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Michigan notebook: Penske closing gap on Hendrick, Logano thinking championship, Johnson gets shifty

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BROOKLYN, Mich. – What a difference, well, two months make.

Following the mid-June Sprint Cup race at Michigan International Speedway won by Jimmie Johnson, third-place finisher Brad Keselowski said he believed Hendrick Motorsports was about a year ahead on engine development and power than any other team or manufacturer.

Fast forward two months and it was Penske Racing teammate Joey Logano that finished third in Sunday’s Pure Michigan 400 at MIS.

And to hear Logano tell it, that nearly one-year margin has been closed quite a bit by – who else – Team Penske.

“Yeah, we’ve closed the gap,” Logano said. “I don’t think we’re a year behind. Do I think the Hendrick Chevys are the best motors out there right now? Yes, I do. But I think this racetrack caters to the Ford motor a little bit more than normal.

“We’re good on the high rpm stuff. Not slowing much in the corners. This is kind of our wheelhouse. Then for the Hendrick Chevys, it seems like the bottom end horsepower is where they got it. That’s not speed. That’s race-ability stuff, you’re able to get that spot on somebody off the corner.

“We’ve closed the gap, worked a lot on it. We’re coming. We’re coming. We’re just not there yet.”

* * * * * * * * *

Logano has two wins this season, while Keselowski has three.

Do the math and that means Team Penske has collectively won five of the first 23 races this season.

We’ve already seen what Keselowski can do in a Penske car, having won the 2012 Sprint Cup championship.

Now, Logano feels it’s his turn. When asked what message he can take away and the lessons he’s learned thus far when it comes to his performance thus far in 2014, Logano was very blunt.

“That we can win a championship,” Logano said. “I really feel we can do that. That’s the message I want to put out there. I want to put out for my team that we’re strong enough to do that. I think we showed that today.

“We’re close. We’ve still got to keep working hard. We’ve got to find that next level here in three weeks now to be this strong in the Chase. But right now we’re in the hunt. We’re doing what we got to do.”

“…We like the momentum. That’s a good thing to go into the Chase with the momentum we’ve got. A lot of top-five, top-10 finishes. Moves us up in the points, but doesn’t matter unless you have wins.

“That’s why I raced so hard at the end, just to get that position. Almost got (race winner Jeff Gordon) back there again in turn one. Just wasn’t able to clear him. I got pulled back on the straightaway again.”

* * * * * * * * * * * *

While Gordon had an outstanding day, teammate Jimmie Johnson had an outstanding comeback.

Johnson somehow broke the shifter in his Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet early in the race and had great difficulty trying to shift gears.

His team attempted several remedies for a temporary fix, finally settling on attaching a modified pair of vice grips to the shifter mechanism to allow Johnson the ability to change gears as needed.

The fix worked and Johnson was able to rally back from as far back as 35th to finish 10th, his best finish in the last six races this season.

“Granted, we put ourselves in a bad position with the shift lever breaking off and was able to rally back and get ourselves a good finish,” Johnson said. “It was unfortunate we didn’t get any further up in the field, but we still salvaged a lot today.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Johnson had a late race incident with Ryan Newman, and went over to talk with him after the race.

While Johnson is normally diplomatic when he talks about other drivers, such wasn’t exactly the case when a reporter asked Johnson what he said to Newman.

“Oh, it was just normal ‘Ryan Newman stuff,'” Johnson said. “Anybody who has watched this sport long enough or has been in a race car out there understand the frustration that comes along with racing Ryan. Just normal Ryan stuff.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Kyle Larson has been called a “hot foot” for his ability to wheel a race car, but things got hot in a different way for the Sprint Cup rookie in Sunday’s race.

Larson’s car hit the wall just before the midpoint of the 200-lap race and burst into fire.

Larson escaped the blaze and was uninjured from the wreck, but his car didn’t fare so well, being knocked out of the event as a result.

“I’m fine,” Larson said. “It’s just a shame we were up there in the points battle, so we have to work even harder now with our Target Chevy to try to get in the Chase.”

