(Photo: Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

Clint Bowyer understands significance of doing well at Sonoma and how it could impact rest of season

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It’s been a rough start to the 2014 season for Clint Bowyer. After 15 starts, Bowyer has little to show for his efforts: just two top-five and three other top-10 finishes.

Unless things start to turn more positive and productive for the Kansas native, who is currently 14th in the Sprint Cup standings, he realizes that he may not make the Chase for the Sprint Cup, let alone go a second straight season without a win.

But after being second-fastest in the first of two practice sessions Friday at Sonoma Raceway, and then coming back to be the fastest of all in the latter practice, Bowyer may be headed in the right direction – especially at a track where he won at in 2012.

“It is an opportunity, an opportunity for a lot of drivers,” Bowyer said in Friday’s media session at the racetrack. “That’s why it’s a dangerous race. For the Chase and for where we’re at in the points, you’ve got some guys that are back in the points. Guys that you really know you’re not going to be racing for points into the championship, but they could certainly go out and win this race and put themselves into the championship Chase.

“Dangerous race — it really is. You’ve got to weigh out those options as you go because that set of circumstances changes so many times throughout this race, strategy and everything else. You’ve just got to see where you’re at and take it as it comes and try to make the best decisions you can and have good speed in your race car, and by all means win this damn race.”

Having previously won at Sonoma gives Bowyer a leg up on a good chunk of the field in Sunday’s race.

But he’s more than just a one-win wonder. Frankly, the Kansas native has become quite the road course ace at Sonoma: in eight starts he has one win, four other top-five and one other top-10 finishes, meaning he’s only missed the top-10 just twice in his prior tries there.

“There’s always pressure in this sport, it doesn’t matter what race you go back to, and especially a race you’ve had success at lately,” Bowyer said. “Where we’re at right now, we’re in a position that if you go out here and win, it locks us in to the Chase.  The only thing I can do that I can’t afford to do here is get wiped out, crash myself, run off the track, dive-bomb somebody and make a mistake where it really takes you out of contention for a good finish here because I think we’re plenty capable of what we’ve showed to get a good finish. That’s where the focus is.”

It’s funny how drivers have changed their thinking about Sonoma over the years. It used to be that a number of drivers couldn’t get through the race and weekend fast enough, take their mediocre to poor performance and get on the a quick flight home afterward.

But Sonoma has changed dramatically over the last decade. It has become a track where drivers not only have fun at, they now look forward to racing at. One key to that is timing of sorts: Jeff Gordon (five) and Tony Stewart (two) combined to earn seven wins from 1998 through 2006.

But each of the last seven races has been won by a different driver reaching Sonoma’s victory lane for the first time in their Sprint Cup career: Juan Pablo Montoya, Kyle Busch, Kasey Kahne, Jimmie Johnson, Kurt Busch, Bowyer and last year’s winner, Martin Truex Jr.

With that kind of parity, not to mention how drivers and teams can no longer look at road course races as mulligans or throw-away events, drivers have been forced to get better if they want to be competitive.

As a result, Sonoma has earned a number of different nicknames (some unprintable by those who still haven’t been able to figure out the place), but one stands out in particular: a Bristol on steroids.

Given the propensity for beating and banging, Sonoma has become a road course that thinks its one of NASCAR’s best short tracks, so to speak.

And just like at Bristol, drivers at Sonoma get into some heated battles, do a great deal of beating and banging, and tempers rise just as quick as water temps in the radiator.

There’s no such thing as being patient or gentlemanly racing anymore at Sonoma, and Bowyer will be the first to admit that.

“That’s the one thing that you can guarantee yourself, is whoever is behind you at the end of the race will not be patient,” Bowyer said. “Go out there and set your car up to not put yourself in those situations. Be good off of (turn) 10 to where they can’t dive-bomb you into 11. Be good down the hill, up on top of the hill to where they can’t dive-bomb you getting into 7. Those are things that you’ve got to be able to take care of business and set yourself up for. And if you’re not good off of those corners you’re going to be battling that there in your mirror all day long.”

