Tire issues spoil a potential 1-2 finish for Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon at Fontana

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Following Sunday’s Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson likely looked at each other and asked one another, “What the heck just happened?”

Starting from the pole, Johnson dominated by leading a race-high 104 of the event’s 206 laps (six additional than scheduled due to a green-white-checker situation) and appeared headed to a track record sixth win at Fontana.

Didn’t happen, though. Far from it, in fact.

Even though Johnson and Gordon were running 1-2 with 20 laps to go, that was far from where each would finish Sunday.

While in the lead with seven laps remaining, Johnson was among several drivers in the race that experienced a flat tire – and for Johnson, at the worst time possible – ultimately leaving him with a disappointing 24th-place finish, the last car on the lead lap, negating all the momentum he had earned throughout the race.

“Yeah, we did an awesome job as a race team,” Johnson said. “We did everything we could to win the race today, unfortunately something out of our control let us down.

“I had that feeling I thought we were going to win here at my home track once again and it’s just a bummer it didn’t work out.”

Gordon, meanwhile, led 23 laps, hung around the top 10 for most of the day, took over the lead when Johnson’s flat tire brought out the caution, but ultimately wound up 13th due to the race’s final restart, which quickly went from good to bad for him.

“The closing laps were pretty much a typical restart for me,” Gordon said. “I got the inside lane which was absolutely the worst lane for me.

“I got actually a decent restart and it just didn’t go well. I went to the inside of the No. 18 (Kyle Busch), he swerved left that put him in the middle, me on the bottom three- or four-wide and it just went downhill from there.”

NASCAR vice president of competition Robin Pemberton said after the race that there didn’t appear to be a common thread in the failure of so many tires, and that the sanctioning body felt it was more an issue of overly aggressive setups on many of the cars in Sunday’s race rather than the Goodyear tires they rode upon.

But that didn’t stop Gordon from taking an uncharacteristic swipe at Goodyear.

“I don’t know where to begin with the disappointment for this Drive To End Hunger Chevrolet team,” Gordon said. “They gave me the most incredible race car today and it is just so disappointing for it to end like that.

“I hate the caution came out. I hate Goodyear was not prepared today for what happened. They are so good at what they do and that is just uncalled for. We were having a tire issue there on that last long run and I just backed off. When I saw the No. 48 had issues, I was just hoping we would make it to the end. I was just going as slow as I possibly could, trying to maintain the lead and cars were just blowing tires left and right all around me.

“It’s unfortunate that was happening, but most importantly that the caution came out because we did not need that restart.”

The other two Hendrick Motorsports drivers, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne, had respective respectable and terrible days, with Earnhardt finishing 12th, while Kahne finished a season-worst 41st.

Ever the optimist, Johnson tried to find a silver lining in what wound up being a grey day for his team Sunday.

“This No. 48 is fast and we will come back next week to a very strong race track for this Lowe’s Chevrolet and hopefully get the job done there.”

You can bet on that. For as good as Johnson has been at Auto Club Speedway coming into Sunday’s race (5 wins, 12 top-5 and 14 top-10 finishes in his first 19 career Cup starts there), he’s virtually unstoppable at Martinsville Speedway.

Johnson will make his 25th career Cup start at the half-mile, paper-clip shaped bullring in southern Virginia this coming Sunday. He’ll bring with him an amazing record of eight wins, 17 top-5 and 21 top-10 finishes.

Think about that for a second: Johnson has finished outside the top-10 at Martinsville just three times in his 24 starts there to date.

Let’s just hope his tires hold up this time.

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Red Bull’s high hopes come down to earth in F1 qualifying

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BAKU, Azerbaijan (AP) Red Bull’s high hopes for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix came crashing down in qualifying on Saturday.

Max Verstappen qualified in fifth and teammate Daniel Ricciardo only 10th after clipping a barrier near the end coming out of Turn 6 on a hazardous Baku street circuit that has been causing problems all week.

“I’m not blaming the car. The rear went away a bit,” Ricciardo said. “Just the consequence of trying to get a bit more out of the car. I guess I was just chasing that little bit too much.”

It was disappointing for the team, considering that Red Bull had been showing promising speed, with Verstappen fastest in both practice sessions on Friday.

“The 10th (place) today doesn’t reflect it, but it’s definitely been a positive weekend in terms of the car feel and the progress we’re making,” Ricciardo said. “Relative to Ferrari it looks like we’ve closed the gap (in terms of speed).”

Red Bull was not the only team struggling on the sinewy, hard-braking track, which made its F1 debut last year.

“We’re all still experimenting,” Ricciardo said. “Still trying to find the sweet spot.”

Verstappen thought he found it on Friday, driving with his customary confidence to lead P1 and P2, then got a reality check on Saturday when his car packed up near the end of the third practice due to a hydraulics issue.

“We had to wind the engine down, which cost me quite a bit of lap time,” the Dutchman said. “It’s a bit unfortunate that we couldn’t extract more out of the car.”

Verstappen was second fastest behind Lewis Hamilton in the first part of qualifying, before fading in Q2 and Q3.

“We should be ahead (of Ferrari) without all those things that happened,” said Verstappen, who believes Red Bull can match Ferrari. “It’s looking a lot better. Mercedes is a bit too quick but with the Ferraris, for sure, we can fight.”

Verstappen could do with a good result in Baku on Sunday.

Last year, he became the youngest F1 driver to win a race and to qualify on the front row. But this season he has only one podium and failed to finish three races including the last, the Canadian GP two weeks ago.

Honda working on IndyCar engine fix following parts issue

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ELKHART LAKE, Wis. – The blessing and curse of Honda Performance Development (HPD)’s improved performance and horsepower this year has been a tradeoff in the reliability department.

