A.J. Allmendinger breaks into Chase with 1st career Sprint Cup win

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In a battle of perhaps the two best road racers in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, A.J. Allmendinger and Marcos Ambrose went toe-to-toe for the win today at Watkins Glen International after a restart with two laps to go.

In the end, the clash of the titans went to Allmendinger, who held off a major challenge from Ambrose on the penultimate lap and pulled away to win the Cheez-It 355.

With his inaugural Sprint Cup victory, Allmendinger has also effectively earned himself a berth in the Chase for the Sprint Cup as the 12th different driver to win this season.

In the process, he may have denied Ambrose his best opportunity to also make the post-season with four regular season races to go.

“I love you guys! Thank you!,” Allmendinger hollered as he celebrated by doing burnouts in his No. 47 JTG Daugherty Racing Chevrolet.

When he arrived in Victory Lane, Allmendinger made sure to acknowledge the family of Kevin Ward Jr., the 20-year old racer that was killed Saturday night in New York State when three-time Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart’s car struck him under caution in an sprint car event.

“I can’t imagine what they’re going through,” Allmendinger said of the Wards. “We’re a community here, and we’re all thinking about you.”

Stewart did not compete in today’s race, and his No. 14 car was instead driven by Nationwide Series racer Regan Smith.

The day started somber with news of the Stewart/Ward incident, whose investigation remains ongoing at this time.

But for Allmendinger, the day ended happily as he celebrated the culmination of a two-year saga that began with him losing his full-time Sprint Cup ride with Team Penske in 2012 after he failed a drug test.

After getting reinstated by NASCAR for completing its Road to Recovery program, Allmendinger bounced around in 2013 between part-time gigs in Sprint Cup, the Nationwide Series, and the Verizon IndyCar Series – racing in the latter two leagues for his old Cup boss, Roger Penske.

He made the most of his second chance by earning two Nationwide road course wins for Penske at Road America and Mid-Ohio. And last August, he announced his full-time return to Cup with JTG Daugherty starting this season.

Now, he’s put the small, single-car outfit into the hunt for stock car racing’s ultimate prize.

“My gosh, I can’t believe we’ve won a NASCAR Sprint Cup race,” Allmendinger beamed. “With this whole 47 team – [team owners] Tad Geschickter, Jody Geschickter, Brad Daugherty, all the great sponsors we have – our first Cup victory together, my first victory…I love these guys.

“I just wanted it so bad for them and this team. They work so hard. I wasn’t gonna let Marcos take that from me.”

A rash of late cautions set the stage for the final duel between Allmendinger and Ambrose. With 13 laps to go, Josh Wise came to a stop off of the bus stop chicane to bring out the yellow.

The top eight drivers – with Allmendinger and Ambrose at the front of the field – stayed out during the caution. But the restart with nine laps to go was short-lived when in Turn 1, Kyle Larson appeared to tap Matt Kenseth, who then went up into Jimmie Johnson.

Johnson spun around on the track and with nowhere to go, Smith was collected.

After that was cleaned up, another restart took place with five to go and had Ambrose go to the inside of Allmendinger as they entered the esses. The two remained side by side until they got to the inner loop, when Ambrose finally cleared him to take the point.

But Allmendinger responded by getting a run off the final Turn 7 corner and went inside on Ambrose down the front stretch.

Allmendinger was in the middle of completing the pass before the caution came out again for two separate incidents involving Denny Hamlin and Alex Kennedy.

Hamlin spun out of Turn 7 and slid into the water/sand barrels that cover the start of the concrete pit road barrier. Meanwhile, Kennedy made contact with Reed Sorenson in Turn 1 and slammed into the ARMCO barrier.

The twin incidents brought out the third red flag of the afternoon, with the first two reds stemming from a violent, multi-car crash on Lap 56 that primarily involved Greg Biffle, Ryan Newman, and Michael McDowell.

Allmendinger and Ambrose quickly went to the front after the race resumed under green at Lap 60, and stayed there as all of the late yellows set up their wild battle to the end.

Following the restart with two laps left, Allmendinger held back Ambrose until Turn 5, when Ambrose got into the back of Allmendinger, pushing him up the track.

But Allmendinger hung tough on the inside going down the short stretch into the left-hand Turn 6. Going into the corner, Ambrose had to give up space for Allmendinger, who took the point and left Ambrose to fight off Kurt Busch for runner-up honors.

Busch wound up third, while Larson finished fourth and Carl Edwards rounded out the Top 5.