One thing in Bowyer’s favor – but also in teammate Brian Vickers’ favor, as well – is that MWR drivers have won the last two races at Sonoma: Bowyer in 2012, Truex last season (before moving to Furniture Row Racing this season).

“I wasn’t surprised that Martin won that race,” Bowyer said. “Obviously we had the same setup in and same setup that won (the year before).”

But things are totally different coming into this Sunday’s race.

“Things evolve so much with this new rule package that setup won’t even qualify for this weekend’s race,” Bowyer said. “The very setup that won the last two races just won’t — it won’t compete.

“So, I do dig that about this sport. You have to be able to keep up with the times and keep pushing forward and figuring out ways to keep forward driving in the cars and then keep turning it. Just have fun.”

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FIA WEC confirms July date for 2017 Nürburgring round

Audi R18 (2016) #7 (Audi Sport Team Joest), Marcel Fässler, André Lotterer
Audi R18 (2016) #8 (Audi Sport Team Joest), Lucas di Grassi, Loïc Duval, Oliver Jarvis
© Audi Sport
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FIA World Endurance Championship officials have confirmed that next year’s 6 Hours of Nürburgring will take place on July 16.

The WEC ventured to the Nürburgring for the first time in 2015 before enjoying a successful return over the weekend, with a crowd of 58,000 fans turning up on Sunday.

During the race won by the no. 1 Porsche crew of Mark Webber, Brendon Hartley and Timo Bernhard, it was confirmed that the WEC will return to the Nürburgring in 2017 over the July 14-16 weekend.

 

However, it was flagged up on Twitter that this is the same weekend scheduled to host the Formula E double-header in Montreal.

Around two-thirds of the Formula E grid also race in the WEC, with the two championships preventing clashes so that drivers do not have to pick between them. As a result, it seems inevitable that one of the races will have to change date.

Palmer ‘gutted’ after spin costs him first F1 points in Hungary

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY - JULY 24:Jolyon Palmer of Great Britain driving the (30) Renault Sport Formula One Team Renault RS16 Renault RE16 turbo on track  during the Formula One Grand Prix of Hungary at Hungaroring on July 24, 2016 in Budapest, Hungary.  (Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images)
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Jolyon Palmer felt “gutted” after a likely top-10 finish in Sunday’s Hungarian Grand Prix was lost following a spin in the closing stages, costing him his first Formula 1 points.

2014 GP2 champion Palmer joined Renault for its return to F1 as a constructor in 2016, but arrived in Hungary without a point to his name from the opening 10 races of the season.

Palmer was left disappointed on Saturday after a red flag knocked him out of qualifying at the first hurdle, but a long first stint brought him into contention for points.

Palmer moved into the top 10 after jumping Nico Hulkenberg in the pits, only for Renault’s hard work to be undone when he spun off at Turn 4, losing three positions in the process.

The Briton was ultimately classified 12th after Esteban Gutierrez’s time penalty, extending his points drought to 11 races.

“I’m gutted as my first points in Formula 1 were there for the taking,” Palmer said.

“The car was good and I was driving well within myself in P10. I turned in the same as normal at turn four – I wasn’t hanging everything out and I was looking after the tires – but for some reason I lost the car in a massive snap.

“I need to look at everything with my engineers to see if there is anything we could have done to prevent it.

“I was running tenth, we had completed all our pit stops, we had good pace relative to those ahead and behind so it looks like we’ve made a real step forward this weekend.

“It was the best drive of my career today and just one small spin took away those points.

“I’m gutted today but I’ll be fighting to get in the same position or better in Hockenheim.”

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

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY - JULY 24:  Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP celebrates his win in parc ferme during the Formula One Grand Prix of Hungary at Hungaroring on July 24, 2016 in Budapest, Hungary.  (Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images)
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Lewis Hamilton moved into the lead of the Formula 1 drivers’ championship for the first time this year on Sunday after a masterful victory in the Hungarian Grand Prix.

