If Jeff Gordon has his way, win at Kansas will be first of many more to come in 2014

1 Comment

When NASCAR PR staffer Kerry Tharp ended his introduction of race winner Jeff Gordon in the post-race press conference at Kansas Speedway on Saturday night, Tharp said, “You’re our points leader, you’re going to be in the Chase.”

To which Gordon replied, “Can you guarantee that, Kerry?”

Tharp replied, “Jeff, trust me, I think you’re good.”

You can’t help blame Gordon if he’s still not 100 percent convinced that he’s made the Chase. He’s the ninth winner in the first 11 races – but there are still 15 more to go to round out the field to make this season’s expanded 16-driver Chase.

But if he wasn’t already sitting pretty coming into Saturday’s race, having been atop the Sprint Cup standings for the previous four weeks, Gordon definitely took a big step forward to not only making the Chase, but also towards earning his first Chase title and first overall NASCAR championship since 2001.

Prior to Saturday night and bereft of wins, Gordon did the next best thing by being arguably the most consistent driver in the Sprint Cup Series to date. If he couldn’t win a race, he did everything he could – and got everything he possibly could get from his race car – to earn the highest finish attainable race after race, week after week.

If he had nothing better than a 10th-place car, Gordon used his more than two decades of Cup experience to squeeze out perhaps a seventh, fifth or maybe even third place finish.

In other words, if you can’t wind up winning, compensate.

And ironically, Gordon earned his first win of 2014 at the same track where he won the first two Cup races ever held there in 2001 and 2002.

When asked what being the first three-time winner at the 1.5-mile Kansas track, Gordon chuckled and replied, “Well, it means that this is a good track for us. I mean, you know, you love winning anywhere, but there’s just something about this track, the transitions, the shape of the corners. I’ve just always enjoyed it.

“It feels awesome. It just feels so good to get that first win of the season, especially this year with the points structure and how close we’ve been so many weekends. I think that, while that’s a huge relief off our shoulder, it’s probably going to just make us that much hungrier to go get that next one.”

Gordon’s 89th career Cup win didn’t come easy. Up until the closing stages of Saturday’s race, he had led just one lap.

But on the final pit stop, Gordon beat eventual runner-up Kevin Harvick – who led the most laps and appeared headed to the win up until Gordon snookered him exiting pit road – and ultimately led the final eight laps to take the checkered flag.

“This has just always been one of my favorite tracks from that first race,” Gordon said. “I don’t know what it is about this race team and this racetrack for inaugural events (Saturday’s race was the first night Cup race ever at Kansas), but tonight’s win was very, very special, man, and it didn’t come easy.

“Nothing makes me more proud than when it’s all on the line and you get the lead and you’ve got to hold off somebody like Harvick and you get it done. It might have been by inches, but we got it done because that’s what builds momentum, that’s what builds a great race team and turns you not only into a winning team, but hopefully a championship team.”

Gordon knew he stole the win from Harvick, who was charging and closing fast on the last two laps, especially heading into the two final turns of the final lap.

Had the race gone one more lap, there’s a good possibility we would be talking about Gordon still looking for his first win, while Harvick would be celebrating as the first three-time winner of 2014.

But it didn’t turn out that way, and Gordon knew he escaped with a close victory.

“We came off pit road and the four tires that we took, the car was hooked up right away and I was excited about that, and then a lap or two later, I saw Kevin come off pit road onto the back straightaway and we got ahead of him, and I knew it was on at that moment.

“I knew I had to push hard, and the car felt good at that time, so I was like, oh, we’re okay. And then I had to maneuver through some lapped traffic, and (Harvick) got right to my bumper, but I actually was able to pull away from him, and I was like, wow, I wasn’t expecting that. He’d been so good all night. We’d finally gotten the car where I could run the top groove.

“So I started to settle in, and right about the time I settled in, I started getting super loose, especially in 3 and 4, and I didn’t know where that came from. Maybe it was traffic. Traffic was pretty tough out there tonight, and so — then he caught me, and I got through traffic. He had some trouble, and I pulled away, and I thought, okay, we’re good. And then the car was great, I took off, and all of a sudden got loose again.

