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.”

Merhi confirmed for WEC return with Manor at the Nürburgring

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CEFC Manor TRS Racing has confirmed that Roberto Merhi will return to the FIA World Endurance Championship for next month’s 6 Hours of Nürburgring, replacing Jean-Eric Vergne.

Merhi previously raced for Manor in both Formula 1 and the WEC, making his most recent appearance with the British marque at last November’s 6 Hours of Bahrain.

Merhi’s last racing outing came in the Formula 2 double-header in Spain and has flirted with a move into Formula E, but was confirmed on Wednesday to be making his racing return at the Nürburgring on July 16.

Merhi will deputize for Vergne in the No. 24 Oreca 07 Gibson while the Frenchman is in New York for the city’s inaugural Formula E event.

FIA to re-examine Vettel/Hamilton Baku clash

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The FIA has confirmed that it will re-examine the clash between Formula 1 title rivals Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton in Sunday’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix to see if further action is warranted.

Vettel and Hamilton made contact twice behind the safety car in Baku, with the second incident deemed to be an act of dangerous driving on Vettel’s part.

The FIA stewards in Baku handed Vettel a 10-second stop/go penalty for the clash – the harshest available penalty besides disqualification – but faced calls to issue a stricter punishment post race.

Hamilton said that the incident set a dangerous precedent for F1 and wider motorsport, but Vettel believed his rival deserved a penalty for allegedly brake testing him.

On Wednesday, the FIA confirmed that it would be re-examining the incident in a meeting on July 3, with a verdict set to be delivered ahead of the Austrian Grand Prix.

More to follow.

Wickens not interested in full-time IndyCar switch despite practice run

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Robert Wickens is not interested in making a full-time switch to the Verizon IndyCar Series in the near future despite his practice run-out at Road America last weekend for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports.

Mercedes DTM driver Wickens was called up for Friday practice at the KOHLER Grand Prix in the No. 7 Lucas Oil Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda after Mikhail Aleshin was unable to make it in time due to immigration issues.

Aleshin was able to return to the United States in time for Saturday’s final practice and qualifying at Road America, with Wickens stepping back down.

The Canadian got his first taste of an Indy car in a car swap with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ James Hinchcliffe in March, paving the way for his practice appearance at Road America.

However, Wickens is not looking to make a full-time move over to IndyCar anytime soon despite enjoying his run-out, with his focus lying with DTM.

“Not really, to be honest,” Wickens said when asked if IndyCar was something he would like to move into in Mercedes’ ‘Tales from the Paddock’ press newsletter.

“I just want to race cars. That’s the main thing. I have no urge to leave the DTM at the moment.

“Everything is going well, and I’m really happy with Mercedes.”

Wickens also went into detail about how rapidly things moved with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, having only been told the day before practice that he was required for the running.

“I planned on having a relaxing weekend at home, but on Thursday afternoon I got a call from Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, which is the team that we did the ride swap with involving James Hinchcliffe back in April,” Wickens said.

“They asked if I could go to Road America and fill in for Mikhail Aleshin who had immigration issues. Fortunately, Toto [Wolff] was happy for me to do it and I was able to jump on a plane and get to Wisconsin.

“We didn’t get to the hotel until about 10pm on Thursday, and Free Practice 1 was on Friday morning very early. It took some getting used to.

“The practice itself was fun. The track was really good. It would be amazing to have a DTM race there one day.

“I definitely wanted to do the full weekend, but the full-time driver got his immigration stuff sorted and he made it to the race track by Friday night. My duties were finished, but it was still a really fun Friday.”

Force India’s Celis gets FP1 appearances in Austria, Hungary

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Force India youngster Alfonso Celis Jr. will make his first Formula 1 race weekend appearances of the season next month, taking part in first practice for the grands prix in Austria and Hungary.

Celis, 20, joined Force India as a development driver ahead of the 2016 season, enjoying six FP1 run-outs across the course of the year.

The Mexican driver returned for 2017, taking part in pre-season testing and the running following the Bahrain Grand Prix in April.

Force India confirmed on Wednesday that Celis will return for FP1 in Austria next week, before also featuring in practice in Hungary at the end of July.