Pure Michigan 400: Jeff Gordon wins third race of 2014, back on top of points

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BROOKLYN, Mich. – If Jimmie Johnson is to win a record-tying seventh Sprint Cup championship, he’s going to have to get past Jeff Gordon – and that’s not going to be easy.

Gordon earned his third win of the season Sunday – and the 91st of his Sprint Cup career – capturing the Pure Michigan 400 at Michigan International Speedway.

He also regained the points lead in the Sprint Cup standings, leading teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr., who assumed the points lead after last week’s race at Watkins Glen, by just three points.

The triumph ties Gordon with Hendrick Motorsports teammates Johnson and Earnhardt, as well as 2012 champ Brad Keselowski, for most wins during the 26-race regular season.

After Kurt Busch hit the wall to bring out the caution on Lap 178, Gordon remained patient. Joey Logano was the race leader when the green flag dropped on the restart on Lap 183, but Gordon outmuscled Logano going into Turn 1 of the D-shaped track and never looked back.

“We earned this one, baby, we earned it,” crew chief Alan Gustafson told Gordon on the team radio after he crossed the start-finish line.

After the race, Gordon was understandably ecstatic about his third career triumph at MIS.

“That last restart was it,” Gordon said. “We had the car to win. I got a good restart. Joey was out there by himself, was able to get to his quarter and then was able to get by. I just needed a couple laps for my tires to come in, we were out front, set sail and the checkered flag was waving. This is amazing, this is just fantastic.”

Gordon now has earned the most wins for him since also winning three in the 2011 season.

However, there’s one significant difference to that: he still has 13 more races to go to add to those three wins. The last time Gordon had more than three wins in a season was when he visited victory lane six times back in 2007, when he finished second in the Chase to Johnson.

“Our Chase has already started,” Gordon said. “This team is championship caliber, but it’s going to be tough. We don’t want anything to change when we get to Chicago, just charge for those wins.”

In a sense, the way Gordon won was a case of several elements of déjà vu:

* He won his second race of the season, at the Brickyard 400, with “the restart of my life,” also taking the lead with 17 laps left — just like Sunday. What’s more, the car he won at Indianapolis is also the same one he drove to victory on Sunday.

* Ironically, the last two times Gordon won the Sprint Cup championship – the third and fourth of his career in 1998 and 2001 – he also won at Indianapolis and Michigan in both of those seasons.

* It’s been 13 years since Gordon has won at MIS.

Gordon started the race on the pole, setting a track record during qualifying on Friday with a burst of 206.558 mph around the two-mile track, which has become the fastest track in NASCAR.

Gordon’s pole was also the fastest in NASCAR history since the sanctioning body implemented restrictor plates at both Daytona and Talladega in 1988.

Kevin Harvick finished second for the fourth consecutive race at MIS, tying a NASCAR record for most consecutive finishes at a track set by NASCAR Hall of Famer Dale Jarrett four times in a row at Rockingham.

“We had a solid day, it’s just the 24 (Gordon) had more speed than we did all day,” Harvick said. “I felt like when Joey was out front, he could get away at the short run, we’d kind of even out. But all in all, it was a good day.

“The main focus for our team has been consistency heading into the Chase to make sure we can scramble and do the things we’ve done over the last month. When you have a solid day, finish it off. Those are the things we’ve been able to do. Obviously you want to win, but all in all we had some different goals that are as important leading into the Chase.”

Logano, who led the most laps (86) of the 200-lap event, rallied back to finish third, followed by Paul Menard and Earnhardt.

“It was one too many restarts,” Logano said. “We were battling on these restarts pretty hard. I used every trick in the book I had. … I had the run and then I was clear. I should have pulled up in front of him and got the draft. … Gosh, it’s close. It’s what we need to do before the Chase. We’re doing everything we need to do. … I’m going to relieve that in my mind the next two weeks.”

Finishing sixth through 10th were Clint Bowyer, Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski, Johnson and Greg Biffle.

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NASCAR America: Newgarden recaps rise to IndyCar title (VIDEO)

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Newly crowned Verizon IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden joined NBCSN’s NASCAR America on Tuesday to reflect on his rise to the top of the series.

Newgarden chatted with show host Carolyn Manno about his championship season, integration to Team Penske and bonding with his three teammates, Will Power, Helio Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud.

Pagenaud won Sunday’s GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma season finale but it wasn’t enough to overcome Newgarden’s points lead.

 

Report: Verizon likely to drop IndyCar title sponsorship after ’18

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One of the under-the-radar elements that’s percolated in the Verizon IndyCar Series paddock this year is Verizon’s activation strategy itself, in its fourth year of its first five-year deal as title sponsor of the championship.

Hulman & Co. CEO Mark Miles, head of INDYCAR’s parent company, told the Sports Business Journal’s Adam Stern while he thinks it’s likely Verizon will end its title sponsorship of the series after 2018, they hope to continue the relationship in a different capacity.

While Verizon got in before 2014, IndyCar was a viable platform for the wireless company to activate in a way it couldn’t in NASCAR, when Sprint was the Cup Series’ title sponsor.

That’s since changed with Sprint’s contract ending after 2016. Verizon still activates within the paddock, working with CSM Sport & Entertainment, but its activation outside the paddock has seemed rather limited this year.

Verizon’s primary point of access or reference point of digital technology has been the Verizon IndyCar Mobile app, which was initially only for Verizon Wireless users but was later expanded to other carriers. That provides some app-specific exclusive content as well as a compilation of written, photographic and video content from IndyCar.com.

