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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.”

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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.”

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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.”

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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

IMSA: Corvette Racing’s 100th win highlights Lime Rock winners

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Starworks Motorsport, Corvette Racing and Magnus Racing returned to the top of their respective classes in Saturday’s Northeast Grand Prix for the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, the two-hour, 40-minute race at the picturesque but tight and occasionally controversial 1.53-mile Lime Rock Park.

Starworks’ pair of Alex Popow and Renger van der Zande won their third race in the last four in the Peter Baron-led Prototype Challenge team’s No. 8 Oreca FLM09, coincidentally all having come since the car switched to a white, red and silver livery.

The pair dominated the race and won overall from PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports, which won this race last year.

Van der Zande held on despite a furious late-race charge from PR1’s Tom Kimber-Smith in the No. 52 car, who shared his car with Robert Alon. Kimber-Smith got nearly to van der Zande’s rear wing but was balked in traffic before the start of the final lap.

The finish of the race was cleaner than the start, which was aborted twice after a pair of incidents.

“Alex did a crazy job in the beginning, P4 to P2 after getting hit twice on the start, then the crew did a fantastic job to get me up front. It looked easier than it was! It was a helluva time getting through traffic,” van der Zande told IMSA Radio’s Shea Adam.

GT Le Mans saw Corvette Racing return to the top for the first time since the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring, with Tommy Milner and Oliver Gavin leading a 1-2 finish in the No. 4 Corvette C7.R over Antonio Garcia and Jan Magnussen in the No. 3 Corvette.

The win also delivers Corvette Racing its 100th win overall as a team, after being stuck on 99 since Sebring.

“What a job today from these guys – Olly and the whole crew. We had some great wins, then had some struggles. What a way to get 100, with 1-2 for the team, it’s so special,” Milner told Adam.

“Ordinarily we would share the victory between the engineering, crew, drivers… but today the engineers and crew guys did their work, today it’s in the drivers’ hands, at Lime Rock Park, this track, the drivers earned it today,” Corvette Racing program manager Doug Fehan told Adam.

“Any victory is pretty cool. When you’ve got 99 of them, but 100, who would have ever thought? This is a testament to what this team is capable of doing. With the intense heat, it worked out that way.”

The No. 67 Ford Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GT, which had won the last three races in GTLM dating to Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in early May, ended third with Richard Westbrook and Ryan Briscoe driving. Briscoe and Giancarlo Fisichella had late race contact, which took the No. 62 Risi Competizione Ferrari 488 GTE out of a podium spot. Fisichella shared his car with Toni Vilander.

Questionable racecraft occurred elsewhere in class with both BMWs hit during the race, the second incident coming at the downhill, when Earl Bamber (Porsche) hit Dirk Werner (BMW) in a heavy accident. The other BMW, driven by John Edwards, was hit just after the scheduled start.

GT Daytona witnessed an incredible run from Andy Lally in the final half hour of the race, delivering an incredible charge through the field in the No. 44 Magnus Racing Audi R8 LMS he shared with John Potter to win at a track that’s been a perpetual thorn in Magnus’ side.

“John was on it all weekend. This is so special – these guys worked so hard after the wreck at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park. Lars planned the setup, we dialed like 80 degrees of wing into this thing, and it stuck,” Lally told FOX’s Justin Bell.

The No. 6 Stevenson Motorsports Audi R8 LMS of Andrew Davis and Robin Liddell was second with the No. 33 Riley Motorsports Dodge Viper GT3-R third of Ben Keating and Jeroen Bleekemolen; Bleekemolen finished the race despite a busted diffuser.

Five drivers avoid Hungary grid drops over 107% rule

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY - JULY 23:  Max Verstappen of the Netherlands drives the 6 Red Bull Racing Red Bull-TAG Heuer RB12 TAG Heuer during qualifying for the Formula One Grand Prix of Hungary at Hungaroring on July 23, 2016 in Budapest, Hungary.  (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)
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Daniel Ricciardo, Max Verstappen, Nico Hulkenberg, Valtteri Bottas and Sergio Perez have all avoided grid drops for Sunday’s Hungarian Grand Prix despite failing to lap within 107% of the fastest time in Q1.

During qualifying for the Hungarian Grand Prix on Saturday, 11 drivers fell outside of the 107% time requied to qualify for the race in a session affected by rain and red flags.

Many were unable to post a late lap time while others improved dramatically on intermediate tires, causing laps to reach as much as 118%.

