Team Penske again dominates Sprint Cup qualifying; Brad Keselowski on pole, Joey Logano alongside at Kentucky

Leave a comment

Team Penske once again dominated Sprint Cup qualifying Friday, taking the top two spots for Saturday night’s Quaker State 400 race at Kentucky Speedway.

Brad Keselowski, who won there in 2012, earned the pole with a track record speed of 188.791 mph, more than 1.5 mph faster than teammate Joey Logano, who qualified No. 2 (187.175 mph).

“We’re glad we got the run in,” Keselowski told Fox Sports 1. “The Miller Lite Ford Fusion has just been real good this weekend, Paul (crew chief Paul Wolfe) did a great job with the adjustments and I’m just real proud of this effort.”

Keselowski didn’t just break, he obliterated Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s old track record of 183.636 mph – set last year – by more than five mph.

This is Keselowski’s third pole of the season and only the sixth of his career. This also marks the fourth time Keselowski has qualified for the front row on five different 1.5-mile tracks this season, but is the first time he’s earned the pole (he was on the outside pole in the other four races).

Logano appeared as if he’d earn the pole, but Keselowski’s late run in the final round was more than just stout.

“That’s a really good lap right there,” Logano said. “It says a lot about Team Penske. … It’s frustrating at the same time, we won the first two segments. Brad had a lot of speed in practice, and we kind of wondered where it went in the first couple rounds of qualifying, and then he figured it out again, obviously. We still have a good start, a good pit stall and can’t wait for tomorrow night.”

Earlier in the afternoon, Keselowski also qualified No. 1 for Friday night’s Nationwide Series race.

Jeff Gordon qualified third (186.832), followed by Denny Hamlin (186.374), Kevin Harvick (186.104), Kyle Larson (186.034), Ryan Newman (186.014), Jamie McMurray (185.957), Kurt Busch (185.950), Danica Patrick was 10th (185.803), Clint Bowyer (185.414) and Paul Menard rounded out the top 12 (185.026).

Teams barely dodged a rainstorm at the start of the three-session knockout qualifying session, but all 42 cars entered were able to make runs.

“I’m just thankful it didn’t rain and we got all three runs in,” Keselowski said. “If you looked at the radar before qualifying, there was no way it wasn’t going to rain. … There was a huge rainstorm coming at the racetrack and then it stopped.”

Among highlights (and where appropriate, lowlights) of the three qualifying rounds:

* 25 drivers broke Earnhardt’s old track record in just the first session.

* Defending race winner Matt Kenseth failed to get out of the second round of knockout qualifying. He’ll start Saturday’s race 14th, alongside Tony Stewart in Row 7.

* Of note in the first round, Danica Patrick recorded the fifth-fastest speed at 185.899.

* Two of the biggest surprises in the overall session were the qualifying efforts of Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr.

In a phrase: not so good.

Johnson qualified 25th and failed to transfer to the second round.

“We didn’t get the lap we needed out there and didn’t transfer, but I feel actually decent about our car in race trim,” Johnson told Fox Sports 1. “We just couldn’t get out of our own way in the interim.”

Earnhardt, meanwhile, will start 29th.

“We were slow in practice, have been fighting the car all day and haven’t had any gains, haven’t really been able to figure out what we need to do,” Earnhardt said. “We just had a real rough go of it.

“The car is just way too rough, way too much movement and it’s hard to control it that way. It doesn’t take a scientist to figure out that this front straightaway is pretty mean. … It’s something else. I ain’t never seen anything like it.”

* This will mark the first time since Nov. 2001 that a Sprint Cup race has not had a full 43-car field. Only 42 drivers/cars entered and qualified for Saturday night’s race.

