Marcos Ambrose has priorities in place: Win at Sonoma, make Chase, re-sign with RPM

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Marcos Ambrose still dreams of winning a race on a Sprint Cup oval.

But if Ambrose is to have a fighting chance to make the field in this year’s revamped and expanded Chase for the Sprint Cup, his best bet to at least get a leg up is to win Sunday’s Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway.

Ambrose is arguably one of the best road course racers in the Sprint Cup Series. In six starts at Watkins Glen, which holds its annual race in August, Ambrose has two wins and five top-five finishes, plus a pole.

As for Sonoma, Ambrose also has six Cup starts there, but has yet to reach victory lane. However, he does have two wins and three other top-10 finishes, plus a pole.

Ambrose hopes to change that Sunday.

“We know that the race here this weekend and in Watkins Glen, the two road races, are our best chance to win a race this year,” Ambrose said on Wednesday’s weekly NASCAR media teleconference. “That will automatically lock us into the Chase.  Clearly there’s a lot to race for at these two tracks for us.

“We’ve put a lot of energy and effort into Sonoma. We went out there and did the Goodyear tire test earlier in the season. We’ve done some road course testing as well, so we feel we’re as ready as we can be.”

When asked about why he’s won two road courses in the Cup series but still has yet to earn his first oval victory, Ambrose was realistic.

“My natural skill set obviously is road racing,” he said. “I’m quite confident on the ovals but haven’t had the same success I’ve had on the road courses. Really it’s just the years of training.  It’s my niche.

“I feel very comfortable road racing. I feel like I can apply myself well on the weekend. The biggest thing I try to do on a buildup to a weekend like this, there’s pressure building, there’s a chance to lock yourself into the Chase, which would make your season, you get a chance to win a Sprint Cup race, which you don’t get to do very often.  What I do this weekend is not try to think about it, be normal, try to relax leading into this week.

“It’s always a pressure-filled environment. The more you think about it, the worse you tend to go. I try to rely on my instincts there. I don’t do anything special this week in preparation for it. But I also know there’s a lot on the line and that pressure is all present. Whatever you can do to try to minimize the pressure is a good thing.”

Making the Chase “certainly would make our year,” Ambrose said.

But at the same time, “I haven’t made it to the Chase yet. This format will give us our best chance to do it, if we can win a race at either Watkins Glen or Sonoma. We know that. It would really make our year, no doubt about it.  It would certainly make our sponsors and Richard Petty very happy.

“We can’t do anything but go out there and try and do it. Talking isn’t going to get it done. We all know what is at stake. I think our team has prepared the car as best we can and I’m as ready as I can be and we’ll see if we can get it done.”

With perhaps his best chance at making the Chase this season, Ambrose was asked his thoughts about potentially adding a road course to the Chase sometime in the future.

“I’m not going to second guess what NASCAR are doing,” Ambrose said. “They’ve got a Chase format. They’ve built this sport up to what it is today. The idea of the Chase is to find the best driver and team for the year, allow them to race for the championship.

“There is an argument to say if you want to be the complete package, you have to be good on road courses as well. But I’m happy with the schedule. If I can win a race here road racing, it’s going to lock me in the Chase, it’s a real win for me.

“Would I like to see more road races? I think the fans need to be asked that question, not the drivers. Really our sport is about the fans, what they like to see.

“Anecdotally, there’s always a huge crowd at Sonoma and Watkins Glen. They seem to get good ratings on TV. There is an argument there you could have more road races in the schedule. But certainly I’m not the one promoting that. I’ll just let NASCAR make their choices.”

Ambrose was again asked his future status with Richard Petty Motorsports. His contract expires at the end of this season, but he still has nothing new to report.

“I’m in a renewal year with Richard Petty for 2015,” he said. “I’m not really thinking about myself here. I just want the best for RPM. They have decisions to make along the way here. I want to help them make their decisions and be where they want to be.

“I haven’t really thought about anything much but that. I want to make sure that RPM are on the right path and I’m going to do everything I can to make sure I help them do that.”

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Bird to skip Nurburgring WEC in favor of New York Formula E race

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Sam Bird has confirmed that he will miss the FIA World Endurance Championship race at the Nürburgring on July 16 in order to enter the inaugural New York Formula E round on the same weekend.

