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Chase outlook brighter for some, cloudy for others after Michigan

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With 12 drivers now officially locked into the Chase for the Sprint Cup after yesterday’s Pure Michigan 400, the battle to claim one of the final four spots on the Chase Grid is set to heat up considerably over the three remaining regular season races.

Yesterday’s race saw four drivers in the thick of that battle improve their prospects by moving up in the Chase outlook, while one driver in particular suffered a major setback.

Let’s take a look at who’s now sitting on the Chase Grid and who’s on the outside looking in as Bristol Motor Speedway beckons…

13. 20-Matt Kenseth, 709 points

  • Finished 38th yesterday
  • Chase Grid Status before Michigan: 13th, +77 over 17th
  • Chase Grid Status after Michigan: 13th, +58 over 17th

Kenseth was one of multiple drivers who were collected in an early spin by Danica Patrick yesterday. Rear suspension damage on the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota forced him to the garage for repairs, and he later returned to action 27 laps down.

Luckily for Kenseth, he already had a big cushion between himself and being outside of the Chase Grid. It’s shrunk by 19 points after yesterday, but he’s still in good shape.

14. 31-Ryan Newman, 679 points

  • Finished 11th
  • Chase Grid Status before Michigan: 14th, +19 over 17th
  • Chase Grid Status after Michigan: 14th, +28 over 17th

Exchange of unpleasantness with Jimmie Johnson aside, Newman can feel alright about his 11th-place day at Michigan. In a situation where every point is going to be critical, he was able to increase his Chase cushion by nine points thanks to a late-race surge that included his run-in with the defending Sprint Cup champion.

If he can secure a Top-5 or Top-10 finish on Saturday night at Bristol, he’d be looking really good to make the post-season in his first year at Richard Childress Racing.

15. 15-Clint Bowyer, 672 points

  • Finished sixth
  • Chase Grid Status before Michigan: 16th, +8 over 17th
  • Chase Grid Status after Michigan: 15th, +21 over 17th

Also putting some ground between himself and his Chase rivals was Bowyer, who progressively moved up from mid-pack into the Top 10 late before claiming a sixth-place finish.

That’s worth a gain of 13 points over 17th, and also kicks the Kansas native up one spot on the Chase Grid to 15th. He perfectly summed it up after the race, saying: “We just did what we needed to do today.”

16. 16-Greg Biffle, 660 points

  • Finished 10th
  • Chase Grid Status before Michigan: 17th, -8 behind 16th
  • Chase Grid Status after Michigan: 16th, +9 over 17th

After doing well in qualifying, the Roush Fenway Racing camp of Greg Biffle (10th), Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (15th), and Carl Edwards (23rd) couldn’t quite carry the momentum over to race day.

But by squeaking out a Top-10 finish, Biffle still pushed himself into the 16th and final position on the Chase Grid with a 17-point swing in the positive direction.

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17. 5-Kasey Kahne, 651 points

  • Finished 16th
  • Chase Grid Status before Michigan: 18th, -12 behind 16th
  • Chase Grid Status after Michigan: 17th, -9 behind 16th

Kahne was running in the Top 10 with less than 20 laps to go, but faded following the last restart of the day to a 16th-place result.

Had he not dropped spots late, he might have been able to crack the Chase Grid. But Kahne has been a solid competitor as of late at Bristol (a win, two Top-5s, three Top-10s in last 3 starts), so watch for him to be a dark horse on Saturday.

18. 3-Austin Dillon, 638 points

  • Finished 22nd
  • Chase Grid Status before Michigan: 19th, -18 behind 16th
  • Chase Grid Status after Michigan: 18th, -22 behind 16th

A mechanical issue that emerged in the second half of the race caused Dillon to lose power and ultimately swallow a sub-par finish. He moved up one position in the Chase outlook, but his overall points gap behind 16th place actually grew by four points to 22.

After the race, Dillon vowed that he and his team would “be ready to battle” at Bristol. They need to follow through on that promise.

19. 42-Kyle Larson, 636 points

  • Finished 43rd
  • Chase Grid Status before Michigan: 15th, +9 over 17th
  • Chase Grid Status after Michigan: 19th, -24 behind 16th

Larson’s crash just before halfway was a horrible twist of fate for his post-season hopes. The 43rd-place finish caused him to drop a whopping 33 points and dive from 15th on the Chase Grid to 19th and out of the picture with three races left.

There’s still time to recover, but can he put an entire weekend together and get that critical win he needs to make the post-season?

20. 9-Marcos Ambrose, 616 points

  • Finished 12th
  • Chase Grid Status before Michigan: 20th, -50 behind 16th
  • Chase Grid Status after Michigan, 20th, -44 behind 16th

One week after narrowly missing out on a golden opportunity to make the Chase on the road course at Watkins Glen, Ambrose turned in a 12th-place run at Michigan.

The points gain, however, was minimal. But keep an eye on him as we head for Bristol, where he’s earned three Top-10s in his last four starts. With a little luck, he just might get a second chance to “win and get in.”

