Harvick sets new track record in early qualifying at Texas, but Stewart grabs first pole since 2012

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Texas Motor Speedway on Saturday became the fastest 1.5-mile track for pole qualifying in Sprint Cup history, and Kevin Harvick was the man who did it.

But Harvick will not start on the pole in Sunday’s Duck Commander 500. Instead, his Stewart-Haas Racing teammate and boss, Tony Stewart, will take the green flag first.

Confused?

Harvick set his mark of 198.282 mph in the first round of qualifying, but was unable to come close to posting a comparable speed in the second (24 cars) or final 12-round session.

Still, Harvick ultimately qualified third in the final round of knockout competition and will start right behind Stewart, who recorded his first Sprint Cup pole since Sept. 2012 and his 15th career pole overall.

“This thing was fast every round,” Stewart said. “I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to hold on. It felt really fast up to (turns) three and four and then it got really loose the last half of the corner. This Chevy was fast today.”

This marks the first time there have been seven different pole qualifiers in as many races to start a season since 1998, according to NASCAR statisticians.

Even though it didn’t get the pole, Ford dominated in the final round of qualifying, putting six drivers in the top 10 starting positions.

With Stewart on the pole at 195.454 mph, the rest of the top 10 starters are: Brad Keselowski (195.397), Harvick (195.312), Greg Biffle (194.700), Carl Edwards (194.637), Denny Hamlin (194.623), Trevor Bayne (194.503), Ryan Newman (194.140), Marcos Ambrose (194.063) and Joey Logano (193.743).

Last week’s race winner at Martinsville, Kurt Busch, was fastest in morning practice but qualified 11th (193.126), still giving SHR three drivers in the top 11.

Of note, Jimmie Johnson failed to qualify for the final knockout round of 12, making it the first time this season that he hasn’t reached that round. Johnson will start 16th (194.007).

Logano remains as the only driver who has made the final round of qualifying in each of the first seven races thus far.

Sprint Cup points leader Dale Earnhardt Jr. qualified 19th (193.354).

Austin Dillon was battling flu-like symptoms Saturday, but still made his qualifying run, ending up 20th (193.154). Younger brother Ty took a handful of laps during Saturday morning’s practice and is on standby if needed for his sibling in Sunday’s race.

Four drivers failed to qualify: David Stremme, JJ Yeley, Joe Nemechek and Ryan Treux.

Also, there were no mishaps in qualifying, just like Saturday’s mishap-free happy hour practice.

Harvick’s 198.282 mph blast around TMS in the opening round of the three-round qualifying session put him nearly a full one second fastest than the previous fastest 1.5-mile pole qualifying speed (197.478 mph by Geoff Bodine, Atlanta, Nov. 1997).

The next fastest pole speed for a 1.5-mile track is Denny Hamlin at Charlotte in May 2013 (195.624), followed by Joey Logano at Las Vegas last month (193.278) and Matt Kenseth at Kansas (191.864 in April 2013).

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Here’s the starting grid for Sunday’s Duck Commander 500 at Texas Motor Speedway

Row 1

Tony Stewart 195.454 mph, Brad Keselowski 195.419

Row 2

Kevin Harvick 195.298, Greg Biffle 194.700

Row 3

Carl Edwards 194.637, Denny Hamlin 194.623

Row 4

Trevor Bayne 194.503, Ryan Newman 194.140

Row 5

Marcos Ambrose 194.056, Joey Logano 193.743

Row 6

Kurt Busch 193.126, Jeff Gordon 192.089

Row 7

Paul Menard 194.259, Kyle Larson 194.084

Row 8

Jamie McMurray 194.021, Jimmie Johnson 194.007

Row 9

Aric Almirola 193.590, Martin Truex Jr. 193.493

Row 10

Dale Earnhardt Jr. 193.354, Austin Dillon 193.154

Row 11

Casey Mears 193.154, Justin Allgaier 192.981

Row 12

Brian Vickers 192.768, Danica Patrick 192.761

Row 13

Clint Bowyer 194.988, Matt Kenseth 194.637

Row 14

Michael Annett 194.602, Michael McDowell 194.581

Row 15

Kyle Busch 194.539, Alex Bowman 194.454

Row 16

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. 194.440, Kasey Kahne 194.028