Here’s the starting lineup for Saturday’s Quaker State 400 NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Kentucky Speedway:

Row 1 Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano

Row 2 Jeff Gordon, Denny Hamlin

Row 3 Kevin Harvick, Kyle Larson

Row 4 Ryan Newman, Jamie McMurray

Row 5 Kurt Busch, Danica Patrick

Row 6 Clint Bowyer, Paul Menard

Row 7 Tony Stewart, Matt Kenseth

Row 8 AJ Allmendinger, Austin Dillon

Row 9 Brian Vickers, Kyle Busch

Row 10 Martin Truex Jr., Kasey Kahne

Row 11 Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Aric Almirola

Row 12 Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle

 

Row 13 Jimmie Johnson, Casey Mears

Row 14 Justin Allgaier, Cole Whitt

Row 15 Dale Earnhardt Jr., Reed Sorenson

Row 16 Michael Annett, Alex Bowman

Row 17 Josh Wise, Marcos Ambrose

Row 18 Travis Kvapil, David Ragan

Row 19 Landon Cassill, David Stremme

Row 20 Ryan Truex, Joe Nemechek

Row 21 David Gilliland, Mike Bliss

* Note: Only 42 cars/drivers entered this race.

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

 

Sauber driver Ericsson dismisses talk of favoritism in team

Getty Images
Leave a comment

BAKU, Azerbaijan (AP) Formula One driver Marcus Ericsson has dismissed talk of favoritism within Sauber following the unexpected departure of team principal Monisha Kaltenborn.

Kaltenborn, who was also Sauber’s chief executive officer, left Wednesday by mutual consent. The news came shortly after another team statement denying reports of unfair treatment between the Swedish driver and German teammate Pascal Wehrlein.

“There were a lot of stories in the press about this unfair advantage for one driver. It was upsetting, disrespectful, it’s false and untrue,” Ericsson said Thursday ahead of this weekend’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix. “For me and Pascal, it’s been very clear that’s not the case. We’ve both been given equal equipment.”

Ericsson has yet to score a point after seven races, while Wehrlein has four points after an eighth-place finish at the Spanish GP in May.

“We’re not going to go on holiday together, but as teammates goes we’ve been working really good together so far,” Ericsson said. “When we try different things across the cars, we discuss things.”

Sauber’s statement said Kaltenborn left “due to diverging views of the future of the company.” Her successor has not been announced.

The 46-year-old Kaltenborn joined Sauber in 2000 as head of its legal department and later became chief executive officer.

“We have to trust the owners that they know what they’re doing, and that they have a good plan for the future,” Ericsson said. “I have a lot to thank Monisha for. She was the one who gave me the chance to come here after my year in Caterham.”

Wehrlein also praised Kaltenborn for standing by him. He missed the first two races of the season after injuring his back in a crash at the Race of Champions in Miami in January, sustaining hairline cracks in vertebrae and compressing some of his intervertebral discs.

“Monisha was very close to me at one of my toughest times in my career so far,” Wehrlein said. “I am very thankful for that, and this is something that I will never forget.”

Indy Lights: Leist rides wave of momentum heading to Road America

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
Leave a comment

As the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires resumes action at Road America this weekend, perhaps its hottest driver is 19-year-old Brazilian native Matheus Leist.

The Carlin driver enters Road America off a strong month of May, in which he captured both his first podium finish (third, Race 2 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course) and his first career pole and win (Freedom 100) in Indy Lights.

“I think we are working very hard this year, so the hard work’s paying off,” Leist told NBC Sports following his Freedom 100 triumph. “We did a great race at the (Grand Prix), I managed to finish third: my first podium. And now, I did my first pole position, with a track record, and won my first race, and the most important race in the championship. It was definitely a great month for me.”

Despite his youth and lack of experience, Leist managed to keep all challengers at bay in what was a dominating victory. And the race became all the more challenging when he faced an early restart after contact between Colton Herta, Dalton Kellett, and Ryan Norman, and a full slate of challengers were ready to slipstream by Leist if he made even the smallest of mistakes on the subsequent restart.

