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.”

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

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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Ferrari has burning ambition to win 1st Monaco GP since 2001

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MONACO (AP) Having closed the gap to dominant Mercedes in an incredibly close-fought Formula One season, Ferrari has another burning ambition: Winning the Monaco Grand Prix on Sunday.

The Italian manufacturer’s barren spell in Monaco dates to Michael Schumacher’s win in 2001, and four-time F1 champion Sebastian Vettel is determined to put that right.

“I would say it is about time that Ferrari wins again here,” said Vettel, who has 44 career wins.

“If you could have the freedom to choose any race on the calendar that you would want to win, it would without doubt be Monaco. Ask up and down the paddock and you would get the same answer.”

Schumacher, who won a record seven world titles and 91 races, also won at Monaco driving for Ferrari in 1997 and ’99.

Vettel’s Monaco win was in 2011, when driving for Red Bull. He was fourth here for Ferrari last year while teammate Kimi Raikkonen did not finish the race. In 2015, the year he joined Ferrari, Vettel was second and Raikkonen was sixth.

Ferrari has stepped up the pace this year and, with increased reliability, is matching Mercedes, which has won the last three drivers’ and constructors’ titles.

After five races, Vettel leads the championship by six points from Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton; while Mercedes is eight ahead of Ferrari in the constructors’ race.

But Ferrari may be a bit quicker than Mercedes this year, and the increased pressure has forced some uncharacteristic errors.

During the second practice on Thursday, Mercedes made a sloppy mistake when misjudging a tire switch onto the quicker ultra-soft compound. That allowed Ferrari to top the charts in P2, with Vettel fastest and Raikkonen third.

“It is important to start from the front of the grid, here more than anywhere else,” Vettel said. “I am not counting out Mercedes. I am sure they will be back to full force on Saturday (for qualifying).”

Ferrari’s vastly improved reliability suits Vettel perfectly. The German driver is remarkably consistent if the car allows him to be – like it was when he won four straight titles with Red Bull. But he is also quickly irritated when the car lets him down, as it often did last year.

There have been no Vettel tirades over the race radio. He has placed in the top two in all five races, winning in Australia and Bahrain.

“The single-lap pace is very promising,” Vettel said. “The aim is to get faster.”

Vettel’s confidence has definitely returned, along with some of his old panache.

At the Spanish GP two weeks ago, he was being held up by Mercedes driver Valtteri Bottas and could not find a way past. So he tried a move from his karting days; a dummy move from right to left and then swiftly back right again to pass Bottas on the inside.

It is highly unlikely there will be a repeat of that on Sunday, given that the narrow and sinewy Monaco street circuit is arguably the hardest track in F1 to overtake on. Drivers are often brushing the barriers anyway, and this year’s wider cars make that an even more perilous possibility.

“Here you are not entirely the master of your own fate, as many things can happen in a long race,” said Vettel, who has twice been forced to retire during the Monaco GP. “Let’s keep the fingers crossed.”

Esteban Ocon making a name for himself as a rising F1 star

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MONACO (AP) Esteban Ocon is described by one member of his Force India team as a “sponge” because of his capacity to absorb information.

The 20-year-old Frenchman is one of the rising stars of Formula One. Although he has not made the same impact as 19-year-old Max Verstappen – a once-in-a-generation driver – Ocon is making a name for himself with his consistency and some audacious overtaking.

He has scored points in all five races so far, placing a career-best fifth at the Spanish Grand Prix two weeks ago. Prior to that he was seventh in Russia, and overall he sits in eighth place, one spot behind Force India teammate Sergio Perez.

That would be good enough for most drivers early in their careers, but Ocon is in a hurry.

“It is my personal target to get a podium and I want to have it as soon as possible,” Ocon said prior to this weekend’s Monaco GP. “It makes me confident to have a great start like this, progressing all the time, fitting very well into the team. I think we can achieve great things.”

Ocon broke into F1 last year, making his debut for the now defunct Manor team a month before his 20th birthday at the Belgian GP in late August. He has only competed in 14 career races but has managed to make an impression several times.

None more so than at the season-opening Australian GP, where he overtook Fernando Alonso with a passing move down the right that the two-time F1 champion himself would have been proud of. The timing of the attack, where he patiently prodded behind Alonso before swooping around him in a flash, bore the hallmarks of a future great.

“I loved the move against Fernando,” said Ocon, the youngest French driver to score points in F1. “That was pretty solid.”

After getting past Alonso, he then held him off while also repelling an attack from the experienced Nico Hulkenberg. That was only his 10th F1 race, yet he defied two drivers with 400 between them.

