Chase duel between Johnson, Kenseth continues at Phoenix

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Today, the weekend at Phoenix International Raceway begins for the Sprint Cup contingent, and that means the resumption of what has been a superb championship battle between Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth (pictured).

As I’ve mentioned this week, unless something completely out of the norm occurs, the Cup is coming down to these two men. And while anything can happen in racing, Johnson and Kenseth have been so consistent during this year’s Chase that it’s hard to imagine seeing one or both of them find trouble this Sunday at PIR.

But again, anything can happen. Just ask Johnson, who saw his seven-point lead over Brad Keselowski disappear last fall at PIR when he blew a tire and hit the wall with 77 laps remaining. Keselowski finished sixth, took a 20-point edge over Johnson, and went on to his first Cup championship in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

This weekend, Johnson holds, again, a seven-point lead over Kenseth after winning at Texas Motor Speedway last Sunday. But while Johnson has had success at PIR (four wins, 13 Top-5s in 20 starts), Kenseth has risen to the challenge time and again this post-season, putting up great results at places you wouldn’t expect like New Hampshire (win) and Martinsville (second).

With that in mind, the fact that Kenseth hasn’t won at PIR since 2002 means nothing. It would be no surprise to see him break that drought this weekend and set up a dramatic conclusion to the Chase in South Florida.

“Phoenix was my first down force race with this group and I thought we ran really well earlier this season,” he said this week, referring to a seventh-place finish he had at PIR in the spring. “…I’m really looking forward to getting back to Phoenix, especially after our success and Loudon and Martinsville this season, and I think that hopefully it will be a good track for us.

“The short flat tracks have been good to us this year and I’m hoping that they continue to be as we look ahead to this weekend.”

As for the potential spoilers outside Johnson and Kenseth, that list has to be topped by Kevin Harvick, who can definitely be in the mix for a win this Sunday; he’s triumphed three times at PIR, including last fall, an accomplishment overshadowed by the post-race antics between Clint Bowyer and Jeff Gordon.

Harvick is still alive in the championship, sitting third at 40 points behind Johnson. But at this point, it goes without saying that he’s going to need to win and also have Johnson and Kenseth falter somehow.

Don’t forget about Carl Edwards, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Denny Hamlin, either. Edwards held off Johnson to win at PIR this past spring so he should be up for a good run. Earnhardt logged a Top-5 at PIR in March, and has been getting very close to a win lately. As for Hamlin, he has notched a win, a second, and a third in his last three PIR starts.

Today will see the Cup teams do a sole practice session (1:35-3:30 p.m. ET) before going into qualifying at 5:40 p.m. ET. Saturday will feature two practice sessions before Sunday’s Advocare 500 (312 laps, 312 miles), which should take the green flag around 3 p.m. ET that day.

Jack Miller wins MotoGP Japanese Grand Prix as Fabio Quartararo stops his points slide

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Jack Miller ran away with the MotoGP Japanese Grand Prix at Motegi as Fabio Quartararo stopped his downward slide in the championship when a last-lap accident from his closest rival in the standings caused Francesco Bagnaia to score zero points.

Starting seventh, Miller quickly made his way forward. He was second at the end of two laps. One lap later, he grabbed the lead from Jorge Martin. Once in the lead, Miller posted three consecutive fastest laps and was never seriously challenged. It was Australian native Miller’s first race win of the season and his sixth podium finish.

The proximity to his home turf was not lost.

“I can ride a motorcycle sometimes,” Miller said in NBC Sports’ post-race coverage. “I felt amazing all weekend since I rolled out on the first practice. It feels so awesome to be racing on this side of the world.

“What an amazing day. It’s awesome; we have the home Grand Prix coming up shortly. Wedding coming up in a couple of weeks. I’m over the moon; can’t thank everyone enough.”

Miller beat Brad Binder to the line by 3.4 seconds with third-place Jorge Martin finishing about one second behind.

But the center of the storm was located just inside the top 10 as both Quartararo and Bagnaia started deep in the field.

Quartararo was on the outside of row three in ninth with Bagnaia one row behind in 12th. Neither rider moved up significantly, but the championship continued to be of primary importance as Bagnaia put in a patented late-race charge to settle onto Quartararo’s back tire, which would have allowed the championship leader to gain only a single point.

On the final lap, Bagnaia charged just a little too hard and crashed under heavy braking, throwing away the seven points he would have earned for a ninth-place finish.

The day was even more dramatic for the rider who entered the MotoGP Japanese Grand Prix third in the standings. On the sighting lap, Aleix Espargaro had an alarm sound, so he peeled off into the pits, dropped his primary bike and jumped aboard the backup. Starting from pit lane, he trailed the field and was never able to climb into the points. An undisclosed electronic problem was the culprit.

For Quartararo, gaining eight points on the competition was more than a moral victory. This was a track on which he expected to run moderately, and he did, but the problems for his rivals gives him renewed focus with four rounds remaining.

Next week, the series heads to Thailand and then Miller’s home track of Phillip Island in Australia. They will close out the Pacific Rim portion of the schedule before heading to Spain for the finale in early November.

It would appear team orders are not in play among the Ducati riders. Last week’s winner Enea Bastianini made an aggressive early move on Bagnaia for position before the championship contender wrestled the spot back.

In his second race back following arm surgery, Marc Marquez won the pole. His last pole was more than 1,000 days ago on this same track in 2019, the last time the series competed at Motegi. Marquez slipped to fifth in the middle stages of the race, before regaining a position to finish just off the podium.

In Moto2 competition, Ai Ogura beat Augusto Fernandez to close the gap in that championship to two points. Fernandez holds the scant lead. Alonso Lopez rounded out the podium.

Both American riders, Cameron Beaubier and Joe Roberts finished just outside the top 10 in 11th and 12th respectively.