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The Good, Bad and Ugly: How the first quarter of 2014 Sprint Cup season has played out

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One quarter down, three quarters to go.

No, we’re not talking about the NFL. Rather, Saturday’s Toyota Owners 400 NASCAR race at Richmond International Raceway marked the end of the first quarter of the 36-race Sprint Cup Series.

With 17 races left for drivers to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup, two drivers are essentially locked in – the only two drivers with multiple wins, Kevin Harvick and Saturday’s winner Joey Logano, each with two wins apiece.

But after that, things are wide open – and are going to get much more aggressive as the second quarter of the season kicks off this coming Sunday at Talladega.

Let’s break down the good, bad and ugly thus far in the 2014 Sprint Cup season:

THE GOOD

* Logano and Harvick: who would have thought they’d be in this position at this point, particularly Harvick in his first season with a new team?

* Dale Earnhardt Jr.: Even though he dropped one place in the standings – from fourth to fifth – after Richmond, this year’s Daytona 500 winner remains among the most consistent drivers in the series.

* Jeff Gordon and Matt Kenseth: With five championships between them, they remain atop the Cup standings for the third straight week – and yet neither driver has reached victory lane in a season where a new Chase-qualifying format has put winning at a premium.

* Austin Dillon and Kyle Larson have been the stars of the eight-driver 2014 Sprint Cup rookie class. Larson, in particular, has taken to Cup racing like a duck to water, with two top-five and four top-10 finishes in the first nine races. After Richmond, Dillon is in 12th place, one point ahead of the 13-th-ranked Larson. This is going to be a battle that is going to rage throughout the season.

* Stewart-Haas Racing and Penske Racing: Between the two of them, SHR and Team Penske account for six of the nine wins thus far in the Cup season. Harvick and Kurt Busch have won three for SHR, both in their respective first seasons with their new teams, while Penske’s Logano (two wins) and teammate Brad Keselowski (one win) have been the primary torch bearers for Ford.

THE BAD

* Even though Gordon is atop the points standings and is having one of the best starts to a season in a long time, there’s no denying one very crucial fact: Henrdick Motorsports as a whole has just one win this season (Earnhardt in the Daytona 500). If anyone would have made a bet in Las Vegas prior to the start of the season that Gordon and particularly six-time and defending Cup champ Jimmie Johnson would not have at least one win between them in the first nine races, the bettor would have been very rich right now.

* What’s happened to Roush Fenway Racing? Sure, Carl Edwards has a win and is ranked third in the standings. But really, what’s going on at RFR? Team Penske is dominating the Ford teams, with barely a peep out of RFR. Greg Biffle is tied for 10th with just one top-five and only three top-10 finishes. Ricky Stenhouse Jr., in his sophomore Cup season, has been consistently inconsistent, which is why he’s dropped to 26th in the standings. Something tells me that if RFR doesn’t start improving, team owner Jack Roush is going to make some changes within the organization.

* What has happened to Toyota in 2014? ONLY ONE WIN?! Ford and Chevrolet now have four wins apiece, but Toyota has just one victory (Kyle Busch). While Joe Gibbs Racing is having a good overall start to the season – with Kenseth second in the standings, Busch fourth and Denny Hamlin 14th – the rest of the Toyota camp is having struggles. Michael Waltrip Racing’s Brian Vickers, back in Cup on a full-time basis for the first time in three seasons, is tied for 10th, but Clint Bowyer is down to 20th.

* Kurt Busch: The elder Busch brother has been somewhat of an anomaly in 2014. Sure, he won at Martinsville, which is good. But even so, he’s dropped to 26th in the standings, with just one other top-five finish in the first nine races. Even worst, Busch has three DNFs. While the win will certainly help him qualify for the Chase, Busch has to pick up the pace in the second quarter of the season.

THE UGLY

* Martin Truex Jr. left Michael Waltrip Racing after last season when primary sponsor NAPA pulled its funding after the attempt to manipulate the finish at last summer’s final Chase-qualifying race at Richmond. Truex was an innocent victim of one of the sport’s ugliest events in recent history. He went to Furniture Row Racing hoping to rebound from the MWR debacle, as well as pick up where Kurt Busch left off in 2013, becoming the first driver from a single team to ever make the Chase. Unfortunately, Truex has had an absolutely horrible start to the season, with just one top-10 finish thus far, and is 27th in the Cup rankings. It’s a shame, because he’s a much better driver than his record indicates, and FRR is a much better team. Hopefully, things will start turning around in the second quarter of the season.

