Barely beating Kevin Harvick at the finish line, Jeff Gordon won his first race of 2014 Saturday at Kansas Speedway. But it also may be the first of many more to come this season, Gordon hopes. (Photo: Steve Fecht, GM News Photos)

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

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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.”

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How watching a go-kart race changed F1’s Valtteri Bottas’ life forever

xxxx during qualifying for the Formula One Grand Prix of Belgium at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps on August 22, 2015 in Spa, Belgium.
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It was 21 years ago, but Valtteri Bottas remembers as if it was yesterday — the day that would change his life forever.

Bottas, just six years old at the time, was riding in a car with his father in their native Finland when they came upon a go-kart race taking place.

It was love at first sight for little Valtteri – and dad, too. Although they were supposed to continue on to a neighboring town of Lahti, they decided to postpone the trip and spent the rest of the day watching the racing action.

It was also the first step Bottas would take towards becoming a race car driver. It’s a journey that two decades later has now, as of Monday, brought him to a seat with the sport’s most dominant team in recent years, Mercedes AMG Petronas, and made him teammates with three-time World Champion Lewis Hamilton.

Along the way to the present, Bottas became a go-kart champion, won countless races across a number of series, and now has just one thing in mind that he’s focusing on:

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Winning a Formula 1 championship with his new team.

As the driver chosen to replace the now-retired 2016 F1 champion Nico Rosberg, Bottas’ dreams have come true. But at the same time, expectations have never been higher or more demanding upon Bottas, who spent the last four seasons with the Williams F1 team.

Bottas finished 17th in his first season with Williams in 2013, then scored a career-best fourth-place showing the following season. Bottas was fifth in 2015 before slipping to eighth last season, as the car regressed.

But now, Williams is in Bottas’ rearview mirror and all he hopes to see is clear pathways going forward, hopefully with him in the lead and every other driver chasing his Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsport Silver Arrow.

Yet having the best team in the sport is no guarantee of success, Bottas prudently says.

“It would be nice to know the answer to the question of how you become Formula 1 World Champion,” Bottas said in a story on the MercedesAMGF1.com website. “But there are so many factors involved. It’s not just about you as an individual.

“Even if you’re the best driver, you’re not going to win anything if your engine packs up ten times during the season. As a driver, you have to concentrate on your performance and give everything for the team. On your own, you don’t stand a chance.”

But one of the reasons Mercedes chose Bottas over other F1 drivers is his determination and drive – both in the car and in life.

It’s something that traces back to the first two times he climbed into a go-kart to begin his path to F1: finishing third in his first race and winning his second. A few years later at the age of 13, even though he was larger and heavier than most of his competitors, Bottas would win the Finnish go-kart championship.

“I had to do everything I could to make my dream come true,” Bottas said. That included going on a diet and physical regimen that strengthened both his body as well as his championship-winning chances.

F1 Grand Prix of USA - Previews
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“This was the turning point, at which I became professional and saw racing as more than just a hobby and a fun ride,” Bottas said.

Now he has perhaps the most fun – and demanding – ride he’s ever had. But just like he did when he climbed behind the wheel of his first go-kart at the age of seven, one thing has remained a constant for the flying Finn.

“I never give up,” Bottas said. “I still cherish my ambition of winning the world title. I will do everything I can to achieve that. It’s my life goal right now.

“There is no better feeling than being in the pits on Sunday – race day. The mechanics start the engine; you hear it and you feel it, and you know this precious gem will be in your hands for the next two hours. It’s now all up to you.”

And while Bottas readily admits “I’m living the dream every day,” he’s not letting the team he’s with, or the success it has had over the years, get to his head.

“Ultimately, I’m just an average guy from Nastola (his hometown of 15,000) in Finland, who just happens to be a Formula One driver.”

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Loyalty brought Felipe Massa out of retirement, back to Williams

Just a few months after waving goodbye to F1, Felipe Massa is waving hello again with his return to Williams for the 2017 season.
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Felipe Massa is a number of things, including a great driver, a fan favorite, a mentor to young drivers and a great representative for Formula 1.

