Dale Earnhardt Jr. passes Brad Keselowski late to win at Pocono (VIDEO)

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In case we needed a reminder that the fastest car doesn’t always win the race, we got one with today’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Pocono Raceway.

Brad Keselowski was the most dominant driver of the Pocono 400 and when he held off Dale Earnhardt Jr. on a restart with 12 laps to go, it appeared the Team Penske driver would be heading to Victory Lane.

But a piece of trash got stuck to the grille of Keselowski’s No. 2 Ford, causing it to overheat while Earnhardt maintained pressure from behind.

With five laps left, he tried using the airflow around the lapped car of Danica Patrick to knock off the debris. But the loss in momentum allowed Earnhardt to pass him for the lead in Turn 2.

That proved to be the difference as Keselowski was unable to catch up in the closing laps and Earnhardt went on to his first career victory at the Tricky Triangle.

After the Hendrick Motorsports driver became the fourth competitor with multiple wins this Sprint Cup season, he admitted that speed-wise, Keselowski had him covered but was still happy with the outcome.

“That’s unfortunate for him,” Earnhardt told TNT. “He had me beat. I couldn’t get to him. It’s just real hard to pass here, but I’ve lost some in some strange ways. So it feels good to win one like that.

“…Brad definitely had a better car, and I’m definitely owning up to that. But we won the race and we’re definitely going to enjoy it. It goes into the books and helps us toward the Chase.

“We were there all day running great and had a fast car, but just didn’t really get track position until the end, and you gotta be there [at the end].”

Keselowski said he had no choice but to try something to get the trash off his car.

“I tried to make a move and get behind the 10 [Danica] and use the air to pull the debris off,” he said. “When she went in the corner, she got loose and I chased her up there and lost too much momentum.

“I should have just passed her but I had to do something. I knew the car wasn’t going to make it [with the trash on].”

It was a tough way to end things for Keselowski, who excelled in clean air and led the first 56 laps of the race. He ultimately led four times for a race-high 95 laps before settling for the runner-up spot.

By contrast, Earnhardt, while competitive, only led 11 laps. But out of those 11, he led the one that counted – the final one.

And thanks to his second win of the year, Earnhardt only needs now to stay in the Top 30 of the Sprint Cup championship standings (and attempt to qualify for every race) to officially clinch his spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

Earnhardt now sits third in the standings behind new points leader/teammate Jeff Gordon and Matt Kenseth. Barring an epic disaster, staying in the Top 30 should be an easy task for the remainder of the regular season.

Kurt Busch appeared to get his season back on track with a third-place result that came after he overshot his pit box during a stop under a Lap 118 caution.

That was part of a bad race sequence for Stewart-Haas Racing which saw Kevin Harvick suffer a flat tire on Lap 115 while running second (he finished 14th), followed by Busch’s overshot, and then a speeding penalty for Tony Stewart in the pits (he finished 13th).

Pole sitter Denny Hamlin turned in a steady afternoon and finished fourth for his second consecutive Top-5 finish, and rookie Kyle Larson had a solid drive of his own to fifth.

Gordon’s eighth place result has allowed him to re-take the points lead after previous leader Kenseth finished 25th; Kenseth soldiered on following contact with Jamie McMurray around Lap 40 that left him with serious front-end damage.

Heading into Michigan International Speedway next weekend, Gordon leads the winless Kenseth by 16 points, with Earnhardt 22 points behind.

