NASCAR: Jeff Gordon still a home favorite at Sonoma

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Jeff Gordon may have rose through the racing ranks while living in Indiana, but the four-time Sprint Cup champion is a California native. Additionally, his “first” hometown of Vallejo, California is not too far from the Sonoma Raceway.

And it’s those Sonoma fans that give him one of the better welcomes along the Cup circuit.

“It is hard to say it is my home track, but this is home for me,” Gordon said today at Sonoma between practice sessions.

“I love coming out here, and yet had I not moved to Indiana, I don’t know if I would be here today, and get the reception we get out here, which is a fantastic one.

“It is awesome. Even my truck driver was saying that the truck parade that was last night in Sacramento, he saw 24 hats everywhere. That is not necessarily the case in Johnson City, Tennessee.”

This weekend, Gordon returns to Sonoma as the Sprint Cup championship leader and firmly in the Chase after his win earlier this year at Kansas Speedway.

But all he has to do is look across the garage at defending Cup champion and teammate Jimmie Johnson – who has rattled off three wins in the last four weeks – and he knows that he has some catching up to do.

He’s also looking to finally capture his sixth career win at Sonoma after taking No. 5 all the way back in 2006. But with the way Hendrick Motorsports has been performing lately, Gordon has every reason to be confident.

“We know that we need to get to Victory Lane a few more times and I think we are capable of doing that,” Gordon said. “I think that we are a team that can be very consistent and yet also be a real threat to win.

“This year, the way my cars are running everywhere we go, I’m excited to get in it, push the limits of it and I’m having a blast. Every time they drop the green flag I feel like we have a car that can compete for a win.

“That is very exciting and I’m proud of the effort that has been put in to make that happen.”

Gordon also said that his back issues from the Coca-Cola 600 have not been bothering him on the hilly Sonoma circuit, which he seemed to take as a pleasant surprise.

“I’m happy – as hard as you are braking, and all the shifting you are doing out here, I was a little concerned, but it has gone really well,” he said.

“The plane ride out was harder than anything – sitting there for five, six hours.”

F1 Preview: 2018 Australian Grand Prix

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Save for two occasions, in 2006, and 2010, the Australian Grand Prix has served as the season-opening event for the FIA Formula 1 World Championship since 1996, and this weekend’s event will be the 21st time that the city of Melbourne has kicked off the Formula 1 campaign.

The 2018 season is the fifth one of the current hybrid power unit era, the second season of the current aero regulations, and the second under Liberty Media’s guidance.

Last year saw titans Mercedes AMG Petronas and Scuderia Ferrari duel for supremacy for most of the season before Mercedes distanced Ferrari late in the season to take the constructor’s title and the driver’s title, with Lewis Hamilton, who is now tied with Sebastian Vettel on four world championships apiece.

Four drivers on the grid have Formula 1 world championships to their name: Hamilton, Vettel, Kimi Raikkonen, and Fernando Alonso. Scuderia Toro Rosso’s Brendon Hartley also has a world championship to his name as a two-time titlist in the FIA World Endurance Championship.

So, what can viewers expect from the 2018 curtain-raiser in Australia? A handful of things to watch are below?

2018 Australian Grand Prix – Talking Points

Does Anyone Have Anything for Mercedes?

Only on one day during pre-season testing did a Mercedes driver lead the way – Lewis Hamilton was fastest on the final day of Week 1 at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya.

However, all indications were that was by design, with the team focusing the majority of the second week, if not the entire second week, on long runs with their W09 EQ Power+ chassis.

Such a decision is an ominous one, in that it indicates the team is very comfortable with the amount of speed in the car and did not see a need, or desire, to show their hand during testing.

With that in mind, the Mercedes duo of Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas may yet again have the best and fastest cars, and the team looks poised to potentially make it five constructor’s and driver’s championships in a row.

Ferrari and Red Bull Look to End Mercedes Reign

The biggest threats to Mercedes are undoubtedly Ferrari and Red Bull, the only other teams to win in 2017.

And both teams displayed a lot of pace during testing, particularly in the “one-lap speed” category. Ricciardo set a lap record around the Catalunya circuit during the second week, only for Vettel to supplant that mark later in the week. Teammate Kimi Raikkonen led the way during the final day of testing.

It is unknown how that pace will translate over the course of a race distance. Mercedes appeared to have an edge on both Ferrari and Red Bull over long runs and race simulations, but there is also a theory that neither Ferrari nor Red Bull had their true long-run form on display.

Still, if a team is going to knock off Mercedes, it will likely be either Ferrari or Red Bull.

McLaren on the Rebound?

Put simply, the previous three seasons for McLaren F1 Team were a bit of a disaster. Their partnership with Honda yielded point totals of 27 (2015), 76 (2016), and 30 (2017) in a three-year venture that was defined by poor reliability and underwhelming power.

The relationship hit a boiling point last year and both entities parted ways ahead of the 2018 season, with McLaren signing a new power unit deal with Renault.

Testing went better than in previous years, though the team continued to battle reliability problems. However, all issues appeared to be minor, needling issues rather than more significant, foundational problems, as the other Renault teams (Red Bull and Renault Sport F1 Team) had solid runs with few reliability issues.

The car does appear to have speed in it, so if the reliability problems are behind them, McLaren could be in for a rebound season.

Stuck in the Midfield Again

Formula 1’s battle amongst the midfield is set to be as fierce as ever as a host of a several teams have a chance at being “best of the rest.”

Sahara Force India has been the frontrunner from the the midfield teams each of the last two years, finishing fourth in the constructor’s title in both 2016 and 2017, though if the steady conflict between drivers Esteban Ocon and Sergio Perez continues through 2018, it could hamper their efforts significantly.

Renault Sport F1 Team and Haas F1 Team look to improve on their 2017 form, while Toro Rosso is in a new partnership with Honda power units…and has experienced a surprisingly smooth pre-season as Honda’s 2018 platform looks significantly better, with the team enjoying a solid run of testing with few, if any, reliability problems.

Williams Martini Racing and Alfa Romeo Sauber appear to be at the back of the pack entering the season, but both could battle for points finishes if those ahead of them falter.