But perhaps above all those attributes are the word that best describes Massa: loyal.

When Massa retired at the end of the 2016 F1 season from Williams, he was pretty sure his F1 days were forever behind him. But when teammate Valtteri Bottas surprised everyone by leaving the team to replace retired champion Nico Rosberg at Mercedes, Massa’s sense of loyalty kicked in.

The Brazilian driver knew that 2017 would be a very important year for Williams, as the organization celebrates its 40th anniversary. He also knew young teammate Lance Stroll needed a mentor to guide him through the rigors of F1.

Given all Williams had done for him the past three seasons, Massa felt he owed his old team something back: namely himself and his talent behind the wheel.

Ergo, goodbye retirement, welcome back to Williams. It wasn’t about money, but something much more valuable that you can’t put a price on.

“I have a strong love for Williams,” Massa said in a Q&A on WilliamsF1.com. “I have enjoyed the last three years with the team, and therefore coming back to help give stability and experience to drive things forward in 2017 was something that felt right to do.

“When I joined Williams back in 2014 I found a team – and a family – that I have loved being a part of. I certainly haven’t lost the desire to race and fight on track. Whatever I would have turned my hand to this year, I would have been putting 100 percent effort into doing the best job that I can, and if I didn’t have that passion, I would not have agreed to return.”

While the 35-year-old Massa said his return to F1 and Williams is just for 2017, with all the elements in play, particularly since Bottas left, Massa feels reinvigorated. It may seem like he’s racing for a new team, even though he’s returning to the same team he left less than two months ago.

And that’s where the beauty of his loyalty truly is: Massa made it very clear that the only F1 team he would ever consider ending retirement for was, one and the same, Williams.

“My return is not about seeing Formula 1 as the best option, but is about seeing the role at Williams as the best option,” Massa said. “I would not have returned for any other team.”

And if retirement for the second time is in his future after the 2017 season, Massa will leave with no regrets.

“Whatever happens this season, I will always leave the sport with my head held high,” he said.

While he wishes Bottas the best with his new team, Massa is also very keen on working with Stroll.

“I’m looking forward to working with Lance, having known him for a long time,” Massa said. “He has proved in the championships he has competed in so far that he deserves this opportunity, and it’s great to welcome new talent into Formula 1.

“Lance may be young, but Williams has a history of bringing young drivers into the sport. He knows there is a steep learning curve ahead, but motorsport is a team sport and I look forward supporting him in any way I can.

“Valtteri has been offered a fantastic opportunity and, as a result, an opportunity arose for me. When the media began reporting that I might return, I was touched by the response from so many fans who wanted to see me back in the sport.

“That was certainly a factor in the decision, so I’d like to thank the fans for their support. But, at the end of the day, when I received the call it was an offer I couldn’t refuse. It was Williams!”

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Porsche sets sail for new voyage with new 911 RSR into 2017

Nos. 911 and 912 Porsche GT Team Porsche 911 RSR. Photo courtesy of IMSA
Nos. 911 and 912 Porsche GT Team Porsche 911 RSR. Photo courtesy of IMSA
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Porsche and 911 are as inextricably linked as bread and butter. Porsche and a mid-rear-engined 911, however, are as disparate as chalk and cheese.

Yet for 2017, the new era of Porsche’s 911 – its flagship car – marks its most radical reinvention from its usual rear-engine flat-six engine that is the hallmark, with the engine now ahead of the rear axle.

The new 911 is a normally aspirated beast and shakes up the norm for all its drivers, its engineers and its team.

Per Porsche: “The suspension, body structure, aerodynamic concept, engine and transmission have all been designed from scratch for the 2017 season. Depending on the size of the restrictor, the motor, which is now positioned in front of the rear axle, puts out approximately 510 hp. Thanks to the modern, lightweight normally aspirated engine, the designers were able to install a larger rear diffuser than in years past. Combined with a top-mounted rear wing, the level of downforce and the aerodynamic efficiency have been significantly improved.”