21. 27-Paul Menard, 614 points

  • Finished 4th
  • Chase Grid Status before Michigan: -60 behind 16th
  • Chase Grid Status after Michigan: -46 behind 16th

Menard was quick during the weekend and netted his fourth Top-5 finish of the season. But after three consecutive finishes outside of the Top 30, the fourth-place effort at MIS may have been too little, too late in regards to making the Chase.

Jules Bianchi’s family launches legal action against FIA, F1 Group, Marussia

MONTREAL, QC - JUNE 06:  Jules Bianchi of France and Marussia walks across the paddock uring practice ahead of the Canadian Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve on June 6, 2014 in Montreal, Canada.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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The family of Jules Bianchi has begun legal action against the FIA, the Formula 1 Group and Marussia F1 Team over the Frenchman’s death from injuries sustained during the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix.

Bianchi suffered a diffuse axonal injury after crashing into a recovery vehicle at high-speed during the race at Suzuka in wet conditions.

The Frenchman died last July at the age of 25, nine months after the accident.

An investigation into the accident deemed that Bianchi had been driving too quickly under yellow flags, and cleared the event organizers and race officials of any blame.

However, Bianchi’s family today announced via British law firm Stewarts Law that it would be challenging these claims by launching legal action against the FIA, Formula One Group and the Marussia team.

“The family of Formula One racing driver, Jules Bianchi, has today announced they plan to take legal action in England relating to the fatal head injuries Jules Bianchi sustained in a violent collision with a mobile crane at the Japanese Grand Prix in Suzuka, 2014,” a statement read.

“Stewarts Law, the country’s largest litigation-only law firm, have this week sent formal pre-action letters of claim to:

  • the World Governing Body of Formula One, the FIA;
  • Team Marussia, who Jules was driving for at the time; and
  • the Formula One Group of companies, who control the TV and media rights for the sport.

“The letters explain why the Bianchi family feel the actions of one or more of those parties, amongst others, may have contributed to Jules’ fatal accident and invite them to accept that errors were made in the planning, timing, organisation and conduct of the race which took place in dangerous conditions during the typhoon season in Japan.

“The recipients of the letters of claim will be expected to respond in due course, to explain their actions in connection with the race and to indicate if they dispute the claim.”

“Jules Bianchi’s death was avoidable,” Stewarts Law partner Julian Chamberlayne added. “The FIA Panel Inquiry Report into this accident made numerous recommendations to improve safety in Formula One but failed to identify where errors had been made which led to Jules’ death.

“It was surprising and distressing to the Bianchi family that the FIA panel in its conclusions, whilst noting a number of contributing factors, blamed Jules.

“The Bianchi family are determined that this legal process should require those involved to provide answers and to take responsibility for any failings. This is important if current and future drivers are to have confidence that safety in the sport will be put first.

“If this had been the case in Suzuka, Jules Bianchi would most likely still be alive and competing in the sport he loved today.”

Jules’ father, Philippe Bianchi, explained the decision to launch legal action.

“We seek justice for Jules, and want to establish the truth about the decisions that led to our son’s crash at the Japanese Grand Prix in 2014,” Bianchi Sr. said.

“As a family, we have so many unanswered questions and feel that Jules’ accident and death could have been avoided if a series of mistakes had not been made.”

Hamilton leads first Monaco practice as ultra-soft tire debuts

MONTE-CARLO, MONACO - MAY 26:  Sparks fly as Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo on track during practice for the Monaco Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit de Monaco on May 26, 2016 in Monte-Carlo, Monaco.  (Photo by Lars Baron/Getty Images)
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Lewis Hamilton edged out Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg at the top of the timesheets in first practice for the Monaco Grand Prix on Thursday as the new ultra-soft tire made its debut.

Pirelli announced over the winter that it had developed a fifth dry compound for 2016 that is bespoke for street circuits such as Monaco.

The purple-ringed tire has only featured in testing so far this year, but made its official grand prix weekend debut in a truncated first practice in Monaco.

Hamilton and Rosberg immediately put the ultra-soft tire to good use, heading out early for a flurry of quick laps that were already faster than the pole position time from 2015.

Hamilton ultimately won the battle, with his lap of 1:15.537 being enough for P1 by one-tenth of a second as Mercedes began its fightback from a double DNF in Spain.

The session was interrupted by four virtual safety car periods. Felipe Massa was responsible for the first after clouting the barrier at Ste Devote, before Esteban Gutierrez and Jolyon Palmer both stopped on track in the final 30 minutes of the running.

A final VSC was throw with five minutes remaining in the session after a drain cover broke free at Turn 1, causing Rosberg to suffer a left-rear puncture and then leaving Jenson Button’s McLaren with significant front wing damage. The session was then red flagged, bringing an early end to proceedings

Nevertheless, Mercedes eased clear at the top of the standings, with Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel finishing as the best of the rest in third place, four-tenths of a second down on Hamilton.

Daniel Ricciardo put his newly-updated Renault power unit to good use to finish the session fourth-fastest for Red Bull, beating teammate Max Verstappen who continued his good form after his victory in Spain to end the session fifth.