The real pain that Larson felt, however, was in the Race to the Chase standings. Coming into the event, he had all but qualified for the upcoming Chase for the Sprint Cup.

But with his early exit Sunday, Larson is now 21 points out of the top 16 drivers that will be eligible to make the 10-race Chase playoffs.

All is not lost for the likely Sprint Cup rookie of the year: he still has three races to get back in contention for the Chase.

There was a bit of irony with Larson’s wreck. NASCAR mandated Friday that all drivers must remain in their cars after a wreck unless the car is on fire.

Larson had no choice but to exit his burning vehicle, right about the same time that the safety team came to get him as well as extinguish the flames.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

What the heck has happened to Kyle Busch?

So much has been made of Jimmie Johnson finishing 28th or worse in four of the five races prior to Michigan. But Busch hasn’t had much better luck.

In his last seven races, Busch finished second in three of the first four races in that streak. But in the last three outings, he’s had terrible luck.

Busch wrecked on the third lap of Sunday’s race, finishing 39th, adding to the 40th he had last week at Watkins Glen and the 42nd he had the week before that at Pocono.

“I tried going to the top in (turns) three and four right away and I got loose all the way through,” Busch said. “Every time I touched the gas, it wanted to spin out and finally it was too much gas and not enough save and I wrecked.

“… I was really optimistic about our car there in the opening laps and we didn’t get to see what we were capable of.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Five more drivers officially clinched their berths in the upcoming Chase: Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Aric Almirola, Kurt Busch and last week’s race winner, AJ Allmendinger.

There is one caveat, however: each driver still must qualify for the three remaining races prior to the start of the Chase.

 

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

Sim racers join Formula E teams ahead of Las Vegas eSports event

2016/2017 FIA Formula E Championship.
Marrakesh ePrix, Circuit International Automobile Moulay El Hassan, Marrakesh, Morocco.
Saturday 12 November 2016.

Photo: Sam Bloxham/LAT/Formula E
ref: Digital Image _SLA8272
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Ten sim racers have joined up with teams on the Formula E grid ahead of the Las Vegas eSports event at the beginning of January.

Formula E announced last summer that it would be holding a non-championship event in Las Vegas that would pit its drivers against racers from the virtual realm.

With $1 million in prize money on offer, the race is poised to be one of the most lucrative eSports events.

Ahead of the event in Las Vegas, each of the 10 of the sim racers that have qualified have been paired up with a Formula E team.

“I’d like to officially welcome the sim racers who qualified through the Road to Vegas Challenge to participate in the inaugural Visa Vegas eRace,” Formula E CEO Alejandro Agag said.

“I’ve been following the progress of the sim racers throughout the qualification process, and I can’t wait to see them on the same track as the rest of the Formula E grid.

“Accessibility and fan engagement are two of the key cornerstones of Formula E, and what better way to promote this than getting the sim racers to compete in the same colours as their Formula E counterparts – it will be fascinating to see who comes out on top.”

The sim racers in the event are:

  • Gregor Huttu (FIN) – Panasonic Jaguar Racing
  • Aleksi Uusi-Jaakkola (FIN) – Andretti
  • Olli Pahkala (FIN) – Mahindra
  • Enzo Bonito (ITA) – Techeetah
  • David Greco (ITA) – Renault e.dams
  • Graham Carroll (GBR) – DS Virgin Racing
  • Aleksi Elomaa (FIN) – Venturi
  • Bono Huis (NED) – Faraday Future Dragon Racing
  • Petar Brljak (CRO) – NextEV NIO
  • Patrick Holzmann (DEU) – ABT Schaeffler Audi Sport

The Vegas eRace will take place on January 7.

Hunter-Reay, Rahal complete Acura NSX GT3 lineup at Rolex 24

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Photos: Acura
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Verizon IndyCar Series stars Ryan Hunter-Reay and Graham Rahal will complete the eight-driver lineup for the 2017 Rolex 24 at Daytona in the pair of Michael Shank Racing Acura NSX GT3s.

