Junior

Sprint Cup Notes and Quotes for Sunday’s Kobalt 400 in Las Vegas: Will Junior stay hot?

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Pop quiz: Who has been the most consistent driver in Sprint Cup over nearly the last dozen races, dating back to the latter part of last season?

Jimmie Johnson, who won his sixth Cup championship last season, right?

Wrong.

Hard as it may seem to believe, especially to his haters, but the most consistent driver since last fall’s Chase for the Sprint Cup race at New Hampshire – the last 11 races, that is – has been none other than Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Junior has an average finish in that 11-race stretch of 4.8, according to NASCAR’s crack stats team.

Of course, Johnson isn’t far behind, with an average finish during that same time of 5.2.

Sunday’s Kobalt 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway should be a classic battle between the two Hendrick Motorsports teammates.

Johnson has finished first or second in five of his last nine races at LVMS, while Earnhardt – still in pursuit of his first career win in Sin City – has finished in the top-10 in five of his last six starts there.

And let’s not forget that Junior is off to the best start of his 15-year Sprint Cup career (has it REALLY been 15 years already?), with a win in the Daytona 500 and runner-up finish this past Sunday at Phoenix that kept him atop the Sprint Cup standings.

Here’s Junior’s scouting report on LVMS:

“Vegas has a lot of bumps going into Turn 1,” he said. “They are something else. I’m impressed each time I go there how much rougher it is. That really challenges you to set the car up to be able to get through the bumps.

“Your performance at Vegas can set the tone for the other intermediate tracks. Confidence is everything and when you go to Vegas. If you run well, you expect to go to the next mile-and-a-half and run well.”

******

Whenever the Sprint Cup tour visits LVMS, we invariably hear about how well two of Las Vegas’s most famous sons want to win at their so-called home track.

Kurt Busch’s average finish at Las Vegas is 21.7, his worst finishing average of ANY track on the Sprint Cup circuit.

In 13 starts at LVMS, the elder Busch brother has just one top-five and two other top-10 finishes. He also has a pole.

Younger brother Kyle – aka “Shrub” – has been significantly better at the 1.5-mile high-banked track. He has one Sprint Cup race win (plus two poles) and four top-five finishes there, with a 7.1 average start and 14.7 average finish.

*****

One of the biggest surprises thus far in the early 2014 season has been Casey Mears, believe it or not.

After finishing 10th in the season-opening Daytona 500 and 14th this past Sunday at Phoenix, Mears is part of a three-way tie for 10th-place in the Sprint Cup standings heading into Sunday’s race at Las Vegas.

His Phoenix finish was his best in a year on a non-restrictor plate oval (not including ninth at Daytona last July and 12th on the road course at Watkins Glen a month later).

“We’re looking forward to getting to Las Vegas and getting on the track with our No. 13 GEICO Chevrolet SS,” Mears said. “We’ve definitely started the year on a strong note and the new relationship with Chevrolet and Richard Childress Racing has been working really well.

“Mile and a half tracks have been a challenge for us over the years, so we’re hoping to be able to close the gap and have a strong run with our new Chevy. … We have a top ten and a 14th place finish heading into Las Vegas, so the guys on the team are in good spirits. It’s also nice to be sitting in a three-way tie for 10th in the point standings. The guys on this Germain Racing team have worked really hard, so I’m happy that we’ve been able to have a couple of strong races and get some good results.”

*****

Danica Patrick isn’t the only driver who has had a rough start of it this season (she’s currently 39th in the Sprint Cup standings, 77 points behind series leader Dale Earnhardt Jr.).

Parker Kligerman may be two spots ahead of Patrick in the standings at 37th, but he carries a dubious distinction of being the only Sprint Cup driver thus far this season who has recorded back-to-back DNFs in the first two races.

Kligerman was involved in a crash seven laps from the finish of the season-opening Daytona 500 (finished 29th) and managed to complete just 226 laps of the 312 at Phoenix before his engine blew up.

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Magnussen scores breakthrough points for Renault in Russia

during the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on May 1, 2016 in Sochi, Russia.
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Kevin Magnussen believes that his charge to seventh place in Sunday’s Russian Grand Prix was no less than Renault deserved as he score its first points since its return to Formula 1 as a constructor in 2016.