However, as he detailed, thwarting off challengers was made possible because the team prepared a car with a lot of speed in it, which allowed them to trim a little more downforce off the car to help with straight line speed, especially useful on restarts.

“I knew we had a great car, so we went in the race with less downforce than the other guys, which helped me to stay in front. After like 10 laps, I was thinking ‘I can definitely win this race from here,’” he asserted.

The success has seen those in the IndyCar ranks take notice of the 19-year-old. He was acknowledged during the public driver’s meeting for the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil and was featured in the parade held the day before the 500-mile classic. The success and acknowledgment from those at the highest level is somewhat overwhelming for the 19-year-old.

“Very grateful for everything that’s happening with me. I think this is one of the most important moments of my life. I just won a race in Indianapolis, such a big and great place, and important place. It’s been an amazing time with the drivers (congratulating me). I had a great time at the parade as well, so it was very nice,” he added.

Even better, he had his first test day in an IndyCar last week at Road America, taking over the No. 98 Andretti-Herta Autosport Honda usually driven by Alexander Rossi.

“The braking point here is crazy. It’s the fastest car that I’ve ever driven. The high speed corners, there’s a few corners where it’s almost flat in Indy Lights and here with more power, more downforce, it’s easy flat!” he said.

A champion of the 2016 BRDC British F3 Championship, Leist remains new to the American racing scene. But, as he explained, the influence of a couple heroes, chiefly Rubens Barrichello and Tony Kanaan, has helped him transition.

“I have quite a bit of contact with Rubens. I used to have dinner with him. He’s a very nice guy with me, he’s always helping me. I know Tony as well, we raced in Brazil last year together in a go-kart race. He’s a guy, as well, who said whenever I want, I can ask him to help.”

And, while he admits Formula 1 was his original focus, Leist is happy to pursue a career in the United States with the Verizon IndyCar Series. “My first goal was Formula 1, but now I’m thinking more about becoming a professional driver than a Formula 1 driver, that’s why I came to IndyCar,” he finished.

Leist sits sixth in the Indy Lights championship, but only trails points leader Kyle Kaiser by 30 points as the series heads to Road America.

Tony DiZinno contributed to this report

Follow Kyle Lavigne.

Despite recent win, Hamilton says Ferrari still favorite

Getty Images
Leave a comment

BAKU, Azerbaijan (AP) Despite his recent win at the Canadian Grand Prix, Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton still considers Ferrari rival Sebastian Vettel to be the Formula One favorite.

Hamilton’s win in Montreal came after a terrible weekend in Monaco, underlining how unpredictable Mercedes has been after three years of dominance.

“Consistency is the key to winning the championship,” Hamilton said Thursday at a news conference. “Up until now, Sebastian has had the consistency of a winning championship, so we have to improve on our consistency if we are going to have a shot at winning this title.”

Victory at this weekend’s Azerbaijan GP would give Hamilton back-to-back wins – and would be a further boost after cutting Vettel’s overall lead to 12 points with his Canada GP win two weeks ago.

But he remains circumspect as to whether Mercedes has truly turned the corner.

“(Ferrari) have had a more consistent season so far. We’ve had more of an up-and-down season,” Hamilton said. “I think they (Ferrari) still are favorites in terms of the fact their car seems to work everywhere. But I think there’s more unlocked potential in our car.”

Hamilton believes the Belgian GP in late August will show whether Mercedes can release that potential, and topple Ferrari in the title fight.

“I’m hoping by August, coming into September, by then we are the favorites,” said Hamilton, who is chasing a fourth F1 title.

Valtteri Bottas, Hamilton’s new teammate and the only other driver to win a race, is in third place and trails Vettel by 48 points. Whether or not Bottas can become a title contender remains to be seen, however. Most observers conclude that Hamilton undoubtedly holds No. 1 status at Mercedes.