Even in the paddock, a Verizon-sponsored “Lunch with Legends” series – where some of IndyCar’s stars from the past had lunch at tracks with fans to provide some exclusive access – was not retained for 2017. Verizon hosted an event at a 5G-outfitted house in Indianapolis this year, prior to the Indianapolis 500, to showcase some of that network capability and virtual reality (VR) technology.

Provided Verizon does not continue as title sponsor past 2018, it would leave the IndyCar series in almost the same situation as prior title sponsor IZOD was in 2013, with a lame duck year.

The absence of a Verizon contract renewal has lurked beneath the surface all year in a year when INDYCAR (sanctioning body) has announced several long-term extensions with key manufacturer partners Dallara, Firestone, Chevrolet, Honda and many of its race tracks.

The competition side of IndyCar has done rather well and has enough momentum with Jay Frye at the head of its President of Competition and Operations for the last two years.

But it’s imperative for IndyCar’s sake its commercial side does as well too, which will make the 2018 season an interesting one from a “how to progress” and find a partner that can truly activate to lift the series’ profile even bigger than it is now.

The title sponsor evolution and the series’ new TV contract, with the current one set to end after 2018, enter as the early leaders in the clubhouse for biggest off-track stories to follow over the winter and into the start of 2018.

Vettel loses huge ground in title race after Singapore blip

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SINGAPORE (AP) In the space of three races, Sebastian Vettel has dropped twice as far behind Lewis Hamilton as he was ahead of him.

After winning the Hungarian Grand Prix in late July, Vettel led by 14 points, with both drivers on four wins heading into the summer break.

But after crashing out on the first lap in Sunday’s Singapore GP, the Ferrari driver trails Hamilton by 28.

“That was very disappointing and it was definitely not the result we were expecting,” Ferrari team principal Maurizio Arrivabene said. “But it doesn’t mean that the battle is all over, just that it has become more difficult.”

Yet it might seem to Mercedes that, for all of his experience, Vettel is throwing away the Formula One title.

“Clearly we would not feel comfortable in Ferrari’s shoes,” Mercedes head of motorsport Toto Wolff said. “But this is not the time for cheering.”

Hamilton has won all three races relatively comfortably since the championship resumed in August, and with only six GPs remaining Vettel faces a huge task to stop Hamilton.

“We guarantee that we will be fighting right to the final corner of the very last Grand Prix of the year,” Arrivabene said.

Mercedes is still expecting a challenge.

“This result doesn’t change a thing in the big picture,” Wolff said. “If anything, it’s a stark reminder that there are six more opportunities for the luck to go against us this season, just as it happened to Ferrari.”

But it will be abundantly harder now for Vettel because, unlike last season, Hamilton has so far not retired from any races. Although he has failed to finish on the podium four times for Mercedes this season, that is the same number as Vettel’s finishes outside the top three.

After winning three of the first six races, Vettel’s grip has loosened with only one win in the past eight.

Points have been thrown away, too.

At the British GP in July, Vettel looked at least assured of a podium finish until an unexpected tire problem at the end of the race bumped him down to seventh.

On Sunday, he had a great chance to win starting from pole position on a hard-braking track much more suited to Ferrari than Mercedes.

A few seconds later, he was out of the race.

Vettel made a hasty error of judgment trying to cut off Max Verstappen heading into the first turn and ultimately caused a crash that also took out Ferrari teammate Kimi Raikkonen – who had made a blistering start – Verstappen and Fernando Alonso.

Vettel apologized to his Ferrari team afterward.

With both Ferraris out, Mercedes had a clear path as Hamilton won his 60th career race and teammate Valtteri Bottas took third.

Mercedes faced a similar scenario at the Spanish GP last year, when Hamilton and then-teammate Nico Rosberg collided on lap 1 and both went out. Mercedes was livid with both drivers that day, and came perilously close to imposing team orders on them.

“You kind of feel for Ferrari. I have been in the situation of losing both cars,” Wolff said. “I know how bitter this is.”

The difference was that Hamilton and Rosberg were fighting each other for the title and, with no main rival from another team, it effectively cost them nothing.

Within Mercedes, Hamilton’s title charge is now the priority.

Although team orders are very unlikely to be imposed, it is clear – unofficially at least – that Bottas will be racing to help Hamilton equal Vettel on four world titles.

Wolff confirmed as much when he inadvertently referred to Bottas as “our second driver” in his post-race debriefing on Sunday, before quickly correcting himself to say “ah, other driver.”

Bottas has had a fine first season since joining as an emergency late replacement for Rosberg, who retired days after winning the 2016 title. Bottas has even exceeded expectations with 10 podiums in 14 races, including two wins, and sits in third place overall.

With a new contract for next year already signed, the Finnish driver has no need to impress Mercedes management and can play an ideal support role to Hamilton in the closing part of the campaign.

Still, he has a little bit of ambition left.

“There are plenty of races to come and plenty of opportunities,” said Bottas, who is 23 points behind Vettel. “Definitely Sebastian is the next target.”

With Hamilton ahead and Bottas closing behind, Vettel is under pressure to deliver at the Malaysian GP in two weeks’ time.

Ocon confirmed for another year at Force India

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Sahara Force India will keep the same driver lineup in 2018, with Esteban Ocon confirming Tuesday he’ll stay alongside Sergio Perez next season.

Although the two drivers have occasionally been at odds this year as Ocon has threatened Perez’s place as team leader, both have been instrumental in keeping Force India a clear fourth place in the Constructor’s Championship, at the top of the crowded midfield behind Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull.

Ocon’s had a very strong year, with 56 points scored and having made the points in all but one race (Monaco) this season. His best finish is fifth at the Spanish Grand Prix.

Being confirmed for 2018 means like others, the jockeying for spots in 2019 will be fascinating to watch.