Bird was one of a handful of drivers forced to choose between commitments in WEC and Formula E after the series were unable to avoid a clash despite previously enjoying a gentleman’s agreement to not hold races on the same weekend.

Bird races with DS Virgin Racing in Formula E and with AF Corse in WEC, and previously hinted that a decision regarding the July 16 weekend would hinge on his result at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Alongside full-season teammate Davide Rigon and Le Mans addition Miguel Molina, Bird finished fifth in the GTE-Pro class in the No. 71 Ferrari 488 GTE at Le Mans and as the fourth-highest WEC entree.

Despite being just 14 points off the GT world championship lead, Bird confirmed on Monday that he would be missing the race at the Nürburgring to take part in the New York double-header, with races on July 15 and 16 in Red Hook, NY.

“With the first ever FIA-sanctioned motorsport event to be held in New York, Formula E is continuing to push the boundaries and break new ground, and it’s exciting to be part of that,” said Bird.

“I know we’ll put on a great show for the people of New York and I’m expecting big crowds to turn up on both days. Being a double race event, there’s a huge amount at stake for all the teams and the drivers so it’s definitely one to watch.”

Bird’s teammate for the New York weekend is still to be confirmed, with regular racer Jose Maria Lopez contracted to race for Toyota in the WEC at the Nürburgring on that weekend.

Reserve driver Alex Lynn is set to bail on his own WEC duties with G-Drive Racing in LMP2 in order to make his Formula E debut in New York, but DS Virgin team boss Alex Tai said that the team is still “assessing options”.

Formula E championship leader Sebastien Buemi is yet to formally confirm his absence from New York, but, like Lopez, he is contracted to race for Toyota at the Nürburgring on that weekend.

Newgarden on Road America runner-up: ‘It’s going to sting’

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ELKHART LAKE, Wis. – With arguably his most complete weekend as a member of Team Penske in the books at Road America, Josef Newgarden looked a likely winner in Sunday’s KOHLER Grand Prix.

Alas, an ill-timed caution and being on the wrong compound of Firestone tires at the wrong time cost the Hendersonville, Tenn. native now living in Charlotte likely his second win of the season.

Scott Dixon moved around him on the outside of Turn 1 following a restart on Lap 31, and wasn’t headed the rest of the way.

The win lost though, Newgarden was able to at least match his car number – 2 – with a runner-up finish in his now No. 2 DeVilbiss Team Penske Chevrolet, and his fourth podium finish of the season. He won at Barber, came third at Long Beach and came second in race two at Detroit. This finish today comes after starting third, and after leading 13 laps.

“It stings a little bit coming home second when you feel like you have a winning car. Scott was great today. So was Ganassi Racing. Those guys did a great job. Certainly very deserving of the win.

“But that’s tough coming up a little bit short. I felt like when the caution came out and we were on the primary tires, Helio and Scott had the alternates, I thought this is probably not going to be very good on the restart. It was hard to get temperature in them to get up to speed for the restart.

“I don’t know if it sealed our fate, but once the race was over, I was like, That’s what sealed our fate. It was an ill-timed caution. If that didn’t come out, we would have gotten 10 laps or so on the tires, we would have been okay.

“Once we shuffled back to third, it was about trying to get back by those guys. At that point we were on the same strategy pretty much the last stint. So it was hard to do anything with Scott. Felt we were a touch quicker than him, but couldn’t do anything on that final stint.

“Tough coming up short, but a great weekend for us at Team Penske. We were strong all weekend. Just didn’t get it done when it counted in the race, so that’s going to sting.”

Incidentally, Newgarden’s Barber win was probably at a race he didn’t figure to win – but he’d usurped Dixon for what became the lead there – while here this looked a race he planned to win but didn’t, and lost out to Dixon in the process. He reflected on the humor of this in the post-race press conference.

“I mean, Scott’s one of the hardest to pass. It was funny, because it was kind of a reverse Barber situation,” he laughed. “At Barber this year, you had Scott behind me at the end with a little more overtake, then it was me behind Scott this time with a little more overtake. You kind of had a similar result almost.

“I think it doesn’t necessarily matter who it is. For sure, you know, you give Scott a lot of credit, he’s going to be tough. He’s not going to make a lot of mistakes. You really got to push the issue with him.

