Lewis Hamilton
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Hamilton hopes to ‘get the job done’ at U.S. Grand Prix

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AUSTIN, Texas — Lewis Hamilton has a certain love affair with the rolling hills and scrub land in the heart of Texas.

It’s easy to see why. The Mercedes driver has been almost invincible here, with five wins at the United States Grand Prix since 2012, including a season championship secured in 2015.

That makes it an almost perfect spot for more.

Win another race and another championship on Sunday and the Mercedes driver will sit all alone in second in Formula One history, with only a short step left to reach the top.

The British driver is on the cusp of securing a sixth career championship that would move him past Argentina’s Juan Manuel Fangio, the “Godfather” of F1 drivers, and within one of the record seven won by Germany’s Michael Schumacher, who is still regarded as the sport’s greatest champion.

Hamilton should have little trouble doing it. All he needs to do is finish eighth or higher on Sunday.

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“It’s been a good hunting ground for me, so very excited to go there and who knows whether we can get the job done?,” Hamilton said. “We’ll hopefully have a good race there.”

He’s almost downplaying his chances. There’s not much reason to do that at this point.

Hamilton nearly closed out the championship last week with his surprising win in Mexico City , but teammate Valtteri Bottas’ third-place finish pushed the title chase into another week. Bottas is the only driver still mathematically in the championship, but just barely.

“I don’t mind,” Hamilton said after not quite closing it out last week. “I love racing.”

Hamilton didn’t win the Texas race last year, finishing a third as Kimi Raikkonen took the checkered flag with Ferrari.

But he was in spectacular form last week in Mexico City, getting his 10th win of the season on a track that favored rivals Red Bull and Ferrari.

Hamilton is a defacto spokesman for growing Formula One in the U.S. Still young and stylish at 34, an environmental activist on social media , Hamilton is a valuable face and force for promoting the series in America, which hasn’t been as easy as F1 officials hoped when they returned to American soil with the Texas track and race in 2012.

Efforts to start other races haven’t been so easy. A dream race in Miami couldn’t take hold in the downtown venue on Biscayne Bay the series wanted and the current idea of racing around the parking lot of the stadium where the NFL’s Miami Dolphins play has run into fierce opposition from locals.

The Texas race has been a stronghold and Hamilton still does his part. He was in New York City with an event in Times Square before coming to Austin.

Hamilton sees himself – the first and still only black driver in Formula One who comes from a middle class family – as a story that can be inspiring to an American audience.

“I think my story and my family’s story is something that a lot of people in different countries can relate to,” Hamilton said.

Ferrari and Red Bull could still put up a fight Sunday at the Circuit of the Americas.

Ferrari has started on pole the last six races and the U.S. Grand Prix winner has come from the front row every year since the Texas track opened. The recent runs from pole have produced just three victories however, and none since Singapore on Sept. 22.

The team is partly to blame for not winning through a series of blunders or being outmaneuvered by Mercedes. In Mexico City, Ferrari put drivers Sebastian Vettel on different pit strategies and both surrendered the lead to change tires at different times.

“We certainly want to do better than that,” Ferrari Team Principal Mario Binotto said.

Verstappen will be looking to put a bad race in Mexico behind him. He was stripped of pole position in Mexico City because of a penalty for not slowing down while under a yellow flag in qualifying. He then punctured a tire on the fourth lap. A car and driver that had the pace to win finished sixth.

Verstappen finished second in Texas last year and won his late-lap duel with Hamilton for the position.

“A lot is possible at this track as there are so many good overtaking opportunities, which makes things interesting in the race,” said Verstappen, who will be racing his 100th career grand prix at just age 22.

Hamilton, who is driving his 248th, may be wary of talk like that from Verstappen. Their cars touched on the opening lap in Mexico City, and Hamilton said he’s learned to give Verstappen a lot of room to race.

“It’s the smartest thing you can do,” Hamilton said.

Alexander Rossi hopes to dodge oncoming traffic in second Baja 1000

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One of the great viral videos of last year’s offseason was the sight of Alexander Rossi’s Honda Ridgeline off-road vehicle and its near head-on collision with a passenger SUV coming in the wrong direction of last year’s Baja 1000.

The video of the incident overshadowed an outstanding debut for Rossi in the SCORE OFF Road Desert race.

Rossi (pictured above on the right along with fellow driver Jeff Proctor) told NBCSports.com that driving down the same roads still used by passenger traffic is one of the unique challenges of the Baja 1000.

