Everyone worried about a Kenseth win — except Matt himself

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INDIANAPOLIS — Everyone seems to be concerned Matt Kenseth hasn’t won a race thus far in 2014 – everyone, that is, except Kenseth himself.

Sure, he led the Sprint Cup Series with seven wins last season, but Kenseth has yet to reach victory lane in the first 19 races of this season.

But given where he’s at in the Sprint Cup points (fourth), Kenseth is pretty much a lock to make the expanded 16-driver Chase for the Sprint Cup field when it’s finalized seven races from now after the Richmond event.

If you go by the alternative pre-Chase rankings that are based solely on wins, Kenseth is 12th, the highest-ranked driver without any wins. With seven races left to qualify for the Chase, it’s unlikely we’ll see seven more drivers earn their first win of 2014, leaving Kenseth fairly safe to make the Chase.

But at the same time, Kenseth isn’t going to rely on possibilities and hypotheticals. He’s hoping to kill two birds with one stone on Sunday: win his first race of 2014 and his first win in the Brickyard 400.

“Well, all of the above, I guess,” Kenseth said during a press conference after being fastest in the only practice session held on Friday.

Kenseth has a decent record at Indy: In 14 career starts, while he hasn’t won yet, he does have six top-five and two other top-10 finishes. His best finish to date has been second (in both 2003 and 2006).

Kenseth also is coming off a strong fifth-place run at Indy in last year’s Brickyard.

“I’ve always felt like (Indy) has been one of our race tracks, but you really don’t know until you get there and you get into the race, even through practice,” Kenseth said. “Even last year, we had an incredible year and we ran so good at so many places I’ve never ran good at before, but then we went to Indy and we finished well, but we really didn’t run well last year compared to how we ran everywhere else.

“… Obviously expectations are high and when you’re sitting here almost in August and don’t have a win yet, you always get asked about that, especially with this new system and all that. The year really hasn’t been a bad year, we’ve had a bad month there where I wrecked it two or three times and had some other things happen, but we just have been as an organization lacking a little bit of speed. I feel like we’re gaining on that and feel like we’re getting closer.

“Overall, I feel like from a team perspective and execution and all that stuff, we’re probably better than what it was last year. As soon as we get the speed to go with it and have some things to go our way, it’s possible to get on a roll.”

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Vettel ‘not looking for excuses’ after P4 in Baku qualifying

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Sebastian Vettel will start fourth for Sunday’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix (9 a.m. ET, NBCSN) with a thus far off the boil weekend for Scuderia Ferrari.

Vettel, who leads the Formula 1 championship by 12 points over Lewis Hamilton heading into Sunday’s race at the Baku City Circuit, had a pre-qualifying engine change and didn’t appear to have the pace of the Mercedes AMG Petronas pair this session.

But for Vettel, he didn’t seem too worried about the lack of pace today or the potential race pace differential between Ferrari and Mercedes on Sunday.

“I don’t want to look for excuses. We were not quick enough,” Vettel told NBCSN’s Will Buxton after qualifying.

“The gap to Mercedes was bigger than anyone expected. Us and Red Bull looked a good match all weekend.

“Overall they felt a little more confident and they found a bit more in the car. I wouldn’t worry too much. It’s not ideal. But the pace should be good for tomorrow’s race.”

Asked whether Mercedes’ pace was too much, Vettel replied, “Today they did, but not tomorrow!”

Vettel was second this race last year and is keen to go one step higher on Sunday. Although from fourth, he’ll have to get past the Finnish pair and proverbial sparring partners Valtteri Bottas and Kimi Raikkonen to do so. Hamilton has the pole.

“Well, we start P4 – so if we improve by one that’s a podium,” Vettel deadpanned.

“Mercedes will be quick tomorrow, but I have no doubt we can be a match. Let’s see what we can do tomorrow.”

Hamilton: Baku F1 pole ‘one of the most exciting laps’ of the year

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Lewis Hamilton believes that his charge to Formula 1 pole in Azerbaijan on Saturday was “one of the most exciting laps” of the season as he headed up a front-row lock-out for Mercedes.

Hamilton bounced back from a mistake on his first Q3 run to take P1 by four-tenths of a second, moving clear of Ayrton Senna to sit second on the all-time record list with 66 pole positions to his name.

Hamilton struggled throughout the Baku weekend in 2016, and despite coming under pressure to overhaul Mercedes teammate and provisional pole-sitter Valtteri Bottas, the Briton was able to charge it into a stunning final lap.

“That was one of the most exciting laps I’ve had all year,” Hamilton said in parc ferme after qualifying.

