Jimmie Johnson

No surprise: Five-time Fontana winner Jimmie Johnson fastest in Friday Sprint Cup practice

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Jimmie Johnson was fastest in Friday afternoon’s solo pre-qualifying practice session for Sunday’s Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif.

Surprised? We aren’t.

Johnson has won a track record five times at what he considers his home track, having grown up about 115 miles southwest of Fontana in El Cajon, a San Diego suburb.

Johnson led the way with a top speed of 188.664 mph. In fact, it was a Hendrick Motorsports juggernaut near the top of the speed charts, with teammates Jeff Gordon second-fastest (188.511) and Dale Earnhardt Jr. fourth-fastest (187.740).

The other member of the HMS clan, Kasey Kahne, had struggles and was only 19th-fastest at 184.667 mph.

Rounding out the top 10 were third-fastest Clint Bowyer (187.774), Sprint Cup points leader Brad Keselowski fifth (187.003), sixth-ranked Kevin Harvick (186.645), seventh-fastest Matt Kenseth (186.446), eight-ranked Kurt Busch (185.926), Brian Vickers (185.744) was ninth-fastest and rounding things out was Tony Stewart (185.219).

Danica Patrick was 16th-fastest (184.919).

Sprint Cup rookie Parker Kligerman continued to struggle this season, managing to be only 40th-fastest (178.749).

But having the most trouble was Landon Cassill, who wrecked about midway through the session, coming out of turn 3 and slamming the turn 4 wall.

It was the second straight week that Cassill has wrecked his No. 40 Hillman Racing Chevrolet, having done so last Saturday at Bristol.

Both were hard wrecks, and it appears Cassill will have to go to a backup car for Sunday’s race, just like he had to do at Bristol.

“It’s tough on us as a team,” Cassill said. “That’s two weeks in a row we’ve wrecked a car in practice. Last week, the rear end housing broke and (today) something in the right front broke going into turn three.

“I saw something fly out of the cowl, a piece of metal the size of a socket, and we hit the wall. We’ve had a lot of highs and lows this first part of the season and we’re real fortunate to be in the position we’re in, but we’re having to earn it right now.”

Here’s how the field looked in the solo pre-qualifying practice:

1 Jimmie Johnson 188.664 mph

2 Jeff Gordon 188.511

3 Clint Bowyer 187.774

4 Dale Earnhardt Jr. 187.740

5 Brad Keselowski 187.003

6 Kevin Harvick 186.645

7 Matt Kenseth 186.446

8 Kurt Busch 185.926

9 Brian Vickers 185.744

10 Tony Stewart 185.219

11 Denny Hamlin 185.214

12 Greg Biffle 185.142

13 Kyle Busch 185.066

14 Marcos Ambrose 185.047

15 Aric Almirola 185.009

16 Danica Patrick 184.919

17 Austin Dillon 184.838

18 Martin Truex Jr. 184.824

19 Kasey Kahne 184.667

20 Carl Edwards 184.644

21 Ryan Newman 184.544

22 Joey Logano 184.398

23 Kyle Larson 184.219

24 Jamie McMurray 184.200

25 Casey Mears 184.148

26 AJ Allmendinger 184.049

27 David Gilliland 183.468

28 Brian Scott 182.992

29 Ricky Stenhouse Jr. 182.922

30 David Reutimann 182.811

31 Matt Crafton (for Paul Menard) 182.403

32 Michael Annett 182.260

33 Cole Whitt 181.703

34 Justin Allgaier 181.557

35 David Ragan 181.356

36 Alex Bowman 180.591

37 Ryan Truex 180.014

38 Travis Kvapil 179.574

39 Josh Wise 179.064

40 Parker Kligerman 178.749

41 Reed Sorenson 177.993

42 Joe Nemechek 177.607

43 Landon Cassill 177.550

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DiZinno: IndyCar’s 2017 schedule provides clear long-term road map

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I thought the same things as you when I saw the Verizon IndyCar Series schedule for 2017 (and to a near extent, 2018) released on Thursday, August 25.

Thought number one: The IndyCar schedule? In August?!?

Thought number two: Where’s the next big street race or international race?

Thought number three: There can’t be… date equity… can there?

For once, going with the more traditional route of keeping the same 16 races as in 2016 and adding another oval (yes, selfishly, I wish it was Milwaukee, but Gateway’s been pushing hard for this for years) is a brilliant masterstroke for IndyCar, because it isn’t about the negativity… or the question marks.

Every year, it’s seemed IndyCar’s schedule would be one of the last ones out, and there’d always be that one or two races you’d look at with a skeptical eye.

Then you’d see the ‘ol infamous asterisk top right of the last letter with the guide at the bottom confirming that asterisk meant, “To be confirmed.”