Verstappen, the youngest F1 driver to win a race when he clinched the Spanish GP last year, has a similar instinct for overtaking and also possesses the acute concentration and calmness required to properly defend a position under extreme pressure.

That Ocon beat Verstappen to the European Formula 3 title in 2014 – winning it with a round to spare and earning himself a spot on the prestigious Mercedes F1 junior program – hints at untapped potential.

“He’s quick. He proved that in junior categories,” said Daniel Ricciardo, Verstappen’s Red Bull teammate. “You know Esteban got that (F3 title), so he’s obviously talented.”

Moreover, Ocon is incredibly committed to understanding the intricacies of the Force India car, which runs on Mercedes engines.

“I don’t believe too much in the concept of luck. Behind results there is always hard work,” Ocon said. “I always go to the factory between the races to have intense debriefs with my engineers and do simulator work, for hours and hours.”

His propensity for learning astounds senior team members.

“He’s like a sponge and he just absorbs information as fast as you can give it to him. His want and his desire are unquestionable,” said Andrew Green, the team’s technical director. “He absolutely wants this and he has the talent to do great things, but he is going about it the right way. I have no doubts that he is going to get to where he wants to be in a few years’ time.”

Green further describes Ocon’s intuitive understanding of how far he can push the car.

“I watched him for quite a long time in the simulator last week, pounding around the (Monaco circuit), and his car control was incredible,” Green said. “He’s an amazing talent. Can he get a podium? Well, we need to give him the car to do that. But he has an uncanny ability to finish races.”

Button gets 15-place grid penalty in Monaco after power unit issue

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Jenson Button looks set to start his one-off Formula 1 appearance in 2017 from the back of the grid after being handed a 15-place penalty for Sunday’s Monaco Grand Prix.

Button stepped away from racing full-time in F1 at the end of last year, only to be drafted back in by McLaren for Monaco following Fernando Alonso’s decision to race in the Indianapolis 500.

Button has impressed throughout practice, ending FP3 12th-fastest despite not having driven the McLaren-Honda MCL32 before Thursday.

However, the 2009 world champion’s weekend has now taken a hit after it was confirmed on Saturday morning that he would serve a 15-place grid drop for changes to his power unit after practice.

“We have changed Jenson’s MGU-H/TC after detecting an issue with his MGU-H after FP2,” Honda said.

“The MGU-H/TC will be Jenson’s fifth, which means he will receive 15 place grid penalty for the race.”

Button’s teammate for the weekend, Stoffel Vandoorne, is also due to take a grid drop of three places as a sanction for his clash with Felipe Massa in the Spanish Grand Prix two weeks ago.

Qualifying for the Monaco Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 8am ET on Saturday.

Vettel lays down ominous pace in final Monaco F1 practice

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Sebastian Vettel appears to be the strong favorite for Formula 1 pole position for this weekend’s Monaco Grand Prix after dominating final practice for Ferrari on Saturday morning.

Vettel set an unofficial lap record through FP2 on Thursday afternoon, but was able to gain even more time through FP3 for Ferrari as he shaved another three-tenths of a second off his best lap.

The four-time F1 champion ended FP3 with a fastest time of 1:12.395, giving him P1 by three-tenths of a second ahead of Ferrari teammate Kimi Raikkonen.

Mercedes vowed to bounce back on Saturday after going in the wrong direction with setup in FP2, but struggled to make any serious impression at the top of the timesheets. Valtteri Bottas was third, while teammate Lewis Hamilton finished eight-tenths of a second off Vettel in fifth place.

Red Bull put itself in the fight for the front two rows of the grid as Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo finished fourth and sixth respectively, while B-team Toro Rosso got both of its cars into the top 10. Carlos Sainz Jr. finished seventh ahead of Daniil Kvyat in P8.

It wasn’t all plain sailing for Red Bull, though, with Ricciardo suffering a brake-by-wire failure at the very end of the session, forcing the Australian to abandon his car at Sainte Devote.

Kevin Magnussen took ninth place for Haas ahead of McLaren’s Stoffel Vandoorne, with Jenson Button taking 12th in the second MCL32 car. Button will be subject to a 15-place grid drop, though, following an engine change since Thursday.

Force India’s Esteban Ocon became the second driver of the weekend to suffer a crash, shunting his VJM10 car into the barrier at the exit of Swimming Pool after clipping the barrier and breaking the steering arm, leaving the team with plenty of repairs to complete in time for qualifying.

Qualifying for the Monaco Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 8am ET on Saturday.