* Kasey Kahne: Kahne has become the Pete Best of Hendrick Motorsports. If you’re too young to know, Best was “the forgotten Beatle,” replaced by Ringo Starr just before the Fab Four prepared to make music history in the early 1960s. While his other three teammates – Gordon, Earnhardt and Jimmie Johnson are all ranked in the top eight in the standings – Kahne has dropped to 22nd after the first nine races, and has just two top-10 finishes for his effort. One good thing is Kahne typically warms up in the second quarter of the season. But he has his work cut out for himself: he’s 125 points – nearly the equivalent of three wins – behind HMS teammate and Cup points leader Jeff Gordon.

* Parker Kligerman: If it wasn’t for bad luck, Kligerman would have no luck at all in 2014. He was very optimistic heading into his rookie Cup season, but what’s transpired in the first nine races has been nothing short of a disaster. In the first eight races, he recorded DNFs four times. He dropped to 38th in the points, as a result. And then last week, Swan Racing imploded, with Kligerman left without a ride as the team he was with was sold, but he wasn’t part of the package (J.J. Yeley replaces Kligerman). There’s not much else to say for Kligerman, other than things can’t get much worse – and the only way to go from here is up. Of course, that means he has to get a ride first. But with the season only one-quarter of the way through, that’s not going to be an easy thing to achieve.

* Danica Patrick: In a sophomore Cup season that promised better results than her freshman campaign, Patrick continues to struggle. After finishing 34th in Saturday’s race at Richmond, Patrick is 29th in the standings, 188 points behind Gordon, and she has just two top-20 finishes.

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Magnussen scores breakthrough points for Renault in Russia

during the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on May 1, 2016 in Sochi, Russia.
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Kevin Magnussen believes that his charge to seventh place in Sunday’s Russian Grand Prix was no less than Renault deserved as he score its first points since its return to Formula 1 as a constructor in 2016.

Renault last raced in F1 with its own team back in 2010 before taking over the Lotus operation at the end of last year.

The French manufacturer has said that 2016 is very much a year of rebuilding, yet the chiefs were known to be disappointed with its point-less start to the season.

Magnussen made the most of a messy start to charge from 17th on the grid to eventually finish the race seventh, marking Renault’s first F1 points as a constructor since the 2010 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

The result was also Magnussen’s first top 10 finish since the 2014 Brazilian Grand Prix when he finished ninth for McLaren.

“Feels good. It’s nice to finally get points on the board, and not even just one,” Magnussen told NBCSN after the race.

“I’m really happy. I think the whole team deserves it after the hard work and tough races. We have points on the board now, so it gives us a bit of a boost.”

Magnussen made up a number of positions on the first lap when a number of drivers got caught up in incidents before maintaining his placing throughout the race.

“First lap was really messy, we knew it would be difficult with something like that,” Magnussen said.

“Everyone was spinning and hitting the wall. I went outside all the front wings. But we made it up just before Turn 1 and 2, and gained it back into Turn 3. The guys in front didn’t finish.

“In the end of the day, a bit lucky but we made the best of it and we deserved.”

Grosjean hails ‘great job’ by Haas after returning to points in Russia

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Romain Grosjean ensured that Haas’ first Formula 1 points drought lasted just a single race by finishing Sunday’s Russian Grand Prix in eighth place.

Grosjean gave NASCAR team co-owner Gene Haas’ eponymous operation a fairytale start to life in F1 by scoring points in its first two races in Australia and Bahrain.

However, Haas came back down to earth with a bump in China two weeks ago when both Grosjean and teammate Esteban Gutierrez failed to score, spending the entirety of their races outside the top 10.

Grosjean started 15th in Russia and struggled with the setup on his car all weekend long, but a messy first lap for the cars ahead allowed him to make up a number of positions.

Grosjean found himself running P8 in the closing stages of the race, and managed to soak up the pressure from a charging Sergio Perez to hold onto the position at the flag and pick up another four points for Haas.

“75 percent is a good score!” Grosjean told NBCSN after the race, citing Haas’ points ratio thus far in F1.

“Very difficult weekend. We did a very good first lap to get around all the incidents. Lost a position at the pit stop. I’m still not 100 per cent happy with the behavior but it should be better for the next race.”

Haas’ biggest strength so far this season has been its strategy calls, but the lack of tire wear in Sochi meant that a one-stop race was the only logical move for all teams to take.

“It was a very close strategy in terms of tires,” Grosjean said. “Everyone knew it would be supersoft, soft.

“But we avoided incidents and pushed where we could. At the end we did a great job.”

Kvyat comes under fire from Vettel, Ricciardo, paddock in Russia

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Red Bull Racing’s Daniil Kvyat put himself in the headlines and in the crosshairs for the second consecutive Grand Prix, although this time, his aggression appeared to get the better of him on home soil in Sochi, Russia.

Kvyat barged into Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel at Turn 2, which left Vettel driving wounded for the next corner, but the German didn’t even make it much further because Kvyat hit him again at Turn 3.

The second blow took Vettel out of the race, his second first lap retirement in four races.

