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.

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

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

Gasly takes Sugo podium to stay in Super Formula title hunt

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Red Bull junior Pierre Gasly will head into the final round of the 2017 Super Formula season just half a point off the lead after finishing second at Sugo on Sunday.

Gasly, 21, was placed in the Japanese Super Formula series for this season after winning the GP2 title last year, and vaulted into contention for the title with back-to-back wins at Motegi and Autopolis.

Gasly continued his good form by taking P2 at Sugo on Sunday, having narrowly lost out to Yuhi Sekiguchi following a race-long battle.

Gasly trailed Sekiguchi through the early part of the race before extending his opening stint longer than his rival in a bid to jump ahead, only to emerge from the pits second again.

Fresher tires allowed Gasly to make serious inroads through the closing stages, but Sekiguchi held on to take his second victory of the year by just 0.2 seconds.

Kazuki Nakajima completed the podium ahead of Yuji Kunimoto, while Formula E racer Felix Rosenqvist took P5 from Hiroaki Ishiura.

Ishiura heads into the season-ending double-header at Suzuka leading Gasly by just half a point in the drivers’ standings, with Rosenqvist sitting a further 4.5 points behind.

The Super Formula season rounds out on October 22 at Suzuka.

Norris made to wait for F3 title after final lap crash in Austria

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Rising British racer Lando Norris has been made to wait to secure the FIA European Formula 3 title after a crash on the final lap of Sunday’s race at the Red Bull Ring ensured the championship battle will go to the final round of the season.

Norris, 17, became part of Formula 1 team McLaren’s junior program earlier this year, and enjoyed his maiden test in a grand prix racer in Hungary over the summer, putting in an impressive display.

Norris has been racing in the highly-competitive FIA F3 series in Europe this year, a championship that has proved crucial in the careers for drivers such as Max Verstappen, Esteban Ocon and Antonio Giovinazzi.

After finishing second earlier on Sunday, Norris needed to simply finish ahead of chief title rival Maximilian Günther in the final race of the weekend to clinch the championship with three races to spare.

Norris started second and retained his position throughout the race, only to come under pressure from Ralf Aron in the closing stages, the two drivers making contact on the last lap.

Norris was sent off the track and into the gravel, forcing him to retire from the race, and with Günther finishing fifth, the points gap was reduced to 72 with three races remaining at Hockenheim in three weeks’ time.

While a title win is still likely for Norris given just 75 are on offer, to have come so close to sealing it early will nevertheless come as a blow to the talented youngster.

Norris is set to be placed in Formula 2 by McLaren in 2018, but is poised to be a name that is spoken about for many years to come in F1.

Marquez fights to Aragon MotoGP win, opens up points lead

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Marc Marquez fought through to his fifth win of the 2017 MotoGP season in Sunday’s Aragon Grand Prix, extending his lead in the riders’ championship to 16 points over Andrea Dovizioso.

A fall in qualifying meant Marquez started only fifth at Motorland Aragon, and failed to make any inroads at the start of the race, running only fourth in the early stages as Ducati’s Jorge Lorenzo hit the front.

Marquez was able to slowly rise up the order, passing title rival Dovizioso, Yamaha’s Valentino Rossi and finally Lorenzo, taking the lead of the race on Lap 16.

Marquez ultimately crossed the line less than one second clear of teammate Dani Pedrosa, who continued his good record at Motorland Aragon to complete a one-two finish for Repsol Honda.

Lorenzo held on to take his second podium in Ducati colors in third, finishing ahead of Yamaha pole-sitter Maverick Viñales, who dropped to fifth on the opening lap and never recovered.

Rossi’s remarkable return to racing a little over three weeks since suffering a double leg break ended with a run to fifth at the checkered flag, having spent the early part of the race battling at the front before dropping back.

Aleix Espargaro finished sixth ahead of Dovizioso, who slipped to 16 points behind Marquez in the title race by only finishing seventh for Ducati.

Alvaro Bautista crossed the line eighth ahead of Tech3’s Johann Zarco, while Pol Espargaro completed the top 10.

MotoGP returns in three weeks’ time with the Japanese Grand Prix at Twin Ring Motegi.

Palmer calls breakthrough F1 points ‘a weight off the shoulders’

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Jolyon Palmer has conceded that his march to his first points of the 2017 Formula 1 season last time out in Singapore was “a weight off the shoulders” as he looks to gain momentum for the remaining six races of the season.

Palmer recorded his best finish in F1 under the lights at Marina Bay, crossing the line sixth in the first wet night race in the history of the sport.

The result came at the end of a tough weekend for Palmer that saw Renault confirm it would be dropping the Briton from its F1 line-up for 2018, drafting in Carlos Sainz Jr. from Toro Rosso.

Even without an F1 seat to save, Palmer hopes the result can mark the start of a strong run to finish his time with Renault through the final six races.

“Finally we had a smooth race, which is ironic given what was going on with the safety cars and the tricky weather conditions,” Palmer said.

“We made a good start, and the move on [Valtteri] Bottas was fun; a lot happened in the two hours. It feels
like a weight off the shoulders to get some points.

“I hope to push on now and get some more. I know I can do it.”

Should Palmer wish to remain in F1, his only realistic options lie with Williams and Sauber for 2018, although both teams are understood to be looking elsewhere.

A report from Autosport claims Williams has narrowed its shortlist to partner Lance Stroll next year down to existing driver Felipe Massa, reserve driver Paul di Resta and recent Renault tester Robert Kubica.

Ferrari youngster and runaway Formula 2 points leader Charles Leclerc looks nailed on to take one of Sauber’s seats next year, replacing Mercedes junior Pascal Wehrlein.

Marcus Ericsson is expected to keep his seat with Sauber for a fourth season, with Leclerc’s fellow Ferrari-backed youngster Antonio Giovinazzi seemingly the only alternative for the Swiss team.