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

More misery for Alonso as he fails to start Russian GP after engine issue (VIDEO)

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Fernando Alonso’s miserable start to the 2017 Formula 1 season continued on Sunday in Russia as he failed to start the race following an engine issue on the formation lap.

Alonso and McLaren entered the Sochi weekend without a point to their name due to a number of issues with the Honda power unit, which has been lacking both reliability and performance.

Alonso fought his way to P15 in qualifying, but did not fancy his chances of scoring points given the Honda power unit’s lack of straight line speed in Sochi.

However, Alonso did not even get the chance to start the race in Russia after reporting an issue on the formation lap with his power unit that ultimately forced him to park up at the side of the track.

The Spaniard trudged back to the pit lane on foot, the disappointment clear in his body language after his fourth straight point-less weekend came to an early end.

“Well, same as every weekend. Nothing new today,” Alonso said of the incident on NBCSN after the race.

“I am trying to anticipate the plane [to Indianapolis] but it’s not here apparently! Have to wait for it at the normal time. [I’ll] eat ice cream.”

Alonso’s last DNS came at the infamous 2005 United States Grand Prix at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which will be his next destination as he prepares to enjoy his first IndyCar test with Andretti Autosport on Wednesday ahead of his Indy 500 run later in the month.

Red Bull’s Verstappen, Ricciardo see season slipping away

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SOCHI, Russia (AP) For Red Bull’s Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo, the podium is starting to look a long way off.

Mercedes and Ferrari’s tussle for wins in Formula One has left Verstappen and Ricciardo in the cold, an uncomfortable sensation for drivers who each won a race last year and were podium regulars.

And the gap to the top two teams is getting bigger.

“For us, I think, at the moment the best we can do is fifth, so that’s like a victory for us,” Verstappen said Saturday.

In qualifying for the Russian Grand Prix, Ricciardo’s fifth place downplayed the gulf between Red Bull and the leaders. Ricciardo was 1.7 seconds off pole-sitter Sebastian Vettel of Ferrari, and more than 1.1 off Lewis Hamilton of Mercedes in fourth.

Verstappen, who lit up the sport a year ago with a win in Spain on his Red Bull debut, was almost two seconds off the pace in seventh.

“As a team, we know where we have to improve, and that’s both chassis and engine,” Verstappen said. “We have to deal with it and hopefully soon we can improve it on both sides.”

Vettel’s title with Red Bull in 2013 was the last time the team could fight for regular wins, but it did manage two victories and 15 podium finishes last year, often when the dominant Mercedes team slipped up.

This campaign, Red Bull’s hopes of adding more podiums to Verstappen’s third place in China earlier this month likely rest on an anticipated package of upgrades to the car. That’s due in time for the May 14 Spanish Grand Prix.

“It will probably dictate whether we’re going to be on the podium or not” in what remains of the first half of the season, Ricciardo said. “It’s our best hope, for sure.”

WATCH LIVE: Russian GP on NBCSN, NBC Sports app from 7am ET

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Ferrari continued its impressive start to the 2017 Formula 1 season on Saturday as Sebastian Vettel stormed to pole position for the Russian Grand Prix in Sochi.

F1 RUSSIAN GRAND PRIX LIVE STREAM

Vettel edged out teammate Kimi Raikkonen in the final stage of qualifying as Ferrari swept to its first front-row lock-out in almost nine years, leaving Mercedes to settle for the second row of the grid.

Ferrari has never won a grand prix in Russia, but Vettel has a golden opportunity to extend his championship lead and stamp his authority on the early part of this year’s championship today.

However, Mercedes will be plotting a response courtesy of Valtteri Bottas and Lewis Hamilton, the latter chasing a third win in Sochi on Sunday.

You can watch the Russian Grand Prix live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 7am ET. CLICK HERE to watch via live stream.

You can also try out a new ‘Mosaic View’ for the race that includes the race simulcast, in-car cameras, driver tracker and pit lane cam. CLICK HERE to watch the Mosaic View live stream.

Leigh Diffey, David Hobbs and Steve Matchett will be on the call, with pit reporter Will Buxton on the ground in Sochi providing updates and interviews throughout the race.

Also be sure to follow the @F1onNBCSports Twitter account for live updates throughout the race.

What to watch for: Russian Grand Prix (NBCSN, NBC Sports app from 7am ET)

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Following his second victory of the 2017 Formula 1 season in Bahrain two weeks ago, Sebastian Vettel continued his impressive march at the head of the field by taking Ferrari’s first pole in 18 months on Saturday in Russia.

Vettel edged out teammate Kimi Raikkonen in the final stages of qualifying to head up a Ferrari one-two, the first since the 2008 French Grand Prix.

Mercedes was left searching answers for its lack of pace as Valtteri Bottas and Lewis Hamilton were left to settle for the second row of the grid, with the team’s 18-race run of pole positions ending.

