Matt Kenseth earns pole for Sprint Cup at Fontana

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Last weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway, Matt Kenseth had a roller-coaster outing that saw him finish 13th after charging to the lead following an early crash that left his car’s rear end crumpled in.

The former Sprint Cup champion is surely hoping for a smoother time of things at Auto Club Speedway this weekend, and he may just have that after earning the 12th Cup pole of his career this afternoon ahead of Sunday’s Auto Club 400.

Kenseth logged a time of 38.438 seconds at 187.315 miles per hour in the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota. That was just enough to hold off Brad Keselowski, whose last-second attempt to take pole in the No. 2 Team Penske Ford missed by .043 of a second.

“We were pretty fast all three rounds and we were able to get three really clean laps, which is hard to do here,” Kenseth told MRN Radio.

“The tires drop off a lot, balance changes a little bit, and the track was changing as well. I’m proud of those guys. They gave me a great car today and I didn’t mess it up, so it turned out good.”

Meanwhile, Keselowski – the new Sprint Cup points leader – continued his impressive work in the knockout qualifying format with his fourth consecutive front row start.

As a low-grip race track with bumps and noticeable seams in the surface, Auto Club Speedway can be a tough track to get a hold of. But as Keselowski told MRN, drivers can’t afford to manage their rubber if they want to advance deeper into qualifying.

“You can’t save [tires] or you don’t get to the next round,” he said. “We weren’t where we wanted to be for the first two sessions, but we worked on it, kept going, and got it to where we wanted it to be. If we’d saved, we never would’ve made it that far.”

Five-time Fontana winner Jimmie Johnson will roll off from the inside of Row 2 alongside fellow California native Kevin Harvick. Clint Bowyer and Jeff Gordon make up Row 3, followed by Joey Logano and Marcos Ambrose in Row 4, Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart in Row 5, and Kyle Larson and Martin Truex Jr. in Row 6.

Denny Hamlin, who suffered a season-altering back injury in last spring’s race at Fontana, will start 13th and next to defending Auto Club 400 champion Kyle Busch. Dale Earnhardt Jr. will be right behind them in 15th at the drop of the green.

Other notables include: Kurt Busch in 17th, Jamie McMurray in 25th, Kasey Kahne in 26th, Danica Patrick in 27th, and Camping World Truck Series champion Matt Crafton in 30th.

Crafton subbed in today for Paul Menard in the No. 27 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet, while Menard tended to his wife and newborn daughter, Remi, back home in North Carolina.

However, Menard will be in the No. 27 for Sunday’s race, although he’ll have to start at the rear of the field per NASCAR rules.

NASCAR SPRINT CUP QUALIFYING – AUTO CLUB 400
Unofficial Grid


1. Matt Kenseth, 38.438 seconds/187.315 mph
2. Brad Keselowski
3. Jimmie Johnson
4. Kevin Harvick
5. Clint Bowyer
6. Jeff Gordon
7. Joey Logano
8. Marcos Ambrose
9. Carl Edwards
10. Tony Stewart
11. Kyle Larson
12. Martin Truex Jr.
ELIMINATED IN ROUND TWO
13. Denny Hamlin
14. Kyle Busch
15. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
16. Ryan Newman
17. Kurt Busch
18. A.J. Allmendinger
19. Brian Vickers
20. Austin Dillon
21. Aric Almirola
22. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
23. Michael Annett
24. Greg Biffle
ELIMINATED IN ROUND ONE
25. Jamie McMurray
26. Kasey Kahne
27. Danica Patrick
28. Justin Allgaier
29. David Gilliland
30. Matt Crafton
31. Casey Mears
32. Parker Kligerman
33. David Reutimann
34. Cole Whitt
35. Travis Kvapil
36. Reed Sorenson
37. Brian Scott
38. Josh Wise
39. Ryan Truex
40. Alex Bowman
41. David Ragan
42. Joe Nemechek
43. Landon Cassill

F1 Preview – 2018 French Grand Prix

Photo: Getty Images
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It’s hard to believe that the French Grand Prix, the oldest grand prix event on the planet, as it dates back to June of 1906, was ever removed from the Formula 1 calendar.

Alas, not since 2008 at Magny-Cours has Formula 1 held a race on French soil. Yet, that all changes this weekend, as Formula 1 visits the Circuit Paul Ricard for its first French race in a decade.

Formula 1 teams are not strangers to Paul Ricard. It has been a popular testing facility for years, as evidenced by the below photo from 2016, featuring Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari in a wet tire test.

LE CASTELLET, FRANCE – JANUARY 26: Sebastian Vettel of Germany and Scuderia Ferrari drives during wet weather tire testing at Circuit Paul Ricard on January 26, 2016 in Le Castellet, France. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

However, in terms of racing, Paul Ricard has also been absent from the calendar for quite a long time – the last time Formula 1 race at Paul Ricard was in 1990. Alain Prost won for Ferrari that day.

