Kenseth won last year's Sprint Cup race at Darlington and hopes to make it two in a row in this Saturday's Bojangles' Southern 500 there.

Winless thus far in 2014, Matt Kenseth looks to repeat last year’s victory at Darlington this Saturday

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At this time last year, Matt Kenseth already had two wins in his back pocket, en route to a Sprint Cup Series-leading seven wins in the entire 2013 season.

But seven races into 2014 and Kenseth is still an oh-fer in the wins column.

He’s hoping to change that in Saturday’s Bojangles’ Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.

And he has reason for optimism: he is the defending winner of last year’s race there, finally breaking through after 19 tries of coming up short against the fabled “track too tough to tame.”

“I always feel like the Southern 500 is one of the biggest races of the year — certainly it was right up there towards the top of my list of tracks I wanted to win at that I never won at before last year,” Kenseth said in his weekly media release. “It was a really big win. It was exciting and it didn’t look like we were going to win. Kyle (Busch) had that problem late and we were able to sneak by him there with 10 (laps) to go or something like that. It was a big week for us and it was really, really cool to be able to finally win the Southern 500, for sure.”

“(It’s) certainly one of the most historic (races). … To be able to win here in any kind of race, any kind of car, any conditions and certainly the Southern 500 is, I think, special. I think you could ask anybody and that’s one that they would tell you that.”

This year’s race was changed from what had been a relatively new tradition – on Mother’s Day weekend – to mid-April.

“It doesn’t change how you’re going to drive it at all,” Kenseth said. “Conditions are a little hard to predict just because we only come here once a year — I don’t think anybody really tests or anything.

“With the weather forecast being decent, I can’t really remember the weather last May, but it’s supposed to be pretty warm the next couple days so I think that’s good. I think that will be good for the fans and I think that will probably be good for the racing and everything too. It’s not going to be too terribly cold at night.”

Like Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and others, Kenseth is one of several of Sprint Cup’s highest-profile drivers that still hasn’t won a race in 2014.

“I can’t say I’m totally shocked,” Kenseth said when asked about how there have been seven different winners in as many races to start the Cup season. “I think whenever you throw a pretty big rules change at everybody, some people are going to pick up on it sooner than others.

“I think it always spreads the field out a little bit because some guys are going to hit it and some guys are going to miss it, and I think that always creates passing and mixes the field up and makes the racing more interesting in my mind. I think that everybody every week is probably gaining on it and the field is going to get closer together as we keep rolling through the year here.

“It’s been interesting because there’s been a lot of different winners and been some guys that have won a lot that haven’t won yet.  It’s been an interesting year for sure.”

Ironically, in a season where the revamped Chase for the Sprint Cup format is predicted on wins, the top two leaders in the standings this week are drivers who have yet to win a race this season: Gordon and Kenseth.

“You just don’t really know how it’s going to turn out,” Kenseth said. “Is there going to be 10 winners?  Is there going to be 20 winners? I don’t know, the way it’s going. How important are your points going to be? I would think, history suggests that there’s going to be a few guys added by points that didn’t win. Certainly if that’s the case and you haven’t won yet, then the point standings are very important. Come September, you don’t really know how important they’re going to be.”

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Celis set for fifth F1 practice outing of year in Austin

MONZA, ITALY - SEPTEMBER 02: Alfonso Celis of Mexico and Force India drives in the Force India VJM09 Mercedes on track during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Italy at Autodromo di Monza on September 2, 2016 in Monza, Italy.  (Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images)
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Alfonso Celis Jr. will enjoy his fifth Formula 1 practice outing of the year with Force India on Friday ahead of the United States Grand Prix.

Celis, 20, joined Force India in a development role at the end of last season, balancing his commitments with the team with a drive in the Formula V8 3.5 series.

Celis enjoyed his first practice bow in Bahrain before making further appearances in Russia, Austria and Italy.

The Mexican driver will now get another chance to impress on Friday at the Circuit of The Americas, getting behind the wheel of the VJM09 car for FP1.

First practice in Austin is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 11am ET on Friday.

Toto and Susie Wolff expecting first child

NORTHAMPTON, ENGLAND - JULY 09:  Mercedes GP Executive Director Toto Wolff with wife Susie Wolff in the Paddock during qualifying for the Formula One Grand Prix of Great Britain at Silverstone on July 9, 2016 in Northampton, England.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Recent Formula 1 test driver Susie Wolff and Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff are expecting their first child, it has been announced.

Susie Wolff née Stoddart raced in DTM from 2006 until 2012 before working with Williams in F1, becoming the first woman to take part in a grand prix weekend session in 22 years during practice for the 2014 British Grand Prix.

Wolff announced following last year’s Race of Champions in London that she would be retiring from motorsport, turning her attention to ‘Dare 2 Be Different’, a scheme set up to get more women involved in racing.

Toto Wolff became involved in F1 as a shareholder in Williams in 2009 before joining Mercedes as executive director from 2013.

The pair married in 2011, and are now expecting their first child, as announced by Susie on Twitter on Friday.

When the Haas F1 Team discovered NASCAR evolution (VIDEO)

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Kyle Petty is on site at the NASCAR Hall of Fame with the Haas F1 Team to walk the museum and learn about at the evolution of NASCAR.

You can check out more from the NASCAR on NBC podcast, as Nate Ryan checks in with Haas’ pair of Romain Grosjean and Esteban Gutierrez.

Here’s the full times and downloads for this weekend’s coverage of the United States Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas.

