(Photo: AP/Molly Riley)

Jimmie Johnson has monster-like performance, dominates for 9th career win at Dover’s Monster Mile

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To borrow a line from the 1960’s Herman’s Hermits song, “Henry the Eighth,” the outcome of Sunday’s FedEx 400 Benefitting Autism Speaks was a case of “Second verse, same as the first” for Jimmie Johnson.

The six-time and defending Sprint Cup champion won his second consecutive race of the season, adding Sunday’s triumph at Dover International Speedway to last Sunday’s victory in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte.

Johnson becomes the all-time winner at Dover, as Sunday’s was his ninth career Sprint Cup triumph there. He also is the third multiple winner this season, joining Kevin Harvick and Joey Logano with two wins apiece.

“It is incredible,” Johnson told Fox Sports. “This race car was awesome. I just have so much to be thankful for. “Chad (crew chief Chad Knaus) told me I’d love the car, and sure enough, from the time we unloaded the car, he was right.”

Just like he did at Charlotte, Johnson once again dominated at Dover, leading 272 of the 400 laps on the one-mile, all-concrete track.

With his back-to-back wins, Johnson is now a lock to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup as he pursues his bid to tie Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt as the only drivers in NASCAR history to earn seven Cup championships in their respective careers.

While the rest of the field had one last gasp to catch Johnson (who did not pit) when a caution was called eight laps from the finish due to debris from Casey Mears’ car, the driver of the No. 48 had a great restart on Lap 396 and hung on to finish off a masterpiece of a performance for his 68th career Sprint Cup win.

Pole-sitter Brad Keselowski finished second, followed by Matt Kenseth, Clint Bowyer and Denny Hamlin.

“We just had an up and down day,” Keselowski said. “We made a lot of adjustments and about halfway, the car just woke up. I was able to run from 13th to second. We just ran out of laps at the end to have a crack at getting (Johnson).”

Sixth through 10th were Martin Truex Jr., Tony Stewart, Joey Logano, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Paul Menard. Kyle Larson was the highest-finishing rookie, just missing a top 10 finish by winding up 11th.

To say it was a strange race at times is an understatement.

On Lap 159, a piece of concrete broke free from the racing surface at the end of Turn 2 on the one-mile, all-concrete racetrack.

The roughly softball sized piece made a direct hit to the lower part of the front end of Jamie McMurray’s Chevrolet, putting a sizeable dent in the bumper and splitter, causing NASCAR to red flag the race so that track workers could repair the resulting pothole that was about the size of a football.

NASCAR would not allow McMurray’s team to work on the car during the red flag conditions, but it will be able to do so once the event switched back to yellow flag caution conditions.

It was subsequently learned that when McMurray hit the chunk of concrete, parts of it flew up and struck the glass of the crossover walkway above the track at the exit of Turn 2. It did not appear anyone was injured in that incident.

And we hadn’t even gotten to halfway at that point, either!

Working backwards through the rest of the race:

A.J. AllmendingerGreg Biffle and Roush Fenway Racing teammate Ricky Stenhouse Jr. were all involved in a wreck on Lap 135 that also temporarily brought out a red flag condition.

Biffle’s and Stenhouse’s cars both suffered heavy damage. While it’s likely Stenhouse is done for the day, Biffle’s team is attempting to repair the damage to get him back on the racetrack.

Allmendinger, meanwhile, was able to continue.

* Then, 10 laps before that on Lap 125, Kyle Busch’s hopes for a weekend sweep came to an abrupt end when the right front of his Toyota made contact with the rear of Clint Bowyer’s Toyota.

The incident apparently cut down Busch’s right front tire as just seconds later he piled into the outside retaining wall.

Busch initially refused to come onto pit road, remaining on the racetrack – even with a flat right front tire and the damage to his car – and appeared as if he was going to retaliate to Bowyer.

Even though the track was under yellow flag caution conditions, Busch accelerated and looked as if he was going to get into Bowyer’s rear end, but eventually took his car to the garage after pleading from crew chief Dave Rogers over the team radio.

At the same time, Bowyer also accelerated to try and avoid Busch, who ultimately gave up his pursuit and drove to the garage.

