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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Ferrari dominates Russian GP second free practice

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Once Pirelli’s softest compound, the ultrasoft tires, came out to play in second free practice for this weekend’s Russian Grand Prix at the Sochi Autodrom, Scuderia Ferrari dropped the hammer compared to Mercedes AMG Petronas.

Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen ran at 1:34.120 and 1:34.383, respectively, in the pair of SF70H chassis – which easily eclipsed the Mercedes pair of Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas. This followed Raikkonen’s leading FP1 this morning.

It’s only practice but the thinking going into the race weekend was with a couple long straights, it would play to Mercedes’ strengths and its top-end speed. But Ferrari’s fired a warning salvo into that thinking in this session.

Bottas and Hamilton were six and seven tenths adrift on the same ultrasoft tires, before long runs commenced for the final 35 to 40 or so minutes of the 90-minute free practice. The Russian Grand Prix is expected to be a one-stop race.

Red Bull’s Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo were next, far off the top four and far ahead of the midfield.

Williams’ Felipe Massa, Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg, Haas’ Kevin Magnussen and Force India’s Sergio Perez – making it four teams in as many positions from seventh through 10th in the crowded midfield. In fact while 1.790 seconds covered first to sixth, just 1.18 seconds covered seventh to 18th, covering all remaining teams!

Verstappen’s session ended early inside of 20 minutes, as he parked his car with an apparent loss of power just before pit lane.

Romain Grosjean, who tries new Carbon Industrie brakes this week, made several radio transmissions noting he wasn’t yet satisfied with the new supplier. There’s still been a lot of brake dust released from the fronts on both his and Magnussen’s car.

Meanwhile further down the grid, McLaren Honda has made yet another power unit change to Stoffel Vandoorne’s car, which cost him the opening minutes of the session. This will resign the Belgian to his fifth turbocharger and MGU-H of the season, and see him saddled with a grid penalty.

FP3 is next up, streaming online live on Saturday morning from 5 a.m. ET. Qualifying commences at 8 a.m. ET live on CNBC.

Raikkonen leads topsy turvy first free practice session in Russia

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Kimi Raikkonen has topped the timesheets in the first 90-minute free practice session for this weekend’s Russian Grand Prix, although times are never entirely representative in this first running of the weekend on the notoriously low-grip to start Sochi Autodrom.

Naturally then it took longer for the fastest times to come in. Raikkonen posted a 1:36.074 on Pirelli’s supersoft tires, with just under half an hour remaining, which eclipsed the pair of Mercedes AMG Petronas entries of Valtteri Bottas and Lewis Hamilton, who were 0.045 of a second and 0.607 of a second behind, respectively.

Vettel was fifth without really getting a proper lap in – more than one second back of his not-under-fire but perhaps under-duress teammate – just behind Red Bull’s Max Verstappen in fourth.

This marks the last race that Verstappen will be racing as a member of Red Bull Racing for the first time, as it marks the one-year anniversary since local hero Daniil Kvyat’s first-lap nightmare here last year. The Toro Rosso driver in his special edition “torpedo” helmet he’s made this weekend clocked in 11th.

Raikkonen’s fastest time was more than two seconds up on FP1’s fastest time last year, and times will only get quicker the rest of the weekend.

Both Hamilton and Vettel got away with “moments” during the session. Early on, Hamilton had had a quick moment over the Turn 2 curbs but landed without damage. In the final 15 minutes Vettel spun as well at Turn 17, but again without hitting anything. Hamilton then ran wide at the exit of Turn 14, looping his car, but stopping it before it hit the barriers.

Meanwhile Ferrari stated both Vettel and Raikkonen are using new turbochargers this race, and didn’t cite any potential reliability concerns as a reason why.

Raikkonen’s overall best time looked set to be bettered before the first red and only flag of the session occurred in a fairly abnormal manner.

With less than 25 minutes to go in the session, a bizarre incident occurred as Esteban Ocon’s engine cover off the back of his Force India Mercedes popped off as he closed his DRS on the run to Turn 2. Ocon limped the wounded Force India back to the pit lane with no additional damage but it put the session under a red flag, which thus provided a green flag for Twitter snark.

Meanwhile the young Frenchman wasn’t the only driver with issues this session. Stoffel Vandoorne reported in a loss of power to his Honda-powered McLaren inside the final 10 minutes of the session; the Belgian has had woeful luck of late with power units, notably at Bahrain, and the team was hopeful it had made a step forward in the post-Grand Prix test there. A grid penalty would loom with another power unit change.

