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

WATCH LIVE: IndyCar at Phoenix (9 p.m. ET, NBCSN)

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AVONDALE, Ariz. – Coverage of the fourth round of the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season, the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix, takes place today starting at 9 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com (stream link here). The coverage comes after an encore presentation of Phoenix qualifying, which begins at 7:30 p.m. ET.

Rick Allen will be in the booth with Townsend Bell and Paul Tracy. Marty Snider, Kevin Lee, Katie Hargitt and Robin Miller will be in pit lane.

Coverage will run from 6 to 9 p.m. PT and local time, so 9 p.m. to midnight ET.

Each of the top three drivers on the grid, Helio Castroneves, Will Power and JR Hildebrand, seek their first wins of the year. The first three race winners start fourth (Josef Newgarden), 10th (points leader Sebastien Bourdais) and 11th (James Hinchcliffe).

Track position is expected to be key for the 250-lap race, the first oval event of the season, with passing projected to be difficult – albeit not impossible.

Beyond the top three, some of the other story lines to watch include these:

  • On the inside of Row 3, is Simon Pagenaud positioned to secure his first oval victory?
  • Will any of the Hondas be able to make significant inroads on the Chevrolets?
  • Is anyone going to be able to make enough gains on pit road to move up the order?

The starting lineup is below:

Monaco apartment bet gives extra spice to race for P5 in Russia

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Remember that episode of Friends where Joey and Chandler go up against Rachel and Monica in a crazy quiz that ends in them swapping apartments for a while?

Well, Formula 1 might be doing its own version on Sunday in Russia.

With Ferrari and Mercedes over one second per lap clear of the rest of the pack, the top four positions seem settled, leaving Williams and Red Bull to battle for P5.

Red Bull has been the third-quickest team for much of the season so far, yet Williams looks more competitive in Russia, with Felipe Massa charging to sixth place in qualifying to split Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen.

“I predicted them to be quick here. It’s been one of their stronger circuits the last few years, and Massa’s always been pretty handy around here,” Ricciardo said of Williams.

“He got close, split Max and myself. I expect that battle to remain tomorrow. Not expecting to have the battle for the win, I think that’s between Ferrari and Mercedes, but we could have a nice little battle within ourselves for the top five.”

To add an extra twist to things, it turns out that Ricciardo, Massa and Verstappen all live inside the same apartment complex in Monaco – so why not add some extra incentive to the battle?

“I was saying whoever maybe wins our battle tomorrow can get the… Massa or Verstappen, they’ve both got pretty good-sized apartments, so maybe they can give the winner their apartment for the weekend as a bit of a token gesture!” Ricciardo joked to NBCSN after the session.

“Yeah I can give a good party and I will join,” Verstappen added.

Massa laughed before saying: “I hope I will win and I cannot give!’

The race between Red Bull and Williams may be tight, but somehow we doubt remembering that the TV guide goes to Miss Chanandeler Bong or that his job is a transpon… transponster (“that’s not even a word!”) will be much help to Ricciardo, Massa or Verstappen on Sunday.

The Russian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 7am ET on Sunday.

F1 Paddock Pass: Russian Grand Prix, Saturday edition (VIDEO)

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Life as a rookie in Formula 1 is always tough, but for Williams’ Lance Stroll, his arrival on the grid has been particularly challenging.

Entering F1 as its second-youngest debutant and after an extensive private testing program with Williams last year, big things were expected of Stroll when he made his debut in Australia.

However, his first three races in F1 have been far from ideal, all of them ending in retirement.

The DNF is Australia was the result of a brake issue, while incidents in China and Bahrain – both of which were hard to pin on Stroll – mean the Canadian is without a classified finish to his name.

So how has he dealt with the struggles? To find out, Will Buxton brings you a special edition of NBC Sports’ original digital series ‘Paddock Pass’ to lift the lid on Stroll’s start to life in F1.

You can watch the video in full above.

