Denny Hamlin’s back on track with win at Talladega

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Denny Hamlin is the latest “wild card” to emerge victorious at NASCAR’s most unpredictable track.

Hamlin had earned just two Top-10 finishes in his first eight events of 2014, but today at Talladega Superspeedway, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver became the eighth driver so far to effectively clinch a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup by winning the Aaron’s 499 under caution.

Hamlin and Kevin Harvick had led the field to the green on the final restart with three laps left, but as the white flag was waving, jostling in the pack behind them led to Justin Allgaier getting spun out in the tri-oval.

A large piece of apparent bodywork from Allgaier’s car ended up landing in front of the start/finish line, causing NASCAR to throw the yellow as the field raced down the backstretch.

That sealed it for Hamlin, who earned his first career win at Talladega – and his first points race win on a restrictor-plate track – in his 300th career Sprint Cup start.

“We really just want to win races, regardless of the implications it [has] for the Chase,” said Hamlin, who won the exhibition Sprint Unlimited at Daytona that preceded his runner-up in the season-opening Daytona 500.

“It feels good to be back in Victory Lane in a points-paying event…My pit crew’s done an awesome job and picked me up spots every single week and they did again today.

“Strategically, we saw that things were getting heavy in the middle part of the race and those guys got in a wreck and we were able to avoid that, and just played our cards right. [Crew chief] Darian [Grubb] made the right strategy.”

The intensity cranked up a notch after a multi-car incident with 14 laps to go that had defending series champion Jimmie Johnson spin out and collect last spring’s Talladega winner, David Ragan, as well as Richmond winner Joey Logano, Kurt Busch, and Michael McDowell.

After Harvick used the pace car to get rid of trash that had stuck on his car’s grille under the subsequent caution, he and Hamlin were up front at the restart with eight laps to go.

But just two laps later, Carl Edwards (who had waved his hand out the window to indicate that his car was having a problem) spun upward into the path of Ryan Newman in Turn 1 to trigger another late yellow and set up the ultimately curtailed dash to the end.

Greg Biffle led a race-high 58 laps en route to a runner-up finish and his second Top-5 in the last three races. Clint Bowyer and Brian Vickers gave Michael Waltrip Racing third and fourth in a solid day team-wise, and A.J. Allmendinger turned in an impressive fifth-place result.

Harvick faded to seventh behind Paul Menard, while Kasey Kahne, top rookie Kyle Larson, and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. completed the Top 10.

Danica Patrick and Dale Earnhardt Jr. gave the ‘Dega Nation some thrills by leading at various points of the race, with Patrick becoming the first female driver ever to lead at Talladega

But ultimately, NASCAR’s most popular drivers were unable to escape the pack in the closing laps. Patrick wound up 22nd while Earnhardt finished 26th. They combined to lead 32 of the 188 laps (Earnhardt 26, Patrick 6).

NASCAR SPRINT CUP SERIES AT TALLADEGA
Aaron’s 499 – Unofficial Results
1. Denny Hamlin, led 12 laps
2. Greg Biffle, led 58 laps
3. Clint Bowyer
4. Brian Vickers, led 6 laps
5. AJ Allmendinger
6. Paul Menard, led 10 laps
7. Kevin Harvick, led 15 laps
8. Kasey Kahne
9. Kyle Larson
10. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
11. Landon Cassill, led 1 lap
12. Kyle Busch, led 1 lap
13. Aric Almirola
14. Casey Mears, led 3 laps
15. Austin Dillon
16. Michael Annett
17. Martin Truex Jr.
18. Ryan Newman, led 1 lap
19. Marcos Ambrose, led 3 laps
20. Josh Wise
21. Cole Whitt
22. Danica Patrick, led 6 laps
23. Jimmie Johnson, led 2 laps
24. Terry Labonte
25. Michael Waltrip
26. Dale Earnhardt Jr., led 26 laps
27. Justin Allgaier
28. Alex Bowman, Lap 187, Accident
29. Jamie McMurray, -1 lap
30. Carl Edwards, Lap 182, Accident, led 6 laps
31. Ryan Truex, Lap 182, Accident, -6 laps
32. Joey Logano, Lap 174, Accident, led 25 laps
33. Kurt Busch, Lap 174, Accident
34. Reed Sorenson, Lap 174, Accident, led 1 lap
35. David Ragan, Lap 174, Accident, led 1 lap
36. Michael McDowell, Lap 174, Accident, led 1 lap
37. Matt Kenseth, Lap 171, Running
38. Brad Keselowski, Lap 160, Running
39. Jeff Gordon, Lap 156, Running
40. David Gilliland, Lap 150, Engine
41. Trevor Bayne, Lap 136, Accident
42. Brian Scott, Lap 136, Accident
43. Tony Stewart, Lap 136, Accident

Daniel Ricciardo frustrated to crash out of home F1 qualifying

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Daniel Ricciardo made no secret of his frustration after crash out of Formula 1 qualifying for the Australian Grand Prix, resigning himself to a 10th-place start for his home race on Sunday.

Ricciardo entered the Melbourne weekend aiming to become the first Australian to finish on the podium at his home race since the event became part of the F1 world championship in 1985.

Despite struggling with the setup on his RB13 car on Friday, Ricciardo looked poised to claim a top-five grid slot for Sunday’s race, only to lose control of his car at Turn 14 in Q3 and end the session in the wall.

“That was a tough one today. I don’t crash into the barriers often and the last place I want to do that is at home,” Ricciardo said after the session.