Renault last raced in F1 with its own team back in 2010 before taking over the Lotus operation at the end of last year.

The French manufacturer has said that 2016 is very much a year of rebuilding, yet the chiefs were known to be disappointed with its point-less start to the season.

Magnussen made the most of a messy start to charge from 17th on the grid to eventually finish the race seventh, marking Renault’s first F1 points as a constructor since the 2010 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

The result was also Magnussen’s first top 10 finish since the 2014 Brazilian Grand Prix when he finished ninth for McLaren.

“Feels good. It’s nice to finally get points on the board, and not even just one,” Magnussen told NBCSN after the race.

“I’m really happy. I think the whole team deserves it after the hard work and tough races. We have points on the board now, so it gives us a bit of a boost.”

Magnussen made up a number of positions on the first lap when a number of drivers got caught up in incidents before maintaining his placing throughout the race.

“First lap was really messy, we knew it would be difficult with something like that,” Magnussen said.

“Everyone was spinning and hitting the wall. I went outside all the front wings. But we made it up just before Turn 1 and 2, and gained it back into Turn 3. The guys in front didn’t finish.

“In the end of the day, a bit lucky but we made the best of it and we deserved.”

Grosjean hails ‘great job’ by Haas after returning to points in Russia

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Romain Grosjean ensured that Haas’ first Formula 1 points drought lasted just a single race by finishing Sunday’s Russian Grand Prix in eighth place.

Grosjean gave NASCAR team co-owner Gene Haas’ eponymous operation a fairytale start to life in F1 by scoring points in its first two races in Australia and Bahrain.

However, Haas came back down to earth with a bump in China two weeks ago when both Grosjean and teammate Esteban Gutierrez failed to score, spending the entirety of their races outside the top 10.

Grosjean started 15th in Russia and struggled with the setup on his car all weekend long, but a messy first lap for the cars ahead allowed him to make up a number of positions.

Grosjean found himself running P8 in the closing stages of the race, and managed to soak up the pressure from a charging Sergio Perez to hold onto the position at the flag and pick up another four points for Haas.

“75 percent is a good score!” Grosjean told NBCSN after the race, citing Haas’ points ratio thus far in F1.

“Very difficult weekend. We did a very good first lap to get around all the incidents. Lost a position at the pit stop. I’m still not 100 per cent happy with the behavior but it should be better for the next race.”

Haas’ biggest strength so far this season has been its strategy calls, but the lack of tire wear in Sochi meant that a one-stop race was the only logical move for all teams to take.

“It was a very close strategy in terms of tires,” Grosjean said. “Everyone knew it would be supersoft, soft.

“But we avoided incidents and pushed where we could. At the end we did a great job.”

Kvyat comes under fire from Vettel, Ricciardo, paddock in Russia

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Red Bull Racing’s Daniil Kvyat put himself in the headlines and in the crosshairs for the second consecutive Grand Prix, although this time, his aggression appeared to get the better of him on home soil in Sochi, Russia.

Kvyat barged into Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel at Turn 2, which left Vettel driving wounded for the next corner, but the German didn’t even make it much further because Kvyat hit him again at Turn 3.

The second blow took Vettel out of the race, his second first lap retirement in four races.

Kvyat was later assessed a 10-second stop-and-go penalty for causing a collision. He ended his race in 15th after the messy day at the office.

While Kvyat could have been excused for going for it in Turn 1 at China two weeks ago, ultimately getting past Vettel inside to Vettel’s chagrin post-race, most agreed he was at fault on Sunday in Sochi for this incident.

Kvyat, meanwhile, was defiant when speaking to NBCSN’s Will Buxton post-race.

“Obviously in future days we’ll see a lot of clever comments from everyone,” the 22-year-old Russian told Buxton.

“My point of view, I locked my rear wheels. Simple as that. I didn’t brake too late. Ran into his back. Felt like someone pushed me from behind. Car was a bit of out of control.

