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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WATCH LIVE: IndyCar at Phoenix (9 p.m. ET, NBCSN)

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AVONDALE, Ariz. – Coverage of the fourth round of the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season, the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix, takes place today starting at 9 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com (stream link here). The coverage comes after an encore presentation of Phoenix qualifying, which begins at 7:30 p.m. ET.

Rick Allen will be in the booth with Townsend Bell and Paul Tracy. Marty Snider, Kevin Lee, Katie Hargitt and Robin Miller will be in pit lane.

Coverage will run from 6 to 9 p.m. PT and local time, so 9 p.m. to midnight ET.

Each of the top three drivers on the grid, Helio Castroneves, Will Power and JR Hildebrand, seek their first wins of the year. The first three race winners start fourth (Josef Newgarden), 10th (points leader Sebastien Bourdais) and 11th (James Hinchcliffe).

Track position is expected to be key for the 250-lap race, the first oval event of the season, with passing projected to be difficult – albeit not impossible.

Beyond the top three, some of the other story lines to watch include these:

  • On the inside of Row 3, is Simon Pagenaud positioned to secure his first oval victory?
  • Will any of the Hondas be able to make significant inroads on the Chevrolets?
  • Is anyone going to be able to make enough gains on pit road to move up the order?

The starting lineup is below:

Monaco apartment bet gives extra spice to race for P5 in Russia

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Remember that episode of Friends where Joey and Chandler go up against Rachel and Monica in a crazy quiz that ends in them swapping apartments for a while?

Well, Formula 1 might be doing its own version on Sunday in Russia.

With Ferrari and Mercedes over one second per lap clear of the rest of the pack, the top four positions seem settled, leaving Williams and Red Bull to battle for P5.

Red Bull has been the third-quickest team for much of the season so far, yet Williams looks more competitive in Russia, with Felipe Massa charging to sixth place in qualifying to split Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen.

“I predicted them to be quick here. It’s been one of their stronger circuits the last few years, and Massa’s always been pretty handy around here,” Ricciardo said of Williams.

“He got close, split Max and myself. I expect that battle to remain tomorrow. Not expecting to have the battle for the win, I think that’s between Ferrari and Mercedes, but we could have a nice little battle within ourselves for the top five.”

To add an extra twist to things, it turns out that Ricciardo, Massa and Verstappen all live inside the same apartment complex in Monaco – so why not add some extra incentive to the battle?

“I was saying whoever maybe wins our battle tomorrow can get the… Massa or Verstappen, they’ve both got pretty good-sized apartments, so maybe they can give the winner their apartment for the weekend as a bit of a token gesture!” Ricciardo joked to NBCSN after the session.

“Yeah I can give a good party and I will join,” Verstappen added.

Massa laughed before saying: “I hope I will win and I cannot give!’

The race between Red Bull and Williams may be tight, but somehow we doubt remembering that the TV guide goes to Miss Chanandeler Bong or that his job is a transpon… transponster (“that’s not even a word!”) will be much help to Ricciardo, Massa or Verstappen on Sunday.

The Russian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 7am ET on Sunday.

F1 Paddock Pass: Russian Grand Prix, Saturday edition (VIDEO)

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Life as a rookie in Formula 1 is always tough, but for Williams’ Lance Stroll, his arrival on the grid has been particularly challenging.

Entering F1 as its second-youngest debutant and after an extensive private testing program with Williams last year, big things were expected of Stroll when he made his debut in Australia.

However, his first three races in F1 have been far from ideal, all of them ending in retirement.

The DNF is Australia was the result of a brake issue, while incidents in China and Bahrain – both of which were hard to pin on Stroll – mean the Canadian is without a classified finish to his name.

So how has he dealt with the struggles? To find out, Will Buxton brings you a special edition of NBC Sports’ original digital series ‘Paddock Pass’ to lift the lid on Stroll’s start to life in F1.

You can watch the video in full above.