After the race, Bowyer, who bounced back to finish fourth, regretted how things played out.

“What a day, frustrating day, hated that with Kyle, obviously,” Bowyer said. “(He and Busch) are teammates, so to speak, with the manufacturer (Toyota). It was a bad deal. Obviously, I thought I was clear and he kind of got up there. I thought he was going to give it to me (room), and he didn’t. Ruined his day for sure and it certainly didn’t help ours.”

To add insult to injury, Busch, who finished 42nd, was forced to wait to get into the garage because a track sweeper was blocking the entrance to the garage area.

Busch was attempting to become only the second driver in NASCAR history to win all three major races on the same weekend. Busch is the only one to have done that previously, having won all three at Bristol in August 2010.

* It was a very quick race for Michael Waltrip Racing driver Brian Vickers, who was forced to retire after just 73 laps due to a blown motor. Vickers finished last in the 43-car field.

* Sprint Cup rookie Alex Bowman brushed the wall twice in the first quarter of the lap, bringing out the caution flag once.

Josh Wise also sustained right rear damage when he also brushed the wall, but was able to get to pit road without a caution flag.

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Graham Rahal able to ‘tame the beast’ of Texas ghosts with win

FORT WORTH, TX - AUGUST 27: Graham Rahal driver of the #15 Mi-Jack/RLL Honda speaks at a media conference after winning the Verizon IndyCar Series Firestone 600 at Texas Motor Speedway on August 27, 2016 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Mike Stone/Getty Images for Texas Motor Speedway)
(Photo by Mike Stone/Getty Images for Texas Motor Speedway)
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FORT WORTH – Graham Rahal swears he didn’t give the final 177 laps of the Firestone 600 a single thought between June 12 and Aug. 27.

“I haven’t thought about it at all until this week,” said Rahal, who was now thinking about nothing else after winning said race by .008 seconds over James Hinchcliffe, a Texas Motor Speedway record.

Rahal and the rest of the Verizon IndyCar Series have been busy since June, competing in –  and actually finishing – five races since the Firestone 600 was postponed 77 days for rain after reaching Lap 71.

After visiting Road America, Iowa Speedway, Toronto, his home track of Mid-Ohio and Pocono, the 1.5-mile track in North Texas finally, surreally, came back around.

“It’s a very strange thing actually,” Rahal said, still wearing the 10-gallon Cowboy hat awarded to race winners by track president Eddie Gossage. “We came down here this morning, and I don’t know, it was just a weird day to kind of get into the groove of it. It was like, we landed so early, we had so much time to kill, then such a short practice, and then we just go racing.”

Due to what transpired over the those five races – not finishing better than fourth after a Road America podium and only leading two laps – Rahal was having very specific thoughts about Saturday night’s race.

“This week I knew, again, because of the year that we’ve had, it was an opportunity,” Rahal said. “I felt like in June we had a great race car, we just didn’t get to see it through and tonight obviously from the front, we went forward, and it was a great night.”

After restarting 12th in a car Rahal described after a brief practice session as a “f—ing rocket,” the No. 15 carved its way through the pack. By the final 25 laps it one of five cars on the lead lap, led by Hinchcliffe.

“I just thought if I could get there, we’d have a good chance, and then we went fighting at the end there,” Rahal said. “I had a lot of front tire degradation. I was having to take the early laps a bit slower to try to save that outside front. You could see Kanaan and (Scott) Dixon even a little bit quicker than me but 15 laps or so into the stint I closed back up because my car, I think, was better on the tires in the long run.”

Then, unlike Hinchcliffe, Rahal’s team decided to pit late for tires under caution. That decision set up an eight-lap sprint that will likely be considered the most thrilling of the season. With three and four-wide racing, it looked like the memorable Indy Racing League races at Texas of a decade ago.

On a night where TMS honored law enforcement, Rahal’s path through the field was oversaw by spotter Steve Turner, a retired police officer from Speedway, Indiana.

“Steve does a great job. But tonight I had to keep my eyes particularly peeled at all times to my mirrors, Rahal said. “I always trust the spotter but I want to make sure in a lot of cases that we gave ourselves a little extra room.”