This new car looks to add to Porsche’s legacy at Daytona. From 1966 to Daytona, Porsche has 22 overall wins (11 straight from 1977 to 1987) and a total of 76 class wins. The most recent class victory came with the North American debut of the previous generation 911 RSR in 2014. That record is made of 27 GT class wins, one SGS class and GX class win each.

In the stacked GT Le Mans class, Porsche stands alone with the only all-new car for 2017, while Ford (second year of the GT), Ferrari (second year of the 488 GTE), BMW (second year of the M6 GTLM) and Chevrolet (fourth year of the Corvette C7.R) are all well into their current cycles of their newest cars.

That makes Porsche an outlier and arguably the manufacturer to watch throughout the year, as the new car progresses from start-to-finish over the course of the season in both the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship and FIA World Endurance Championship, where the rebranded Porsche GT Team has parallel two-car programs.

On the IMSA front, it’s not just the car that’s new, but also both driver lineups – only two years removed from a dream 2015 season that saw them dominate the GTLM class and score a shock, but well-judged, overall win in the torrential rains at Petit Le Mans.

Nick Tandy and Earl Bamber earn justifiable promotions to Porsche’s LMP1 team in the WEC, but it left a couple openings on the GTLM team. With Fred Makowiecki then shifted away from a full-season IMSA ride, that meant three spots opened up.

For the Morgan Brady-led, CORE autosport-run U.S. Porsche team, Patrick Pilet, the 2015 GTLM champion and lone holdover, will continue into 2017 with ex-privateer Porsche driver and past factory BMW driver Dirk Werner in the No. 911 car.

An entirely new lineup of Laurens Vanthoor (formerly of Audi) and Kevin Estre will be in the No. 912 car, and this presents arguably the most intriguing of pairings given both drivers’ youth but already ton of experience. Makowiecki (No. 911) and Richard Lietz (No. 912) are the third drivers. The two cars clocked 1,824 miles at the Roar Before the Rolex 24 test.

Estre. Photo courtesy of IMSA
Estre. Photo courtesy of IMSA

Estre, who joined Porsche as a factory driver last year, said he and Vanthoor already get on great from their European racing experience, and are looking forward to combining as teammates rather than trying to beat each other.

“We drove one time together in Le Mans in LMP2 with OAK (in 2015, in a Ligier JS P2 Honda),” Estre told NBC Sports. “We know each other as teammates, but more as competitors. It’s been really good so far. We’re both speaking French and have a German wife!

“The connection is really important for endurance races. It’s good to feel confident, and speak about a lot of stuff. So far it’s perfect. I’m confident we’ll work well together with our ways, being pretty similar of GT3 to Porsche. It’s quite new and with Porsche in GTLM.”

Estre offered advice for Werner and Vanthoor, who join Porsche as new factory drivers this year, on how to integrate into the culture of one of the world’s most successful manufacturers.

“I’ve done a lot before with Porsche in German Carrera Cup and Supercup,” he explained. “I knew the German culture. But being new as a factory driver is a bit special. You need to understand the team… you need to know CORE, Manthey, and Porsche AG in general.

“Everything is new. It’s a lot different. But with time, you know the people. You know where to go if you have a problem, or which question to ask to which people. I’m a lot more confident and more experienced now.”

Estre, who starred with McLaren in Pirelli World Challenge in 2015, had a mixed season in 2016 where he ran a mix of IMSA and European races. Having a single focus back on North America full-time is exciting for the Frenchman.

“I was happy to do different things but knowing you’re doing just one championship is different than three races here or there. As a driver, you look forward to winning something and to have a full season here is good for the U.S. I did IMSA three years ago in GTD, so GTLM will be new.”

Marco Ujhasi, Director of GT Factory Motorsports for Porsche, said the test went well for the design of the program.

“The test miles that we covered over the last three days in preparation for the race were very important. We managed to tick off all the points we’d scheduled for ourselves and now we have a much better understanding of the car on this racetrack,” he said in a release.

“In addition, we experienced changeable and very diverse track conditions. It was dry and wet, warm and cold – precisely what you need in race preparations to be primed for all eventualities. We feel very well prepared for the race and the premiere of our new 911 RSR. In this respect, these three days in Florida were very successful.”