“A lot of pressure obviously. The first lap I had the time but made a mistake in the last corner. We’d been struggling to get temps in the tires.

“It was all or nothing. The lap got better and better. I knew Valtteri ahead was on good lap. I came from last corner, saying: ‘Please be enough!’ I’m ecstatic!”

Hamilton made no secret of how much the result and lap meant to him, but he is still anticipating a tough race in Baku given the challenging nature of the high-speed street circuit.

“As I said, I’m so pumped with that. That’s how qualifying should be,” Hamilton said.

“I’m so thankful to put a lap together like that.

“Tomorrow will be a long hard race but today is in the best position to start.”

Hamilton dominates Azerbaijan F1 qualifying for 66th career pole

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Lewis Hamilton moved clear of racing hero Ayrton Senna in the all-time pole position record list by taking the 66th of his Formula 1 career in qualifying for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix on Saturday in Baku.

Hamilton banished the difficulties of his 2016 race in Baku to break the existing pole record time with a lap of 1:40.593, giving him pole by four-tenths of a second ahead of Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas.

Despite clipping the barrier at Turn 8 with his right-rear tire, Bottas was able to lay down the initial benchmark in Q3, with his lap of 1:31.274 being one-tenth of a second faster than Hamilton’s best effort after the Briton ran wide in the final sector.

Hamilton began to work up a faster lap time, only for his charge to be halted by red flags with three minutes to go in the session when Daniel Ricciardo clipped the wall at Turn 6, sustaining a puncture in the process.

The stoppage left drivers with just three minutes to get back out on-track and get their tires up to temperature, with Hamilton managing to tame his Pirelli super-softs better than the rest.

Kimi Raikkonen led Ferrari’s charge in third place, but was a distant 1.1 seconds off Hamilton at the top. Teammate and F1 championship leader Sebastian Vettel was fourth ahead of Red Bull’s Max Verstappen.

Force India’s impressive form of late continued as Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon qualified sixth and seventh respectively, while Lance Stroll took eighth for Williams, outqualifying teammate Felipe Massa for the first time. Ricciardo rounded out the top 10 after his shunt.

Toro Rosso suffered a double drop-out in Q2 as Daniil Kvyat and Carlos Sainz Jr. struggled for straight-line speed, qualifying 11th and 12th respectively ahead of Haas driver Kevin Magnussen.

Nico Hulkenberg finished 14th for Renault, while Pascal Wehrlein led Sauber through to Q2 in P15 despite the current state of flux at the team following CEO Monisha Kaltenborn’s exit.

Already facing a combined grid drop of 75-places, McLaren-Honda drivers Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne’s struggles continued as they were both eliminated in Q1, finishing 16th and 19th respectively as they failed to make up for the power deficit of the Honda engine.

While Haas got one car through to Q2 after a late lap from Magnussen, teammate Romain Grosjean’s struggles under braking continued as he ailed to P17 ahead of Sauber’s Marcus Ericsson.

Jolyon Palmer propped up the timesheets in P20 after failing to get out in qualifying due to the engine fire that sidelined him in final practice.

The Azerbaijan Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 8am ET on Sunday.

Herta on pole for second Indy Lights race at Road America

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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ELKHART LAKE, Wis. – Colton Herta rebounded from a tough Friday dogged by persistent mechanical issues where he was barely on track, and a 13th place start for race one, to take the pole for Sunday’s race two (9 a.m. ET online on IndyCar.com; 11:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN) for the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires at Road America.

The 17-year-old excelled in the cooler conditions this morning for qualifying in his No. 98 Andretti/Steinbrenner Racing Dallara IL-15 Mazda to post a time of 1:52.0034 for the top spot at the 4.014-mile circuit. He’ll start only 13th for today’s first race.

Freedom 100 winner Matheus Leist, who enjoyed his maiden IndyCar test here last week with Andretti-Herta Autosport, was back in his Carlin car and is second on the grid, just 0.0223 of a second off Herta’s time.

For Sunday, points leader Kyle Kaiser made it three teams in the top three for Juncos Racing, with Zachary Claman De Melo and Santiago Urrutia completing the top five on the grid.

Americans Neil Alberico and Aaron Telitz are sixth and seventh with Nico Jamin in eighth.

Leist’s pole time for today’s first race was 1:53.1760 with qualifying in warmer conditions, set yesterday afternoon.

Leist, Alberico and Ryan Norman will lead the field to green, which comes online today at noon CT and local time, 1 p.m. ET, online at IndyCar.com.

Weekend results are linked here.