Row 17

AJ Allmendinger 193.611, David Reutimann 192.954

Row 18

Dave Blaney 192.520, Parker Kligerman 192.219

Row 19

Travis Kvapil 192.171, Reed Sorenson 191.748

Row 20

David Gillland 191.625, Landon Cassill 191.408

Row 21

Josh Wise 191.232, Cole Whitt 189.036

Row 22

David Ragan 187.839

Ferrari’s F1 pre-season pace hard to find in Australian GP practice

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Following one of the most impressive pre-season performances in recent times, Ferrari headed into the new Formula 1 season facing the expectation and anticipation of a title challenge against Mercedes, the sport’s incumbent team to beat.

Kimi Raikkonen and Sebastian Vettel finished as the two fastest drivers in Barcelona earlier this month, with the SF70H appearing to have locked in well to the new technical regulations for 2017.

For the first time since – one may argue – 2008, Ferrari entered the season looking like a serious title threat; perhaps even the fastest team.

Yet you would not have thought so judging by its Friday form in Australia as F1 got its official running underway for 2017.

FP1 saw both Vettel and Raikkonen lose track time due to some minor problems with their cars, the pair only getting in a couple of quick laps to leave them P5 and P6 overall.

Most expected a clearer picture to emerge in FP2 when both qualifying and race simulations would be completed by Mercedes and Ferrari, with Vettel and Raikkonen getting a chance to impress on low fuel and the ultra-soft tire compound.

But once again, they could not match the pace of three-time champion Lewis Hamilton, who led Mercedes’ charge. Vettel finished the session second and beat Valtteri Bottas in the second W08 – but it was the half a second gap to Hamilton that sparked concern. Perhaps Ferrari testing form wasn’t all that it seemed.

Vettel downplayed the importance of Ferrari’s Friday display after the session, telling reporters that it would be Saturday in qualifying when its battle with Mercedes would play out in full.

“Today is not really that important. It’s very important but not if you look at the final standings and one lap only,” Vettel said.

“I think overall it’s been OK. We had some small trouble this morning that cost us some track time, so it took us a bit longer to get into the groove.

“Overall I think we can still improve. The car does not yet feel as good as it should and as it can, so I’m confident we can do something.”

Raikkonen – fourth-fastest in FP2 – echoed his teammate’s sentiments.

“I didn’t really expect anything because it’s like in testing, we had no idea what others were doing, we only know what we are doing,” Raikkonen said.

“For sure we cold have done slightly more straightforward running today and small things here and there, but I think overall we have to be happy and we go forward tomorrow.”

The true difference between Ferrari and Mercedes will become clear in qualifying – but until then, it is feasible that the game of bluffs that played out through testing may just be continuing.

Hamilton boosted by ’99 per cent perfect’ F1 practice in Australia

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Lewis Hamilton was given a boost ahead of the first round of the 2017 Formula 1 season in Australia on Sunday by enjoying a near-perfect day of practice at Albert Park.

Hamilton endured a difficult end to pre-season testing in Barcelona two weeks ago as Ferrari drivers Kimi Raikkonen and Sebastian Vettel surged clear in the timesheets.

Ferrari’s pace was such that Hamilton said it was the favorite for victory this weekend in Melbourne, with the SF70H car produced by the Italian manufacturer appearing to have adjusted best to the new regulations for 2017.

Hamilton offered a plot twist in practice on Friday, though, heading up a Mercedes one-two in FP1 before leading once again in FP2, finishing half a second clear of the pack.

“It’s great to be back in Australia and I’m super happy to be back in the car, particularly after a first day like that. It was 99 per cent perfect,” Hamilton said.

“After struggling with some issues in Barcelona, we didn’t know if we’d have the same thing here. What’s really encouraging is that we’ve arrived at the track just a week later and the car is exactly where it should be. It’s feeling great out there and the guys have done a fantastic job.