“The main problem came in Turn 3, not Turn 2, when I think Sebastian had a problem with his car. He stopped very suddenly and I was just two meters behind him, and at that speed there was not much I can do to avoid. I apologize for ruining his race. But I’m human. His sudden deceleration was too much for me at that point at Turn 3.”

Vettel exploded on the radio in the immediate aftermath of the collision but was far more restrained and diplomatic when speaking to Buxton after he got taken out.

“Today it’s fairly obvious, he did a mistake again, obviously, it doesn’t help me now because I’m not in the car,” Vettel said.

“In the end we’re here to race. Massively pumped up. Had a super start, made progress into the second corner and got hit, then a second hit, which destroyed our race.”

Kvyat, meanwhile, continued with his point that he thought Vettel’s sudden slowing was more to blame for the Turn 3 contact.

“Exactly, yeah. Turn 3 is very fast. It wasn’t deliberate. Maybe after the first light contact in Turn 2, maybe there was problem with the car. To be sure he dropped his speed rate suddenly. I still expected to keep him. He was flat out util then.

“The stewards thought I crashed into him deliberately. The penalty was very harsh… but probably fair enough. It cost us points. These things happen and I usually learn from them.”

While Vettel was the main driver taken out in the opening turns, he wasn’t the only one who had his race compromised. Nico Hulkenberg and Rio Haryanto also retired in the melee.

And worse for Kvyat, his Red Bull teammate Daniel Ricciardo also got caught up in the scrap. Ricciardo, the usually ebullient Australian, expressed his Kvyat frustration to Buxton post-race.

“It was a first lap incident that shaped the race for us,” said Ricciardo, who finished outside the points in 11th, his first non-score (and non-fourth place) this year.

“From then we tried putting the medium (tires) on it but it didn’t work. Too much damage. I saw the right hand side of the car and there was a lot going on. First lap, and people getting a bit impatient I guess.”

Asked whether he felt Kvyat owed him an apology Ricciardo replied, “Yeah. I expect an apology. He owes it to a few people today.

“I saw a bit of a replay during the safety car. Tried to look at the screens. I have a feeling that’s what happened. I’ll watch again, but it seems, that had us over.

“We’ll see. It’s up to him.”

Red Bull Racing team principal Christian Horner also appeared less than pleased with Kvyat, judging from quotes via Mobil 1 The Grid, and linked below:

When Kvyat was told Ricciardo wanted an apology from him, he replied thusly:

“Probably the whole paddock wants an apology from me, but we’ll speak inside the team after analyzing.

“It’s easy to attack now. Go on, attack me, no problem.”

Hamilton: No doubt I could have won Russian GP

SOCHI, RUSSIA - MAY 01: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP collects his trophy for second from Dmitry Kozak, Deputy Prime Minister of Russia on the podium next to Nico Rosberg of Germany and Mercedes GP  during the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on May 1, 2016 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)
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Lewis Hamilton says there isn’t a doubt in his mind that he could have won Sunday’s Russian Grand Prix had it not been for a water pressure issue on his car during the race.

Hamilton was forced to start 10th in Sochi after suffering a failure on his power unit after Q2 in qualifying on Saturday.

The Briton made a good start to run fifth at the end of a messy first lap before picking off Felipe Massa, Kimi Raikkonen and Valtteri Bottas to sit second behind teammate Nico Rosberg.

The gap between them stood at 12 seconds after the pit stops, but Hamilton was able to whittle this down to just 7.5 seconds with over 20 laps of the race still to run.

However, Mercedes told Hamilton to back off after a water leak emerged on his car, allowing Rosberg to ease to his seventh straight win by 25 seconds.

“Not the easiest first corner but all races have been the same so far,” Hamilton said on the podium after the race.

“Really happy for the team and I’ve got the points.”

When asked if he had the pace to win the race, Hamilton said: “There wasn’t a doubt in my mind I could win it.

“I had the pace, but I had a problem with the engine again so I had to back off. Just trying to look after it.”

Hamilton heads to the start of the European season in Spain on May 15 with a 43-point deficit to Rosberg, but with 17 races remaining in the season, the championship race remains firmly alive.