Joey Logano happy to defy preseason expectations

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Going into last year’s Chase for the Sprint Cup, Joey Logano was the hottest driver in NASCAR. On the strength of six consecutive Top-10 finishes in the final seven regular season events – including a critical win at Michigan – he raced his way into the post-season.

But an engine failure in the Chase opener at Chicagoland crushed his championship hopes, and he eventually settled for eighth in points.

However, he figured he’d at least be higher up in the usual array of pre-season rankings going into 2014.

That didn’t happen though, from his perspective.

“This offseason, all the magazines come out and project where you are going to finish and they had us in 15th and I was like, ‘Why?’,” Logano explained Friday at Darlington Raceway. “I was reading NASCAR Illustrated and wondered what the heck that was all about.

“I have set my goal as proving them wrong and so far, so good.”

Logano became the seventh different driver to win in as many races this season and the latest addition to the Chase Grid after defeating Jeff Gordon in a green-white-checkered finish on Monday at Texas Motor Speedway.

He’s also maintained a good degree of consistency with four Top-5s and just one finish outside the Top 20 in the first seven events. Additionally, he’s taken to the new, knockout-style qualifying format well with one pole and six Top-10 starts – making for an average starting position of 8.9 so far.

“It is important to come out here and run strong because we ended the year with momentum and we know we need to keep that going,” Logano said.

“With all the rules changes and everything changing this year, it was going to be a challenge but also an opportunity to capitalize on that and I feel Team Penske has done a great job with that – qualifying, aero, ride heights – we have been able to capitalize on all of that. We have been able to take that momentum through the off-season and keep it there.”

Darlington has, by Logano’s own admission, been a hit-or-miss track for him in his Sprint Cup career. After finishing in the Top 10 in his first Cup start there in 2009, he’s posted results of 27th, 35th, 10th, and 22nd.

However, while still very much wanting to win at the track “Too Tough To Tame,” the pressure’s eased off of him now that he’s joined teammate Brad Keselowski on the Chase Grid.

Logano touched on that subject, too, saying that he believes having both Team Penske drivers in the Chase will especially benefit in regards to testing.

“We will focus our tests to races in the Chase,” he said. “That makes sense. Really, when you are at the race track here, we are always trying different things and always trying to see what that next little piece is.

“With this new rules package, with the ride height rule, there is some low hanging fruit still to grab. We need to figure out what works best with these cars and we will be trying different things like we already do, so that doesn’t change.”

F1 Preview: 2017 United States Grand Prix

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The Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas may only have hosted the United States Grand Prix since 2012, yet it has quickly made itself a big part of Formula 1’s recent championship stories.

Results at COTA have played a crucial part in all but one of the F1 championship races – the exception being 2013 when the drivers’ title had long been settled – with the track also being the site of Lewis Hamilton’s third title win two years ago.

Hamilton arrives in the Lone Star State on the verge of taking a fourth world title, and could reclaim the crown this Sunday should results fall his way.

For a driver with such an affinity for the United States as Hamilton, clinching the title in Austin would be very significant.

This race is also a significant one for F1’s owner, Liberty Media, as its first on home soil since completing its $8 billion takeover of the sport back in January.

The United States has long been a target growth market for F1 after a patchy history. Significant progress has been made in the last five years, but seeing how Liberty plays the US GP will be of interest to those with an eye on F1’s future.

Here are the key talking points ahead of this weekend’s United States Grand Prix.

2017 United States Grand Prix – Talking Points

Will COTA be king-maker again for Hamilton?

There is a similar sense of inevitability heading to COTA this weekend as in 2015. It is not a case of if Lewis Hamilton will win the drivers’ championship, but when.

Ferrari’s remarkable capitulation in the last six weeks has seen Sebastian Vettel go from championship leader to heavy outsider, trailing Hamilton by 59 points with just 100 left to play for this season.