None of that goes on now with the 2017 schedule, and with Hulman &. Co. CEO Mark Miles confirming Thursday all events are also locked into 2018, IndyCar has a clearly defined road map and product platform for its events for the first time in years.

“We thought it was important to get it out now,” Miles said during a teleconference. “If you’re committed to making the bulk of schedule the next year, it’s important for the next step, which is careful tailoring and crafting of the television schedule.

“But we’re in August; we’re announcing a schedule and they have a year to prepare. Every promoter would relish the chance to sell next year’s tickets at this year’s race.

“For promoters, for fans, for our broadcasters, for our teams as they prepare, and this plus the test schedule that will come out… the sooner the better.

“We said we’d get this out in August… we’re still in August.”

This is a far cry from years past and the litany of races that have been on again, off again, or dropped over the last few years.

NOLA, Fontana, Milwaukee, Houston, Sao Paulo, Baltimore, Edmonton, Loudon, Motegi, Kentucky and Las Vegas have all dropped off just since 2011, and then add in that Boston, another Brazil and China races were canceled before they ever occurred.

Suddenly it seems as though IndyCar has rediscovered itself from a scheduling standpoint; returns to tracks where the series left but then came back make a greater impact than first-time or other venues where the history isn’t quite there.

Phoenix came back after more than a decade, Road America in nearly a decade and Watkins Glen will come back for the first time in six years in a little over a week. Road America was incredibly well-received, Phoenix was positive and Watkins Glen has generated early rave reviews.

At-track attendance has been an interesting talking point this year and Graham Rahal has mentioned to me on numerous occasions it’s been up, and he and other drivers have taken notice. INDYCAR confirmed it has at six events in its 2017 schedule release.

Knowing when events are from a scheduling standpoint and knowing there’s not the year-on-year risk of them falling off helps fans better plan their schedules.

It also helps from an overall business perspective; companies are in the process of finalizing their marketing budgets in August and this allows teams to go out and hustle if they still can at a much earlier date.

Miles also strongly suggested the 2018 schedule – given all tracks for this year are on board – will be out even earlier next year.

“I loved the idea of releasing ’17 and ’18 at the same time, and we were very close to doing that,” Miles said. “Some prospects need to develop for international and other domestic opportunities for ’18. But I don’t think we have to wait of August ’17 to release the ’18 calendar. I’d expect it even earlier before ’18, than it was before ’17.”

Credit INDYCAR and Stephen Starks, VP of Promoter Relations; additionally, credit all the track promoters.

“He has brought great fresh thinking to [the process],” Miles said of Starks. “We can focus on the few things we want to do better. He does deserve huge props for driving this process inside INDYCAR.”

And then there’s the Jay Frye factor. Frye’s presence in INDYCAR is generally, if not exclusively, regarded as a net positive thus far.

Even though he’s been moved from the commercial onto the operational side of the business now as President of Competition and Operations, his high approval rating in the paddock cannot be understated in terms of how INDYCAR’s schedule has evolved to a more solid state rather than the fluid one it’s been in the years previous.

And he says so with a smile, too. He and I exchanged a good laugh at Pocono last weekend when I asked about the schedule and he replied, “And hey, not only are we gonna have a schedule, but we’ll actually run all the races we’re scheduled to!”

We both laughed, but the fact such a line is a laughing matter speaks to how chaotic the IndyCar schedule has been over the last several years.

For once, it appears that the future IndyCar schedules are no laughing matter indeed.

Rosenqvist: Indy Lights street course experience to help in Formula E

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CASTLE DONINGTON, UK – Felix Rosenqvist believes that his time in Indy Lights racing on street courses will help during his debut season in Formula E.

FIA European Formula 3 champion Rosenqvist entered Indy Lights for 2016, winning three of the 10 races he entered with Belardi.

The Swede was forced to miss the races at Road America and Iowa due to commitments in GT racing and DTM, before ending his Indy Lights program altogether after getting a Formula E drive with Mahindra.

Rosenqvist is a two-time winner of the Macau Grand Prix, which is renowned as one of motorsport’s toughest street circuits, and has also raced at Pau in France in F3.

However, Rosenqvist believes his experience from Indy Lights, where he raced on tracks such as St. Petersburg and Toronto, will be more helpful when it comes to taming Formula E’s street layouts.

“I think those two particular tracks [Pau and Macau] are quite different compared to the ones we will run because they have banking and a bit of that,” Rosenqvist told NBC Sports.

“I think especially when I last raced in Indy Lights in Toronto, I think that’s probably more relevant to what we will find this year, a really bumpy circuit and difficult circuits. So that will help for sure.”