With now double digit failures over the last month or so, in Indianapolis and elsewhere, it’s been a season where reliability has become more of a story line than normal.

This has arisen though Honda’s on-track performance this year has seen the manufacturer deliver five wins (three more than in all of 2016) including the Indianapolis 500, with four of its five teams winning races thus far in nine races.

HPD President Art St. Cyr addressed both the failures and the recent successes Honda has achieved in the last month during a media availability Saturday at Road America, noting it was a parts processing issue that has contributed to some, if not all, failures.

“We had a couple engine failures over the last month or so,” St. Cyr said. “We have done a lot of analysis. It was actually pretty deep in our engine and the part that failed is one that we’ve been using for quite a while. Ultimately, it came down to a parts processing issue for that. So we have been able to identify the part that is failing.

“We have some fixes in place for the rest of this year. As it stands right now, we’re getting those parts into HPD at this point and we’re starting to build new engines with those parts in it. Unfortunately, the durability plan that we always had, going 2,500 miles, it’s going to take a while to cycle those engines into our pool.

“We hope to have those engines into our spares pool, optimistically by Iowa, but more realistically by Toronto.”

HPD does not plan to do a wholesale changeout of engines, St. Cyr intimated.

“There is no plan right now to a wholesale change out engines,” he said. “It happens in about one out of every eight engines, and if it does fail, it fails early. So when that problem arises, it shows up pretty quick.

“So, our expectations are that, once we get the engines in the spares pool, we will continue the engines that are in the cars throughout the remainder of their lives. And then those will be replaced with new engines.

“Knock on wood, hopefully we can get some of them in at Iowa, but more realistically, probably Toronto is when they’ll really start to show up.”

St. Cyr confirmed HPD has made a horsepower increase this year though would not be pressed on how much that increase has been.

“When you make more horsepower, you do expose parts to more stresses. That’s the fundamental thing about it,” he said.

“In this particular case, what it did was reduced our safety factor on that particular part. It still should have been fine, but the problem is that part of the process in the engine is the stress riser. It’s not in every engine, but it on a handful of engines.

“Yes, the increase in power is a contributing factor to that, because obviously there’s more stress on the engines, but the way the part if designed it should have been able to sustain that stress.”

He also said the company was happy with the tradeoff that has come with Takuma Sato’s win in the Indianapolis 500. That win made him a “popular winner” both in America and Japan as a result of his victory, helping both Honda arms.

“In general, our main goal is to win the Indy 500. We knew that, even if we ran the engines at full power, that the majority of our engines were going to make it,” St. Cyr explained.

“So, in that case, we were willing to make that tradeoff on that. If it was going to fail every engine, then maybe not, but ever circumstance is different. But, in this particular case, we were willing to make that.

“You risk that every year. Typically, both manufacturers have about two mechanical failure. That’s about what had this year anyway. We’ll make those judgments on a case-by-case basis.”

Heading into Road America this weekend for the KOHLER Grand Prix (Sunday, 12:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN), Honda leads Chevrolet, 737 to 698, in the Manufacturer’s Championship. Chevrolet has won all five in a row from 2012 through 2016 since the reintroduction of manufacturer competition.

Pagenaud leads Penske 1-2-3-4 in Practice 3 at Road America

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Team Penske continued its domination this weekend at Road America, with Simon Pagenaud leading third practice for the Kohler Grand Prix (Sunday, 12:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN). Pagenaud pipped teammate Will Power in the final seconds to take fast lap honors in third practice, with Pagenaud’s 1:42.0439 edging Power’s 1:42.0698.

Helio Castroneves and Josef Newgarden ended third and fourth, making it a Penske 1-2-3-4 for the second consecutive session this weekend (they did the same in second practice on Friday). Scott Dixon ended the session fifth, the best of the Honda runners.

Several drivers had off-course excursions during practice as they pushed the limits ahead of qualifying this afternoon. Most notably, Newgarden brought out a brief red flag when he spun into the gravel in Turn 14, the third spin in turn 14 this weekend. Newgarden did not have any contact with the tire barriers, but the No. 2 Devilbiss Chevrolet was beached in the gravel and needed a tow. He suffered no damage, however, and rejoined the session after it resumed.

Of note, Marco Andretti and Spencer Pigot enjoyed strong sessions to end up sixth and seventh, while Mikhail Aleshin was 20th after arriving at the track earlier in the morning, with immigration issues delaying his travel.

Times are below. Qualifying begins at 4:00 p.m. ET (3:00 p.m. local time), and airs on NBCSN at 5:00 p.m. ET.

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Leclerc takes emotional Baku F2 victory, extends points lead

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Charles Leclerc extended his points lead at the top of the FIA Formula 2 championship on Saturday by taking an emotional victory in the feature race at the Baku City Circuit.

Racing just days after the death of his father and with tributes on both his car and helmet, Leclerc went unchallenged en route to his third victory of the F2 season, leading home Nyck de Vries and Nicholas Latifi.

Leclerc made a clean start from pole to retain his advantage through the opening stint, only losing the lead for a handful of laps after pitting when a handful of drivers tried to make an alternate strategy work.

Despite multiple safety car periods and the race finishing under a red flag, Ferrari youngster Leclerc was able to finish 3.4 seconds clear of de Vries in second place, with Latifi a further 2.9 seconds back.

Leclerc’s title rival, Oliver Rowland, was classified fourth, with the results of the race being counted back to Lap 24 after it was red flagged late on.

A spin for Sean Gelael at the tight Turn 8 section by the castle caused a blockage, preventing cars from getting through, meaning that the race had to be called off.

Leclerc’s championship lead now stands at 22 points ahead of Sunday’s reverse grid sprint race in Baku.