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Rahal: “We need a good weekend at Pocono”

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Last year’s ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway witnessed the beginning of the end of Graham Rahal’s championship hopes. The American was fresh off his dream home race win at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, and had closed to within nine points of then-points leader Juan Pablo Montoya with two races left in the 2015 Verizon IndyCar Series season.

Of course, it all went away when Tristan Vautier made a perhaps over-ambitious passing maneuver into Turn 3, collected Rahal, and took them both out of the Pocono race.

This year, Rahal is out of realistic title contention in ninth place with four races remaining in the season, but still only 49 points out of third place.

A strong weekend at Pocono (Sunday, 3 p.m. ET, NBCSN) RLLwould help the driver of the No. 15 Bobby Rahal Automotive Group Honda for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing get some points relief after a year that’s been high on pace but low on luck.

Rahal tested at both Pocono and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in the last couple weeks and is confident the RLL team found what ailed them for their big oval package, after a tough Indianapolis 500 earlier this year.

“It was good testing as we did Pocono, and then Indy a couple days later,” Rahal told NBC Sports. “Both of those, we learned quite a lot.

“I’m a little bit worried about our qualifying pace at Pocono. In race trim should be OK. Whenever we tried to trim out… we weren’t building enough speed on straightaways. But we weren’t fully trimmed to the max. It was good info gathering.

“I think we found some of that from an aero standpoint… and why we were so draggy at Indy. The balance wasn’t bad, but I couldn’t suck up on straightaways. When you need to pass, that’s what you rely on.”

Rahal is also hopeful Honda, whose only win in 2016 came at the ‘500 courtesy of Alexander Rossi, will be able to back up its big oval pace and performance again this weekend.

Honda has won the last three 500-mile races; Rahal won at Fontana and Ryan Hunter-Reay at Pocono last year, before Rossi won this year at Indy.

“I hope so. I know [Honda] were strong at Indy,” Rahal said. “But you never know. Chevy never stops developing. We don’t know what they have in store.

“We have to stay strong and have a good solid weekend. We need a good weekend because we haven’t had many this year.”

Lewis Hamilton takes F1 pole in dramatic Russian GP qualifying

Russian pole Lewis Hamilton
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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.