prix – Talking Points

Does Anyone Have Anything for Mercedes?

Only on one day during pre-season testing did a Mercedes driver lead the way – Lewis Hamilton was fastest on the final day of Week 1 at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya.

However, all indications were that was by design, with the team focusing the majority of the second week, if not the entire second week, on long runs with their W09 EQ Power+ chassis.

Such a decision is an ominous one, in that it indicates the team is very comfortable with the amount of speed in the car and did not see a need, or desire, to show their hand during testing.

With that in mind, the Mercedes duo of Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas may yet again have the best and fastest cars, and the team looks poised to potentially make it five constructor’s and driver’s championships in a row.

Ferrari and Red Bull Look to End Mercedes Reign

The biggest threats to Mercedes are undoubtedly Ferrari and Red Bull, the only other teams to win in 2017.

And both teams displayed a lot of pace during testing, particularly in the “one-lap speed” category. Ricciardo set a lap record around the Catalunya circuit during the second week, only for Vettel to supplant that mark later in the week. Teammate Kimi Raikkonen led the way during the final day of testing.

It is unknown how that pace will translate over the course of a race distance. Mercedes appeared to have an edge on both Ferrari and Red Bull over long runs and race simulations, but there is also a theory that neither Ferrari nor Red Bull had their true long-run form on display.

Still, if a team is going to knock off Mercedes, it will likely be either Ferrari or Red Bull.

McLaren on the Rebound?

Put simply, the previous three seasons for McLaren F1 Team were a bit of a disaster. Their partnership with Honda yielded point totals of 27 (2015), 76 (2016), and 30 (2017) in a three-year venture that was defined by poor reliability and underwhelming power.

The relationship hit a boiling point last year and both entities parted ways ahead of the 2018 season, with McLaren signing a new power unit deal with Renault.

Testing went better than in previous years, though the team continued to battle reliability problems. However, all issues appeared to be minor, needling issues rather than more significant, foundational problems, as the other Renault teams (Red Bull and Renault Sport F1 Team) had solid runs with few reliability issues.

The car does appear to have speed in it, so if the reliability problems are behind them, McLaren could be in for a rebound season.

Stuck in the Midfield Again

Formula 1’s battle amongst the midfield is set to be as fierce as ever as a host of a several teams have a chance at being “best of the rest.”

Sahara Force India has been the frontrunner from the the midfield teams each of the last two years, finishing fourth in the constructor’s title in both 2016 and 2017, though if the steady conflict between drivers Esteban Ocon and Sergio Perez continues through 2018, it could hamper their efforts significantly.

Renault Sport F1 Team and Haas F1 Team look to improve on their 2017 form, while Toro Rosso is in a new partnership with Honda power units…and has experienced a surprisingly smooth pre-season as Honda’s 2018 platform looks significantly better, with the team enjoying a solid run of testing with few, if any, reliability problems.

Williams Martini Racing and Alfa Romeo Sauber appear to be at the back of the pack entering the season, but both could battle for points finishes if those ahead of them falter.