Kvyat was later assessed a 10-second stop-and-go penalty for causing a collision. He ended his race in 15th after the messy day at the office.

While Kvyat could have been excused for going for it in Turn 1 at China two weeks ago, ultimately getting past Vettel inside to Vettel’s chagrin post-race, most agreed he was at fault on Sunday in Sochi for this incident.

Kvyat, meanwhile, was defiant when speaking to NBCSN’s Will Buxton post-race.

“Obviously in future days we’ll see a lot of clever comments from everyone,” the 22-year-old Russian told Buxton.

“My point of view, I locked my rear wheels. Simple as that. I didn’t brake too late. Ran into his back. Felt like someone pushed me from behind. Car was a bit of out of control.

“The main problem came in Turn 3, not Turn 2, when I think Sebastian had a problem with his car. He stopped very suddenly and I was just two meters behind him, and at that speed there was not much I can do to avoid. I apologize for ruining his race. But I’m human. His sudden deceleration was too much for me at that point at Turn 3.”

Vettel exploded on the radio in the immediate aftermath of the collision but was far more restrained and diplomatic when speaking to Buxton after he got taken out.

“Today it’s fairly obvious, he did a mistake again, obviously, it doesn’t help me now because I’m not in the car,” Vettel said.

“In the end we’re here to race. Massively pumped up. Had a super start, made progress into the second corner and got hit, then a second hit, which destroyed our race.”

Kvyat, meanwhile, continued with his point that he thought Vettel’s sudden slowing was more to blame for the Turn 3 contact.

“Exactly, yeah. Turn 3 is very fast. It wasn’t deliberate. Maybe after the first light contact in Turn 2, maybe there was problem with the car. To be sure he dropped his speed rate suddenly. I still expected to keep him. He was flat out util then.

“The stewards thought I crashed into him deliberately. The penalty was very harsh… but probably fair enough. It cost us points. These things happen and I usually learn from them.”

While Vettel was the main driver taken out in the opening turns, he wasn’t the only one who had his race compromised. Nico Hulkenberg and Rio Haryanto also retired in the melee.

And worse for Kvyat, his Red Bull teammate Daniel Ricciardo also got caught up in the scrap. Ricciardo, the usually ebullient Australian, expressed his Kvyat frustration to Buxton post-race.

“It was a first lap incident that shaped the race for us,” said Ricciardo, who finished outside the points in 11th, his first non-score (and non-fourth place) this year.

“From then we tried putting the medium (tires) on it but it didn’t work. Too much damage. I saw the right hand side of the car and there was a lot going on. First lap, and people getting a bit impatient I guess.”

Asked whether he felt Kvyat owed him an apology Ricciardo replied, “Yeah. I expect an apology. He owes it to a few people today.

“I saw a bit of a replay during the safety car. Tried to look at the screens. I have a feeling that’s what happened. I’ll watch again, but it seems, that had us over.

“We’ll see. It’s up to him.”

Red Bull Racing team principal Christian Horner also appeared less than pleased with Kvyat, judging from quotes via Mobil 1 The Grid, and linked below:

When Kvyat was told Ricciardo wanted an apology from him, he replied thusly:

“Probably the whole paddock wants an apology from me, but we’ll speak inside the team after analyzing.

“It’s easy to attack now. Go on, attack me, no problem.”

Hamilton: No doubt I could have won Russian GP

SOCHI, RUSSIA - MAY 01: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP collects his trophy for second from Dmitry Kozak, Deputy Prime Minister of Russia on the podium next to Nico Rosberg of Germany and Mercedes GP  during the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on May 1, 2016 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)
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Lewis Hamilton says there isn’t a doubt in his mind that he could have won Sunday’s Russian Grand Prix had it not been for a water pressure issue on his car during the race.

Hamilton was forced to start 10th in Sochi after suffering a failure on his power unit after Q2 in qualifying on Saturday.

The Briton made a good start to run fifth at the end of a messy first lap before picking off Felipe Massa, Kimi Raikkonen and Valtteri Bottas to sit second behind teammate Nico Rosberg.

The gap between them stood at 12 seconds after the pit stops, but Hamilton was able to whittle this down to just 7.5 seconds with over 20 laps of the race still to run.

However, Mercedes told Hamilton to back off after a water leak emerged on his car, allowing Rosberg to ease to his seventh straight win by 25 seconds.

“Not the easiest first corner but all races have been the same so far,” Hamilton said on the podium after the race.

“Really happy for the team and I’ve got the points.”

When asked if he had the pace to win the race, Hamilton said: “There wasn’t a doubt in my mind I could win it.

“I had the pace, but I had a problem with the engine again so I had to back off. Just trying to look after it.”

Hamilton heads to the start of the European season in Spain on May 15 with a 43-point deficit to Rosberg, but with 17 races remaining in the season, the championship race remains firmly alive.