“But I think I was concerned about getting by him, just his race pace. We were quicker than him, but we weren’t quick enough to overtake him. We were probably only 2, 3/10ths quicker than him outright speed, which wasn’t enough to do much with him.

“Once we were up to temperature, we were all running full, we both had red tires on, they were new tires for both of us, it was kind of hard to do anything once we got up to speed. I couldn’t make anything happen. As soon as I did something with overtake, he would do it. We were just kind of tit for tat till the end. He’s obviously one of the toughest to race against.

“I think if the situation were reversed, we would have been okay, as well, to win the race. So it’s just tough strategy today.”

Newgarden at least had a simpler weekend at Road America this year. He took in the ambience of the weekend without many of the distractions of a year ago, recovering from a collarbone injury and having launched a children’s book.

“I mean, certainly no distractions. Last year there was probably a little more distraction from trying to deal with comfort inside the cockpit. But from a performance standpoint, I don’t think it was much different.

“I wouldn’t blame the injuries last year for any performance deficit. I thought we were actually very good in the race last year. We had a top 10. I made a mistake in qualifying, which I think if we didn’t do that, we probably could have had a top five last year. If anything, it was nice not having any distractions personally.”

It was a solid weekend altogether though. Newgarden sits fifth in points with 318, 61 behind Dixon at the top.

He heads next to Iowa, where in his most authoritative of his four career victories, he led 282 of 300 laps last year. That race comes up Sunday, July 9, at 5 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

Smith: Baku, Ricciardo, Stroll shine as Vettel/Hamilton title fight ignites

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Almost 24 hours have passed since the checkered flag fell in Baku, yet the dust shows few signs of settling after one of the most explosive Formula 1 races in recent memory.

It was inevitable though, wasn’t it? The chummy, cordial, sickly-sweet duel between Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel for this year’s F1 drivers’ title had to blow up at some point.

And boy, did it blow up.

This was a race that had it all. A far cry from some of the more processional races that have been rather regular in recent times, the inaugural Azerbaijan Grand Prix will be remembered for all of the right reasons (well, unless you’re Sebastian Vettel); a defining moment for the 2017 season and the new era of F1 that started in Australia.

THE INEVITABILITY OF SEB VS. LEWIS

It was bound to happen in the end. There was no way that a direct fight between the two of the finest racers of F1’s current generation could not descend into chaos at one point.

It’s perhaps surprising that we made it eight races before the first cracks in the Gatsby-esque “well done old sport” camaraderie between Hamilton and Vettel began to show.

This will be looked back on a key flashpoint in the title fight for 2017 and the wider rivalry between Hamilton and Vettel. Baku was where things got nasty.

The incidents themselves were pretty cut and dry. Anyone watching could see what happened.

The first contact between them coming out of Turn 15 was a result of Vettel misjudging how Hamilton was controlling the pack. With the safety car’s lights going out and peeling away, Hamilton became the defacto safety car. He had every right to go as fast or as slow as he liked.

Vettel was expecting Hamilton to accelerate out of Turn 15, perhaps thinking the Briton would bolt early as he did on the first restart. Hamilton instead kept at a steady pace, with the FIA data confirming as much, leading to the contact between the pair.

Vettel was unhappy and frustrated. That was perhaps justified. But what happened next was not. Not one bit.

Drawing alongside Hamilton, Vettel wanted to make his feelings known. He raised his hand in complaint, which may have been enough to get the Mercedes driver to speed up. After all, he needed to stay ahead as the lead car.

The swipe that Vettel then made towards Hamilton was, as explored by NBCSN pit reporter Will Buxton in this thread, a scare tactic. It was meant to spook his rival. But he got it wrong and the two made contact.

The FIA’s response was to give Vettel a 10-second stop/go penalty, the strongest in-race sanction barring disqualification. It dropped Vettel back down the order and ended his win hopes, yet because of Hamilton’s unplanned pit stop to fit a new headrest, the German actually jumped ahead of his rival.

The end result should not be part of the context of the incident, though. Hamilton losing his headrest and dropping behind Vettel was totally separate and, frankly, just bad luck for the Mercedes man. The two incidents were unconnected.

Would Hamilton have been so aggrieved had he won the race and regained the lead of the championship from Vettel? One would hope so. Because it was a dangerous incident that, as Hamilton told NBCSN after the race, sent out totally the wrong message to young drivers coming through the ranks.