NASCAR SPRINT CUP SERIES – Cheez-It 355 at Watkins Glen International
Unofficial Results

1. 47-AJ Allmendinger, led 30 laps
2. 9-Marcos Ambrose, led 19 laps
3. 41-Kurt Busch
4. 42-Kyle Larson
5. 99-Carl Edwards, led 3 laps
6. 22-Joey Logano
7. 4-Kevin Harvick
8. 16-Greg Biffle
9. 20-Matt Kenseth
10. 55-Brian Vickers
11. 88-Dale Earnhardt Jr.
12. 5-Kasey Kahne, led 3 laps
13. 78-Martin Truex Jr.
14. 1-Jamie McMurray
15. 13-Casey Mears
16. 3-Austin Dillon
17. 51-Justin Allgaier
18. 43-Aric Almirola
19. 34-David Ragan
20. 17-Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
21. 10-Danica Patrick
22. 38-David Gilliland
23. 36-Reed Sorenson
24. 11-Denny Hamlin
25. 32-Boris Said
26. 77-Nelson Piquet Jr.
27. 15-Clint Boywer
28. 48-Jimmie Johnson, led 6 laps
29. 40-Landon Cassill, Running, Lap 89
30. 66-Joe Nemechek, Running, Lap 89
31. 7-Michael Annett, Running, Lap 88
32. 27-Paul Menard, Running, Lap 87
33. 33-Alex Kennedy, Accident, Lap 86
34. 24-Jeff Gordon, led 29 laps, Running, Lap 86
35. 2-Brad Keselowski, Running, Lap 85
36. 23-Alex Bowman, Running, Lap 85
37. 14-Regan Smith, Accident, Lap 81
38. 98-Josh Wise, Running, Lap 78
39. 83-Ryan Truex, Suspension, Lap 69
40. 18-Kyle Busch, Running, Lap 69
41. 31-Ryan Newman, Lap 55, Accident
42. 95-Michael McDowell, Lap 55, Accident
43. 26-Cole Whitt, Lap 9, Accident

Lance Stroll set for Australia grid penalty after gearbox change

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Formula 1 rookie Lance Stroll has been forced into a gearbox change ahead of qualifying for the Australian Grand Prix following a crash in final practice at Albert Park.

Stroll lost the back-end of his Williams FW40 car coming out of Turn 10, hitting the wall and causing damage to the right-hand side and rear of his chassis in the process.

The crash brought out a red flag that ultimately caused FP3 to end early, with Stroll returning to the pit lane on the back of a marshal’s moped.

After bringing the car back to the pit lane, Williams confirmed that it would have to change Stroll’s gearbox ahead of qualifying, which will trigger a five-place grid penalty for the Canadian.

Stroll’s crash comes after a mixed pre-season program that saw him suffer three shunts in the opening week in Barcelona, raising concerns about his readiness for F1.

Stroll bounced back in the second week of running, racking up plenty of mileage in Williams’ 2017 car to back up his extensive private test program in the team’s 2014-spec F1 car last year.

At just 18 years old, Stroll is set to become the second-youngest F1 driver on Sunday, trailing only Red Bull’s Max Verstappen whose first start came at the age of 17 in 2015.

Vettel, Ferrari strke back to dominate final Australia F1 practice

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Sebastian Vettel made up for a disappointing Friday by dominating proceedings in the final Formula 1 practice session ahead of the season-opening Australian Grand Prix for Ferrari.

Vettel arrived in Australia as one of the favorites for victory following an impressive pre-season that saw Ferrari finish as the fastest team, concerning defending champion outfit Mercedes.

Ferrari’s winter pace was nowhere to be found during FP1 and FP2 on Friday in Melbourne, though, as Lewis Hamilton moved half a second clear at the front of the pack for Mercedes.

Both Vettel and teammate Kimi Raikkonen insisted they had more pace in hand for qualifying and the race, and both drivers were able to display that in FP3 as times tumbled.

Vettel ran high up the order early on before turning in a lap of 1:23.380, marking the fastest time of the weekend so far, 0.240 seconds faster than Hamilton’s benchmark from Friday.

Both Hamilton and Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas fitted a set of ultrasoft tires in a bid to try and catch Vettel at the top, yet neither could get close.

Bottas finished the session P2, 0.479 seconds shy of Vettel’s time, while Hamilton was a further 0.011 seconds back in third place, leaving Mercedes’ advantage looking precarious ahead of qualifying.

Mercedes was unable to put together a late ultra-soft run after the session was red flagged with 10 minutes to go following a crash for Lance Stroll.

Stroll lost the rear-end of his Williams FW40 coming through the end of the second sector, damaging the right-hand side of his car and bringing his session to a premature end.

The session was otherwise devoid of major incident, the other stoppage coming courtesy of Kimi Raikkonen, although the Finn was able to get his car back going swiftly.

Raikkonen ended the session fourth-fastest in the second Ferrari, six-tenths off Vettel at the top, while Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg rounded out the top five.