“We’ve shown good form so far on both the long and short runs and we got every lap done that we wanted to. The tires performed really well today too.”

Hamilton refused to read too much into Mercedes’ advantage over Ferrari in practice, believing the true difference between the two teams will only become clear in qualifying on Saturday.

“Coming into today, we really didn’t know where we’d be,” Hamilton said. “We knew from FP1 that the Ferrari’s weren’t at their maximum. Of course, in FP2 all of a sudden they were quick. We’ll see tomorrow how it really stands.

“I feel very much at home in Melbourne. There’s always a great buzz here and a lot of support. I’m just really happy to see everyone and receive their positive energy. I’ll be pushing as hard as I can to win this race.”

Qualifying for the Australian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports App from 2am ET on Saturday morning.

Williams’ Massa, Stroll prep for new phases of their careers (VIDEO)

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In the video linked above, Williams Martini Racing’s Felipe Massa and Lance Stroll look ahead to what should be an intriguing 2017 Formula 1 season given their respective stages of their careers.

Massa, 35, returns to the Mercedes-powered team after what was meant to be a retirement following last season’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. But the subsequent retirement of Nico Rosberg at Mercedes AMG Petronas opened the door for Massa to come back once Valtteri Bottas left to replace Rosberg there, and has given Massa a second ‘farewell tour.’

Stroll, meanwhile, is just 18 – born a year and three days (October 29, 1998) after Williams won its last World Championship in 1997 with Stroll’s Canadian countryman Jacques Villeneuve. Having blitzed the junior categories, particularly the FIA European F3 Championship last year, Stroll’s arrival to F1 comes with some fanfare and some question marks as he’s been fortunate to have significant family support.

The two of them make up Williams’ team this season and along with deputy team principal Claire Williams, they look ahead to what is to come in 2017.

You can see this pair and the rest of the F1 grid as part of NBCSN’s coverage from Melbourne for the Australian Grand Prix. All times are linked here.

Lewis Hamilton completes Friday F1 practice double in Australia

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Lewis Hamilton continued his march at the top of the timesheets in practice for the Formula 1 season-opener in Australia on Friday afternoon, leading the way once again for Mercedes.

Hamilton entered the weekend unsure about his chances after an impressive display from Ferrari through pre-season testing, prompting the Briton to pick the Italian team as the favorite for victory in Melbourne.

Hamilton set the pace through first practice at Albert Park as the new-style F1 cars got their first official running, heading up a one-two finish for Mercedes with Valtteri Bottas in tow.

FP2 was expected to offer more insight into Ferrari’s true pace after it opted to limit its running through first practice, but it was Hamilton who led the way once again.

Running on the ultra-soft tire, Hamilton produced a stunning lap of 1:23.620 to finish half a second clear of Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel, the German driver unable to respond to his rival’s pace.

Bottas continued his impressive start to life with Mercedes, finishing the session third-quickest, while Kimi Raikkonen rounded out a Mercedes-Ferrari top-four lock-out in the second SF70H car.

Despite Ferrari’s inability to challenge Mercedes, it was Red Bull that came away from FP2 as the biggest disappointment after Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen had scruffy sessions en route to P5 and P6 respectively. Verstappen had been on a quick lap and due to improve his time, only to run wide at Turn 12 and narrowly avoid losing control.

Carlos Sainz Jr. finished a solid seventh for Toro Rosso ahead of Haas driver Romain Grosjean, who was fortunate to keep his car out of the wall as the American team’s brake issues arose once again. Nico Hulkenberg was ninth for Renault, with Daniil Kvyat rounding out the top 10.

FP2 was red flagged early on following a big shunt for Jolyon Palmer at the final corner. The Briton lost the rear-end of his car coming through the right-hander, causing him to slide into the wall and suffer a large amount of damage to his car. Felipe Massa was another driver to hit trouble, with his Williams FW40 grinding to a halt midway through the session, forcing the Brazilian to end his day early, while Marcus Ericsson spun off with five minutes to go, beaching his Sauber.