In the closing laps, Rahal’s thoughts didn’t drift to those old “pack” races. They went to a more recent Texas visit in 2012. That year, Rahal led 27 laps at the climax of the race with Justin Wilson chasing him. With three laps left, Rahal bounced off the wall out of Turn 4, allowing Wilson to pass him and win.

It would be the last IndyCar win for Wilson, who died a year ago last week from injuries sustained at Pocono Raceway.

“You know what I was motivated by a little bit is I kept thinking about Justin there, because a couple years ago we had a great battle here,” Rahal said. “Quite honestly I was picturing him shooting those things off there the last couple of laps, just trying to get it done for ourselves here.”

That failure in 2012 came in the middle of seven winless seasons for the son of Bobby Rahal. Graham Rahal ended that last season with a win in another tense, hotly contested “pack race” at Auto Club Speedway.

“It’s just nice to kind of tame the beast a little bit,” said Rahal, who has made nine starts at Texas, but only finished in the top 10 three times. “This place is a tough place to win … So it feels nice. To not go through this year winless is the biggest pressure I feel off my shoulders. I can’t tell you how pleased I am to get that over because not that it would have been a dry spell like last time, but I don’t want to have to hear the questions again, so it was nice to just get that.”

Even when Rahal got the win, he was afraid he has celebrated too soon. As his car neared the finish line, he raised his right hand in a celebratory fist before quickly dropping it down right as Hinchcliffe was pulling even with him.

“I was like, ‘make sure his roll hoop says two.’ Looked over and I could see it said two, and I knew I had it,” Rahal said. “Those LED panels that IndyCar started using are awesome.”

The win also gave Honda just its second win of 2016, a year after it earned five. After two months of not thinking about a race, Rahal won’t want to stop talking about it.

“It’s special for us to get a win for Honda for sure, and be able to call corporate on Monday and have a good talk,” Rahal said.

Hamilton gets extra five-place grid drop ahead of Belgian GP

SPA, BELGIUM - AUGUST 27:  Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain drives the 4 Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo during qualifying for the Formula One Grand Prix of Belgium at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps on August 27, 2016 in Spa, Belgium.  (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)
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Formula 1 drivers’ championship leader Lewis Hamilton has been hit with an extra five-place grid drop ahead of Sunday’s Belgian Grand Prix after Mercedes broke a seal on his gearbox overnight.

Hamilton was due to start the race from 21st place on the grid after being hit with a number of penalties for taking three new power units over the weekend.

Hamilton had a 55-place grid drop to serve that would see him start ahead only of Fernando Alonso, who had 60 places worth of penalties.

Hamilton told NBCSN on Saturday that he would rather not start from the pit lane, but the FIA stewards issued a document saying he would have to after Mercedes broke parc ferme conditions.

However, Mercedes now claims that the FIA stewards have issued an incorrect penalty, and that Hamilton will start from the grid after all, with his penalty being a five-place grid drop that takes his total up to 60.

“The stewards issued the incorrect penalty and have now issued a five-place grid penalty, taking us to 60 places in total,” a Mercedes spokesperson said.

“The gearbox seal was broken so that Lewis can take a fresh gearbox at the next event. He will start from the grid, not the pit lane.”

As Alonso failed to set a time in Q1 and technically didn’t qualify, Hamilton will still start ahead of the Spaniard.

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

SPA, BELGIUM - AUGUST 27: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo on track during qualifying for the Formula One Grand Prix of Belgium at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps on August 27, 2016 in Spa, Belgium.  (Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images)
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Nico Rosberg will know that today’s Belgian Grand Prix is probably the best chance he’ll get to fight back into contention for the Formula 1 drivers’ championship.

After seeing his points advantage over Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton disappear through July and turn into a 19-point deficit, the German could move back into the lead on Sunday at Spa.

Hamilton will start the race from the last row of the grid after being hit with a 55-place grid drop for taking three new power units over the weekend, as forced by issues earlier in the season.

Rosberg, meanwhile, had a relatively untroubled run to pole on Saturday, seeing off the challenges from Max Verstappen and Kimi Raikkonen in Q3.