These two drivers join the previously announced six-pack of Andy Lally, Ozz Negri, Jeff Segal, Katherine Legge, Mark Wilkins and Tom Dyer. The first four are the full-season drivers while Wilkins and Dyer are the third drivers for the full Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup slate of races. Daytona, as a 24-hour race in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship schedule, makes up the longest round where four drivers are expected for most entries.

Exact lineups are yet to be determined. Both Hunter-Reay (No. 28 DHL Honda) and Rahal (No. 15 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Honda) run Hondas in IndyCar, and switch from their previous teams in IMSA. Hunter-Reay was third driver in the No. 90 Visit Florida Racing Corvette DP last year, Rahal the fourth driver in one of the BMW Team RLL BMW M6 GTLMs.

Both Hunter-Reay and Rahal will test the car at Daytona next week.

“We’re thrilled to have Graham and Ryan join the Michael Shank Racing effort at Daytona,” said Art St. Cyr, president of Honda Performance Development (HPD), the racing arm for Acura in North America. “The debut of the NSX GT3 at the prestigious Rolex 24 will mark the return of the Acura brand to IMSA sports car competition. The addition of Graham and Ryan to an already excellent driver lineup, coupled with the experience provided by Michael Shank and his team, will make the NSX GT3 a serious contender for the GTD class victory at Daytona.”

Jenson Button receives honorary degree from University of Bath (VIDEO)

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 25:  Jenson Button of Great Britain and McLaren Honda in the garage during practice for the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 25, 2016 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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Jenson Button became ‘Dr. Jenson Button’ earlier this week when he was awarded an honorary degree by the University of Bath in England.

Button, 36, made what looks set to be his final Formula 1 appearance at the end of last month in Abu Dhabi, drawing the curtain on a 16-year stint at the pinnacle of motorsport.

The Briton won the F1 drivers’ championship in 2009 and was runner-up in 2011, as well as winning 15 grands prix.

Button added to his list of achievements by picking up an honorary degree in engineering from the University of Bath earlier this week.

“I didn’t go to university and work hard in my early years, but I would say that a lot of my achievements in motorsport are down to my engineering understanding of a racing car,” Button said when addressing the audience at the ceremony.

Button does have a contract to race for McLaren in 2018 should both he and the driver be keen, but looks unlikely to return.

Button does remain keen to race occasionally through 2017, expressing an interest in racing in Super GT and rallycross.

Williams expecting Stroll to make mistakes through debut F1 season

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 24:  Lance Stroll of Canada and Williams talks in the Paddock  during previews for the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 24, 2016 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Williams Formula 1 chief technical officer Pat Symonds says he expects 18-year-old Lance Stroll to make mistakes during his rookie season in 2017.

Williams announced last month that Stroll would be stepping up from Formula 3 to a full-time F1 seat for 2017, replacing the retiring Felipe Massa.

Stroll has an impressive track record through his junior racing career, becoming the youngest ever FIA F3 champion in 2016.

However, his on-track actions have caught attention for the wrong reasons at times, with the Canadian receiving a race ban in June 2015 for causing an accident.

Speaking to Reuters, Symonds said that Williams is braced for Stroll to make mistakes during his rookie campaign as he gets to grips with life in F1.

“Of course he’ll make mistakes and we’ll be repairing cars. These things happen as part of the process,” Symonds said.

“If you look at his Formula 3 career, in 2015 he was having quite a few accidents in that. The Monza one is just staggering.”

However, Symonds has no doubt in Stroll’s talent, believing the youngster to have proven himself during his two-year stint in F3.

“He hasn’t won that championship with anything other than a lot of skill and maturity,” Symonds said.

“For a guy that young, he’s driven really well in pretty well every condition. He’s raced well, he’s led at the front. He’s come through the field a bit, he’s driven well in the wet.

“He is the real deal.”

Besides his F3 commitments, Stroll has also completed an extensive F1 testing program through 2016 that saw him conduct running in a 2014-spec Williams in order to prepare him for his race debut in Australia next March.