NASCAR SPRINT CUP SERIES – POCONO 400
Unofficial Results

1. Dale Earnhardt Jr., led 11 laps
2. Brad Keselowski, led 95 laps
3. Kurt Busch, led 5 laps
4. Denny Hamlin, led 4 laps
5. Kyle Larson, led 7 laps
6. Jimmie Johnson, led 5 laps
7. Ryan Newman
8. Jeff Gordon, led 2 laps
9. Martin Truex Jr.
10. Jamie McMurray
11. Clint Bowyer
12. Kyle Busch
13. Tony Stewart, led 24 laps
14. Kevin Harvick
15. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
16. Greg Biffle
17. Austin Dillon
18. David Ragan
19. Brian Vickers, led one lap
20. Michael Annett
21. A.J. Allmendinger
22. Aric Almirola
23. Casey Mears
24. Marcos Ambrose
25. Matt Kenseth
26. Paul Menard
27. Justin Allgaier, led six laps
28. David Gilliland
29. Travis Kvapil
30. Cole Whitt, -1 lap
31. Alex Bowman, -1 lap
32. Ryan Truex, -1 lap
33. Landon Cassill, -2 laps
34. Reed Sorenson, -2 laps
35. Josh Wise, -2 laps
36. Timmy Hill, -2 laps
37. Danica Patrick, -2 laps
38. J.J. Yeley, -3 laps
39. Alex Kennedy, -4 laps
40. Joey Logano, Lap 150, Engine
41. Carl Edwards, Lap 143, Accident
42. Kasey Kahne, Lap 142, Accident
43. Dave Blaney, Lap 142, Running

Average Speed: 139.440 MPH
Lead Changes: 21 among 10 drivers
Time of Race: 02 Hrs, 52 Mins, 07 Secs.
Cautions: 7 for 26 laps
Margin of Victory: 0.439 Seconds

Giovinazzi impresses as Sauber sub, finishes 12th on F1 debut

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Antonio Giovinazzi continued his impressive last-minute showing in the Australian Grand Prix weekend by finishing 12th for Sauber on his Formula 1 debut.

Ferrari junior and 2015 GP2 runner-up Giovinazzi was drafted in by Sauber on Saturday to replace Pascal Wehrlein, who withdrew from the race weekend due to an ongoing back injury.

Giovinazzi qualified 16th on Saturday, narrowly missing out on a place in Q2, and then enjoyed a trouble-free race en route to 12th at the checkered flag, two laps down on race winner Sebastian Vettel.

“It was a good race, and I am happy with my performance today,” Giovinazzi said.

“My objective was to gain more experience and collect mileage in the car. I will sit together with my engineers to analyze areas where I can improve.

“I want to thank the Sauber F1 Team and Scuderia Ferrari again for this opportunity. It was an amazing race weekend for me.”

Sauber team principal Monisha Kaltenborn was full of praise for Giovinazzi: “A very impressive performance from Antonio during his first Formula 1 race. He showed his potential as well as what the car is capable of.”

Giovinazzi is now set to return to his reserve driver duties at Ferrari, with Wehrlein expected to be back at full-fitness for the Chinese Grand Prix in two weeks’ time.

Maverick Vinales wins MotoGP opener in Qatar after rain delays start

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Maverick Viñales made a flying start to life with Yamaha in MotoGP by winning on his debut with the factory team in Qatar on Sunday night.

Rain throughout the weekend had already forced qualifying to be cancelled on Saturday, with Viñales claiming pole by virtue of setting the fastest time in practice.

Officials decided early on Sunday that they would not be amending its schedule for races, with the Moto2 and Moto3 events going ahead as planned.

Just minutes before the MotoGP race was set to get underway at 11pm local time, rain started to fall once again over the Losail International Circuit, prompting the stewards to delay the race start after a number of riders went off during an installation lap.

A 45-minute delay followed as a number of officials from both MotoGP and the teams remonstrated on the grid before being asked to take their discussions inside, away from the cameras and the watching world.

With the rain easing to a light drizzle, the stewards confirmed the race would start as planned, albeit reduced to 20 laps.

On a moist track, Viñales made a tentative start from pole, dropping to fifth as Suzuki’s Andrea Iannone made the best getaway to lead into the first corner.

Iannone was quickly passed by Tech3’s Johann Zarco, who completed his first lap in MotoGP as the race leader, and soon began to forge a lead over the chasing pack.