Red Bull struggled for pace throughout the session, with Daniel Ricciardo finising up sixth ahead of Haas’ Romain Grosjean and the Toro Rosso pair of Carlos Sainz Jr. and Daniil Kvyat. Haas’ Kevin Magnussen rounded out the top 10.

Times are below, and qualifying is at 2 a.m. ET, live on NBCSN.

Sauber’s Wehrlein rules himself out, Giovinazzi to sub at Australian GP

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After Friday’s practice sessions and after having been originally cleared to race for the Australian Grand Prix, it has been determined that Sauber F1 Team’s Pascal Wehrlein will not be able to continue in the rest of the weekend. He opted to rule himself out due to his fitness level.

“My fitness level is not as it should be for a full race distance because of my training deficit. I explained the situation to the team yesterday evening. Therefore, the Sauber F1 Team has decided not to take any risks. It is a pity, but the best decision for the team,” Wehrlein said in a release.

Wehrlein missed the opening test at Barcelona before resuming for the second test. He’d had a back injury sustained in an accident at the Race of Champions event in Miami in January.

As for that opening test, Antonio Giovinazzi, the Italian Ferrari reserve driver, will fill in for the German. This was meant to be Wehrlein’s first race with Sauber; instead, it will be Giovinazzi’s Grand Prix debut.

“We have great respect of Pascal’s openness and professionalism. This decision was definitely not an easy one for him, it underlines his qualities as a team player. The focus is now on his fitness level, and in such a situation we do not take any unnecessary risks. Pascal will be in China as planned,” team principal Monisha Kaltenborn added.

This isn’t the first injury fill-in to race in F1 in recent years; twice, Fernando Alonso has missed a race each of the last two years.

After a testing crash at Barcelona in 2015, Kevin Magnussen filled in in Alonso’s McLaren Honda, although was unable to start the race with a mechanical before the lights even went out. Meanwhile Alonso missed last year’s Bahrain Grand Prix after his accident at Melbourne, which opened the door for Stoffel Vandoorne to make his debut, and the Belgian promptly scored a point.

Giovinazzi has no prior experience at the Albert Park circuit and so will have to learn the track during FP3, which runs at 11 p.m. ET on the NBC Sports App. Qualifying takes place at 2 a.m. ET on NBCSN.

Here’s pics and notes from NBCSN pit reporter and insider Will Buxton, who is on the ground in Melbourne:

More races, more friction in the future for F1

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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) The new owners of Formula One are planning to have more races and a greater presence in North America, and wouldn’t mind revving up the ratings with some extra friction among drivers.

Sean Bratches, the managing director of commercial operations for the Formula One Group – formerly Liberty Media – which took over the running of the sport in January, is already fielding offers from promotors wanting to buy in.

Lewis Hamilton has suggested Miami and Daniel Ricciardo picked Las Vegas as places they’d like to see new races, and Bratches told a news conference Friday that “there’s no dearth of interest in bringing Formula One to circuits, both track and street, around the world.”

Bratches said he’d had a “number of inquiries from cities, states, municipalities and countries around the world that are interested.”

There are 20 races on the 2017 calendar, starting with the Australian Grand Prix on Sunday, and concluding with Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in November. The debate over the number and location of races has been frequent over the last decade.

F1 racing returned in 2012 to the United States, where it is held at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas, in October. While the bulk of the races remain in Europe and Asia, there are also GPs in Canada, Mexico and Brazil.

“Our interest is in expanding the number of circuits in that marketplace, leveraging Austin – our incumbent and the benchmark in terms of what we’re doing in the States,” said Bratches, adding there was clear demand for it in North America. “We’re excited about all markets around the world, but the United States is going to be a focus.”

Three-time world champion Lewis Hamilton and Ricciardo, an Australian who finished third on the season standings last year, are among the drivers who’d like to see more than 20 races in the F1 series. Veteran Fernando Alonso also doesn’t mind the idea of expansion, although maybe not for a few years.

Ferrari driver Sebastian Vettel, who has won four world drivers’ titles, thinks 16 to 20 would be enough. All agreed that expansion was pointless unless it increases the level of competition. Hamilton and Mercedes dominated the last three seasons, and Red Bull was dominant for the four seasons before that.

There’s always been driver tension in F1, usually between teams but also involving teammates vying for championships. Hamilton and Nico Rosberg, who edged Hamilton for the title last year and then retired, had an openly strained rivalry at Mercedes since 2013.

That’s something former ESPN executive Bratches doesn’t mind.

Responding to a question about the drivers being overly-managed by public relations people, Bratches said: “There’s a number of sports where there’s big personalities that allow sports to punch above their respective pay grades.”

He said the drivers were a big part of the fan engagement.

“Candidly, I would love it if more of the drivers had big personalities, there was more controversy among the drivers – and you kind of unleash them a little bit,” he said. “I think that’s good for all of us.”