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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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.