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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Newgarden, Chevy top Phoenix practice

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Friday’s two-hour practice for the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix started out slowly, with only a handful of drivers turning laps in the opening 30 minutes. However, the second hour, and the final 30 minutes in particular, turned into a frenzy, with drivers making several runs and completing qualifying sims.

Josef Newgarden topped the speed charts with an average speed of 192.108 mph, the only lap above the 192 mark of the session.

JR Hildebrand enjoyed a strong run on his return after suffering a broken hand at Long Beach to run second in practice. Helio Castroneves, Simon Pagenaud, and Will Power completed the top five, making it a Chevrolet sweep of the top five spots.

Heavy winds wreaked havoc on the session, with sand blowing onto the track surface throughout practice. Conditions became severe enough that practice was halted a couple minutes prior to its scheduled conclusion.

Of note: driver Ed Carpenter, in his first race outing of 2017, suffered a shortened practice due to mechanical issues and the crew reportedly was working on swapping out the fuel cell on his No.20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet.

Times and qualifying order are below. Qualifying begins at 11:00 p.m. ET (8:00 local time).

 

 

Honda defends decision to redesign F1 power unit for 2017

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Honda Formula 1 chief Yusuke Hasegawa has defended the decision to redesign its power unit layout for 2017 despite suffering a number of reliability and performance issues at the start of the season.

Entering its third year since returning to F1 as an engine supplier, Honda looked to make gains by revising the layout of its power unit to mirror that of pace-setter Mercedes.

The decision appeared to backfire, though, with a lack of both performance and reliability leaving customer team McLaren frustrated and without a single point after three races.

Speaking in Friday’s FIA press conference in Russia, Hasegawa was asked if the decision to revise the power unit layout was a mistake, and defending the move despite admitting to the ongoing problems.

“I don’t think we made a complete mistake from last year’s performance. We knew that we have to change everything, not only the package but also the combustion, so we tried to modify all areas,” Hasegawa explained.

“Some areas we succeeded, to reduce the weight and lower the center of gravity, but yeah, definitely we couldn’t get enough power from the combustion. So, yeah, it is just an excuse, but we still need time.

“But we don’t think we made a huge mistake, the direction was right. We are very much disappointed with our current situation.

“But because the base concept is correct, we believe we can make good progress in the middle of the season.”

McLaren’s hopes of scoring its first points of the year in Russia took a hit on Friday when Stoffel Vandoorne was forced to take new elements for his power unit, triggering a 15-place grid drop for the race.

More brake issues strike Haas in Russia F1 practice despite supplier change

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The Haas Formula 1 team endured another difficult day of practice ahead of the Russian Grand Prix as drivers Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen suffered more brake issues despite changing supplier.

Haas confirmed on Thursday that it would be switching from Brembo to Carbon Industrie brakes, having suffered problems throughout its 14-month stint in F1.

Despite enjoying a positive test in Bahrain with Carbon Industrie parts last week, both Grosjean and Magnussen struggled with their brakes in FP1 and FP2 at the Sochi Autodrom on Friday.

Grosjean finished FP2 14th-fastest, with Magnussen breaking into the top 10, charging to ninth place in the VF-17 car.

“We’ve got very little grip. We’re really struggling with the balance,” Grosjean said. “We had some issues, as well, with the brakes over the long runs. We need to look at what we can do better with them.

“Generally, it’s just been a very difficult Friday. The car didn’t perform well – very low grip on low fuel and high fuel.”

Team principal Guenther Steiner added: “We had a lot to do and I think we did a lot. We still haven’t got all the results yet, as we need to go through data.

“I would say the issues with the brakes were mainly because they’re new to us. We need to find out how they work. Going through the data, we will decide tomorrow what we’re doing and how we continue.

“All in all, we had pretty fruitful sessions. We did a lot of laps and we learned a lot. Now we need to get the best out of what we learned for tomorrow to go into qualifying.”

Qualifying for the Russian Grand Prix is live on CNBC and the NBC Sports app from 8am ET on Saturday.

F1 Paddock Pass: Russian Grand Prix, Friday edition (VIDEO)

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While the drivers may be the stars of Formula 1, their on-track escapades would not be possible without the titanic effort from those behind the scenes at their respective teams, making it key for us to hear from the people who make racing possible from time to time.

Following on from the special Friday edition of NBC Sports’ original digital series ‘Paddock Pass’ in Bahrain, Will Buxton is back with all of the interviews from the team bosses in today’s FIA press conference in Russia.

In part one, we hear from Otmar Szafnauer, COO at Force India, who gives his verdict on the team’s showing in 2017 so far and new driver Esteban Ocon’s start to the season. We also catch up with Renault technical boss Nick Chester and Pirelli’s new F1 chief, Mario Isola.

In part two, Ferrari’s engine boss Luigi Fabroni offers his thoughts on the Italian marque’s strong start to the 2017 season following Sebastian Vettel’s wins in Australia and Bahrain. At the other end of the success spectrum, McLaren’s Matt Morris and Honda’s Yusuke Hasegawa discuss the ongoing rebuilding project at woking.