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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.”

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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.”

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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.

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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.

 

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Binder clinches Moto3 world title at Aragon with four races to spare

ALCANIZ, SPAIN - SEPTEMBER 24:  Brad Binder of South Africa and Red Bull KTM Ajo heads down a straight during the qualifying practice during the MotoGP of Spain - Qualifying at Motorland Aragon Circuit on September 24, 2016 in Alcaniz, Spain.  (Photo by Mirco Lazzari gp/Getty Images)
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Brad Binder became South Africa’s first motorcycle racing world champion since 1980 by clinching the Moto3 title at Motorland Aragon on Sunday.

Binder, 21, made his debut on the MotoGP ladder back in 2011 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in the 125cc class, which became known as Moto3 the following year.

Binder scored his first podium in 2014 with Mahindra, but did not ascend to the top step until this year’s Spanish Grand Prix at Jerez.

The result sparked a run of three straight victories that was bookended by four podiums, vaulting the KTM rider into the championship lead.

Further wins followed at Silverstone and Misano, leaving Binder on the brink of sealing the championship at Motorland Aragon on Sunday.

After qualifying seventh, Binder became embroiled in the battle for victory at the front of the pack, taking the lead on the final lap.

Despite running wide at the final corner and losing out to Jorge Navarro by 0.030 seconds in a sprint to the line, second place was enough to clinch Binder the championship.

Binder becomes South Africa’s first world champion in motorcycle racing since Jon Ekerold in 1980.

Binder will make the move up to Moto2 in 2017 with KTM, and will undoubtedly have his sights on moving up to the premier class of motorcycle racing, MotoGP, not long after that.

‘Fast Jack’ Beckman back to living up to his nickname at Gateway

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“Fast Jack” Beckman came into this weekend’s AAA Insurance Midwest Nationals at Gateway Motorsports Park in a big predicament.

He didn’t live up to his colorful nickname during last week’s Carolina Nationals, the opening race of the six-race Countdown to the Championship.

Beckman was actually more like “Slow Jack,” as he failed to advance past the first round at Carolina in last Sunday’s eliminations.

He also failed to advance past the first round in the final pre-Countdown qualifying race, the U.S. Nationals, which he won last season.

All those things combined have put even more pressure on Beckman. He left Charlotte eighth in the 10-driver Funny Car Countdown standings.

2016_Jack_Beckman headshot

Being scored 110 points behind Funny Car points leader Ron Capps, Beckman had his work cut out for him heading into this weekend’s race at Gateway, in Madison, Illinois, just across the Mississippi River from St. Louis.

And as he has done numerous times in his career, when the pressure was on him, Beckman responded, qualifying No. 2 on Saturday for Sunday’s eliminations.

Robert Hight earned the No. 1 qualifier position (3.893 seconds at 328.38 mph), but Beckman wasn’t far behind (3.907 seconds at 325.22 mph).

That’s a big start for Beckman, who won at Gateway in 2012 and ended up second in last year’s championship battle that was won by fellow veteran Del Worsham. Beckman will face Dale Creasy Jr. in the first round of eliminations.

Last season, Beckman won seven races in the 24-race NHRA national event schedule. This season has been much different, as he has just one win (Chicago in July).

But that doesn’t mean he still can’t win each of the five remaining Countdown races – which obviously would go a long way towards earning him his second career Funny Car championship (and in five seasons).

Beckman isn’t panicking after Charlotte. He’s finished first, third and second in three of the last four seasons. He knows he and his Infinite Hero Dodge Charger have the capability to make a serious championship run.

In addition to hoping he wins Sunday, Beckman is defending champion of next week’s Dodge Nationals at Maple Grove (Pa.) Raceway.

“Since you can’t control how the leading cars do, really the goal is simple: you just need to win the race,” Beckman said in a media release. “At some point we have to win the race if we have a chance.

“There’s not any other path to a championship. We lost ground we couldn’t afford to lose (at Charlotte) and we can’t afford to lose any more ground. I don’t see those teams not continuing to perform well and the only way we win the championship is to outperform them. It’s imperative we get back to our capabilities.”

A major change for Saturday’s qualifying effort paid off handsomely with his No. 2 spot for Sunday – although admittedly it was a gamble of sorts for Beckman and crew chief Jimmy Prock.