Daniil Kvyat impressed for Toro Rosso to finish FP1 in sixth place, narrowly behind the man who replaced him at Red Bull. Nico Hulkenberg and Sergio Perez ended the session seventh and eighth respectively for Force India, while Kimi Raikkonen and Carlos Sainz Jr. rounded out the top 10.

Shirley Muldowney surgery update: ‘Couldn’t have gone much better’

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Even though she hasn’t raced since 2003, Shirley Muldowney still has scores of fans.

And many of them, when they heard the news that she would undergo surgery today to remove her right lung due to Stage 2 lung cancer, offered prayers and well wishes on this site, as well as on social media.

Well, even though details are slim, it appears that a five-hour surgery Wednesday morning was a success for the 75-year-old, three-time NHRA Top Fuel champion and one-time AHRA champ.

Muldowney’s agent, Rob Geiger tweeted updates earlier this evening that is great news:

We plan on keeping Muldowney fans updated with more information in the coming days as she begins her recovery.

As Geiger said, “#ShirleyStrong.”

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MRTI: Freedom 100, new USF-17 launch highlight Indy oval weekend

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Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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INDIANAPOLIS – The Mazda Road to Indy has a double dip of content this weekend with the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval and the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires and Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda at the Lucas Oil Raceway short oval in Clermont, Ind., outside Indianapolis.

Both events are on Friday; the Freedom 100 airs at noon ET and local time as part of NBCSN’s Carb Day coverage. Kevin Lee, Anders Krohn and Katie Hargitt will have the call for the Freedom.

The Freedom 100 is arguably the marquee race of the year for Indy Lights, and a good springboard to the Verizon IndyCar Series – no less than 24 of the 33 starters in this year’s Indianapolis 500 field have some degree of Mazda Road to Indy experience.

That being said, the randomness of the Freedom 100 has produced a variety of winners who haven’t exactly gone on to huge things in IndyCar.

Here’s the past winners list:

  • 2015: Jack Harvey
  • 2014: Gabby Chaves
  • 2013: Peter Dempsey
  • 2012: Esteban Guerrieri
  • 2011: Josef Newgarden
  • 2010: Wade Cunningham
  • 2009: Wade Cunningham
  • 2008: Dillon Battistini
  • 2007: Alex Lloyd
  • 2006: Wade Cunningham
  • 2005: Jaime Camara
  • 2004: Thiago Medeiros
  • 2003: Ed Carpenter

That’s three past winners in Carpenter, Newgarden and Chaves who are racing on Sunday. Harvey, Dempsey and Guerrieri have a combined zero starts; meanwhile all of Cunningham, Battistini, Camara and Medeiros had less than a season of in IndyCar.

Polesitters have been random too, with some surprises including Ethan Ringel (last year) and Ken Losch (2007) of note.

Traditionally Schmidt Peterson Motorsports has fielded strong entries at the Speedway, and that puts any of its four cars – talented sophomore RC Enerson, Pro Mazda champion Santiago Urrutia and fellow rookies Andre Negrao and Heamin Choi into contention almost from the off. Enerson, in particular, is due his first win of the year after niggling turbo issues have hampered most of his season.

Belardi Auto Racing, given its engineering strength in depth, is also a strong contender and a winner here twice previously in dramatic fashion with Chaves and Dempsey. This year they have Zach Veach, who topped the 200-mph mark during testing on Monday, and Felix Rosenqvist, who will look for a significantly better second oval start than his first at Phoenix.

Either of Enerson and Veach would make it seven winners in eight races this year. The other six thus far are, in order, Felix Serralles, Rosenqvist, Kyle Kaiser, Ed Jones, Urrutia and Dean Stoneman.

Kaiser expects to be better than both he and the Juncos Racing team were here last year. Another potential surprise is Neil Alberico, who was strong in testing despite a slight incident in the first session.

Choi, replacing Scott Anderson, is the only driver change among the 16 entered for the Freedom 100. It’s the biggest field for this race since 2012, when 18 cars started – only 11 have started each of the last three years.

USF17-1
Rendering: Andersen Promotions

Arguably the more intriguing part of the weekend from the Pro Mazda or USF2000 perspective is the launch of the new Tatuus USF-17 car, which gets unveiled Friday morning, 9 a.m., at IMS.

It’s the second new car to be unveiled at IMS in recent years, with the Dallara IL-15 Mazda having been unveiled in May 2014 ahead of its race debut for 20115.

The Pro Mazda and USF2000 races occur later in the day on Friday at IMS.

In Pro Mazda, the question is whether anyone can stop the Pato O’Ward roll of awesomeness for Team Pelfrey. The young Mexican has won five of six races to date, although teammate Aaron Telitz is a past winner at Lucas Oil Raceway in USF2000. The remaining six drivers in the field will look to end O’Ward’s run of form.

USF2000 sees its field temporarily cut in half for its lone oval race of the season, down from 27 cars entered at the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis weekend to a mere 14 cars on the 0.686-mile oval.

While Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing and Pabst Racing have three cars entered apiece – Parker Thompson and Anthony Martin have propelled Cape to four straight wins this year -known oval setup ace John Walko will likely have Victor Franzoni’s car ready to go to contend.