United States GP Paddock Notebook – Thursday

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 20: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP talks with Nico Hulkenberg of Germany and Force India in the Drivers Press Conference during previews ahead of the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 20, 2016 in Austin, United States.  (Photo by Lars Baron/Getty Images)
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AUSTIN, Texas – The weather looks good, the words have been flying from the drivers’ mouths, and the anticipation is building for track action to commence at Circuit of The Americas for this weekend’s United States Grand Prix starting on Friday (FP1 is at 11 a.m. ET, FP2 is at 3 p.m. ET, both on NBCSN).

With the FIA Press Conference today for drivers, most of the focus centered on how Lewis Hamilton would react in his first meeting with the media since a trying weekend in Japan.

But with Nico Hulkenberg having confirmed his departure from Sahara Force India for Renault in 2017, the emerging driver silly season that occurs as a result was also something discussed in the paddock.

Here’s a roundup of news, features and other items from the paddock at COTA today (and some from Wednesday rolled into this post):




Welcome to the Lewis Conference

Thursday marked the FIA Lewis Conference in Austin – I mean Press Conference – because it was a decidedly one-man show among the six drivers selected to participate in the often relatively mundane, run-of-mill event.

Of the 22 questions asked from the floor, no less than 12 were addressed to Lewis Hamilton – many addressing his questioning of the press conference format itself, his social media presence, why certain users are blocked and rather little related to this race and this season itself.

I found it interesting that the most lucid answers came from Hamilton to three F1 part-timers – myself included – who asked questions outside the norm.

Hamilton, who works with UNICEF, addressed a question about Haiti by saying it’s devastating what’s happened there as a result of Hurricane Matthew. “I don’t know what I could do (to help), apart from taking a picture for social media, which is not really that helpful,” he said.

He also answered my own question asking him to take us inside the Mercedes factories in Brixworth and Brackley with a spirited answer of how it felt. “Honestly, it’s kind of daunting when you go back to the two factories, because there’s so many people,” he admitted. “I remember joining this team and I wouldn’t be surprised if it was the majority of people that were in here, said that it wasn’t the right decision. I had the belief that this team would really go somewhere and I’ve been a part of that journey and very proud of it.”

Then he addressed what’s been another persistent issue this year – his starts. “I was at the factory last week and we were working very hard to cover up all areas so we hope that we have a slightly better formula this weekend.”

It appeared likely that the Mercedes brass had told Hamilton to respectfully engage and seem happy to be there, which he did well. That it made it a bit boring for the other five in the room was perhaps inevitable after Suzuka a fortnight ago.

A question posed by NBCSN’s Will Buxton about the format did elicit a bit of laughter though, Haas F1’s Romain Grosjean noting he’d taken a pic earlier in the conference illegally as a Microsoft ambassador, but holding another brand of phone. None of the others offered much in the way of suggestions as to how to improve the format, and the lack of ideas said as much as the words themselves.

Laser focus for Rosberg

Nico Rosberg is all-game face, all the time. Despite persistent efforts from the full-time F1 press corps, Rosberg would not budge in his media availability on Thursday about whether he’s allowing himself to think about a potential first World Championship.

Maybe this will serve him well if he achieves it, and his performances on track of late – particularly since the summer break as he’s won four of five Grands Prix – would back up that win-only focus.

Silly season starting to percolate

With this the first Grand Prix since Nico Hulkenberg’s confirmation at Renault, as my colleague Luke Smith noted in the U.S. Grand Prix preview this morning, we now have a silly season upon us in F1 after all.

Spots at Renault, Force India and even Haas are the biggest talking points. This is before we get to the lesser-rated drives at the moment with Sauber and Manor. And this doesn’t even get into the likelihood that Daniil Kvyat’s time with Toro Rosso seems near an end, especially with Pierre Gasly here and present this weekend not long after his run with Red Bull on Pirelli’s new 2017 tires at a warm Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi over the weekend (more on that below).

Sebastian Vettel didn’t seem interested in discussing his future with Ferrari during the press conference, but rest assured when 2017 rolls around his 2018 contract will be an early-season talking point.

Looking at the young guns waiting to get in the F1 door

Jordan King will make his F1 race weekend debut on Friday, taking over Pascal Wehrlein’s chassis for Manor in free practice one. The Englishman has had what he termed a “solid” season in GP2, although he regretted leaving some points on the table. Still fifth in points, King could move up with a solid weekend at Abu Dhabi, and may well enter the Manor race seat frame in 2017 if Pascal Wehrlein and/or Esteban Ocon moves on.

Pierre Gasly is another who could well be in an F1 race seat sooner rather than later. The Frenchman completed an important run of three days testing Pirelli’s 2017 wider tires at Abu Dhabi over the weekend for Red Bull, running nearly 300 laps in the process. While the GP2 runner-up at the moment will look to win that title first, he said as soon as he knows his 2017 plans, he’ll be keen to announce them. It would be a surprise to few if a shot to race with Toro Rosso arrives next season.

Haas test driver Santino Ferrucci isn’t immediately on F1’s race seat doorstep, but the talented teen is another of those on site this weekend for Haas’ home race. Ferrucci has become the first American to test for Haas in the team’s maiden Grand Prix season, earlier this year in Silverstone.

The man with the “Shoey” has some kick-ass shoes

The best way to end today’s Paddock Notebook is with the latest in “Shoey’s Shoes.”

Here’s the latest from Daniel Ricciardo as he has arrived in Austin, one of his favorite cities, with some kick-ass shoes that scream, ‘Merica.

See a post here from Red Bull Racing on Twitter: