What to watch for: Belgian Grand Prix (NBCSN, NBC Sports app from 7am ET)

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After a month off, the Formula 1 grid will return to racing action today with the Belgian Grand Prix from the historic Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps.

Sebastian Vettel entered the summer break leading the drivers’ championship for Ferrari, but it was chief title rival Lewis Hamilton who stole the show in qualifying with a new lap record.

More significantly, the result saw Hamilton draw level with Michael Schumacher for the all-time pole position record in F1, being the 68th of his career.

Starting his 200th grand prix today, can Hamilton convert pole into a win that could prove crucial in his chase for a fourth world title?

You can watch the Belgian Grand Prix live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 7am ET. CLICK HERE to watch via live stream.

Here’s what to watch for in today’s race from Spa.

2017 Belgian Grand Prix – What to watch for

How will Hamilton celebrate his double century?

It has already been a big weekend for Lewis Hamilton, tying a record that has stood for over a decade and chipping away at Michael Schumacher’s status as, statistically, F1’s greatest ever driver.

But this race is critical to Hamilton’s title bid. Trailing Vettel by 14 points in the championship standings, Spa is seen as a track that was meant to see Mercedes surge clear of Ferrari and make up the ground lost last time out in Hungary.

Ferrari put up a stiff challenge in qualifying, though, meaning Hamilton is unlikely to have things all his own way in the race. But if he can capture a third Spa victory, it would be a real shot in the arm and show of confidence for his title bid.

‘Spa master’ Kimi to come into play?

Kimi Raikkonen was left disappointed with his efforts in qualifying on Saturday after only finishing fourth, having topped two of the three practice sessions earlier in the weekend.

Raikkonen has always gone well at Spa, winning the grand prix four times, including his most recent victory back in 2009 with Ferrari.

While he may have lacked the outright pace of Ferrari teammate Vettel so far this season, Raikkonen will still be seen as a threat to the title contenders in the race, such is his prowess around the track.

Verstappen to the Max

If you have watched any of the TV coverage from this weekend at Spa, you won’t have missed the swathes of orange in the grandstands courtesy of the Dutch fans cheering on Red Bull racer Max Verstappen.

Verstappen has endured a rough season so far, scoring just one podium finish, and was skeptical of Red Bull’s chances following practice given the pace of both Mercedes and Ferrari.

A run to fifth in qualifying was the best Verstappen could really hope for, and although little more can be expected in the race, the army of fans – apparently 80,000 of them – will still hope for a bit of drama to hand him what would be an exceptionally popular podium finish.

Strategy to be more varied than usual

The choice of the ultra-soft tire for Spa was a good reflection of how conservative Pirelli’s compounds have been in 2017, given the abrasive nature of the circuit.

However, the calculations coming out of the teams following practice suggest that we may be set for more than the usual one pit stop in today’s race, creating the possibility for far more variety when it comes to strategy.

Sergio Perez believes there will be a crossover between two and three stops, which would make for a fascinating battle at the front as teams work out which way to go.

Races are often won or lost on the pit wall. Today’s looks set to unfold in exactly that fashion.

And, of course, the rain…

As noted in our race weekend preview, if you’re at Spa and it doesn’t rain, are you really at Spa?

We got confirmation that we are indeed at Spa on Friday when the rain arrived towards the end of FP2, while the area was hit by a huge thunderstorm later that evening.

At the time of writing, no rain is currently forecast for the race, which should instead take place under overcast skies. This being Spa though, that’s hardly something to have faith in.

A few showers would really spice up what already looks poised to be an exciting race.

2017 Belgian Grand Prix – Starting Grid

1. Lewis Hamilton Mercedes
2. Sebastian Vettel Ferrari
3. Valtteri Bottas Mercedes
4. Kimi Raikkonen Ferrari
5. Max Verstappen Red Bull
6. Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull
7. Nico Hulkenberg Renault
8. Sergio Perez Force India
9. Esteban Ocon Force India
10. Fernando Alonso McLaren
11. Romain Grosjean Haas
12. Kevin Magnussen Haas
13. Carlos Sainz Jr. Toro Rosso
14. Lance Stroll Williams
15. Jolyon Palmer Renault*
16. Felipe Massa Williams*
17. Marcus Ericsson Sauber*
18. Pascal Wehrlein Sauber*
19. Daniil Kvyat Toro Rosso*
20. Stoffel Vandoorne McLaren*

* After grid penalties applied

Jenson Button joins NASCAR Garage 56 at Le Mans with Jimmie Johnson, Rockenfeller

Jenson Button NASCAR Le Mans
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The NASCAR Garage 56 entry in the 24 Hours of Le Mans will be driven by champions of three major-league series — Jenson Button, Jimmie Johnson and Mike Rockenfeller.

The lineup of the Hendrick Motorsports-prepared Next Gen Camaro was announced Saturday before the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

NASCAR’s Garage 56 project was announced in March 2022 as a joint effort by NASCAR, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet and Goodyear. It marks the return of a NASCAR team to Le Mans for the first time in nearly 50 years with Hendrick fielding a Camaro ZL1 as the “Garage 56” entry in the 100th edition of the sports car classic.

It’s long been expected the car would include Johnson, the seven-time Cup Series champion who is returning to NASCAR’s premier series as a driver-owner in 2023. Rockenfeller, the 2013 DTM champion and 2010 Le Mans overall winner, has attended every NASCAR Garage 56 test since last year while racking up simulator testing hours.

The surprise was Button, the 2009 Formula One champion who has become a popular commentator. Rick Hendrick initially said wanted four-time Cup champion and current Hendrick Motorsports COO Jeff Gordon to drive the car, and Gordon had raced a sports car at Indianapolis last year to test his race shape.

GARAGE 56 ANSWERS, ANALYSISMore on the NASCAR-Hendrick entry for the 24 Hours of Le Mans

“Since the beginning of the Garage 56 project, it has been our goal to partner with the top racers in the world to represent us in Le Mans,” NASCAR chairman and CEO Jim France said in a release. “The lineup of Jimmie, ‘Rocky’ and Jenson is everything we could have dreamed of – three elite drivers who have won at the highest levels of motorsports worldwide. As we celebrate the 75th anniversary of NASCAR, we are honored to have these world-class champions help bring the sights and sounds of a NASCAR race car to fans in Le Mans, and across the world.”

Button had one of the most prolific careers in F1 history finishing with 15 wins and 50 podiums on top of his 2009 World Championship and is widely considered one of the top British drivers of all time.

“As a lifelong racing fan, I have always dreamed of racing certain cars, with and against certain drivers and competing in certain events,” Button said in a release. “In June, a number of those dreams will come true in one event when I get to bring NASCAR to the world stage alongside my pals Jimmie and ‘Rocky’ for the 100th anniversary of the most prestigious race in the world. I’m really looking forward to sharing this journey with NASCAR, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet and Goodyear, and current and future NASCAR fans from around the world.”

Johnson will make his 24 Hours of Le Mans debut a year after starting his first Indy 500. He has 83 victories in the Cup Series, where he will return for the Daytona 500 next month with his Legacy Motor Club team.

He also has been involved with testing the Garage 56 Camaro.

“I’m super thrilled – it’s been at the top of my bucket list to compete in the 24 Hours of Le Mans someday,” Johnson said. “To have this opportunity come – and to partner with everybody and this driver lineup – is truly an incredible opportunity and one that I am thankful to be a part of.”

Rockenfeller teamed with Johnson on the No. 48 Ally Cadillac in the Rolex 24 at Daytona in 2021-22. The German driver has been the lead test driver for Garage 56 and has driven during every on-track test.

“It has been a great journey so far with the whole team and project,” Rockenfeller said. “To be involved as a driver from day one until now was already a great honor, and to now have Jimmie and Jenson alongside me as teammates in Le Mans is unbelievable.”

The car will continue testing with all three drivers next week at the Daytona International Speedway road course. Rolex 24 and four-time IMSA champion Jordan Taylor, who drives for Corvette Racing, will be the team’s backup driver and coach. Taylor also won the GTE Pro class in 2015 at Le Mans, where he has four podium finishes.

The project also is being supported by IMSA GTP team Action Express, whose general manager is former NASCAR executive and Daytona 500-winning crew chief Gary Nelson. Action Express built the first test car for the Garage 56 but since has handed off the project to Hendrick, where it’s being over seen by vice president of competition Chad Knaus (the crew chief for Johnson’s seven championships).

“Action Express got it going and built the mule car, and then Hendrick joined the program, took it from where we had it, and they’re doing a major percentage of the work,” Nelson told NBC Sports. “We just did a test a couple months ago on a wet track. We’ve done a couple of other tests as they were ramping their program up. Now their car is good, tested and running. We’re still involved and here to help. The Hendrick guys have taken the reins, and Rick Hendrick and Chad Knaus are a thrill to work with and doing a much better job. It’s more NASCAR than prototype racing.”