Weekend Wrap: Championship 4 set in NASCAR’s Chase; Nico Rosberg strikes back

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Kevin Harvick celebrates his biggest win yet at Phoenix. Photo: Getty Images.

And then there were four.

The final combatants for this year’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series title are now set. Kevin Harvick delivered yet again at Phoenix International Raceway to earn the automatic berth into next weekend’s Championship Race at Homestead-Miami Speedway, while Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano, and Ryan Newman each survived various problems on Sunday to earn the final three spots on points.

Between Harvick, Hamlin, Logano and Newman, we’ll be crowning a first-time Cup champion in South Florida. It’ll be a pure race between the four – no bonus points for leading a lap or the most laps. Whichever driver beats the other three gets the trophy.

On the other side of the cutoff at the end of 500 kilometers in the desert were four-time Cup champ Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth, Brad Keselowski, and Carl Edwards. Gordon was set to claim the final Championship Race spot via tiebreaker over Newman, but on the final lap, Newman knocked Kyle Larson into the wall to get 11th place and beat out Gordon by a single point.

Time will tell if this was the final opportunity for the legendary Gordon to earn his fifth crown. In the immediate aftermath, he was regretting his disastrous 29th-place finish one week ago at Texas, which came about following late-race contact with Keselowski (Gordon subsequently lost a tire and spun out).

That incident touched off a post-race fight that lent even more anticipation to Sunday’s Eliminator Round finale in Arizona. But in the end, there was no carry-over save for Gordon’s post-race shot about how he hoped he had “taught somebody” that you didn’t have to wreck people to win a title. You get one guess about whom he was referring to.

Meanwhile, Harvick was, as you’d figure, exultant. It’s been a wacky first year for him at Stewart-Haas Racing filled with incredible speed but many mistakes (some from himself, some from his No. 4 team) that have cost him wins.

None of that matters now. For him, the path is clear: Beat Hamlin, Logano and Newman next Sunday. Considering how fast he’s been all year, it would seem that he is the pre-race favorite.

But maybe, just maybe, this Chase that continues to surprise us has one more in store for us…

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Nico Rosberg did what he had to do in Brazil. Photo: AP.

Needing a win to tighten the Formula One World Championship battle heading into the season finale at Abu Dhabi, Nico Rosberg stayed cool under pressure from Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton and won the Brazilian Grand Prix at Interlagos – his first victory since taking the German Grand Prix in front of his home fans in July.

Rosberg had a superb weekend in Brazil, leading all three practice sessions and winning the pole position before converting it into a critical triumph. He’s cut Hamilton’s lead in the standings to 17 points, and with double points on offer at Abu Dhabi, both Silver Arrows will have everything to play for in a fortnight.

While there are many ways to crunch the numbers, the most obvious way to a first career title for Rosberg is a win at Abu Dhabi and Hamilton finishing third. But if Hamilton wins or finishes second, the Brit will have his second F1 crown.

Meanwhile, the Brazilian faithful on hand in Sao Paulo were rewarded with a podium finish from native son Felipe Massa – his first at his home track since winning in 2008. The Williams man had to recover from several mistakes during the Grand Prix, but in the end, he sent his countrymen home happy.

MORE FROM BRAZIL: Toto Wolff is a happy boss at MercedesMid-race spin for Hamilton proves costlySuspension failure ends Ricciardo’s points runButton continues good stretch, but rues lost podiumQuiet day for FerrariSeatbelt issues ruin Bottas’ afternoon

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Like father, like son. Photo: Getty Images.

In the NASCAR Nationwide Series, Chase Elliott fulfilled his destiny on Saturday in Phoenix. A late-race push enabled the son of former Cup champ Bill Elliott to finish fifth and clinch the 2014 championship with one race to go.

With that, the Elliotts become the fifth father/son combo to capture NASCAR national series titles and young Chase becomes the, well, youngest NASCAR national series champion ever at just 18 years old.

So, now what? Elliott’s set to stick around in the Nation-er, XFINITY Series next season. But will he also do a bit of part-time work in the top-tier Sprint Cup Series? Earlier this summer, Rick Hendrick indicated that we may see that.

That question will be answered another day. Right now, Elliott, his family, and his JR Motorsports team are enjoying a moment that’s very special considering the team wasn’t even in place a year ago. That’s probably the most incredible aspect in all of this.

Driving for Hendrick and Dale Earnhardt Jr. as a rookie – never mind being the son of a champion – means high expectations. But Elliott was nowhere near daunted by them.

He broke through for his first win at Texas, but it was his triumph one week later at Darlington that effectively sealed his fate as a star NASCAR fans could look forward to seeing in the years ahead.

At the time, my colleague, Jerry Bonkowski, wrote of Elliott’s win as him turning The Lady in Black into practically a “blushing schoolgirl.” Charging from sixth to the win in the final two laps reminded me more of robbing a nigh-impenetrable castle of all its riches; rookies simply don’t do what he did at Darlington.

Either way, it was awesome (pun intended). And from that point on, it seemed clear that he would emerge with the NNS crown. JRM teammate Regan Smith kept the pressure on him for a good portion of 2014, but ultimately, Elliott pulled away.