“Lewis is in the best place I have seen him during any of the last five years since he joined the team,” Mercedes head of motorsport Toto Wolff said. “He is coping so well with the difficult days. This is what the very best are made of.”

Vettel, who is gunning for a fifth F1 title, also appears to be No. 1 at Ferrari ahead of Kimi Raikkonen.

Ferrari has been more reliable and might even be slightly faster than Mercedes. That bodes well considering that the 6-kilometer (3.7-mile) Baku circuit, which glides through the city’s medieval walls and passes the Caspian sea, has F1’s fastest top speed of 370 kph (230 mph).

Ferrari is chasing its first drivers’ title since Raikkonen in 2007 and its first constructors’ title since 2008.

Although Ferrari missed out on a podium place in Montreal, with Vettel finishing fourth, there was some bad luck because his car was damaged by Max Verstappen’s Red Bull heading into the first corner.

It would have been more worrying for Ferrari had Vettel finished fourth in a straight, trouble-free contest with Hamilton. Encouragingly for Ferrari, the way Vettel cut through the field following his early trouble showed the German driver is back to his very best.

Vettel’s previous title came in 2013, the last of four straight with the once-dominant Red Bull, and there are clearly shades of the confident Vettel of old this season.

Verstappen, tipped to be F1’s next big star, needs a strong performance in Baku.

Last year, the 19-year-old Dutch driver became the youngest F1 driver to win a race and to qualify on the front row. But he has secured only one podium and failed to finish three races so far this season.

Worse still is the misery two-time F1 champion Fernando Alonso is enduring at McLaren.

Although still widely considered the equal of Hamilton – and slightly ahead of Vettel – on pure ability, Alonso has not won since the Spanish GP in May 2013.

He can hardly even finish a race these days, such is the unreliability of McLaren’s Honda engine.

McLaren is the only team yet to score a point. Between them, Alonso and teammate Stoffel Vandoorne have completed only four races, with a best finish of 12th by Alonso.

Considering how demanding the Baku circuit is on engines, it promises to be another frustrating weekend for Honda amid growing rumors McLaren is considering a new engine supplier deal with Mercedes. An embarrassing but realistic possibility for beleaguered Honda.

“Like Canada, we don’t have very high hopes,” Vandoorne said Thursday.

Wolff: Bottas in ‘uncomfortable situation’ waiting on F1 future

Getty Images
1 Comment

GENEVA, Switzerland – Mercedes Formula 1 chief Toto Wolff says he can appreciate that Valtteri Bottas is in an “uncomfortable situation” as he waits to hear about his future with the team beyond the end of the 2017 season.

Bottas joined Mercedes from Williams for 2017 following Nico Rosberg’s shock decision to retire after winning the F1 drivers’ title last November, freeing up a seat alongside Lewis Hamilton.

Bottas was signed on an initial one-year deal by Mercedes, and has impressed through his first seven races with the team, scoring his maiden victory in Russia at the end of April.

The Finn has proven popular among the team members at Brackley, as well as helping to ease some of the tension that emerged through the Hamilton-Rosberg rivalry.

Mercedes is still yet to decide on whether Bottas will continue for 2018, though, with high-profile drivers such as Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso both out of contract and up for grabs.

“Of course it’s an uncomfortable situation for him with quite some pressure,” Wolff said during the FIA Sport Conference in Geneva earlier this week.

“When we decided to make Valtteri the offer, he knew that we would be taking our time for the decision going forward because the driver market is more open in 2018 and beyond, 2018 and 2019, and he knew that.

“So that’s why we will not rush into a decision, but continue to work with him and see how that pans out. But generally the view of the team is that he’s done a good job.”

When asked if Bottas’ gamble to move to Mercedes from Williams could backfire and leave him without a seat next year, Wolff said: “He has taken a decision to leave Williams and join Mercedes in a one-year deal.

“I think that the perception of him as a racing driver has gained. He’s won a race rather than lost, so I think it already paid off.”