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Lewis Hamilton gets second crack at F1 championship in Mexico

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MEXICO CITY (AP) Lewis Hamilton has a second chance to secure the Formula One season championship. And he doesn’t have to finish anywhere near the front at the Mexican Grand Prix to do it.

The British driver needs only to finish seventh on Sunday to kill off Ferrari’s fading hopes that Sebastian Vettel can keep chasing him to the end of the season. Hamilton leads Vettel by 70 points and can wrap up his fifth career championship with two races left.

But don’t expect Mercedes to chase anything short of a victory, which would be an exclamation point on Hamilton’s roaring second half to 2018.

The other drivers on the grid expect nothing less.

“As a driver, you always want to win. I don’t think that changes,” said Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, the defending race champion who expects his car to be able to challenge Hamilton again for the victory.

So does Ferrari, whether it’s Vettel or Kimi Raikkonen, the 39-year-old who grabbed his first win in five seasons last week at the U.S. Grand Prix . That Ferrari victory, coupled with Verstappen’s defensive driving late to secure second, kept Hamilton from securing the championship.

Hamilton finishing seventh sounds easy, but it comes with no guarantee. Last season, a punctured tire from a first turn collision with Vettel relegated Hamilton to ninth. He still won the title and celebrated the season wrapped in a Union Jack flag while Verstappen celebrated the day.

A fifth championship would tie Argentina’s Juan Manuel Fangio , who won five times in the 1950s. Only Germany’s Michael Schumacher has more with seven.

The crowds at the Mexican Grand Prix create one of the season’s most festive atmospheres and Sunday should be no different, especially if the race lives up the pulsing finish last week in Texas. At 7,550 feet (2,300 meters) above sea level, by far the highest elevation of the season, the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez should set up a fight between the top three teams again.

Hamilton started third last season behind Vettel and Verstappen after a blistering round of qualifying, then got caught up in the bumper car action on the first turn.

Verstappen said the altitude helps keep the top cars together, negating the Mercedes and Ferrari power advantage on the track’s long straight

“The engines will be a little bit closer. It’s more difficult for them to breath,” Verstappen said. “This is definitely the best chance to win.”

Mercedes will want to clean up the problems it had in the U.S.

Hamilton complained his whole team was “off” last week in Texas. His car’s water pump had to be changed before the race and thee two-stop pit strategy and tire selection backfired. Teammate Valtteri Bottas couldn’t deny Vettel a late pass for fourth that helped the championship alive for another week, even if just barely.

Reborn in 2015 after 23 years, the Mexican Grand Prix enters the fourth year of a five-year contract and some tension over its survival is looming. The government will spend about $250 million over the five years hosting the race, and incoming President-elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s campaign promised austerity measures that indicate spending for F1 could be cut.

Force India driver Sergio Perez, who is from Guadalajara, Mexico, was confident the race will survive.

“Our new president is going to help. It’s just a matter of time to get the contract extension and we will have this party for several years,” Perez said. “Speaking as a Mexican and not as a driver, it’s important to keep the grand prix because the Mexico that we see that weekend is the Mexico that I always want to see, and the one that I want to be spoken about around the world.”

Dean Wilson’s life as a privateer reconnects the rider to his roots

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One of the added benefits of subscribing to NBC Sports Gold is the in-depth interviews from each Saturday’s action. Last week between the first and second rounds of qualification for the Glendale Supercross race, a relaxed and confident Dean Wilson joined Race Day Live’s Daniel Blair and Jim Holley to review his fourth-place finish in the season opener and his mindset moving forward.

Losing factory support from Rockstar / Husqvarna at the end of 2018 was not exactly what Wilson had in mind, but after getting off to a great start in the first two races this season, it may well have been a blessing in disguise.

The life of a privateer is not exactly relaxed, but it affords a rider the opportunity to call his own shots. For Wilson, it is also a way to reconnect with the grassroots feel that attracted him to Supercross in the first place.

“I think that’s what I like,” Wilson said on Race Day Live. “I think that’s the environment and atmosphere I like – it’s just more low key. At Anaheim I, you would think I was local racing at Glen Helen. I had a Sprinter and I had another trailer just to chill in, do my spins. It was so cold I had a little propane heater to warm me up. But I like that. That’s what works for me.”

MORE: Dean Wilson’s Cinderella story at Anaheim 

The program Wilson was able to put together during the offseason produced back-to back top 10s – a much better start to the 2019 season than he experienced last year.

In 2018, Wilson did not score a top 10 until his fourth feature at San Diego. His first top five would not come until late March in Indianapolis.

This year Wilson got the hole shot and led 14 laps at Anaheim in the opener before finishing fourth. Last week in Glendale, he finished eighth.

“What was going through my head was ‘it’s about time; it’s about five years too late to lead some laps here,’ ” Wilson described his emotion as he led at Anaheim. “It was nice because I did a lot of work in the off-season and my starts were really good. The thing is I haven’t over-analyzed my starts and practice.”

At Anaheim I, Wilson struggled with visibility as his goggles began to get fouled by mud. A once comfortable lead was eroded by Justin Barcia. With pressure from behind, Wilson made a minor mistake that was then compounded by lapped traffic.

“I was leading my laps; I was just trying to hit my marks. I was doing really well until I made a couple of mistakes. I couldn’t hit that middle double, double … the rut was getting real chewed out, but I was already on the right side where you couldn’t double the middle part so you had to go roll, roll, roll – and Barcia was already on me.”

Wilson’s pair of top 10s was enough to keep him fifth in the standings, three points behind Glendale’s winner Blake Baggett.

For more, watch the video above.

Next Race: Anaheim II Jan. 19, 11 p.m., NBCSN

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