Rosenqvist enjoyed a successful first public Formula E outing at Donington Park, but is refusing to read too much into his times given the unique nature of the track compared to those on the season three calendar.

“I think this circuit doesn’t really show you anything,” Rosenqvist said.

“If you look like Turn 1, Turn 4, Turn 7, you won’t find those corners in Formula E. Those are basically irrelevant.

“We saw in development testing and private testing, the driving looked good. Obviously Nick [Heidfeld] being a good reference, it didn’t look too bad compared to him.

“I don’t really think I can know what to expect when I come to the normal circuit. All the drivers keep going on about they are really difficult.

“I won’t really know yet until I come to Hong Kong what to expect.”

The calendar for Formula E’s third season features five new circuits and has two possible additions that also haven’t been raced on before, all of which Rosenqvist believes he will have an opportunity to match his rivals.

“I think on those circuits I will have a really good chance at least in qualifying to be up there, so that’s good,” he said.

F1 Paddock Pass: Belgian Grand Prix (VIDEO)

SPA, BELGIUM - AUGUST 25:  Max Verstappen of Netherlands and Red Bull Racing signs autographs for fans during previews ahead of the Formula One Grand Prix of Belgium at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps on August 25, 2016 in Spa, Belgium.  (Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images)
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Back after summer break, here’s the latest edition of the NBC Sports Group original digital series, Paddock Pass.

NBC Sports Group pit reporter and insider Will Buxton checks in from the paddock at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps.

A number of topics and drivers are touched on, including Dutch driver Max Verstappen in his pseudo home race, Romain Grosjean looking to come close to his podium glory of last year, now with Haas F1 Team, Sergio Perez’s future and Lewis Hamilton’s time off and looming grid penalty.

All three parts are linked below.

MotorSportsTalk’s predictions: 2016 Belgian GP

SPA, BELGIUM - AUGUST 25:  Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP walks in the Paddock with his dogs, Roscoe and Coco during previews ahead of the Formula One Grand Prix of Belgium at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps on August 25, 2016 in Spa, Belgium.  (Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images)
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Formula 1 makes its long-awaited return this weekend with the Belgian Grand Prix at the iconic Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps.

Lewis Hamilton arrives in Belgium with a 19-point lead at the top of the drivers’ championship and on a four-race win streak that has seen him overhaul Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg in the title race.

Hamilton and Rosberg look set to renew their rivalry once again this weekend at Spa – the site of their infamous clash in 2014 – setting the stage for a thrilling race.

MotorSportsTalk F1 writers Luke Smith and Tony DiZinno have made their predictions for the coming weekend – let us know in the comments section below what you think.

Luke Smith (@LukeSmithF1)

Race Winner: Nico Rosberg. Rosberg’s title bid may have taken a knock in the run-up to the summer break, but with Hamilton set to take a grid drop this weekend, I can’t look past the German for victory.

Surprise Finish: Max Verstappen. With an army of Dutch fans set to descend on Spa, I’m going to back Verstappen to give them a reason to celebrate by finishing second behind Rosberg.

Most to Prove: Ferrari. After a winless opening to the season that has seen the team slip behind Red Bull in the constructors’ standings, Ferrari needs to recover quickly. Spa-master Kimi Raikkonen will want a podium this weekend. Let’s see if he can deliver.

Additional Storyline: Esteban Ocon’s F1 debut. In the pay driver era, it’s refreshing to see a driver secure a seat on talent and talent alone. Ocon has won pretty much everything he’s raced in, so deserves a shot. Quite how he stacks up against Pascal Wehrlein in the second Manor will be of particular interest.

Predict the Podium

1. Nico Rosberg Mercedes
2. Max Verstappen Red Bull
3. Lewis Hamilton Mercedes

Tony DiZinno (@tonydizinno)

Race Winner: Nico Rosberg. With Lewis Hamilton staring down the barrel of starting from the rear of the grid, the golden opportunity exists for Rosberg to take a seismic win at a track where success has eluded him. He has to seize his opportunity.

Surprise Finish: Valtteri Bottas. I could see the Williams-Mercedes as a strong package here in Spa. Top-five could be achievable for a team and driver that needs it.

Most to Prove: Daniil Kvyat. The Russian’s F1 career hangs in the balance and a good kickoff race to the second half of the season, say an eighth to 10th place finish, or at least qualifying/finishing ahead of Carlos Sainz Jr. would be a good way to start.

Additional Storyline: Manor teammates. Welcome Esteban Ocon, as the Frenchman makes his GP debut. How will he fare against Pascal Wehrlein?

Predict the Podium

1. Nico Rosberg Mercedes
2. Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull
3. Max Verstappen Red Bull