But while Elliott has locked down one NNS championship, another remains up for grabs this coming Saturday at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Keselowski, driving the Team Penske No. 22 car, was able to pass Kyle Busch in the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 54 car on the final lap to win the race in Phoenix – giving the No. 22 a 29-point lead over the No. 54 in the NNS’ owner’s championship.

OTHER COOL STUFF

Joni Wiman finished second this past Wednesday in Las Vegas to win the 2014 Red Bull Global Rallycross championship by five points over race winner Ken Block. Wiman, a GRC Supercar rookie, did not earn a single race win this year but ended with four consecutive podium finishes to take the title…Erik Jones delivered a brilliant performance in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series at Phoenix and was handed the win when a second power outage at the track cut the race short after 126 of the scheduled 150 laps. Matt Crafton finished runner-up and now only needs a finish of 21st or better in Friday’s season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway to clinch his second consecutive Truck Series title.

Previous F1 competition doesn’t guarantee IndyCar success at COTA

Manor F1 Photo
Manor F1 Photo
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AUSTIN, Texas – Familiarity does not breed success, according to three NTT IndyCar Series drivers who have previous experience at Circuit of the Americas in the Formula One United States Grand Prix. Several other drivers, including IndyCar Series rookie Patricio O’Ward, competed in the LMPC IMSA race in 2017.

Although the course is the same – 20-turns and 3.41-miles – the cars are completely different. The highly-advanced, technologically-driven Formula One cars are advanced beyond the realm of anything allowed in the NTT IndyCar Series. It’s more about the driver in IndyCar, which uses an impressive, but simpler formula to help showcase driver skill more than technology in its races.

Money buys speed in Formula One, but an IndyCar team doesn’t need a $400 million budget to go racing. It can get by on $5 millions to $10 million a year and contend for plenty of race victories and championships.

Andretti Autosport star Alexander Rossi drove in five Formula One races with Manor in 2015. The above photo is from his only F1 contest at COTA that season. He was the first driver ever to turn laps at COTA shortly after it was constructed in 2012.

Rossi had his best F1 finish in the 2015 United States Grand Prix when he started 17thand finished 12th.

“When I’ve come here in the past, I came into the weekend fully knowing that there was no chance to ever really do anything from a results perspective,” Rossi said. “To could come here to a track that I’ve spent a lot of time at, not necessarily driven a whole lot, but spent a huge amount of time at. To come into this weekend’s race, competing on a level where we have as good a shot as any, to win the race would be pretty cool.

“There’s kind of an almost unfinished business box that we’d like to tick here in some way. I’m very excited to get the weekend started.”

Chilton raced the entire F1 season in 2013 and 2014 with Marussia. He started 21stand finished 21stin 2013. He started in the first 16 races during the 2014 F1 season but was out of a ride by the time F1 arrived at COTA that season.

Me and Alex probably had pretty similar experiences,” Chilton told NBC Sports.com “Obviously the more laps are better — but the car we were in, we weren’t doing much racing, so the sort of racing experience part isn’t going to help.

“It’s good to be back. I first came here in 2013 for the (United States) Grand Prix. I loved the track. I love the city. I really enjoyed the whole facility, the race track. It’s a pretty long track in an Indy car but it’s got lots of overtaking potential for us and hopefully we’ll put on a great show.

“It’s great to have an English band like Muse on Saturday night, as well.”

Marcus Ericsson of Sweden has the most experience at COTA of any driver in the field for Sunday’s INDYCAR Classic. He competed in 97 F1 contests from 2014-2018 before becoming an IndyCar rookie with Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports this season.

Ericsson was 15thin 2015, 14thin 2016, 15thin 2017 and 10thin last year’s USGP.

“I’ve been here quite a few times,” Ericsson said. “It’s one of the best tracks on F1 and I think it’s great we are going here with INDYCAR. It’s going to be a great weekend.

“The racing should be very good. It’s already good on F1 on this track and from what I’ve done in INDYCAR, it’s going to be a really good show from everyone and I’m really looking forward to it.”

Ericsson emphasized that the his F1 experience does not necessarily give him any type of advantage in an IndyCar.

“I think for me I was here a couple months ago in F1 doing the race in ’18. I had all my reference points and then I did the first run and realized that didn’t really work,” Ericsson explained to NBC Sports.com “So I don’t know that the experience — it’s good to know the track, but then the Indy cars are very different cars to the F1 (car) so you have to sort of drive it quite differently and in the end, I think it didn’t really help the maximum amount in my opinion.

“The problem is we had two days of testing already in IndyCar. If we had come here straightaway without any testing it would be an advantage of one hundredth approximate. But now, if you don’t get the track in two days, I don’t think you would be in IndyCar.

“I don’t think it’s a big advantage now going into the weekend.”

But every little bit helps and if all of those little “bits” of information are added up, previous experience can provide a benefit in the race.

“For sure there’s things I can bring from my experience there that helps in INDYCAR, but the Indy car to drive today is different than the Formula One cars with the power steering and everything,” Ericsson continued. “I think it’s two different cars and what I found here on the test; things that worked in the F1 car didn’t really work in the Indy car. I think both cars of very difficult to be fast in but in different ways.

“For sure my experience in F1, it’s helped me to get into INDYCAR.”

James Hinchcliffe, who has never driven in Formula One, or at COTA, believes he has the best experience of any driver in Austin this weekend.

“I know where the restaurants are, so that’s cool,” Hinchcliffe said.