With Vettel on the brink of extending his championship lead and Ferrari’s threat to Mercedes’ dominance looking more and more real, the German marque is in need of a response on Sunday in Russia.

You can watch the Russian Grand Prix live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 7am ET on Sunday. CLICK HERE to watch via live stream.

Here is what to watch for in today’s race.

2017 Russian Grand Prix – What to watch for

Vettel has best chance yet to tighten grip on championship lead

It may still be very early days in the race for the 2017 F1 championship, but victories at the start of the year can prove crucial come the end – and for Sebastian Vettel, a third win in four races would surely signal the reality of Ferrari’s title bid.

Vettel has been in supreme form so far this season, rarely putting a foot wrong, and now has the chance to deliver a display reminiscent of his Red Bull heyday from the front of the field.

Ferrari’s race pace has been its real strength so far this year, giving Vettel a boost heading into Sunday in what has the potential to be quite a straightforward victory. If Kimi Raikkonen can play a good rear-gunner, then this should be Vettel’s for the taking.

Mercedes needs to dig deep

The odds are firmly stacked in Ferrari’s favor, with Mercedes requiring quite the turnaround to get in contention for victory.

While starting on the second row is certainly not the end of the world given the long straights at the Sochi Autodrom that offer plenty of scope for slipstreaming, Mercedes’ ultra-soft struggles so far this season makes it difficult to see how it can get the upper hand on Vettel at the front.

Valtteri Bottas may in fact be its best chance for victory in Sochi, with the Finn boasting a good track record in Russia and looking more comfortable with the Mercedes W08 car than esteemed teammate Lewis Hamilton throughout the weekend so far.

Should Hamilton find himself stuck behind Bottas again as he was in Bahrain, it will be interesting to see if Mercedes opts to invoke team orders and swap the cars around, even at this early stage in the championship.

The One With The Apartment

Quite a fun story came out of qualifying on Saturday in the form of an apartment bet harking back to the one in Friends.

Mercedes and Ferrari are so far clear that the race for the likes of Red Bull and Williams is for P5 at best, with Daniel Ricciardo, Felipe Massa and Max Verstappen seemingly in that fight this weekend.

It turns out all three live in the same apartment block in Monaco, prompting Ricciardo to suggest that whoever finishes ahead in Russia should be given the biggest one for a week as a prize.

In all seriousness though: do keep an eye on the battle for fifth this weekend. Apartment bet aside, it will be a good gauge of just how close Red Bull is to Williams and how far clear the leading two teams are.

One-stop strategy the way to go

Tire degradation levels in Russia are so low that a one-stop strategy is the only way to go on Sunday. In fact, the most logical option will be to complete the race on the two softest compounds – ultra-soft and super-soft – with the soft being kept on the shelf.

Should an early safety car come out in the event of another ‘torpedo’ incident as in 2016, then some may even opt to come in immediately and perhaps complete all but one lap on the super-soft tire.

While there is little scope to get imaginative with strategy in Russia, the push for track position amid the undercut or overcut could decide which way the race goes.

Can McLaren finally score points?

Probably not is the answer to this one. Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne were left frustrated once again after qualifying, and will start today’s race 15th and 20th respectively, the latter dropping back due to an engine-related grid penalty.

McLaren made good progress during the test following the Bahrain Grand Prix, but its hopes of points in Russia look slim. Alonso claimed on Saturday that the team is losing 2.5 to three seconds per lap on the straights alone, such is the deficit of the Honda power unit. The fuel-hungry nature of the Sochi Autodrom will also hurt McLaren, forcing the team to ease back even more.

Another tough day is in store for McLaren, it seems.

2017 Russian Grand Prix – Starting Grid

1. Sebastian Vettel Ferrari
2. Kimi Raikkonen Ferrari
3. Valtteri Bottas Mercedes
4. Lewis Hamilton Mercedes
5. Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull
6. Felipe Massa Williams
7. Max Verstappen Red Bull
8. Nico Hulkenberg Renault
9. Sergio Perez Force India
10. Esteban Ocon Force India
11. Lance Stroll Williams
12. Daniil Kvyat Toro Rosso
13. Kevin Magnussen Haas
14. Carlos Sainz Jr. Toro Rosso*
15. Fernando Alonso McLaren
16. Jolyon Palmer Renault
17. Pascal Wehrlein Sauber
18. Marcus Ericsson Sauber
19. Romain Grosjean Haas
20. Stoffel Vandoorne McLaren**

Carlos Sainz Jr. takes a three-place grid penalty following an incident in the Bahrain Grand Prix.
** Stoffel Vandoorne takes a 15-place grid penalty after power unit changes earlier in the Russian Grand Prix weekend.

You can watch the Russian Grand Prix live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 7am ET on Sunday. CLICK HERE to watch via live stream.