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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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Force India leapfrogs Williams in constructors’ after strong Spa showing

SPA, BELGIUM - AUGUST 28: Nico Hulkenberg of Germany driving the (27) Sahara Force India F1 Team VJM09 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo battles for position with Fernando Alonso of Spain driving the (14) McLaren Honda Formula 1 Team McLaren MP4-31 Honda RA616H Hybrid turbo on track during the Formula One Grand Prix of Belgium at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps on August 28, 2016 in Spa, Belgium  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Force India starred in Sunday’s Belgian Grand Prix to leapfrog Williams in the Formula 1 constructors’ standings as Nico Hulkenberg and Sergio Perez finished fourth and fifth respectively.

Force India arrived at the Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps hopeful of cutting the gap to Williams in the race for fourth place, having made significant inroads over the races before the summer break.

Hulkenberg and Perez both qualified inside the top 10 at Spa before a clash at the start between Max Verstappen, Kimi Raikkonen and Sebastian Vettel lifted them further up the order.

Hulkenberg ran second briefly before slipping behind Daniel Ricciardo into P3, where he remained before making his first pit stop shortly before a red flag period.

Hulkenberg kept up a good pace throughout the race, rising back up to third when Lewis Hamilton made his final pit stop on lap 32.

However, with Hamilton running on fresh tires, Hulkenberg was powerless to stop the Briton taking the final podium position, leaving him to settle for fourth place at the checkered flag.

“Good day in the office, pretty happy. Overall a good race,” Hulkenberg told NBCSN after the race.

“Massive team result, fourth and fifth, to beat the Ferraris and a Red Bull in the circumstances was pretty good. You have to get the points.

“Bit unfortunate and disappointed on my side with the red flag. It was going really well in second and I was gapping the field. But it neutralized the whole race when I was in second. Made it a bit harder. Still happy otherwise.

“We’re ahead of Williams now which is good news, but still eight races to go. Keep our heads down and keep going.”

Teammate Perez started sixth and remained in the mid-points positions before a late charge took him past Felipe Massa and Fernando Alonso to finish fifth.

“It’s been a great day for the team and I am very pleased to finish fifth, but it was quite a tough race from the start,” Perez said.

“I chose a wide line going into turn one, but had to go far on the outside to avoid the first corner accident and that cost me a few positions. I dropped down to ninth and that compromised my race.

“I managed to make some good progress early on, but every time I switched to new tires I found myself having to put a lot of stress on them as I needed to attack Felipe then Fernando. I still managed to make my way through and bring home a good result for the team.

“Moving to fourth in the constructors’ championship is a fantastic achievement for us, but we can’t get carried away because there’s still a very long way to go in the season.

“Hopefully we can keep our momentum going and keep scoring strongly.”

Team owner Vijay Mallya expressed his pride over the result on Twitter after the race, with Force India moving two points clear of Williams in the constructors’ championship.

The result also saw Force India continue its love affair with the Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps. The track was the site of its only F1 pole to date and first podium in 2009 courtesy of Giancarlo Fisichella, as well as another fourth-place finish for Hulkenberg in 2012.

Sam Posey’s “Echoes of the Ardennes” honors Spa’s history (VIDEO)

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The buildup to the Belgian Grand Prix always manages to combine history, excitement and nerves of what’s next.

Sam Posey, who could best be described as the poet laureate of motorsports broadcasting, pens his latest essay on the challenge of Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps in “Echoes of the Ardennes,” linked above.

The track’s only 4.3 miles – down from more than 8 in the past – but it remains the longest test of circuit on F1’s calendar and a classic circuit in every sense of the word.

Magnussen ‘sore’ but will be ready for Monza after horror crash

Renault driver Kevin Magnussen of Denmark steers his car during the qualifying at the Belgian Formula One Grand Prix circuit in Spa-Francorchamps, Belgium, Saturday, Aug. 27, 2016. The Belgian Formula One Grand Prix will be held on Sunday. (AP Photo/Geert Vanden Wijngaert)
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Kevin Magnussen is “sore” but thinks he will be fit to race in next weekend’s Italian Grand Prix at Monza following his horror crash in Belgium on Sunday.

While running inside the points, Magnussen lost the back-end of his Renault Formula 1 car at one of the fastest points of the circuit, slamming into the wall at Raidillon.

The severity of the crash was such that the head rest was chucked out of Magnussen’s car, while the chassis was also severely damaged.

Magnussen was thankfully able to walk away from the shunt, albeit with a limp that turned out to be an injury on his left ankle that resulted in a trip to hospital.

Magnussen tweeted on Sunday evening that he was on his way home after the crash, thanking fans for their messages and saying he should be fit for Monza.

Webber joins Ricciardo with another ‘shoey’ on Spa podium (VIDEO)

SPA, BELGIUM - AUGUST 28:  Mark Webber drinks champagne from the boot of Daniel Ricciardo of Australia and Red Bull Racing on the podium during the Formula One Grand Prix of Belgium at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps on August 28, 2016 in Spa, Belgium  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Mark Webber followed in the footsteps of fellow Australian Daniel Ricciardo by doing a ‘shoey’ – that is, drinking champagne out of a sweaty race boot – on the podium after Sunday’s Belgian Grand Prix.

Webber raced in Formula 1 between 2002 and 2013 before moving into the FIA World Endurance Championship, as well as working as a TV pundit in the UK.

Webber was on hand to conduct the podium interviews at Spa following Nico Rosberg’s victory, and was offered Ricciardo’s race-worn boot when he turned to talk to the Red Bull driver.

Ricciardo downed champagne from his boot after finishing on the podium in Germany before the summer break, calling it a ‘shoey’.

“I’m not drinking out of that mate!” Webber told Ricciardo – before proceeding to drink out of it (skip to 3:30 in the above video to see it).

“Thanks for doing that!” Ricciardo said, laughing.

“I think we just made our country even more proud.”