Texas Update: Jeff Gordon leads at halfway

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Texas A&M fans in the stands for today’s Duck Commander 500 at Texas Motor Speedway are likely pleased at what’s occurred so far in the race, as Jeff Gordon – bearing a special Aggie maroon paint scheme – was the halfway leader after passing Kyle Busch for the lead on Lap 153 of 334.

Busch was second at Lap 167, followed by Brad Keselowski, Clint Bowyer and Joey Logano to round out the Top 5. Bowyer and Kyle Busch had started 25th and 29th, respectively.

With some spots of the track still damp, the cars rolled out and then ran the first ten laps of the race under “green/yellow” conditions to help track dryers get rid of those patches.

However, multiple cars were forced to pit under the green/yellow after the dryers caused their hood flaps to pop open. Keselowski seemed to have the most persistent problem as his team needed to tape down the sides of the entire hood on his car. Also affected, among others, were Jimmie Johnson, Danica Patrick and Matt Kenseth.

NASCAR allowed those that had to pit for the hood flap issue to retain their starting spots, and the race finally had its “true” green flag at Lap 11. But just two laps later, Dale Earnhardt Jr. hit the wall in the tri-oval after running his left-side tires through the wet infield grass.

The episode also sent debris and mud into the nose and windshield of teammate Jimmie Johnson, who was trailing behind Junior at the time. Johnson pitted multiple times under the subsequent yellow for fixes but had to restart in 41st.

The defending Sprint Cup champion had more problems a short time later when he suffered a rear tire failure around Lap 42, forcing him to pit again. He’s now two laps off the pace.

Johnson’s tire problem occurred after Kevin Harvick suffered an engine failure that caused him to slow dramatically on Lap 28 while running second to pole sitter Tony Stewart. He was later ruled out of the race, joining Earnhardt on the sidelines.

“It’s frustrating,” Harvick said in a Chevrolet PR release. “I don’t know what else I can say. I didn’t get any indication that anything was going wrong. Hendrick engines are among the fastest and most reliable engines in the garage.

“We’ll take it back to the shop and figure out what happened. But that’s a disappointing end to the day.”

A competition caution came out at Lap 48 and Stewart held on to the lead after pit stops. But on Lap 77, Keselowski was able to catch and then pass Stewart in Turn 3 to take the lead.

Green flag stops started up around Lap 90, and when the cycle ended around ten laps later, Keselowski was holding a small lead over Denny Hamlin.

That edge slowly went away over the next 20 laps however, and on Lap 122, Hamlin jumped ahead of the “Blanco Deuce” to become the new leader; Jeff Gordon then passed Keselowski for second on Lap 128.

Another round of green stops began around Lap 135, and Hamlin pitted from the lead at Lap 142. But NASCAR tagged the Joe Gibbs Racing driver for being too fast on pit road, forcing him to serve a pass-through and hand the lead over to teammate Kyle Busch.

The penalty dropped Hamlin to 16th, although he was able to stay on the lead lap.

F1 Preview: 2018 Australian Grand Prix

Photo: Getty Images
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Save for two occasions, in 2006, and 2010, the Australian Grand Prix has served as the season-opening event for the FIA Formula 1 World Championship since 1996, and this weekend’s event will be the 21st time that the city of Melbourne has kicked off the Formula 1 campaign.

The 2018 season is the fifth one of the current hybrid power unit era, the second season of the current aero regulations, and the second under Liberty Media’s guidance.

Last year saw titans Mercedes AMG Petronas and Scuderia Ferrari duel for supremacy for most of the season before Mercedes distanced Ferrari late in the season to take the constructor’s title and the driver’s title, with Lewis Hamilton, who is now tied with Sebastian Vettel on four world championships apiece.

Four drivers on the grid have Formula 1 world championships to their name: Hamilton, Vettel, Kimi Raikkonen, and Fernando Alonso. Scuderia Toro Rosso’s Brendon Hartley also has a world championship to his name as a two-time titlist in the FIA World Endurance Championship.

So, what can viewers expect from the 2018 curtain-raiser in Australia? A handful of things to watch are below?

2018 Australian Grand Prix – Talking Points

Does Anyone Have Anything for Mercedes?

Only on one day during pre-season testing did a Mercedes driver lead the way – Lewis Hamilton was fastest on the final day of Week 1 at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya.

However, all indications were that was by design, with the team focusing the majority of the second week, if not the entire second week, on long runs with their W09 EQ Power+ chassis.

Such a decision is an ominous one, in that it indicates the team is very comfortable with the amount of speed in the car and did not see a need, or desire, to show their hand during testing.

With that in mind, the Mercedes duo of Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas may yet again have the best and fastest cars, and the team looks poised to potentially make it five constructor’s and driver’s championships in a row.

Ferrari and Red Bull Look to End Mercedes Reign

The biggest threats to Mercedes are undoubtedly Ferrari and Red Bull, the only other teams to win in 2017.

And both teams displayed a lot of pace during testing, particularly in the “one-lap speed” category. Ricciardo set a lap record around the Catalunya circuit during the second week, only for Vettel to supplant that mark later in the week. Teammate Kimi Raikkonen led the way during the final day of testing.

It is unknown how that pace will translate over the course of a race distance. Mercedes appeared to have an edge on both Ferrari and Red Bull over long runs and race simulations, but there is also a theory that neither Ferrari nor Red Bull had their true long-run form on display.

Still, if a team is going to knock off Mercedes, it will likely be either Ferrari or Red Bull.

McLaren on the Rebound?

Put simply, the previous three seasons for McLaren F1 Team were a bit of a disaster. Their partnership with Honda yielded point totals of 27 (2015), 76 (2016), and 30 (2017) in a three-year venture that was defined by poor reliability and underwhelming power.

The relationship hit a boiling point last year and both entities parted ways ahead of the 2018 season, with McLaren signing a new power unit deal with Renault.

Testing went better than in previous years, though the team continued to battle reliability problems. However, all issues appeared to be minor, needling issues rather than more significant, foundational problems, as the other Renault teams (Red Bull and Renault Sport F1 Team) had solid runs with few reliability issues.

The car does appear to have speed in it, so if the reliability problems are behind them, McLaren could be in for a rebound season.

Stuck in the Midfield Again

Formula 1’s battle amongst the midfield is set to be as fierce as ever as a host of a several teams have a chance at being “best of the rest.”

Sahara Force India has been the frontrunner from the the midfield teams each of the last two years, finishing fourth in the constructor’s title in both 2016 and 2017, though if the steady conflict between drivers Esteban Ocon and Sergio Perez continues through 2018, it could hamper their efforts significantly.

Renault Sport F1 Team and Haas F1 Team look to improve on their 2017 form, while Toro Rosso is in a new partnership with Honda power units…and has experienced a surprisingly smooth pre-season as Honda’s 2018 platform looks significantly better, with the team enjoying a solid run of testing with few, if any, reliability problems.

Williams Martini Racing and Alfa Romeo Sauber appear to be at the back of the pack entering the season, but both could battle for points finishes if those ahead of them falter.