NASCAR: For third straight race, all Hendrick drivers score Top-10s

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No doubt that Saturday night at Kentucky Speedway belonged to Team Penske. Between winner Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano, a Penske car led 236 of 267 laps in the Quaker State 400.

But while Penske dominated, the Hendrick Motorsports camp still had a good night in the Bluegrass State.

For the third consecutive Sprint Cup race, all four of their men came away with Top-10 finishes led by Dale Earnhardt Jr. in fifth.

Jeff Gordon, the current Sprint Cup points leader, finished sixth, followed by Kasey Kahne in eighth and defending Cup champion Jimmie Johnson in 10th.

Gordon was seeking to become the first driver ever to win on every active Sprint Cup track by taking the checkered flag Saturday night. But an air gun malfunction during a pit stop at Lap 127 caused him to fall from the Top 10 all the way to 23rd, severely damaging his hopes.

The four-time Cup champ was able to rally back inside the Top 10 late, but admitted to TNT afterwards that he thought their overall pace was going to be better.

“We did have the issues and got behind,” he said. “It seemed the car was pretty decent there at the end but not enough to really move up through there. It was pretty tough to pass and I thought we made the most of what happened to us today.”

Gordon also took back his comments on Friday about what he saw as Penske’s inability to carry over their stout qualifying pace to Race Day.

“I said they hadn’t been backing up their speed from qualifying, but they seemed to find it this weekend,” he said. “Wow, they were fast.”

Kahne also had to regroup during the race after trouble. On Lap 153, Kahne sustained some damage to his car in an incident that also involved Alex Bowman, Jamie McMurray, and Aric Almirola.

A slow late-race stop sent him further back, but Kahne was able to climb into the Top 10 by the checkered flag.

“I had to fight,” Kahne said. “We had some damage when the 1 [McMurray) stopped when another car was spinning.  I couldn’t get stopped I hit him, the 43 (Almirola) hit him, just too many cars in one spot on the road.

“We had a bad pit stop at the end that put us 18th and got back to eighth, so I was really happy with the speed of our Great Clips Chevy – just too many errors if you want to run up front.”

As for Johnson, he said that his poor 25th-place starting position had an impact on his race.

“I would work my way to the front and get in the top 10, top five and then come down pit road and because of our poor qualifying position we just didn’t have a good pit stall,” he said.

“I was between the 10 (Danica Patrick) and the 18 (Kyle Busch) and they were both fast all night long. I would lose five or six spots on pit road each time.

“…I think we were a competitive car and we could have been up there and maybe had a look at those guys in some clean air. But we just messed up on Friday and got behind the eight ball.”

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.