“But I feel I crashed for the right reason, as I was basically pushing and trying to find the limit and these things happen, so let’s say I’m not disappointed by the approach, it was just more of a frustrating outcome, starting 10th instead of being under the top five.”

Ever the optimist, Ricciardo said the difficult qualifying will only serve as greater motivation to fight back up the order and give his home fans a result to celebrate on Sunday.

“I knew the crowds would have also preferred to see me further up the grid and it would have been nice to put on a better performance than that but tomorrow is where the points are,” Ricciardo said.

“It’s a chance to create a bigger headline if I have a good race so that’s what will motivate me to do better tomorrow. I made it a bit more difficult for myself but it’s going to be alright.

“To get a good start in the race will be the key. I saved a set of ultra-softs in Q2, I know that not everyone in front of me has, so maybe that gives me a chance.”

The Australian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports App from midnight ET.

Valtteri Bottas disappointed with P3 start for Mercedes F1 debut

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Valtteri Bottas came away from qualifying for the Australian Grand Prix feeling disappointed despite securing third place on the grid for his first Formula 1 race as a Mercedes driver.

Bottas joined Mercedes over the winter following world champion Nico Rosberg’s decision to retire from racing, and made his first official race weekend appearance for the Silver Arrows on Friday.

The ex-Williams driver made a splash in qualifying by running teammate Lewis Hamilton and Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel close, but was left to settle for third on the grid after finishing three-tenths of a second off the pole time.

“Third position is not ideal. In general I’m not happy with the result,” Bottas admitted after qualifying.

“But what I’m really happy about and proud about [is] what the team has done again with this car. I only saw a very small part of the preparation with the new car and the new era of Formula 1, and it’s really nice to see that all the work has paid off and we’re fighting at the very front.

“It seems to be very close this year, especially here. Myself I didn’t get any perfect laps in, so not that satisfied.

“Tomorrow’s the day that matters. It seems like in the race starts we’ve been quite strong. If we can keep that form I had in practice, and have a nice and clean race and get some really good points.”

Bottas’ best finish in Australia currently stands at fifth place in 2014 with Williams, with the Finn never qualifying any higher than sixth at Albert Park in his four previous attempts.

The Australian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports App from midnight ET.

Vettel: Front-row grid slot for Australia proof of Ferrari’s progress

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Sebastian Vettel believes that his charge to second place on the grid for Sunday’s Australian Grand Prix acts as proof of the progress Ferrari’s Formula 1 operation has made over the winter.

Vettel arrived in Australia as one of the favorites to take pole following an impressive showing in pre-season testing, prompting three-time champion Lewis Hamilton to name Ferrari as the leading team.

Hamilton rallied in qualifying to take pole position for Mercedes, beating Vettel by two-tenths of a second, but the Ferrari driver managed to fend off Valtteri Bottas in the second Silver Arrow and clinch a front-row berth.

The result marked Ferrari’s best qualifying result since the 2015 Singapore Grand Prix – Vettel’s and Ferrari’s last pole and victory in F1 – and the German was encouraged by the result.

“I think we have a good car. I think we are working well as a team,” Vettel said.

“Things are improving. Obviously it’s nice to see that things are working, the car is working. I had a mixed day yesterday, but the confidence in the car was there from testing and I think we showed that again today.”

Vettel conceded that he felt his final lap in qualifying could have been faster, but doubts it would have been enough to catch pole-sitter Hamilton.

“In the end I was not entirely happy with my lap. I was pretty happy with the end, maybe not so much with the opening of the lap where we lost a bit too much,” Vettel said.

“But I think Lewis did a very good lap. I would have loved to, but I don’t think pole was up for grabs. Tomorrow I think we can do something in the race. The car feels good, we’ve improved it so the pace should be much better than it was yesterday when we had practice.

“It’s been a big winter for us, lots of change we’ve gone through as a team in the last 12 months, and for the better. I think the team is getting stronger.

“Obviously everyone is pushing very hard and it’s not so easy to come here with a long journey to get to Australia, but I think people are fired up and we are motivated for tomorrow.

“I think it’s the first good opportunity.”

Hamilton buoyed by sixth Australia F1 pole, ready for tight race

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Three-time Formula 1 world champion Lewis Hamilton was buoyed by his charge to pole position in Australian Grand Prix qualifying on Saturday, but is braced for a tight race at the front of the pack.

Hamilton saw off a challenge from Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel and new Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas to capture his sixth pole at Albert Park, and the 62nd of his F1 career.

Hamilton had doubts over Mercedes’ advantage over Ferrari heading into the new year, making his charge to pole all the more meaningful as he paid tribute to the team members after qualifying.

“It’s been a fantastic weekend so far. It’s quite amazing to come here for I think the 11th time, and it feels like it was only yesterday that I came here and had my first race here in 2007,” Hamilton said.

“I’m just incredibly proud of my team. This rule change has been huge and such a massive challenge for everyone. The guys have just worked so hard to make this car what it is today.”

Despite taking pole by almost three-tenths of a second in Q3, Hamilton is braced for a close fight on Sunday with Vettel and Bottas, the latter starting his first race for Mercedes from third on the grid.

“Valtteri did a fantastic job given it’s his first qualifying session with the team. He did a great job and it’s great for Mercedes,” Hamilton said.

“Looking forward to the race, it’s close between us all. As you can see, there’s going to be a tight race this year I think.

“I think tomorrow is about putting all the work that’s gone in over the winter, all the work that’s gone through testing and this whole weekend and really put it to work tomorrow.

“I’ll make sure I get a good night’s sleep and come back tomorrow stronger than ever.”

The Australian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports App from midnight ET on Sunday.