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.”

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

Toro Rosso extends contract for technical director James Key

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Scuderia Toro Rosso technical director James Key will continue with the team for the foreseeable future, following a contract extension announced on Tuesday.

Key joined the team in 2012 and has seen the Faenza-based squad solidify its role in the upper midfield, with occasional surprise finishes that have pushed the team near the top three or four teams on the grid.

“I am delighted to continue with Toro Rosso and remain part of the Red Bull family,” he said. “This is a team which I have great respect for and have thoroughly enjoyed working with for the past 5 years; now I look forwards to continuing our project into the future.

“STR is unique, facing the challenges of being spread over two countries and fulfilling the roles of both a team in its own right and an important part of the Red Bull driver program: they are challenges that the team takes in its stride and, whilst doing so, continues to grow and improve year on year.

“Most importantly, the people I have had the pleasure to work with at STR are second to none: professional, ambitious and focussed, they have all worked incredibly hard to improve the team’s performance and will continue that hard work with the same dedication and optimism in the coming years too. I would like to thank Franz Tost and Red Bull for their continued support and confidence. We have more work to do, and I look forwards to taking the next steps with Toro Rosso towards our goals.”

Team principal Franz Tost added, Formula 1 is a team sport, but one in which an individual can still make a difference. So far, in his time with us, James has proved that he can indeed make that difference, leading the technical side of the operation.

“Not only has he been adept at producing chassis-aero packages that are well regarded throughout the paddock, he has also shown the management skills necessary to get the most out of all the various departments that work together both here in Faenza and in Bicester. I am therefore delighted that James will be with us for the foreseeable future to continue this fruitful process.”

Teams load up on supersoft tires for Italian GP

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There’s almost no variety in team Pirelli tire selections for the Italian Grand Prix, with nearly all teams going with two sets of softs and 10 sets of supersofts for next week’s race. All teams have selected just one set of mediums.

The only variance comes with Mercedes, Force India and Haas going with three sets of softs and nine supersofts. The rest are all the same choice, two softs and 10 supersofts.

Monza comes a week after Spa this week.

Pirelli’s tire breakdown is below.

Jackie Joyner-Kersee to serve as Gateway grand marshal

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The Verizon IndyCar Series’ return to Gateway Motorsports Park for the Bommarito Automotive Group 500 presented by Valvoline will feature quite an excellent grand marshal, in the form of three-time Olympic gold medalist Jackie Joyner-Kersee.

The full release from the track is below.

An Olympic champion has been selected to give the command to start engines for the Bommarito Automotive Group 500 presented by Valvoline comes to Gateway Motorsports Park in Madison, Illinois on August 26. Jackie Joyner-Kersee, considered to be one of the greatest athletes of all time, will serve as the grand marshal for the Verizon IndyCar Series event.

“I am humble,” said Joyner-Kersee, who is a native of East St. Louis, Illinois. “I do not take this honor for granted to be the INDYCAR race’s grand marshal at Gateway Motorsports Park. Very few people are asked to give the command and I am grateful to be one of the few. Thank you!”

Track-and-field star Joyner-Kersee has won three Olympic gold medals, as well as one silver and two bronze. She was the first American to win gold for the long jump and the first woman to earn more than 7,000 points in the seven-event heptathlon, making her the most decorated female athlete in Olympic track and field history.

As a teen, she won the National Junior Pentathlon championships for consecutive years and received widespread honors in high school in various sports, including track, basketball and volleyball. During her junior year, she set the Illinois high school long jump record for women, with a 6.68-meter jump. Joyner-Kersee attended the University of California, Los Angeles on a full scholarship and continued to gain fame on both the court and field. In 1981, at the age of 19, she began to focus on training for the Olympics, specifically for the heptathlon — an Olympic track-and-field competition comprised of seven separate events, including the 200-meter run, 800-meter run and 100-meter hurdles. She graduated from UCLA in 1985.

Joyner-Kersee won a silver medal in the heptathlon at the 1984 Summer Olympics, as well as gold and bronze medals in the long jump in 1988 and 1992, respectively, and is currently the heptathlon world record-holder.
Following her retirement from competition, she founded the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Youth Center Foundation. The mission of the foundation is to instill youth in the a Greater East St. Louis area with the dream, drive and determination necessary to succeed in academics, athletics and leadership. “Winners In Life.”

Chuck Wallis, Vice President of the Bommarito Automotive Group, will serve as honorary starter and will wave the opening green flag.

Kimi Raikkonen confirmed at Ferrari for 2018 F1 season

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Scuderia Ferrari has confirmed that Kimi Raikkonen will remain with the team for the 2018 Formula 1 season after being given a new one-year contract.

Raikkonen, 37, has raced with Ferrari since 2014, and has been on a one-year rolling contract since the end of 2015.

The Finn has been a regular focus for the F1 driver market’s ‘silly season’ given his age and struggle for form compared to teammate Sebastian Vettel, who currently leads the drivers’ championship.

Raikkonen has scored 86 less points than Vettel through the opening 11 races of the 2017 season, but has nevertheless done enough to secure a new contract, confirmed by Ferrari on Tuesday.

“Ferrari announces that Scuderia Ferrari has renewed its technical and racing agreement with Kimi Raikkonen,” a brief statement from Ferrari reads.

“The Finnish driver will therefore race for the Maranello team in the 2018 Formula One World Championship.”

Raikkonen is the first of the big-name free agents to have his plans for 2018 confirmed, with Vettel, ex-Ferrari racer Fernando Alonso and Mercedes’ Valtteri Bottas yet to announce a drive for next year.

Raikkonen first joined Ferrari in 2007, winning the F1 drivers’ championship in his first season, but left at the end of 2009 to take some time out from the sport.

A return in 2012 with Lotus saw Raikkonen display plenty of his old spark, taking two wins for the financially-hamstrung team before leaving at the end of 2013 over a pay row.

Raikkonen moved back to Ferrari for 2014 alongside Fernando Alonso, with Vettel arriving the following year.

Questions over Raikkonen’s motivation and ability have been rife for some time, but without any outstanding candidates for a seat available as things stand, the news is not overly surprising.

Nevertheless, it does defuse some of the silliness of ‘silly season’, with Vettel’s confirmation at Ferrari seemingly set to follow.