“And so there at the end, I was just trying to stay away from traffic. I didn’t want to get closed up on anybody. I wanted to try to have a clean lap. I got through 1 and 2 pretty good, but I got over to 3 and the car just went completely sideways on me and I couldn’t get on the gas, and I thought I’d look like a bigger idiot if I spun out leading than just trying to make sure I get back to the line first. I gave up some speed there, but we won the race, so it’s all good.

“(Harvick) was strong and he was coming.  He was so strong on the top side of 3 and 4, I’m not sure I could have held him off much longer.”

Gordon now heads to Charlotte for two weeks of races, first with the non-points Sprint All-Star Race next Saturday, and then the grueling and longest race of the Cup season, the Coca-Cola 600, on May 25.

He’s still in the points lead, he finally has his first win of the season, he’s returning to the track where he won his first career Cup race 20 years ago (he was celebrated by Charlotte Motor Speedway for that feat earlier in the week) and he has motivation and confidence that will go a long way in the remaining 15 pre-Chase races.

“This, to me, is more motivating than it is — it is a relief, but it’s more motivating than that, and I think it’s only going to inspire us,” Gordon said. “Listen, we won the race and we’re excited about that, but … we’ve got to continue to work and gain and push.

“All I know is that by getting this win, it just allows us to focus that much more and fine tune on what we need to do to go win more and continue to just push as hard as we can to be the best out there.”

Why, with Saturday’s win, Gordon could very easily go on a tear like he used to in his younger days, perhaps win two or three in a row.

And maybe then, finally, he’ll feel a bit more secure that he truly is in this year’s Chase – and that championship No. 5 could be a real possibility indeed.

While he’s talked about going out on top if he were to win a fifth championship, after a win like Saturday’s, and even if he does win the title this season, Gordon may wind up sticking around for another 20 years at this rate.

“All I can tell you is the kind of race cars and race team that I have this year tells me that we can get more wins,” Gordon said, if not outright predicted. “And if we can keep running like this, I want to keep driving and keep winning.”

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

Indy Lights: Leist rides wave of momentum heading to Road America

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
Leave a comment

As the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires resumes action at Road America this weekend, perhaps its hottest driver is 19-year-old Brazilian native Matheus Leist.

The Carlin driver enters Road America off a strong month of May, in which he captured both his first podium finish (third, Race 2 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course) and his first career pole and win (Freedom 100) in Indy Lights.

“I think we are working very hard this year, so the hard work’s paying off,” Leist told NBC Sports following his Freedom 100 triumph. “We did a great race at the (Grand Prix), I managed to finish third: my first podium. And now, I did my first pole position, with a track record, and won my first race, and the most important race in the championship. It was definitely a great month for me.”

Despite his youth and lack of experience, Leist managed to keep all challengers at bay in what was a dominating victory. And the race became all the more challenging when he faced an early restart after contact between Colton Herta, Dalton Kellett, and Ryan Norman, and a full slate of challengers were ready to slipstream by Leist if he made even the smallest of mistakes on the subsequent restart.

However, as he detailed, thwarting off challengers was made possible because the team prepared a car with a lot of speed in it, which allowed them to trim a little more downforce off the car to help with straight line speed, especially useful on restarts.

“I knew we had a great car, so we went in the race with less downforce than the other guys, which helped me to stay in front. After like 10 laps, I was thinking ‘I can definitely win this race from here,’” he asserted.

The success has seen those in the IndyCar ranks take notice of the 19-year-old. He was acknowledged during the public driver’s meeting for the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil and was featured in the parade held the day before the 500-mile classic. The success and acknowledgment from those at the highest level is somewhat overwhelming for the 19-year-old.

“Very grateful for everything that’s happening with me. I think this is one of the most important moments of my life. I just won a race in Indianapolis, such a big and great place, and important place. It’s been an amazing time with the drivers (congratulating me). I had a great time at the parade as well, so it was very nice,” he added.