Despite facing race-long pressure from pole-sitter and Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg, Hamilton held his own at the front of the pack to lead all but two laps en route to his fifth win at the Hungaroring.

The result sees Hamilton open up a six-point lead over Rosberg in the championship with 10 rounds remaining, having cut the gap down from 43 points six races ago.

The race in Hungary offered a number of interesting fights and strategic battles up and down the field, resulting in an entertaining affair.

Debriefing all of the action in Budapest with interviews and analysis, NBCSN’s Will Buxton brings you the latest edition of Paddock Pass.

Defending champs bank first FIA WEC win of 2016 at Nürburgring

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Photo: Porsche
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At the same site where the trio of Timo Bernhard, Mark Webber and Brendon Hartley set sail for their eventual 2015 FIA World Endurance Championship title, the Nürburgring, the trio took their first win in their title defense year at the same circuit in Sunday’s 6 Hours of Nürburgring.

That win last year kicked off a string of four wins in a row through Shanghai.

This year, it’s Porsche’s third win in four races to open the 2016 FIA WEC season, although this one was a far more straightforward performance compared to the fortunate wins at Silverstone (Audi disqualification) and Le Mans (Toyota’s turbo failure). Audi then won at Spa in the Le Mans warm-up act.

Perhaps not the out-and-out fastest car during the weekend, the No. 1 Porsche 919 Hybrid otherwise avoided trouble during the majority of the race and inherited the lead with just over an hour to go when the sister No. 2 car’s race came unglued in the final two hours.

The No. 2 car – driven by 24 Hours of Le Mans winners and points leaders Neel Jani, Romain Dumas and Marc Lieb – controlled the middle portion of the race, before an ambitious move occurred at Turn 7 by Lieb when trying to overtake the polesitting GTE-Am class car, the No. 88 Abu Dhabi Proton Racing Porsche 911 RSR (Khaled Al Qubaisi, David Heinemeier Hansson and Patrick Long).

Lieb darted to Al Qubaisi’s inside at the last minute of the downhill right-hander, with pitched the GTE Porsche into a gravel and triggered a drive-through penalty for the avoidable contact.

Lieb, to his credit, offered no blame elsewhere, went to apologize and took it in stride.

“These are the rules, and I caused the accident,” he said. “I hit the 88 car. We accept the decision. It’s tough. But in these cars, you make decisions quickly. I tried to pass on the inside. But that’s racing.”

That penalty brought the No. 2 car into the pits and when it returned, it was in third behind the No. 8 Audi R18 (Loic Duval, Lucas di Grassi, Oliver Jarvis).

A battle between Jani, who took over from Lieb, and then Andre Lotterer in the No. 7 Audi followed. Lotterer got by Jani into the chicane and with Jani’s momentum slowed, he was then hit in the left rear legality panel by one of the SMP Racing BR01 Nissans. Lotterer then proceeded to barge past Jani at Turn 6, unpleased by Jani’s late-race racecraft.

An eventual black and orange flag was displayed to the No. 2 car, and it was brought into the pits for repairs with just over half an hour remaining. It dropped that car off the podium for the first time this year, down to a season-worst fourth.

By contrast, the two Audis were both on the podium for the first time this year, with the car’s higher downforce package proving a more viable one after its relative struggles at Le Mans.

The aforementioned No. 8 car of Audi’s younger guns finished ahead of the No. 7 Audi, driven only by Lotterer and Marcel Fassler with Benoit Treluyer sidelined due to injury and thus missing the first race of his FIA WEC career.

Toyota Gazoo Racing – the Le Mans dominators – struggled at its second “home race” as it’s based in nearby Cologne. A lapped fifth and sixth was all that was on the cards for the Nos. 5 and 6 Toyota TS050 Hybrids with its ultra-high-downforce package.