JR Hildebrand returns in career-best third on grid at Phoenix

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AVONDALE, Ariz. – The last first-time winner in the Verizon IndyCar Series came on an oval, when Alexander Rossi captured last year’s 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

The guy who could well have captured his first career victory five years earlier in 2011, JR Hildebrand, remains in search of ‘ol first win number one. But he’s got a good chance to do so tonight in his No. 21 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet, as he’ll roll off from a career-best third on the grid in the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix (9 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

The qualifying result for Hildebrand eclipses a previous best set twice: fourth at Iowa in 2011, and at Fontana in 2012, both with Panther Racing but in separate iterations of cars. This marks Hildebrand’s first top-five start since that Fontana race in September of that year, and easily eclipses his other 2017 starts of 19th and 15th on the two street course races to start the year.

In some respects Hildebrand’s pace this weekend is not a surprise; he was the pace-setter during the open test here in February. However, after missing Barber owing to his broken bone in his left hand, the more important aspect of his performance this weekend is that he’s back on song and comfortable – best as he can be – for today’s 250-lap race.

“I think with the kind of injury that I’m dealing with and the surgery that I had, an oval definitely is a little easier just literally turning left versus turning right even,” Hildebrand said after practice, when he was second to Josef Newgarden – who will start alongside him tonight on Row 2.

“So it felt better than honestly I thought it would in practice. I didn’t have any, like, major issues. I got a couple of different braces that I’m kind of playing around with and stuff like that. But felt like I got it pretty dialed in. Feel good about qualifying today and then the race tomorrow as well.”

Hildebrand was in a unique situation at Barber where he watched someone else in his car – a situation he hadn’t been afforded since Panther showed him the door after the 2013 Indianapolis 500. His starts since, it’s been Hildebrand in either a fill-in or extra entry, usually at Ed Carpenter Racing.

“It was definitely different to be watching in that situation than it was last year, you know, or in years past when I’ve been stepping in for testing or whatever and doing that on behalf of other guys,” he said. “It was painful to sit there and watch, but I think was in the end the only, you know, feasible kind of way to get through that weekend.”

That being said, Hildebrand wound up playing the mentor role well to Zach Veach, who methodically and consistently improved over the weekend on debut. It flashed back nicely to Hildebrand’s own debut at Mid-Ohio 2010 under nearly identical circumstances.

“I filled in for Mike Conway at Mid-Ohio back in 2010 in sort of similar conditions,” Hildebrand explained.

“Yeah, I mean, knowing this was going to be sort of a short-term thing, in particular, I wanted for the team’s sake to be able to get as much as they could out of having Zach in the car in my absence. That in some ways sort of requires that Zach is up to speed.

“But being a driver myself, being in that situation before, I know that it helps a lot to have somebody that, you know, is kind of just there to help you through whatever those difficulties and challenges are.

“Barber is a really tough place. He had some testing time at Sonoma, which is not really super relevant going into Barber. And on top of that, like, we were not great there when we tested there previously.

“You know, he was in for an uphill battle going in. He had a great attitude about the whole thing. I thought he made evident progression through the weekend. You know, was definitely helpful for the team and did a good job for himself.”

Hildebrand also noted that he wouldn’t have been in this position in the first place had he not had the contact with Mikhail Aleshin at Long Beach that put him into the wall and caused the hand injury.

“Yeah, he came over and told me he didn’t block me while I was still sitting in the car. Then he got a penalty 30 seconds later for doing that. Whatever,” Hildebrand deadpanned.

“I don’t have hard feelings about it, for sure. But, you know, I think that there’s definitely a track record that, you know, he’s begun to build up.”

Hildebrand will look for his second career podium at least if he can finish where he starts – in a weird quirk, his only career IndyCar top-three finish has come at a race where there is not the traditional podium ceremony for top-three finishers, that aforementioned 2011 Indianapolis 500.

Tonight gives him a great opportunity to break that run of tough luck and get a result to match his determination and will to return.