All six drivers who were eliminated in Q1 were outside of the required time, as were Ricciardo, Verstappen, Hulkenberg, Bottas and Perez. The latter quintet took part in Q2 as they had got into the top 16, with all bar Perez making it through to Q3.

Ricciardo and Verstappen qualified third and fourth for Red Bull, while Hulkenberg and Bottas were P9 and P10 in Q3.

Teams are ordinarily required to submit a request to the FIA stewards to race if their drivers fall outside the qualifying time.

A request by Renault for Kevin Magnussen was accepted, with the final line of the document reading: “As there is more than one driver that failed to set a qualifying time within 107% of the fastest time in Q1, the cars will be arranged on the grid in the order they were classified in P3.”

However, it now transpires that this will only apply to those eliminated in Q1, with the FIA confirming that due to “exceptional circumstances” Ricciardo, Verstappen, Hulkenberg, Bottas and Perez will not drop back. All keep their qualifying positions.

The 107% rule was re-introduced in 2011 to prevent drivers from going too slowly in qualifying, requiring them to finish within 7% of the fastest time in Q1.

The rule was last enforced at the 2012 Australian Grand Prix when HRT drivers Pedro de la Rosa and Narain Karthikeyan were not allowed to take part in the race.

Since then, the 107% rule has been triggered but not enforced. For example, drivers who crash out in Q1 and do not set a time come into it, but are ordinarily given permission to race if they have set a competitive time in free practice.

Rosberg called before stewards over Hungary pole lap

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY - JULY 23: Nico Rosberg of Germany and Mercedes GP in the garage during final practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Hungary at Hungaroring on July 23, 2016 in Budapest, Hungary.  (Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images)
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Nico Rosberg has been called to see the FIA race stewards over his pole position lap during qualifying for the Hungarian Grand Prix on Saturday.

Rosberg’s final Q3 lap saw him edge out Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton for pole position by 0.143 seconds, but was partially completed under double-waved yellow flags shown following a spin for Fernando Alonso.

Rosberg was adamant after the session that he lifted enough, and the stewards did not initially investigate it.

However, over three-and-a-half hours after qualifying was completed, Rosberg has now been called in over a possible failure to slow for yellow flags during his Q3 lap.

Rosberg will meet with the stewards at 19:45 local time in Hungary (13:45 ET).

The majority of drivers completing their final laps at the end of Q3 were forced to abort their efforts in response to Alonso’s spin.

Double-waved yellows require drivers to “slow down and be prepared to stop”. Although Rosberg arrived at the scene later than most, he still only lifted, not appearing to slow enough so that he could stop, thus prompting the stewards to investigate.

UPDATE: No penalty for Rosberg after stewards’ meeting

The FIA stewards have confirmed that Rosberg has been cleared of failing to slow for yellow flags on his final Q3 lap, meaning he keeps pole position for Sunday’s Hungarian Grand Prix.

“The telemetry demonstrated that the driver reduced speed significantly into Turn 8,” a statement from the stewards read.

Rosberg confident he lifted enough during Hungary pole lap

Mercedes driver Nico Rosberg, of Germany, smiles as he celebrates after setting the pole position during the qualifying session for Sunday's Formula One Hungary Grand Prix, at the Hungaroring racetrack, in Budapest, Hungary, Saturday, July 23, 2016. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)
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Nico Rosberg is confident that he slowed down enough to respect the yellow flags during his pole position lap for the Hungarian Grand Prix in qualifying on Saturday.

Rosberg edged out Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton to score pole at the Hungaroring by 0.143 seconds, his final lap being completed partly under yellow flags following a spin for Fernando Alonso.

Drivers are required to slow under yellows, with those who first came across Alonso’s car being forced to abandon their final flying laps altogether as a result.

Alonso had cleared his car by the time Rosberg came to Turn 5, although yellow flags were still being shown, leading to questions about the validity of the German’s time.

“For sure there were double waved [yellows] yeah, but I had a very, very big lift and lost a lot of time as a result,” Rosberg explained.

“I was also slower than on my previous lap in that yellow sector, or in that yellow segment, or whatever it’s called, so I’m sure it will be OK.”

Speaking to NBCSN after qualifying, Rosberg re-affirmed his belief that he had slowed down enough.

“Yeah for sure,” Rosberg said when asked if he did enough.

“I know what I need to do. I did a big lift, so I handled it according to what needed to be done, so it will be OK.”

The Hungarian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports App from 7am ET on Sunday.