Kenseth, Newman, Bowyer, Biffle still in Chase Grid with 2 races to go

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Bristol Motor Speedway had the potential to turn the Race to the Chase upside down.

But instead, all four winless drivers that went into Saturday night’s Irwin Tools Night Race holding a Chase Grid position not only left Bristol still on the Grid but having increased their points cushions.

Here’s a look at how those on the Chase bubble fared in Thunder Valley…

13. 20-Matt Kenseth, 751 points

Finished 3rd at Bristol
Chase Grid Status before Bristol: 13th, +58 over 17th
Chase Grid Status after Bristol: 13th, +83 over 17th

Kenseth had a near-miss on Saturday night at Bristol, but he’s pretty much set to go into the post-season on points after a solid third-place effort that helped him add 25 markers to his cushion over 17th place. If you’ve had his name penciled in on the Grid, go ahead and erase that – then put it in ink.

14. 31-Ryan Newman, 710 points

Finished 13th at Bristol
Chase Grid Status before Bristol: 14th, +28 over 17th
Chase Grid Status after Bristol: 14th, +42 over 17th

Now, if you’ve also penciled in Newman’s name, I’d keep the pen handy for next weekend at Atlanta. On Saturday, Newman hovered around the Top 10 for much of the night before a tight handling condition caused him to fade to 13th – but he still banked 14 points for his cushion. He could be a dark horse for Atlanta, where he finished in the Top-5 last year and where his Richard Childress Racing team recently tested.

15. 15-Clint Bowyer, 699 points

Finished 17th at Bristol
Chase Grid Status before Bristol: 15th, +21 over 17th
Chase Grid Status after Bristol: 15th, +31 over 17th

After taking damage to his car as part of his involvement in Saturday’s first major incident, Bowyer eventually dropped off the lead lap in the second half of the race. But he was still able to salvage a Top-20 finish that enabled him to bank 10 points.

16. 16-Greg Biffle, 694 points

Finished 10th at Bristol
Chase Grid Status before Bristol: 16th, +9 over 17th
Chase Grid Status after Bristol: 16th, +26 over 17th

Biffle’s picked up his pace at the right time. His 10th-place run on Saturday was his fourth consecutive Top-10 finish (fifth at Pocono, eighth at Watkins Glen, 10th at Michigan) and it was enough for a 17-point swing in his favor. The Biff had some luck on his side at Bristol; contact from Paul Menard on Lap 372 left his rear bumper cover dangling to the side, but a caution came out just a few laps later, giving his No. 16 squad a chance to remove it in the pits.

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17. 42-Kyle Larson, 668 points

Finished 12th at Bristol
Chase Grid Status before Bristol: 19th, -24 behind 16th
Chase Grid Status after Bristol: 17th, -26 behind 16th

Larson’s weekend at Bristol was one of survival – but survive, he did. After crashing his primary car in qualifying, Larson had to start Saturday’s race from the rear of the field in a backup. Following a solid opening run into the Top 20, he then took some damage in the Kyle Busch-Aric Almirola crash on Lap 125. But Larson recovered from the setback and turned in a 12th-place effort, which was enough to push him two positions up the Chase standings.

18. 5-Kasey Kahne, 661 points

Finished 35th at Bristol
Chase Grid Status before Bristol: 17th, -9 behind 16th
Chase Grid Status after Bristol: 18th, -33 behind 16th

Normally solid at Bristol, Kahne was looked at as a potential surprise for Saturday. Instead, a loose wheel caused him to pit from the Top 5 in mid-race and fall off the lead lap. Then later in the race, problems with the right front tire forced Kahne behind the wall around 100 laps to go. He returned to the track to finish 35th, but took a 24-point hit and fell one spot in the Chase standings. Atlanta may be another opportunity for a win, however, as he’s taken two victories on the 1.5-mile oval (2006, 2009).

19. 3-Austin Dillon, 654 points

Finished 28th at Bristol
Chase Grid Status before Bristol: 18th, -22 behind 16th
Chase Grid Status after Bristol: 19th, -40 behind 16th

Dillon had a rough night from the very beginning, sliding all the way back to 40th and going one lap down in the early stages due to poor handling. He soldiered on to a 28th-place result, but now he’s got to go hard for a win this coming weekend at Atlanta. Will that aforementioned RCR test session help him contend?

20. 27-Paul Menard, 649 points

Finished 9th at Bristol
Chase Grid Status before Bristol: 21st, -46 behind 16th
Chase Grid Status after Bristol: 20th, -45 behind 16th

Menard was running in the Top-5 late, but fell back a few spots after the final restart. The 9th-place result got him up to 20th in the Chase standings, but his points deficit only shrank by one marker. Like with RCR teammate Dillon, Atlanta will be big.

Daniel Ricciardo frustrated to crash out of home F1 qualifying

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Daniel Ricciardo made no secret of his frustration after crash out of Formula 1 qualifying for the Australian Grand Prix, resigning himself to a 10th-place start for his home race on Sunday.

Ricciardo entered the Melbourne weekend aiming to become the first Australian to finish on the podium at his home race since the event became part of the F1 world championship in 1985.

Despite struggling with the setup on his RB13 car on Friday, Ricciardo looked poised to claim a top-five grid slot for Sunday’s race, only to lose control of his car at Turn 14 in Q3 and end the session in the wall.

“That was a tough one today. I don’t crash into the barriers often and the last place I want to do that is at home,” Ricciardo said after the session.