As noted above, Porsche won in GTLM in the U.S. debut of its previous 911 RSR in 2014, with Tandy, Pilet and Lietz. An encore with this car’s debut would be another interesting story in and of itself.

Race Of Champions has stellar field looking for home run in Miami

Sebastian Vettel is the defending champion of the Race of Champions, having won the last ROC in 2015.
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Contestants in this weekend’s Race Of Champions will be going for both a win and home run.

The win is understandable, but the home run aspect of it is due to the host location: Miami Marlins Park, home of the Major League Baseball team of the same name.

The entire infield and outfield will be turned into a challenging circuit of numerous turns and side-by-side racing. The course layout is below.

“This is all about having a good time,” IndyCar driver Helio Castroneves said. “I respect all of the drivers and every one of them competing has some amazing qualities, plus switching cars throughout the event means the advantage will constantly be shifting. That’s why this is such a great event.”

Added fellow IndyCar driver Ryan Hunter-Reay, “To see a race track taking shape here in Marlins Park – where I bring my family for games – is incredible. And I also think it’s the best layout yet. I’m a home-town guy so hopefully the crowd will be cheering me on against two former ROC champions in my group.”

The two-day ROC will be divided between one-on-one races on Saturday, with team racing on Sunday.

Among Saturday’s marquee matchups:

* NASCAR’s Kyle Busch vs. F1’s Jenson Button.

* NASCAR’s Kurt Busch vs. Tom “Mr. Le Mans” Kristensen.

* Two-time Indy 500 winner Juan Pablo Montoya vs. World Rallycross’s Petter Solberg, action sports’ Travis Pastrana vs. four-time F1 champ and reigning ROC champ Sebastian Vettel.

* IndyCar’s James Hinchcliffe vs. fellow IndyCar driver Tony Kanaan.

* IndyCar’s Ryan Hunter-Reay vs. former ROC Champion of Champions David Coulthard.

* 2-time Indy 500 winner Juan Pablo Montoya vs. World Rallycross Champion Petter Solberg, F1’s Pascal Wehrlein vs. fellow F1 pilot Felipe Massa.

* Three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves vs. the winner of a play-off between Global Rallycross Champion Scott Speed and 2016 Indianapolis 500 winner Alexander Rossi.

* Other drivers in the field include Gabby Chaves (IndyCar), Stefan Rzadzinski and Gabriel Glusman, the latter two having won ROC Factor North America fan votes to get into the competition.

The top two drivers in each group will advance to the quarterfinals, and then a knockout tournament from there leads to crowning the Champion of Champions.

The top two drivers in each group progress to the quarter-finals. Then it’s a knockout tournament all the way to the Grand Final, when this year’s Champion of Champions will be crowned.

In Sunday’s Nations Cup competition, it’ll be America vs. The World in a Ryder Cup-style team battle:

Group A: Team USA NASCAR (Kyle and Kurt Busch), Team USA IndyCar (Alexander Rossi and Ryan Hunter-Reay) and Team USA Rally X (Travis Pastrana and Scott Speed) will all have to battle Team ROC Factor Canada (James Hinchcliffe and Stefan Rzadzinski).

Group B: Team Germany (Sebastian Vettel and Pascal Wehrlein), Team Great Britain (Jenson Button and David Coulthard) and Team Nordic (Tom Kristensen and Petter Solberg).

Group C: Team Brazil (Felipe Massa and Tony Kanaan), Team Colombia (Juan-Pablo Montoya and Gabby Chaves) and Team ROC Factor Latin America (Helio Castroneves and Gabriel Glusman).

Miami Marlins Park becomes the eighth different host site – and first in the United States – in recent years for the ROC, which returns after a one-year hiatus in 2016: Stade de France in Paris (2004-2006), London’s Wembley Stadium (2007-2008), Olympic Stadium in Beijing (2009), Düsseldorf’s Esprit Arena (2010-2011), Rajamangala Stadium in Bangkok (2012), Bushy Park Barbados (2014) and London’s former Olympic Stadium (2015).

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