Even better, he had his first test day in an IndyCar last week at Road America, taking over the No. 98 Andretti-Herta Autosport Honda usually driven by Alexander Rossi.

“The braking point here is crazy. It’s the fastest car that I’ve ever driven. The high speed corners, there’s a few corners where it’s almost flat in Indy Lights and here with more power, more downforce, it’s easy flat!” he said.

A champion of the 2016 BRDC British F3 Championship, Leist remains new to the American racing scene. But, as he explained, the influence of a couple heroes, chiefly Rubens Barrichello and Tony Kanaan, has helped him transition.

“I have quite a bit of contact with Rubens. I used to have dinner with him. He’s a very nice guy with me, he’s always helping me. I know Tony as well, we raced in Brazil last year together in a go-kart race. He’s a guy, as well, who said whenever I want, I can ask him to help.”

And, while he admits Formula 1 was his original focus, Leist is happy to pursue a career in the United States with the Verizon IndyCar Series. “My first goal was Formula 1, but now I’m thinking more about becoming a professional driver than a Formula 1 driver, that’s why I came to IndyCar,” he finished.

Leist sits sixth in the Indy Lights championship, but only trails points leader Kyle Kaiser by 30 points as the series heads to Road America.

Tony DiZinno contributed to this report

Follow Kyle Lavigne.

Despite recent win, Hamilton says Ferrari still favorite

Getty Images
Leave a comment

BAKU, Azerbaijan (AP) Despite his recent win at the Canadian Grand Prix, Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton still considers Ferrari rival Sebastian Vettel to be the Formula One favorite.

Hamilton’s win in Montreal came after a terrible weekend in Monaco, underlining how unpredictable Mercedes has been after three years of dominance.

“Consistency is the key to winning the championship,” Hamilton said Thursday at a news conference. “Up until now, Sebastian has had the consistency of a winning championship, so we have to improve on our consistency if we are going to have a shot at winning this title.”

Victory at this weekend’s Azerbaijan GP would give Hamilton back-to-back wins – and would be a further boost after cutting Vettel’s overall lead to 12 points with his Canada GP win two weeks ago.

But he remains circumspect as to whether Mercedes has truly turned the corner.

“(Ferrari) have had a more consistent season so far. We’ve had more of an up-and-down season,” Hamilton said. “I think they (Ferrari) still are favorites in terms of the fact their car seems to work everywhere. But I think there’s more unlocked potential in our car.”

Hamilton believes the Belgian GP in late August will show whether Mercedes can release that potential, and topple Ferrari in the title fight.

“I’m hoping by August, coming into September, by then we are the favorites,” said Hamilton, who is chasing a fourth F1 title.

Valtteri Bottas, Hamilton’s new teammate and the only other driver to win a race, is in third place and trails Vettel by 48 points. Whether or not Bottas can become a title contender remains to be seen, however. Most observers conclude that Hamilton undoubtedly holds No. 1 status at Mercedes.

“Lewis is in the best place I have seen him during any of the last five years since he joined the team,” Mercedes head of motorsport Toto Wolff said. “He is coping so well with the difficult days. This is what the very best are made of.”

Vettel, who is gunning for a fifth F1 title, also appears to be No. 1 at Ferrari ahead of Kimi Raikkonen.

Ferrari has been more reliable and might even be slightly faster than Mercedes. That bodes well considering that the 6-kilometer (3.7-mile) Baku circuit, which glides through the city’s medieval walls and passes the Caspian sea, has F1’s fastest top speed of 370 kph (230 mph).

Ferrari is chasing its first drivers’ title since Raikkonen in 2007 and its first constructors’ title since 2008.

Although Ferrari missed out on a podium place in Montreal, with Vettel finishing fourth, there was some bad luck because his car was damaged by Max Verstappen’s Red Bull heading into the first corner.

It would have been more worrying for Ferrari had Vettel finished fourth in a straight, trouble-free contest with Hamilton. Encouragingly for Ferrari, the way Vettel cut through the field following his early trouble showed the German driver is back to his very best.