A 16-point swing will see Hamilton clinch a fourth title at COTA – full permutations here – meaning that next weekend’s Mexican Grand Prix is perhaps the more likely site for his coronation.

That said, on Ferrari’s recent form, losing another 16 points would hardly come as a surprise.

Silver linings for Ferrari despite recent losses

The failures that have seen Ferrari throw away a shot at both championships in 2017 will surely lead to heads rolling come the end of the season, having been the Italian marque’s best chance of silverware since 2008.

For now though, the team must do all it can to put the brakes on its collapse and bounce back at COTA, with its race pace form in Malaysia suggesting it may not be as far off Mercedes as once feared this weekend.

Vettel and teammate Kimi Raikkonen have both said there is no track for Ferrari to fear in the closing races this season, meaning that while the titles may already be out of reach, a fighting end to the season would at least save some face.

Alas, with Mercedes very likely to wrap up the constructors’ championship this weekend, for Ferrari to have gone from pre-season favorite with the fastest car to losing the title with three races to spare is a serious failure that will take some recovering from.

Red Bull’s flying finish to continue in Austin?

Red Bull’s late-season form is traditionally pretty good, but the team has been particularly strong in recent races as it looks to build momentum before a renewed title bid in 2014.

Max Verstappen’s dominant victory in Malaysia proved the team can win races on merit and take the fight to both Mercedes and Ferrari, while Daniel Ricciardo has also been on the podium in the last two races.

For a team that was marooned in P3 for much of the season, the updates for the RB13 car have put Red Bull into the thick of the fight at the front – sadly, there is not title race for it to influence.

Nevertheless, Verstappen and Ricciardo will be pushing hard to keep the team’s good late-season form going at COTA. Four years after the team’s last win in the USA, can Red Bull hit the top step again?

Hartley gears up for shock F1 debut

2017 has been full of odd storylines in F1, but Brendon Hartley’s shock debut with Toro Rosso this weekend has to be right up there.

Seven years after being dropped from Red Bull’s junior program, Hartley will line up in the colors of the energy drink giant’s B-team in F1 after Pierre Gasly was forced to stick to his clashing Super Formula commitments in Japan.

Toro Rosso will race with a totally different line-up to two weeks ago at Suzuka, with previously-benched Daniil Kvyat also returning in place of Carlos Sainz Jr., who moves up to Renault.

Heroics cannot be expected of Hartley, who has raced with great success in the FIA World Endurance Championship with Porsche since 2014, but it will be fascinating to see how he gets on back in single-seaters.

The Land of Liberty

Liberty Media’s takeover of F1 back in January was a significant moment for the sport’s future, with a great focus being placed on the United States given the company’s American roots and the importance of the market.

F1 CEO and chairman Chase Carey has made his ambition to make each race a Superbowl-esque event clear for some time, with plans to improve the spectacle around races still in the works.

The US GP has traditionally done very well with its off-track spectacles, with last year’s Taylor Swift concert playing a huge role in breathing new life into the race after a washout in 2015. This year, Justin Timberlake and Stevie Wonder will both be performing at COTA’s amphitheater.

Another big name confirmed to be attending is Usain Bolt, who will act as the official starter for the race, while iconic boxing announcer Michael Buffer will be on-hand for the pre-race driver introductions, a new step for F1.

This weekend will also see the F1 paddock turn pink in aid of Breast Cancer Awareness month and Susan G. Komen, with more information available by clicking here.

2017 United States Grand Prix – Facts and Figures

Track: Circuit of The Americas
Corners: 20
Lap Record: Sebastian Vettel 1:39.347 (2012)
Tire Compounds: Ultra-Soft/Super-Soft/Soft
2016 Winner: Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes)
2016 Pole Position: Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) 1:34.999
2016 Fastest Lap: Sebastian Vettel (Ferrari) 1:39.877
DRS Zones: T2o to T1, T11 to T12

2017 United States Grand Prix – TV/Stream Times