1990: Alain Prost of France punches the air in celebration after passing the chequered flag in his Scuderia Ferrari to win the French Grand Prix at the Paul Ricard circuit in Le Beausset, France. Mandatory Credit: Pascal Rondeau/Allsport

As such, despite being a known quantity as a testing facility, how a race weekend will shake out is anybody’s guess.

And what’s more, it marks the beginning of three consecutive race weekends – The French Grand Prix, The Austrian Grand Prix, and The British Grand Prix – which F1 teams and drivers are calling “the triple header.”

Talking points ahead of the French Grand Prix are below.

A Journey Into the Unknown?

Like all new venues, or resurrected and refurbished ones in this case, the Circuit Paul Ricard represents somewhat of an unknown, as there’s no available race data to make predictions off of.

And the 3.61-mile, 15-turn track itself represents a range of challenges. It has fast corners, like Turns 1 and 2 (S de la Verrerie), a technical section between Turns 3 and 7 (Virage de l’Hotel through the Mistral Straight Start), and a 1.1-mile straightaway in the Mistral Straight, though it is separated by a chicane (Turns 8 and 9).

Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff discussed the challenge of the circuit, highlighting the lack of data to build off of as well the tough three-race stretch ahead as especially challenging, in a preview on Formula 1’s website.

“France should be an interesting race. We don’t often get to race on a track where we have little to no historical data. It makes preparing for the weekend a bit trickier than usual, but that element of the unknown also adds to the challenge. The French Grand Prix marks the first race of the triple header, which will test all F1 teams to their limits, but also offers the chance to score a lot of points over the course of three weeks – which is precisely what we’re setting out to do,” said Wolff.

That element of the unknown makes Paul Ricard one of the biggest wildcards on the 2018 F1 calendar, and a championship shake up could be in the cards as a result.

Ferrari, Mercedes Continue Their Back and Forth

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA – MARCH 25: Sebastian Vettel of Germany driving the (5) Scuderia Ferrari SF71H leads Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes WO9 on track during the Australian Formula One Grand Prix at Albert Park on March 25, 2018 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

Ferrari and Mercedes have traded jabs throughout the 2018 season, with neither able to pull away from the other so far through seven races.

Sebastian Vettel enters the French Grand Prix with a one-point lead over Lewis Hamilton, and holds a slight edge in victories – three to Hamilton’s two – and comes off a thorough domination of the Canadian Grand Prix.

Vettel led every lap at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve on his way to victory, while Valtteri Bottas had to carry the Mercedes flag in finishing second. Hamilton languished in fifth, a surprising and disappointing result given his previous success there.

The aforementioned Toto Wolff described it as a “wake up call,” though Mercedes will roll out a power unit upgrade this weekend – Ferrari and Renault, which also powers Red Bull Racing, rolled out upgrades of their own in Canada.

With four long straightaways present at Paul Ricard, power will certainly be at a premium, so such upgrades will be vital in giving Mercedes a chance to make amends after Canada’s disappointment.

Trio of French Drivers Look to Impress on Home Soil

It comes hardly as a surprise that the three French drivers – Romain Grosjean, Pierre Gasly, and Esteban Ocon – are keen to make an impression at their home race.

And all three could certainly use a boost. Gasly has only one finish inside the points (seventh in the Monaco Grand Prix) since his stellar fourth place effort in the Bahrain Grand Prix. Ocon is coming off back-to-back points finishes (sixth in Monaco, ninth in Canada), but he has only one other finish inside the points this year (tenth, in Bahrain). And Grosjean, despite showing the speed to finish in the points, is yet to score any in 2018.

As such, all three are hoping for big things in their home race this weekend.

“I want to get a good weekend, have some luck, get my first points of the season, and get a lot of support from the fans,” said Grosjean. “I think we should be in a nice place at Paul Ricard. I’m always looking forward to jumping back in the car. I just love driving an F1 car.”

Ocon, who has raced and won at Paul Ricard in the past, expects his prior experience could be a big help.

“I did race at Paul Ricard early in my career – it was actually where I had my first victory in single seaters in 2013 so I have some fantastic memories of the place,” Ocon described. “I hope we can add some more success this weekend. Having been there in the junior categories makes getting used to a new track in a Formula One car much easier. I think I will find my rhythm quite quickly.”

Gasly’s excitement level obviously matches that of his French compatriots, with the added bonus that the return coincides with his rookie F1 effort.

“For me it will be absolutely incredible that my first full season of Formula 1 coincides with the return of a French Grand Prix to the calendar for the first time in 10 years,” said Gasly. “That has to be a reason for me to be very happy and I’m really excited to be racing in my home country. I can tell it will be a special feeling going out on track and actually, I have spoken to Jean Alesi and Alain Prost about it and they both told me that it will feel really special and something that you really have to experience as a Frenchman racing in France.”

Qualifying for The French Grand Prix begins at 9:55 a.m. ET on Saturday, with Sunday’s race at 9:30 a.m. ET.

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