Vettel’s previous title came in 2013, the last of four straight with the once-dominant Red Bull, and there are clearly shades of the confident Vettel of old this season.

Verstappen, tipped to be F1’s next big star, needs a strong performance in Baku.

Last year, the 19-year-old Dutch driver became the youngest F1 driver to win a race and to qualify on the front row. But he has secured only one podium and failed to finish three races so far this season.

Worse still is the misery two-time F1 champion Fernando Alonso is enduring at McLaren.

Although still widely considered the equal of Hamilton – and slightly ahead of Vettel – on pure ability, Alonso has not won since the Spanish GP in May 2013.

He can hardly even finish a race these days, such is the unreliability of McLaren’s Honda engine.

McLaren is the only team yet to score a point. Between them, Alonso and teammate Stoffel Vandoorne have completed only four races, with a best finish of 12th by Alonso.

Considering how demanding the Baku circuit is on engines, it promises to be another frustrating weekend for Honda amid growing rumors McLaren is considering a new engine supplier deal with Mercedes. An embarrassing but realistic possibility for beleaguered Honda.

“Like Canada, we don’t have very high hopes,” Vandoorne said Thursday.

Wolff: Bottas in ‘uncomfortable situation’ waiting on F1 future

Getty Images
Leave a comment

GENEVA, Switzerland – Mercedes Formula 1 chief Toto Wolff says he can appreciate that Valtteri Bottas is in an “uncomfortable situation” as he waits to hear about his future with the team beyond the end of the 2017 season.

Bottas joined Mercedes from Williams for 2017 following Nico Rosberg’s shock decision to retire after winning the F1 drivers’ title last November, freeing up a seat alongside Lewis Hamilton.

Bottas was signed on an initial one-year deal by Mercedes, and has impressed through his first seven races with the team, scoring his maiden victory in Russia at the end of April.

The Finn has proven popular among the team members at Brackley, as well as helping to ease some of the tension that emerged through the Hamilton-Rosberg rivalry.

Mercedes is still yet to decide on whether Bottas will continue for 2018, though, with high-profile drivers such as Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso both out of contract and up for grabs.

“Of course it’s an uncomfortable situation for him with quite some pressure,” Wolff said during the FIA Sport Conference in Geneva earlier this week.

“When we decided to make Valtteri the offer, he knew that we would be taking our time for the decision going forward because the driver market is more open in 2018 and beyond, 2018 and 2019, and he knew that.

“So that’s why we will not rush into a decision, but continue to work with him and see how that pans out. But generally the view of the team is that he’s done a good job.”

When asked if Bottas’ gamble to move to Mercedes from Williams could backfire and leave him without a seat next year, Wolff said: “He has taken a decision to leave Williams and join Mercedes in a one-year deal.

“I think that the perception of him as a racing driver has gained. He’s won a race rather than lost, so I think it already paid off.”

F1 Preview: 2017 Azerbaijan Grand Prix

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Formula 1 makes its second visit to the historic city of Baku in Azerbaijan this weekend with the title race closing up between Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton.

The Baku City Circuit arrived on the F1 calendar in 2016 as host of the European Grand Prix, but the event has since been renamed the ‘Azerbaijan Grand Prix’.

The track itself received a lukewarm reception initially given its exceptionally tight nature, yet it ultimately proved to be an exciting mix of high-speed sections and tight, twisting challenges for drivers.

Nico Rosberg won last year’s race as part of his march to the F1 title, with Hamilton enduring a rare off weekend that saw him struggle for pace throughout.

The Briton will be keen to make up for the mistakes of last year as he looks to further cut the gap to championship leader Vettel, having sliced the difference to just 12 points with victory last time out in Canada.

As the season nears its midpoint, will Baku prove to be a decisive battleground in the championship fight as it did last year?

Here are the key talking points heading into this weekend’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix.

2017 Azerbaijan Grand Prix – Talking Points

Hamilton chasing redemption after 2016 struggles

Lewis Hamilton very rarely has an ‘off’ weekend where he is completely out of the loop with the front-runners, yet last year’s race in Baku ticked that box fully.