JR Hildebrand returns in career-best third on grid at Phoenix

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AVONDALE, Ariz. – The last first-time winner in the Verizon IndyCar Series came on an oval, when Alexander Rossi captured last year’s 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

The guy who could well have captured his first career victory five years earlier in 2011, JR Hildebrand, remains in search of ‘ol first win number one. But he’s got a good chance to do so tonight in his No. 21 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet, as he’ll roll off from a career-best third on the grid in the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix (9 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

The qualifying result for Hildebrand eclipses a previous best set twice: fourth at Iowa in 2011, and at Fontana in 2012, both with Panther Racing but in separate iterations of cars. This marks Hildebrand’s first top-five start since that Fontana race in September of that year, and easily eclipses his other 2017 starts of 19th and 15th on the two street course races to start the year.

In some respects Hildebrand’s pace this weekend is not a surprise; he was the pace-setter during the open test here in February. However, after missing Barber owing to his broken bone in his left hand, the more important aspect of his performance this weekend is that he’s back on song and comfortable – best as he can be – for today’s 250-lap race.

“I think with the kind of injury that I’m dealing with and the surgery that I had, an oval definitely is a little easier just literally turning left versus turning right even,” Hildebrand said after practice, when he was second to Josef Newgarden – who will start alongside him tonight on Row 2.

“So it felt better than honestly I thought it would in practice. I didn’t have any, like, major issues. I got a couple of different braces that I’m kind of playing around with and stuff like that. But felt like I got it pretty dialed in. Feel good about qualifying today and then the race tomorrow as well.”

Hildebrand was in a unique situation at Barber where he watched someone else in his car – a situation he hadn’t been afforded since Panther showed him the door after the 2013 Indianapolis 500. His starts since, it’s been Hildebrand in either a fill-in or extra entry, usually at Ed Carpenter Racing.

“It was definitely different to be watching in that situation than it was last year, you know, or in years past when I’ve been stepping in for testing or whatever and doing that on behalf of other guys,” he said. “It was painful to sit there and watch, but I think was in the end the only, you know, feasible kind of way to get through that weekend.”

That being said, Hildebrand wound up playing the mentor role well to Zach Veach, who methodically and consistently improved over the weekend on debut. It flashed back nicely to Hildebrand’s own debut at Mid-Ohio 2010 under nearly identical circumstances.

“I filled in for Mike Conway at Mid-Ohio back in 2010 in sort of similar conditions,” Hildebrand explained.

“Yeah, I mean, knowing this was going to be sort of a short-term thing, in particular, I wanted for the team’s sake to be able to get as much as they could out of having Zach in the car in my absence. That in some ways sort of requires that Zach is up to speed.

“But being a driver myself, being in that situation before, I know that it helps a lot to have somebody that, you know, is kind of just there to help you through whatever those difficulties and challenges are.

“Barber is a really tough place. He had some testing time at Sonoma, which is not really super relevant going into Barber. And on top of that, like, we were not great there when we tested there previously.

“You know, he was in for an uphill battle going in. He had a great attitude about the whole thing. I thought he made evident progression through the weekend. You know, was definitely helpful for the team and did a good job for himself.”

Hildebrand also noted that he wouldn’t have been in this position in the first place had he not had the contact with Mikhail Aleshin at Long Beach that put him into the wall and caused the hand injury.

“Yeah, he came over and told me he didn’t block me while I was still sitting in the car. Then he got a penalty 30 seconds later for doing that. Whatever,” Hildebrand deadpanned.

“I don’t have hard feelings about it, for sure. But, you know, I think that there’s definitely a track record that, you know, he’s begun to build up.”

Hildebrand will look for his second career podium at least if he can finish where he starts – in a weird quirk, his only career IndyCar top-three finish has come at a race where there is not the traditional podium ceremony for top-three finishers, that aforementioned 2011 Indianapolis 500.

Tonight gives him a great opportunity to break that run of tough luck and get a result to match his determination and will to return.