You do not, even just to spook your rival, deliberately drive towards another car like that under the safety car.

Why no disqualification? A report from Germany’s Auto Motor und Sport after the race suggested there were fears it could impact the title fight. Exclusion may have been a strong response, but it would certainly have sent out a clear message. Perhaps this was a missed opportunity to do exactly that.

Instead, Vettel and Hamilton will now be left to stew over it for a couple of weeks before heading to Austria. Once both drivers have cooled off, hopefully proper, adult talks can take place in a bid to clear things up.

We may like a bit of heat between sporting rivals, but respect is a rarer, more precious thing. It is something that was severely lacking in Baku.

Hopefully we can then see them settle things out on-track the proper way, just as they have done for much of the season so far.

BAKU, AZERBAIJAN – JUNE 25: Race winner Daniel Ricciardo of Australia and Red Bull Racing celebrates his win in parc ferme during the Azerbaijan Formula One Grand Prix at Baku City Circuit on June 25, 2017 in Baku, Azerbaijan. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

“BUTTER MY BUTT AND CALL ME A BISCUIT”

Daniel Ricciardo rarely disappoints when it comes to a good a quote, with the words of wisdom above gracing his Twitter account in the aftermath of the race. Frankly, we couldn’t have put it any better.

Ricciardo’s charge from P10 on the grid to victory was an unlikely one, requiring him to negotiate a number of pitfalls that caught out his rivals – and, as proven by his qualifying crash on Saturday, had already bitten him.

Ricciardo attacked the race with his usual gusto and bravado, with the race-winning move – albeit just for third at the time – being a brave double-pass on the Williams pair of Felipe Massa and Lance Stroll into Turn 1 after the safety car restart.

Ricciardo has a knack for being in the right place at the right time. All five of his F1 wins have come from starting outside the top three, and all have required a good dose of fortune. Alas, a win is a win – and when the front-runners falter, more often than not it is Ricciardo who is there to pick up the pieces.

Ricciardo’s victory also means that we have more than two teams winning races in a season for the first time since 2013, when Red Bull, Mercedes and Ferrari again shared the spoils. Variety is never a bad thing.

The top officials at Red Bull are under no illusions about the team’s current standing in F1. It still remains the third-fastest team and, under normal conditions, would stand no chance of beating Ferrari or Mercedes in a straight fight.

But that doesn’t devalue Ricciardo’s win at all. Instead, it makes it all the more impressive that he was there to capitalize on the opportunity that came his way.

BAKU, AZERBAIJAN – JUNE 25: Second place finisher Valtteri Bottas driving the (77) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO8 crosses the line ahead of third placed Lance Stroll of Canada driving the (18) Williams Martini Racing Williams FW40 Mercedes during the Azerbaijan Formula One Grand Prix at Baku City Circuit on June 25, 2017 in Baku, Azerbaijan. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

A FLYING FINNISH FOR BOTTAS

While the majority of the plaudits after the race lay with Ricciardo and Lance Stroll (who we’ll come onto), perhaps the greatest fightback of all in Baku came courtesy of Valtteri Bottas.

The Finn tangled with Kimi Raikkonen at Turn 2, sustaining a puncture that left him limping back to the pits for repairs and a lap down on the field. The race already appeared to have been turned into an extended test session.

But Bottas dug deep. He was able to get a wave-by under the first safety car, and then put the hammer down to pick his way through the field as those ahead began to lose their heads.

The drag race with Stroll to the line was dramatic, with Bottas emerging just 0.1 seconds ahead to clinch second place and salvage a big result from a pretty disastrous race for Mercedes, all things considered.

So what more can Bottas do to secure a contract renewal and ease the current “uncomfortable situation” he is in?

Frankly, nothing. He’s doing all he can. If the team wants harmony and stability, then surely keeping Bottas for 2018 and beyond is the way to do that.

If the appeal of Alonso, Vettel (well, maybe not after this weekend…) or Mercedes junior Esteban Ocon is a greater pull for the team, then it isn’t for want of trying on Bottas’ part he would depart, that’s for sure.

He has everything it takes to race for a title-winning team. Baku proved that.