Throughout all of the sessions, Hamilton struggled to find his mojo, suffering two offs in qualifying and eventually finishing fifth, over a minute behind race winner Rosberg. Come the end of the season, it was a points swing that was decisive in the title race.

Hamilton and Mercedes appear more relaxed heading to Baku this time around, though, with both parties expressing confidence about what exactly caused such struggles last year, ensuring that the same mistakes won’t be made twice.

Hamilton is on a high after his emphatic win in Canada, cutting the gap to championship leader Vettel, and if a similar momentum swing takes place in Baku, the Briton could find himself at the top of the standings again.

Vettel, Raikkonen seek response for Ferrari

While Hamilton and Mercedes impressed in Canada, Ferrari had its toughest weekend of the season so far. Contact at the start left Vettel fighting back throughout, eventually recovering to P4, while an issue left Kimi Raikkonen limping home at the end to seventh.

The result saw Mercedes move back into the lead of the constructors’ championship thanks to its one-two finish, leaving Ferrari in need of a response if it wants to stop the momentum gained by the Silver Arrows as soon as possible.

The high temperatures and soft compound tires should play in Ferrari’s favor, as should the variable nature of the circuit. It requires a bit of everything – slippy on the straights, planted through fast corners, quick out of slow ones – and the SF70H appears to be the most well-rounded car on the grid. It bodes well for the Scuderia.

Another rough weekend in store for McLaren

If Fernando Alonso’s late retirement while running in the points was bad for McLaren, then things are only to get worse this weekend as power unit penalties put the British team on the back foot.

Ongoing problems with Honda have caused the relationship with McLaren to near breaking point, with the team currently considering its options for a power unit supply beyond 2018.

If Honda is hoping for a boost anytime soon, it won’t come in Azerbaijan. Power unit changes are set to send Alonso and Vandoorne to the back of the field regardless of their qualifying position. To make matters worse, there’s a lack of overtaking opportunities on part of the track, and down the main straight, engine power is crucial – something McLaren doesn’t have.

It doesn’t bode well for the British team, but if a race of attrition sets in, then an opportunity could yet arise.

Will Baku go bananas this time around?

The circuit in Baku has the ingredients for a pretty crazy race, as seen with the GP2 kids last year when all hell broke loose, allowing Antonio Giovinazzi to fight from the back to win the race.

Most expected at least some drama in the F1 event, only for a pretty straightforward race to unfold without a single safety car period or any major incidents.

So will things be different this time around? The wider cars will certainly add an extra dimension to things, particularly in the Turn 8 uphill section. The greater downforce will make the fast-flowing final sector all the more spectacular, though, even if the top speed of last year won’t be matched.

It may be a street course, but that’s no reason why this can’t be a memorable, spectacular event.

Sauber begins life without Kaltenborn

The big news heading into the Azerbaijan F1 weekend was the parting of ways between Sauber and team principal Monisha Kaltenborn, whose departure was confirmed on Wednesday.

The announcement came at a time when Sauber is continuing to rebuild and plan for the future, having negotiated some choppy waters in recent times amid financial struggles and difficulties, with Kaltenborn largely steering the ship.

The news came as a surprise to most of the F1 paddock, including Sauber drivers Marcus Ericsson and Pascal Wehrlein, with things changing quickly in the space of 48 hours.

With no team leader now in place, it will be interesting to see how Sauber moves in the coming races and begins to change direction away from Kaltenborn’s vision.

2017 Azerbaijan Grand Prix – Facts and Figures

Track: Baku City Circuit
Corners: 20
Lap Record: Nico Rosberg 1:46.485 (2016 – as European Grand Prix)
Tire Compounds: Super-Soft/Soft/Medium
2016 Winner: Nico Rosberg (Mercedes)
2016 Pole Position: Nico Rosberg (Mercedes) 1:42.758
2016 Fastest Lap: Nico Rosberg (Mercedes) 1:46.485
DRS Zone: T20 to T1, T2 to T3

2017 Azerbaijan Grand Prix – TV/Stream Times