“We’re still running a five-disc clutch and we have one disc on there that when it works it’s great and when it doesn’t it smokes the tires instantly and becomes too aggressive,” Beckman said. “We’re going to take that one out and take our chances with a brand new disc. We’re taking a calculated risk but I think it’s the only choice we have.

“We have to take baby steps but we have to take them quickly or we run out of races. Before we can go quick consistently we have to get back our predictability and we have to do that by the end of (this weekend’s race at) St. Louis.

“All we can control right now is our lane. Because we’re running out of rounds, every single pass becomes more important. But if you dwell on that, there’s a high likelihood you’re not going to do as well as you want.

“As the season winds down, the pressure goes up, but if you let it affect you, you’re not going to be at your best. The only thing you can do is take a positive mindset every time you go up there.”

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Touring car legend Yvan Muller to leave WTCC after 2016

STRASBOURG, FRANCE - OCTOBER 04:   Yvan Muller of France attends the FIA pre event press conference at rally headquarters after the Shakedown of the WRC France on October 04, 2012 in Strasbourg , France.  (Photo by Massimo Bettiol/Getty Images)
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Touring car racing legend and four-time world champion Yvan Muller will leave the World Touring Car Championship (WTCC) at the end of the 2016 season.

Muller made his name in the British Touring Car Championship before making the switch across to WTCC in 2006 with Seat.

The Frenchman claimed his first world title in 2008 before enjoying further successes in 2010, 2011 and 2013, the latter three championships won while behind the wheel of a Chevrolet.

Muller joined Citroen following its arrival in WTCC for the 2014 season, but has been unable to add to his haul of championship as teammate Jose Maria Lopez romped to three straight crowns.

With Citroen set to leave WTCC at the end of the year, Muller has decided that the time is right to follow suit and call time on a stint in the series that has seen him score 47 wins, 119 podium finishes and over 2,600 points.

“I am not sure that age is the main factor when it comes to ending a career. It’s more a matter of desire and motivation,” Muller said.

“With all the testing, the simulator sessions, the physical training and the travel to the race venues, a season of professional motor racing requires a level of personal commitment that I am no longer prepared to put in.

“At the same time, I am at a time of my life where I want to do something else and I am happy to be able to make that decision after eleven seasons of FIA WTCC.

“I’ve had some great experiences over my career. These three seasons with Citroën Racing have been particularly special, even though I never managed to be world champion with this team. But I will always be proud of having helped to build our racing programme and develop the Citroën C-Elysée WTCC. I have also met some great people who are passionate about their job and have a fierce competitive spirit.

“Driving has been part of my daily life for so long that I can’t see myself stopping racing entirely. But I am going to spend more time with my family and developing my team, Yvan Muller Racing. Before that, though, I am going to put everything I’ve got into meeting the team’s goals.”

Lopez is also set to leave WTCC at the end of the year, having agreed a deal to race for Citroen sub-brand DS in Formula E for the all-electric series’ third season.

The 2016 WTCC season closes on November 25 at the Losail International Circuit in Qatar.

Report: Sam Schmidt to receive America’s first driver’s license for semi-autonomous car

2016 Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil
Indianapolis Motor Speedway
May 29, 2016
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Schmidt Peterson Motorsports team owner Sam Schmidt is set to receive America’s first driver’s license for a semi-autonomous vehicle, according to a report from Las Vegas Review-Journal.

Schmidt sustained a spinal cord injury in a testing accident at Walt Disney World Speedway ahead of the 2000 IRL season, leaving him paralyzed from the neck down.

Schmidt went on to establish Schmidt Peterson Motorsports with programs in IndyCar and Indy Lights, both of which he still heads up.

Schmidt has previously completed laps behind the wheel of a modified 2014 Corvette C7 Stingray at Indianapolis in 2014 and in Long Beach last year, dubbed the ‘SAM project’ – semi-autonomous motorcar – developed with Arrow Electronics.

Schmidt controls the car using a breathing tube for acceleration and braking, and steers using his head movements that are picked up by infrared cameras.

Now, the SAM project is set to hit the road, with Las Vegas Review-Journal reporting that Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles will grant Schmidt the first road license for a semi-autonomous car in the country.

The report says that Arrow has worked closely with the Nevada DMV to update regulations so that Schmidt is able to drive on state roads.

“Nevada is leading the nation in promoting autonomous and semi-autonomous vehicle technologies that can bring mobility and independence to people with physical disabilities, including our wounded warriors,” officials from the Nevada DMV said.