BAKU, AZERBAIJAN – JUNE 25: Lance Stroll of Canada and Williams celebrates his first podium and finishing in third place during the Azerbaijan Formula One Grand Prix at Baku City Circuit on June 25, 2017 in Baku, Azerbaijan. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

STROLL COMES GOOD – FINALLY

Lance Stroll’s charge to third place in Baku may have come as a surprise, but it shouldn’t have.

He was, after all, F1’s best-prepared rookie since Lewis Hamilton thanks to an extensive test program prior to his debut, and came off the back of a record-breaking Formula 3 title win.

But after a raggedy first six races in F1, the critics were beginning to question Stroll’s readiness for grand prix racing, with his charge to ninth in Canada going some way to proving a point.

Sure, his rise has been accelerated by funding from his billionaire father, Lawrence, but the talent has to be there to back it all up. We saw that talent in Baku.

Stroll drove a clean, trouble-free race that would have seen many other rookies lose their cool at the chaos that was unfolding around them. The Williams FW40 is a quick car, and while he couldn’t keep Bottas back at the end, P3 was nevertheless a remarkable result for the young Canadian.

The catalyst for all of this may have been a revised preparation program for Baku. Following his run to his first points finish in Canada, Stroll stayed out in North America to complete a private test at the Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas with a 2014-spec Williams, and has also been working with a new driver coach.

All of this appears to have calmed the 18-year-old. Now with his first points and podium chalked up, Stroll will hopefully be more at ease. He doesn’t have a point to prove anymore. Perhaps that will yield more displays like the one in Baku on Sunday.

BAKU, AZERBAIJAN – JUNE 23: Max Verstappen of the Netherlands driving the (33) Red Bull Racing Red Bull-TAG Heuer RB13 TAG Heuer on track during practice for the European Formula One Grand Prix at Baku City Circuit on June 23, 2017 in Baku, Azerbaijan. (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)

WELL DONE BAKU

The trackside message of “Well Done Baku!” that ultimately turned into a meme during F1’s first visit to Azerbaijan actually rang true in the wake of this year’s race: the crazy Baku City Circuit delivered, and then some.

The track is one of the maddest on the F1 calendar, featuring a mix of slow-speed sections, two high-speed complexes – oh, and a castle. It’s the kind of thing you might find in Mario Kart.

It was all said prior to the 2016 race when a crazy event featuring multiple safety cars and crashes galore was expected, only for a disappointingly straightforward race to set in. This time around though, Baku threw up the madness that has been expected.

Much like the 2012 European Grand Prix at Valencia, yesterday’s race proved that street circuits can throw up some spectacular results. For an event that seemed an odd addition to the F1 calendar at first, Baku has found a good groove with its second running.

So, well done Baku. You’ve given us a race that will be looked back on in years to come. Good on you.

NHRA: Leah Pritchett becomes first female athlete featured in Papa John’s promotion

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Leah Pritchett drives the quickest pizza delivery vehicle in the world, holding the NHRA Top Fuel record for speediest run (3.658 seconds) down a 1,000-foot dragstrip.

Starting today, Pritchett will also become the first female athlete ever featured in a series of TV commercials and promotions for Papa John’s Pizza. The company was a part-time sponsor for Pritchett last season and elevated to primary sponsor for 2017.

Pritchett and her 11,000 horsepower dragster have certainly delivered for Papa John’s, being on top or near the top of the NHRA Top Fuel standings all season.

She’s won three of the first 12 national events and left Sunday’s Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals in Norwalk, Ohio, just 11 points behind race winner and Top Fuel points leader Steve Torrence.

Pritchett’s TV spots will feature a limited time offer of “Papa John’s Double XL” pizza, which will be available nationally from today through July 23.

“It is an honor to be able to represent this sport and Papa John’s on a national scale and to be featured as the first NHRA driver on a national pizza box,” Pritchett said in a media release.

Pritchett and Papa John’s founder, chairman and CEO, John Schnatter (pictured above with Pritchett), have also teamed up for the Charity Challenge Series, which has already raised $40,000 thus far this season.

The Challenge – which features Pritchett racing her Dodge Challenger vs. Schnatter driving his classic 1971 Chevrolet Camaro Z28 – promotes awareness and resources to combat the mental and physical issues that returning military heroes and their families may face. The next Challenge will be July 7-9 at Route 66 Raceway in Joliet, Illinois.

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