To start the session, Renault test driver Sergey Sirotkin, in a run-out in his home Grand Prix weekend, didn’t even get to complete a timed lap as he stopped on the backside of the circuit with a mechanical issue. Reboot attempts failed and left him without a lap, same as the driver he was filling in for in Nico Hulkenberg, who will be back in for FP2.

Speaking of, FP2 comes up live at 8 a.m. ET, 5 a.m. PT on NBCSN and the NBC Sports App.

Times are below:

NASCAR Truck drivers feel the earth move sitting in NHRA powerhouses

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Several NASCAR Camping World Truck Series drivers got to see how the other half lives – namely, their counterparts in the NHRA – on Thursday at Charlotte Motor Speedway and across the street at zMax Dragway.

To say it was an eye-opening experience is putting it mildly.

Top Fuel drag racers Shawn Langdon and Troy Coughlin Jr., as well as Funny Car driver J.R. Todd – all from one of the top teams in the NHRA, Kalitta Motorsports – are in Charlotte for this weekend’s 4-Wide Nationals at zMax Dragway.

NASCAR Trucks driver Noah Gragson gets to feel the 10,000 horsepower of a Top Fuel dragster.

Thursday, they invited NASCAR drivers Ryan Truex, Christopher Bell, Grant Enfinger and Noah Gragson to show how it’s done NHRA-style.

Todd, Langdon and Coughlin started the day taking Toyota Camry pace cars around the 1.5-mile CMS oval.

Then everyone moved across the street to see some real horsepower, namely, 10,000 horses worth – which is roughly about 13 times the power they have under the hood of their race trucks.

Truex and Bell got a chance to “warm up” Todd’s Funny Car, while Enfinger and Gragson did the same with Langdon’s Top Fueler.

 

Meanwhile, Todd and Langdon both did smoky burnouts that, if the Truck guys thought they could do burnouts, they learned a lot to the contrary.

“It was a cool to do a big smoky burnout,” Todd said. “It was cool to see the guys reactions. We had a great time today and I think we created several new fans.”

Added Langdon, “Days like today is what makes me love our sport even more. Bringing these guys over here and letting them hit the throttle and sit in the car when it warms up gives them a look at what we do. To see the smiles on their faces after a badass burnout and how excited they are, just gets me pumped.”

Here’s what the NASCAR guys thought about the experience.

Bell: “J.R. Todd let me sit in his Toyota Camry Funny Car and they even cracked the throttle open for me when we were warming up the motor. It is something that I will remember for the rest of my life. It is a feeling like none other.”

Enfinger: “Just a crazy experience, something I have never done. Been able to do a lot of cool things with Toyota, but it is not every day that you get to make your dad jealous.”

Gragson: “This was awesome. It was the experience of a lifetime. It was great to hang out with J.R. Todd, Shawn and Troy Jr. Definitely a cool experience; one that I will remember forever.”

Truex: “This has probably been the craziest experience that I have ever been a part of. I got to sit in a Funny Car; they hit the throttle, which really scared me. When I was outside the car, I jumped about three feet in the air. It was cool to get inside and experience that. The nitro was all in my face, and I think they gained a new fan with me today.”

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F1 drivers split on new ‘shield’ protection

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SOCHI, Russia (AP) Formula One drivers are split over plans to test a new “shield” device to protect against flying debris.

The FIA will trial the transparent screen in the coming months for a potential introduction in 2018, as it pushes for greater head protection for drivers. Recent years have seen major head injuries in several motorsport series.

“I wouldn’t mind trying out the shield, seeing how is the visibility,” Mercedes driver Valtteri Bottas said on Thursday. “In terms of safety it would be a good step compared to what we have now.”

Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo was another supporter, saying “we’ve still got to see a bit more, but first impressions seem OK.”

The FIA previously seemed to favor a metal frame known as the “halo,” which was designed to stop a flying wheel hitting a driver’s head but was criticized by some drivers on aesthetic grounds.

Toro Rosso’s Daniil Kvyat said on Thursday he was “quite against” the shield and the halo. “The way Formula One should look should remain the same,” he added. “We have enough protection.”

Romain Grosjean of Haas voiced concern the “next step” would be completely closed cockpits.

Recent years have seen several high-profile head injuries, including the deaths of Formula Two driver Henry Surtees in 2009 when he was hit by a loose wheel and IndyCar driver Justin Wilson, who was struck by debris, in 2015.

In Formula One, Brazilian driver Felipe Massa missed the second half of the 2009 season when a loose spring from another car hit his helmet, leaving him needing surgery.