“But I feel I crashed for the right reason, as I was basically pushing and trying to find the limit and these things happen, so let’s say I’m not disappointed by the approach, it was just more of a frustrating outcome, starting 10th instead of being under the top five.”

Ever the optimist, Ricciardo said the difficult qualifying will only serve as greater motivation to fight back up the order and give his home fans a result to celebrate on Sunday.

“I knew the crowds would have also preferred to see me further up the grid and it would have been nice to put on a better performance than that but tomorrow is where the points are,” Ricciardo said.

“It’s a chance to create a bigger headline if I have a good race so that’s what will motivate me to do better tomorrow. I made it a bit more difficult for myself but it’s going to be alright.

“To get a good start in the race will be the key. I saved a set of ultra-softs in Q2, I know that not everyone in front of me has, so maybe that gives me a chance.”

The Australian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports App from midnight ET.

Valtteri Bottas disappointed with P3 start for Mercedes F1 debut

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Valtteri Bottas came away from qualifying for the Australian Grand Prix feeling disappointed despite securing third place on the grid for his first Formula 1 race as a Mercedes driver.

Bottas joined Mercedes over the winter following world champion Nico Rosberg’s decision to retire from racing, and made his first official race weekend appearance for the Silver Arrows on Friday.

The ex-Williams driver made a splash in qualifying by running teammate Lewis Hamilton and Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel close, but was left to settle for third on the grid after finishing three-tenths of a second off the pole time.

“Third position is not ideal. In general I’m not happy with the result,” Bottas admitted after qualifying.

“But what I’m really happy about and proud about [is] what the team has done again with this car. I only saw a very small part of the preparation with the new car and the new era of Formula 1, and it’s really nice to see that all the work has paid off and we’re fighting at the very front.

“It seems to be very close this year, especially here. Myself I didn’t get any perfect laps in, so not that satisfied.

“Tomorrow’s the day that matters. It seems like in the race starts we’ve been quite strong. If we can keep that form I had in practice, and have a nice and clean race and get some really good points.”

Bottas’ best finish in Australia currently stands at fifth place in 2014 with Williams, with the Finn never qualifying any higher than sixth at Albert Park in his four previous attempts.

The Australian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports App from midnight ET.

Vettel: Front-row grid slot for Australia proof of Ferrari’s progress

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Sebastian Vettel believes that his charge to second place on the grid for Sunday’s Australian Grand Prix acts as proof of the progress Ferrari’s Formula 1 operation has made over the winter.

Vettel arrived in Australia as one of the favorites to take pole following an impressive showing in pre-season testing, prompting three-time champion Lewis Hamilton to name Ferrari as the leading team.

Hamilton rallied in qualifying to take pole position for Mercedes, beating Vettel by two-tenths of a second, but the Ferrari driver managed to fend off Valtteri Bottas in the second Silver Arrow and clinch a front-row berth.

The result marked Ferrari’s best qualifying result since the 2015 Singapore Grand Prix – Vettel’s and Ferrari’s last pole and victory in F1 – and the German was encouraged by the result.

“I think we have a good car. I think we are working well as a team,” Vettel said.

“Things are improving. Obviously it’s nice to see that things are working, the car is working. I had a mixed day yesterday, but the confidence in the car was there from testing and I think we showed that again today.”

Vettel conceded that he felt his final lap in qualifying could have been faster, but doubts it would have been enough to catch pole-sitter Hamilton.

“In the end I was not entirely happy with my lap. I was pretty happy with the end, maybe not so much with the opening of the lap where we lost a bit too much,” Vettel said.

“But I think Lewis did a very good lap. I would have loved to, but I don’t think pole was up for grabs. Tomorrow I think we can do something in the race. The car feels good, we’ve improved it so the pace should be much better than it was yesterday when we had practice.

“It’s been a big winter for us, lots of change we’ve gone through as a team in the last 12 months, and for the better. I think the team is getting stronger.

“Obviously everyone is pushing very hard and it’s not so easy to come here with a long journey to get to Australia, but I think people are fired up and we are motivated for tomorrow.

“I think it’s the first good opportunity.”

Hamilton buoyed by sixth Australia F1 pole, ready for tight race

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Three-time Formula 1 world champion Lewis Hamilton was buoyed by his charge to pole position in Australian Grand Prix qualifying on Saturday, but is braced for a tight race at the front of the pack.

Hamilton saw off a challenge from Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel and new Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas to capture his sixth pole at Albert Park, and the 62nd of his F1 career.

Hamilton had doubts over Mercedes’ advantage over Ferrari heading into the new year, making his charge to pole all the more meaningful as he paid tribute to the team members after qualifying.

“It’s been a fantastic weekend so far. It’s quite amazing to come here for I think the 11th time, and it feels like it was only yesterday that I came here and had my first race here in 2007,” Hamilton said.

“I’m just incredibly proud of my team. This rule change has been huge and such a massive challenge for everyone. The guys have just worked so hard to make this car what it is today.”

Despite taking pole by almost three-tenths of a second in Q3, Hamilton is braced for a close fight on Sunday with Vettel and Bottas, the latter starting his first race for Mercedes from third on the grid.

“Valtteri did a fantastic job given it’s his first qualifying session with the team. He did a great job and it’s great for Mercedes,” Hamilton said.

“Looking forward to the race, it’s close between us all. As you can see, there’s going to be a tight race this year I think.

“I think tomorrow is about putting all the work that’s gone in over the winter, all the work that’s gone through testing and this whole weekend and really put it to work tomorrow.

“I’ll make sure I get a good night’s sleep and come back tomorrow stronger than ever.”

The Australian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports App from midnight ET on Sunday.