With the Mercedes drivers starting at either end of the grid, the race and title fight are finely-poised, which should make for a thrilling contest.

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

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

2016 Belgian Grand Prix – What to watch for

Can Nico handle the pressure?

Rosberg’s title bid in 2016 has largely been built on the run of four race wins at the start of the year, all of which came after calm and well-executed displays. His form since then has been a little more erratic, allowing Hamilton back into the title fight.

Without his biggest rival for company at the front of the grid, Rosberg knows that victory should be his for the taking. Strategy will be key at Spa, and with Rosberg starting on softs as opposed to the quicker super-soft tires, he may struggle early on.

Nevertheless, this really should be Rosberg’s race to lose. And if he leaves Spa more than 19 points behind Hamilton, it would surely be a crushing psychological defeat.

Max Mania set to reach new heights

Spa is expecting its biggest attendance since 2002 on Sunday, bucking the trend of falling crowd figures that most European circuits are experiencing. Much of it is down to the success of Max Verstappen, who hails from the nearby Netherlands and lives in Belgium.

Tens of thousands of fans have made the trip across the border to cheer on Verstappen, turning the grandstands a shade of orange. Their support was rewarded with a charge to second place on the grid in qualifying, making Verstappen F1’s youngest ever front-row starter.

Starting on super-softs, Verstappen should have a pace advantage early on at Spa. Rosberg said that Red Bull’s long-run pace was concerning on Friday – could Verstappen charge to a second F1 victory?

Damage limitation the aim for Hamilton

While the penalty system may have looked somewhat farcical, Lewis Hamilton won’t care much. He now has three new power units that should see him to the end of the season barring any unexpected problems.

Hamilton has fought his way from the back of the grid before, most notably in Germany and Hungary in 2014. This time around though, it may prove more difficult. Mercedes is no longer way off in the distance compared to other teams – as such, it won’t be easy pickings.

Throw in a safety car period or two, and Hamilton could get into contention at the front of the pack. Otherwise, he needs to stay out of trouble and limit the damage of this weekend’s penalty.

All eyes on tires, both strategy and pressures

Tires are always a talking point at Spa, but this year they are proving to be particularly troublesome. Teams have been required to raise their tire pressures to prevent blow-outs, something that Felipe Massa called a “joke” earlier in the week.

That, combined with the variety of strategies on offer, could shake up the pecking order today. A three-stop race is most likely barring any safety car periods, and with temperatures higher than expected (sun at Spa? What is this sorcery?), it’s going to be a tough day for the pit wall. Lots to be lost and gained.

Opportunity knocks for lower midfield

The summer breaks appears to have done wonders for many of the teams in F1’s lower-midfield. Haas, Renault, Sauber and Manor all impressed in qualifying with their pace, and will be hopeful of repeating that kind of display in the race on Sunday.

For Haas, being on the right tire at the right time has been its biggest strength so far this season, making Spa a race where opportunities should be plenty. For Manor, today will see Esteban Ocon make his F1 debut – can he and/or Pascal Wehrlein add to its points haul this year?

2016 Belgian Grand Prix – Starting Grid

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

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

SPA, BELGIUM - AUGUST 27: Nico Rosberg of Germany driving the (6) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo on track during qualifying for the Formula One Grand Prix of Belgium at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps on August 27, 2016 in Spa, Belgium.  (Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images)
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Formula 1 makes its long-awaited return from the summer break today with the Belgian Grand Prix at the iconic Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps.

Nico Rosberg may have seen his points lead in the drivers’ championship turn into a 19-point deficit through July, but the German now has a perfect chance to strike back against Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton.

With Hamilton receiving a 55-place grid drop for taking three new power units over the weekend, the championship leader is resigned to the back row of the grid.

Rosberg capitalized on his teammate’s struggles to capture pole at Spa on Saturday, edging out Red Bull’s Max Verstappen and Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen in Q3.

The pressure will now be on Rosberg to seal the deal and take his first win since the middle of June, while Hamilton will be focusing on damage limitation when fighting back from the rear of the grid.

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

Bob Varsha, David Hobbs and Steve Matchett will be on the call, with pit reporter Will Buxton on the ground at Hockenheim providing updates and interviews throughout the race.

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