Among the LMP1 privateer entries, Rebellion Racing’s No. 13 Rebellion R-One AER picked up the win with Dominik Kraihamer, Alexandre Imperatori and Matheo Tuscher. Nick Heidfeld, Nico Prost and Mathias Beche were second, the latter in his first Rebellion start this year after Nelson Piquet Jr. ran the first three rounds.

Poor Team ByKolles suffered yet another fire with its CLM P1/01 AER, after two during Le Mans week, as noted by Oliver Webb. Credit though must go to Webb and Pierre Kaffer’s teammate, Simon Trummer, for coming up with a solid AC/DC reference…

LMP2

In LMP2 it was more of the same with the Signatech Alpine trio of Nicolas Lapierre, Stephane Richelmi and Gustavo Menezes continuing their sterling run of form in its No. 36 Alpine A460 Nissan.

That trio won its third race on the trot, ahead of the No. 43 RGR Sport by Morand Ligier JS P2 Nissan (Ricardo Gonzalez, Bruno Senna, Filipe Albuquerque).

There was nearly a last lap change for third, but despite Jonny Kane’s closing stint in the venerable No. 42 Strakka Racing Gibson 015S Nissan, he was unable to get around Ryan Dalziel, in the No. No. 31 Tequila Patron ESM Ligier JS P2 Nissan in its first race on Michelins.

Dalziel held off Kane by just 0.071 of a second for ESM’s third podium in four starts, in the car he shared with Pipo Derani and Chris Cumming. Kane shared the Strakka Gibson with team debutante Lewis Williamson doing a solid job on debut in place of Danny Watts, and Nick Leventis.

Manor, with a similarly changed-up lineup of Tor Graves joined by team newcomers Matt Howson and Antonio Pizzonia (replacing James Jakes and Will Stevens from the regular races, and Matt Rao and Roberto Merhi at Le Mans), rounded out the top five in class in its No. 44 Oreca 05 Nissan.

G-Drive Racing’s quest for its first win this year with another new lineup – Alex Brundle now in to join Rene Rast and Roman Rusinov – came undone with gearbox issues resigning the No. 26 Oreca 05 Nissan to the garage.

GTE

GTE-Pro’s Ford dominance at Le Mans did not carry over to the Nürburgring, with Ferrari back on top in a 1-2 result led by the No. 51 Ferrari 488 GTE turbo of Gianmaria Bruni and James Calado. It’s AF Corse’s third win of the season after the No. 71 car of Sam Bird and Davide Rigon opened the year with back-to-back wins.

Ford’s No. 66 GT of Stefan Muecke and Olivier Pla, the class points leaders heading into the race, looked set to bank a podium in third place ahead of the No. 95 Aston Martin Vantage V8, which showed improved form this weekend.

But a drive-through penalty was assessed to the No. 66 Ford for a pit stop infringement; Pla served it in the final 20 minutes and that dropped that car behind the “Dane Train” No. 95 Aston Martin of Nicki Thiim and Marco Sorenson.

It was a tough race for the No. 67 Ford, as it was at Le Mans, this time with a pit fire striking when Andy Priaulx was behind the wheel. Priaulx emerged unscathed though.

GTE-Am witnessed the No. 98 Aston Martin Vantage V8 back on top for its second win this year with the trio of Paul Dalla Lana, Pedro Lamy and Mathias Lauda. The No. 78 KCMG Porsche 911 RSR and No. 83 AF Corse Ferrari F458 Italia completed the class podium.

A crowd of 58,000 was reported for the race, and the date confirmed for a Nürburgring return next year, about a week earlier – July 14-16, 2017.

The FIA WEC resumes at the inaugural Six Hours of Mexico City on Sept. 3, at the redone and relaunched Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez.

It’s a massive event for the RGR Sport team, Gonzalez serving as both that team’s owner and co-driver, and the event’s promoter.