Martinsville Update: Jimmie Johnson strong again at ‘paperclip’

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Eight-time Martinsville winner Jimmie Johnson is once again pacing the field after taking the lead just before halfway at the STP 500.

Pole sitter Kyle Busch led the opening lap, but the first caution of the day began just one lap later when Parker Kligerman crashed in an accordion-effect incident that left several drivers such as Martin Truex Jr., Austin Dillon, Justin Allgaier and Kasey Kahne with damage on their own cars.

The green returned at Lap 11, but six laps later on Lap 17, Kyle Busch was forced to give up the point to Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Matt Kenseth, who quickly came up from sixth at the green flag. However, his time up front would not last as Johnson passed him for P1 on Lap 20.

Kenseth fell back multiple spots on the outside groove, while Johnson and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon (another eight-time winner at Martinsville) settled in the top two spots. Joey Logano would take second from Gordon, however, just before the competition caution at Lap 40.

Johnson would maintain the lead coming out of the pits, while Kahne, already in the back of the field, made slight contact with Brad Keselowski as he was coming into his box. Kurt Busch then clipped Keselowski’s car, leaving it with considerable front-end damage.

Eventually, it was decided that Keselowski needed to go to the garage and upon his return to action at Lap 77, he and Busch hounded each other repeatedly on the track.

While the former Cup champions tried to settle their dispute, Johnson maintained his grip on the race until Ricky Stenhouse Jr. wheel-hopped in Turn 1 and bounced off the wall, bringing out the caution at Lap 103.

Kenseth won the race off pit road and took the restart ahead of the field at Lap 109, but Logano took the lead from him shortly before the yellow emerged again on Lap 114. Travis Kvapil spun Michael Annett, who in turn got in the back of David Gilliland and turned him around. However, all three managed to avoid the wall.

Logano drove away on the restart at Lap 120, but was quickly reeled in by Johnson and on Lap 133, he passed Logano low to retake control of the race.

While holding the point, though, Greg Biffle began to make his presence felt and moved past Logano for second at Lap 151. Then on Lap 156, Biffle put the bumper to Johnson and pushed him out of the way in Turn 1 to take the lead.

Also impressing at this point were Marcos Ambrose and A.J. Allmendinger, who had moved into the Top 5. Ambrose (along with Aric Almirola) is looking to win for Richard Petty Motorsports, who are racing with heavy hearts after the passing of Lynda Petty earlier this week.

At Lap 170, Gilliland spun Casey Mears in Turn 1 to bring out another yellow, and in the ensuing pit stops, Ambrose was able to leapfrog Biffle for the lead. But Kenseth and Johnson once again showed their strength on the long run and on Lap 195, both of them were able to dust Ambrose for first and second respectively.

Five laps later, Dale Earnhardt Jr. got into the left rear of Jamie McMurray that caused him to lose his tire and spin hard into the Turn 2 wall to trigger the caution.

Kenseth kept the lead through pit stops, but Johnson promptly took it from him at Lap 213. On Lap 219, caution No. 7 ensued when rookie Alex Bowman spun and hit the wall in Turn 4.

Even with the short green run, the leaders returned to the pits for fresh tires while others such as Earnhardt, Allmendinger and Kurt Busch opted to stay out. Earnhardt wound up inheriting the lead, while Logano lined up fourth after winning the race out of the pits.

After going green again at Lap 226, debris slowed the field again at Lap 231 with Earnhardt, Allmendinger and Kurt Busch ahead of Johnson. But Johnson was quickly able to dispatch the trio to reclaim P1 at Lap 245.

Bottas joins F1’s Finnish stars with Russian GP win

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SOCHI, Russia (AP) Formula One has a new Finnish iceman on top of the podium.

Valtteri Bottas kept his cool under pressure in Sunday’s Russian Grand Prix to claim his first F1 victory, swooping past Sebastian Vettel for the lead on the first lap, and keeping the hard-charging German behind him on the final lap.

“When I drive, there’s not much emotion in there,” Bottas said after his win. “I’m just trying to get everything right and get every lap, every corner perfect.”

Bottas joins an illustrious list of Finnish winners, including Kimi Raikkonen who joined Bottas on the podium after finishing third. Raikkonen has long been nicknamed “The Iceman” for his cool demeanor, but Bottas showed he can be just as chilled. Long considered a potential winner, he’d made the podium 11 times before with Williams and Mercedes, but the top step was always just out of reach.

Bottas doesn’t go in for wild celebration, but he radiated calm satisfaction with a job well done.

“Hearing the Finnish national anthem is something quite special for me,” he said. “I always trust in my ability but it’s nice to get a confirmation.”

Just like Raikkonen, Bottas can occasionally get irritated by well-meaning advice from his team over the radio, and that happened Sunday.

“I had to ask for a bit more radio silence from the guys on the pit wall,” he said, “just for me to get on it and focus for it, and to feel a bit more like home. Nice and quiet, and that helped.”

A country of 5.5 million people, Finland has long punched far above its weight in international motorsport.

Just eight Finns have ever started a Formula One race. Of those, seven have made the podium at least once, five have won a race and three – Keke Rosberg, Mika Hakkinen and Raikkonen – became world champions.

Last year’s champion, Nico Rosberg, raced as a German but is the son of 1982 champion Keke.

It was his decision to retire in the winter that opened the door for Bottas to move to Mercedes from Williams. In his fifth Formula One season, Bottas now has a car capable of fighting for regular wins and hopes Sunday will prove “the first of many.”

