Team Penske has early Chase edge, but Hendrick camp can strike at Dover

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So far, the expected clash of the titans between Team Penske and Hendrick Motorsports in this year’s Chase for the Sprint Cup has gone the way of The Captain’s Men.

Yesterday at New Hampshire, Joey Logano joined Penske teammate Brad Keselowski in the Contender Round by earning his fourth win of 2014.

Keselowski also had a solid run too, rallying to finish seventh after a mid-race spin on a day where he and his crew could basically do whatever they wished thanks to their Chase-opening win at Chicagoland.

It’s been a resounding opening statement from both the 2 team of Keselowski and the 22 team of Logano, which are both firing on all cylinders at the right time.

“I’d like to say the 35-inch, 35-ounce bat, they’re swinging it hard,” said Penske Racing vice chairman Walter Czarnecki about his two squads. “We’re trying to give them the resources and they’re doing with it. We’re gratified with where we are.”

From Logano’s perspective, the win on his home track yesterday only bolsters an outfit that was already feeling good heading into the post-season.

“Personally, I consider [New Hampshire] my worst racetrack – terrible to say because it’s my home race track – but I’ve always struggled when I come here,” he said. “To be able to win at your worst racetrack, that makes you feel like you can win anywhere. It’s special to be able to do that.

“The confidence is high at the 22 team right now. All of Team Penske, we all feel like we’ve got some championships to win this year – not only on the Cup side, but the Nationwide side also, and with IndyCar. We’re just trying to catch up to them.”

Meanwhile, the Hendrick camp’s top effort in Loudon was a fifth-place run from Jimmie Johnson. But while Penske has come out strong, HMS has no reason to push the panic button.

They likely would have had three of their drivers in the Top-10 yesterday if not for Jeff Gordon’s late crash (Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished ninth).

And they’re still in position to have all four of their drivers advance to the Contender Round following next weekend’s first-round finale at Dover International Speedway – a track that’s been good for HMS and especially so for Johnson, who won his ninth race on the “Monster Mile” this past June.

Earnhardt has also been strong as of late on the Dover concrete.

“I know everybody is looking at us like we are falling off a little bit, but Chicago hadn’t been a great track for us and New Hampshire hadn’t either,” said Earnhardt. “Dover has. So I will be surprised if we don’t go down there and be competitive.

“We were racing for a win there last year and ran pretty good there this year [finished ninth]. I look forward to going and having a good car.”

Indeed, Team Penske has been superb in the early going of the Chase. But look out for a proper response from HMS in Delaware.

Lewis Hamilton takes F1 pole in dramatic Russian GP qualifying

Russian pole Lewis Hamilton
Dan Istitene - Formula 1/Formula 1 via Getty Images
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SOCHI, Russia — Lewis Hamilton took a step closer to equaling the Formula One win record Saturday by clinching pole position at the Russian Grand Prix, after narrowly avoiding early elimination when Sebastian Vettel crashed.

Hamilton charged to a track-record time of 1 minute, 31.304 seconds, beating the Red Bull of Max Verstappen by 0.563 for his fifth straight pole position. Hamilton can achieve his 91st career win in the race on Sunday, matching the record held by Michael Schumacher.

Hamilton’s Mercedes teammate, Valtteri Bottas, was beaten into third by Verstappen’s fast run at the end of the session and was .652 off Hamilton’s time.

The long run from the grid to the first significant turn means Bottas could yet threaten to overtake Hamilton at the start Sunday using the slipstream from his teammate’s car.

“It’s nice being on pole but here is probably the worst place to be on pole,” Hamilton said.

“This year you’re seeing that our cars are more draggy and there’s more tow this year than we’ve seen in other years. So I generally expect one of (Verstappen and Bottas) to come flying by at some point. I think I’m just going to focus on my race and run the fastest race I can.”

Bottas earned his first win at the 2017 race in Russia after starting third and overtaking the two Ferraris ahead of him at the start.

Verstappen and Bottas both start the race on medium tires, which could give them an edge in terms of pit strategy over Hamilton, who is on soft tires, which wear much faster.

“I’m just going to have to nurse those tires for as far as I can. These guys, if they get by, they’re going to be pulling away,” Hamilton said.

Verstappen said he was delighted to start second.

“I wasn’t expecting that and of course it’s great for us. If we can get a good start tomorrow you never know what can happen,” he said.

Vettel lost control of his car over the kerb on the inside of the 90-degree, right-hand turn four and spun into the wall, before the Ferrari bounced back onto the track. Teammate Charles Leclerc was following closely behind and narrowly missed the wrecked car, driving over its discarded front wing.

“Oh my God, that was very, very close,” Leclerc told his team over the radio. Leclerc qualified 11th and Vettel 15th as Ferrari failed to reach the top-10 shootout with either car for the third time in four races.

Vettel’s crash meant the red flag was waved while Hamilton was trying to set his first valid lap time to make the third session – after his first attempt was earlier ruled out for going off the track.

After the track was cleared and the session restarted, Hamilton had to rush his out-lap to make it over the line in time for another flying lap with just a second to spare.

“It was horrible,” Hamilton said. “Heart in the mouth.”

Hamilton was also asked to report to race stewards over another incident in which he went off the track in the first part of qualifying. No further action was taken. It was found Hamilton didn’t gain an advantage because the lap time wasn’t counted.

Hamilton is the runaway championship leader with a 55-point advantage over second-place Bottas and 80 over Verstappen. If he can earn four more pole positions in the last seven races, he would be the first driver to 100 in F1 history.

Earlier in the third and final practice Saturday morning, Hamilton set the pace with a time of 1 minute, 33.279 seconds that was 0.776 better than his Mercedes teammate Bottas, who had been quickest in the first two sessions.