Zarco’s hopes of a debut win were dashed when he slid off the track in the tricky conditions, allowing Ducati’s Andrea Dovizioso to assume the lead ahead of Iannone.

When Iannone fell and third-placed Marc Marquez began to drop off the pace as his tires faded, Viñales and Yamaha teammate Valentino Rossi began to close on Dovizioso, setting up a grandstand finish.

Viñales found a way past Dovizioso, only to lose the lead a couple of laps later, before then taking it back with two laps to go, curbing the Ducati’s straight-line speed advantage as they headed into Turn 1 for the final time.

From there, Viñales was able to keep his cool and cross the line half a second clear of Dovizioso to record his second MotoGP victory, his first coming with Suzuki last year at Silverstone.

Rossi crossed the line a close third, much to his surprise after a torrid pre-season, while Marquez was left to settle for fourth place to begin his riders’ title defence.

Dani Pedrosa finished one place behind his Honda teammate in fifth, while Aleix Espargaro was one of the unsung heroes of the race, crossing the line sixth for Aprilia.

Scott Redding wound up seventh ahead of Jack Miller and Alex Rins, while Tech3 debutant Jonas Folger rounded out the top 10.

Three-time MotoGP champion Jorge Lorenzo had a forgettable debut with Ducati, finishing a lowly 11th after an off-track excursion on the opening lap.

The MotoGP season continues with round two of the season in Argentina on April 9.

Ocon picks up maiden F1 point in Australia, finishes as top rookie

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Esteban Ocon picked up his first point in Formula 1 during his maiden outing for Force India in Australia on Sunday, finishing the race 10th and as the top rookie.

Ocon made his F1 debut in Belgium last year with the backmarker Manor team, completing the final nine rounds of the season before moving into a seat with Force India for 2017.

Embarking on his first full season of F1 (and therefore still a rookie) in 2017, Ocon qualified 14th in Australia on Saturday before spending much of the race battling with Fernando Alonso and Nico Hulkenberg, the trio going three-wide down the main straight at one point.

Ocon was able to come out on top, clinching the final point on offer in Melbourne by finishing P10 to complete a double-points finish for Force India after Sergio Perez ended up seventh.

“Very happy with today. It’s been a tough weekend but a great reward at the end,” Ocon told NBCSN after the race.

“Fighting with Alonso made things difficult. It was side by side. Then I had the better pace with him. It’s so much harder to overtake, but I made the pass and got the point.

“I’m learning all the time. It’s good what we’ve done here. This is good for the team. We hope we can score many more for the championship.”

Ocon emerged as the top rookie in Melbourne, with Antonio Giovinazzi and Stoffel Vandoorne finishing 12th and 13th respectively. Williams’ Lance Stroll – making his first start in F1 – retired due to a brake disc issue.

F1 Paddock Pass: Australian Grand Prix post-race (VIDEO)

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And so, the 2017 Formula 1 season is officially underway with the Australian Grand Prix. Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari are on top, having beat Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes both on strategy and on pace to kick off this new era in the sport’s history.

A recap of the day from the Albert Park circuit in Melbourne occurs below in the latest edition of the NBC Sports Group original digital series, Paddock Pass, as F1 pit reporter and insider Will Buxton and producer Jason Swales go into the paddock to run down the stories of the day.

MORE: Full Australian Grand Prix event replay; Mosaic replay

The podium saw Vettel ahead of Hamilton, with Mercedes’ new driver Valtteri Bottas coming third on debut for the team.

Other interviews that occurred during NBCSN’s post-race coverage on F1 Extra included with Kimi Raikkonen and Max Verstappen, who came fourth and fifth respectively, with Force India’s Esteban Ocon who scored his first career point, and with McLaren’s Fernando Alonso, who doggedly dragged his McLaren Honda into a potential points-paying finish before a late-race retirement.

Paddock Pass is in three parts and can be viewed below.