Sitting third in the standings after four races, could a world championship be within Bottas’ grasp?

As he said on the podium, “for me that’s the only goal in my career.”

Red Bull GRC: Speed leads VW, Andretti 1-2 in Memphis opener

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The new Red Bull Global Rallycross season is underway but it’s the same driver who has ended the last two years on top, Scott Speed, who kicks off 2017 in victory lane.

The two-time defending series champion, driving the No. 41 Oberto Volkswagen Beetle GRC for Volkswagen Andretti Rallycross, led home his teammate Tanner Foust in GRC’s trip to Memphis to kick off the new season. The win is also Speed’s 12th in the series, most in Global Rallycross history. Speed and Foust also won their respective semifinals.

“(Being the winningest GRC driver in history) is a great stat, but those wins are all part of having a great team – starting with Tanner Foust, I have an incredible teammate. The whole Volkswagen Andretti Rallycross team just worked this offseason. We put in the work, and when we wanted to stop we worked some more. When you show up to the first race and you put this kind of performance down, it just makes all that work worthwhile. Big shout out to Circle K and Oberto for coming on this year, and obviously Rockstar – thanks so much, guys,” Speed said.

Foust was second in the No. 34 Rockstar Energy Beetle, starting his 2017 season one spot worse than he did last year. He swept the Phoenix doubleheader a year ago.

Steve Arpin, in his first race under the rebranded and phased Loenbro Motorsports effort, took the privateer No. 00 Jacob Companies Ford Fiesta ST onto the podium in third place. Arpin was the most consistent threat to the Volkswagen pair last year and has done well to carry that momentum into the start of 2017.

Rookies Mitchell DeJong and Oliver Eriksson finished fourth and fifth in superb efforts for Honda Red Bull Olsbergs MSE, taking their Nos. 24 and 16 Honda Civic Coupes to top-five finishes in their first weekend as teammates at the Supercars level for the Andreas Eriksson-led team.

Behind them, last year’s GRC Lites champion Cabot Bigham eighth in his first Supercars start for Bryan Herta Rallysport while Sebastian Eriksson limped to seventh in the third Honda with damage in the final. Chris Atkinson retired from the race with three laps to go in the first of two Subaru Rally Team USA WRX-STis, on what was a tough day for that team.

The final only saw eight cars take the start. Mechanical issues knocked Austin Dyne out of the weekend early in his first start with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, while damage on the initial start cost Patrik Sandell any hope of a result in his first final with Subaru.

In the 10-lap final around the 1.18-mile circuit which primarily utilized the Memphis International Raceway oval with a shorter dirt section, Speed and Foust both got the jump on a start, and were never headed the rest of the way.

The battle was for third between Arpin and DeJong, with Arpin taking the Joker on Lap 5 of 10 to move past the 2014 GRC Lites champion in his second Supercars weekend – DeJong debuted at Los Angeles last year.

GRC stays down south for its next race, Round 2 at Louisville, to be held on Sunday, May 21.

F1: Russian Grand Prix post-race interviews (VIDEO)

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The Russian Grand Prix is in the books, with Valtteri Bottas scoring his first career victory at Sochi.  Bottas had both a dynamic start and a dynamic defense for Mercedes against Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel to win in his 81st career start, and fourth with Mercedes since changing over from Williams.

NBCSN F1 pit reporter Will Buxton caught up with a number of drivers either during or after the race. Those interviews are below.

More videos will come in the fourth and final weekend installment of Paddock Pass, the NBC Sports Group original digital series. Stay tuned for that in the next day or so on NBCSports.com.

Anyway, Russia post-race interviews are below:

WIN. Valtteri Bottas

2. Sebastian Vettel

4. Lewis Hamilton

5. Max Verstappen

9. Felipe Massa

DNF. Daniel Ricciardo

DNS. Fernando Alonso

Hinchcliffe endures tough night in Phoenix to finish 12th

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James Hinchcliffe, off to one of the best starts he’s ever had in the Verizon IndyCar Series (certainly his best since his two wins in four races to start 2013) endured possibly the most frustrating race of his 2017 season Saturday night at Phoenix.

Down on pace to the Chevrolet cars, particularly those from Team Penske, Hinchcliffe had resigned himself to aim for “best in class,” and he had enough speed to run solidly in the top ten. However, as he explained, poor fuel mileage saw him be the first driver to pit during green flag pit stops, which elongated his final stint and forced him to make a late stop for fuel, dropping him to 12th at the end.

“Man, we just weren’t getting the mileage the other guys were. It’s too bad because the ARROW Electronics car was actually pretty strong,” he told NBC Sports. “We survived that first turn thing; it was unfortunate to see Mikhail (Aleshin) caught up in that.

“And we had decent pace, we were kind of hanging with Scott (Dixon) there in the first stint and ended up just having to pit way before anyone else. And five or six laps a stint compounding, we just never got the yellow at the right time to equalize the field and put us on the same page as everyone else. And at the end, we had to come in for that splash and go.”

Of course, the night could have been much worse, as he barely avoided the first turn pileup that collected five cars after teammate Mikhail Aleshin spun in Turn 2. “It was close, man. I saw Mikhail start to spin and come down, and then Marco (Andretti) hit the brakes and locked up and went around. I was lucky to avoid it, to be honest,” he said of the incident.

Despite finishing 12th, Hinchcliffe held onto fifth place in the standings, 39 points behind new championship leader Simon Pagenaud.

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