“The most demanding form of racing is IndyCar racing,” Rossi told NBC Sports.com. “But the big thing for me in the Baja 1000 is mentally being able to understand the terrain that is coming at you at 120 miles an hour in the dust and pedestrians and other cars, people and cattle that come along with this race.”

Rossi is becoming a modern-day Parnelli Jones, A.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti. He wants to race anything on wheels and win.

Since the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series season concluded with the Sept. 22 Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey, Rossi competed in the Bathurst 1000 in Australia on Oct. 13. Earlier this year, Rossi drove for Acura Team Penske in the Rolex 24 at Daytona and the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring.

This weekend, the winner of the 100th Indianapolis 500 in 2016 and a perennial contender for the NTT IndyCar Series championship will compete in the Baja 1000 for the second straight year.

Rossi will be driving for the Honda Ridgeline Racing team and is the sixth Indy 500 winner to compete in the Baja 1000.

Other Indy 500 winners who have raced in the SCORE Baja 1000 include Jones, the 1963 Indianapolis winner and a two-time Baja 1000 race winner (1971 72); fellow Honda IndyCar Series driver and Andretti Autosport teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay, the Indy winner in 2014; Rick Mears, who won the Indianapolis 500 four times, 1985 Indy 500 champion Danny Sullivan and 2004 Indy winner Buddy Rice.

NTT IndyCar season champions who have raced in the Baja 1000 include Mears, Hunter-Reay, Sebastien Bourdais, Jimmy Vasser and Paul Tracy.

Rossi has a better understanding of what to expect in this year’s Baja 1000 after last year’s rookie experience.

How valuable was last years’ experience?

“It’s hugely valuable,” Rossi said. “The course changes each year. There will be some elements that are the same, but it’s a new route from start to finish this year. That is why we go down a week early. We do pre-running in a similar type of vehicle and take course notes and analyze each individual section of the course, find the danger areas and what you need to do come race day.

“Ultimately, the biggest thing is having the knowledge of how to prepare for the race and what to expect once you roll off the starting line. That is something I will have going for me this year that I didn’t have last year.”

As an off-road rookie, Rossi acclimated to the demands of desert racing as the Jeff Proctor-led Honda Off-Road Racing Team finished second in Class 7. It was the fourth consecutive time the team finished first or second in the Ridgeline Baja Race Truck at the Baja 1000.

“I don’t know that I can pinpoint any highlights other than just the whole experience,” Rossi said of last years’ experience. “The whole week and a half I had down there in 2018 was phenomenal. The team made me feel part of the family from Day One. I just love driving a desert truck through Baja California. It’s an experience unlike any other.

“The entire event was a highlight more than one specific moment.”

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Driving an off-road Honda Ridgeline through the desert of Baja California in Mexico is vastly different than Rossi’s regular ride in the No. 27 NAPA Honda in the NTT IndyCar Series. But Rossi believes there are many similarities, also.

“It’s very different, for obvious reasons, but ultimately, a race car is a race car,” Rossi said. “It has four wheels, and you are trying to get it from Point A to Point B quicker than other people. The general underlying techniques of getting a car through the corner efficiently is all the same; it’s just a different style.

“Everyone here is very talented at what they do and very good so in order to win this race, you have to be at the top of your game.”

The Baja 1000, like most forms of off-road racing, is more against the clock than a wheel-to-wheel competition such as IndyCar. Rossi believes it is a different form of endurance racing, similar to IMSA in many ways.

“You have to compare it like an endurance race,” Rossi said. “It’s a race where the first part of it, you are trying to get through and not take chances and stay in touch with the people you are trying to stay in touch with.

“When you get down to the final 20 to 30 percent, that is when you try to either close the lead of extend the lead of whatever position you are in. That is similar to the Rolex 24 at Daytona. It comes down to the last three or four hours, and we take a mentality closer to that.

“The only difference is if you get it wrong at Daytona, you spin in the grass. Here, it can be more dramatic than that.”

As an off-road rookie in 2018, Rossi acclimated to the demands of desert racing as the Jeff Proctor-led Honda Off-Road Racing Team finished second in Class 7. It was the fourth consecutive time the team finished first or second in the Ridgeline Baja Race Truck at the Baja 1000.

“The Honda off-road guys and my co-driver/navigator Evan Weller make it so easy for me to just jump right in and go to work,” Rossi said. “I can’t wait to share the seat with Jeff [Proctor] and Pat [Dailey] once again, and hopefully, bring home a win.”

The Honda Off-Road Racing Team has had an outstanding 2019 season, including class wins for the Baja Ridgeline Race Truck at the Parker 425, the Mint 400 and the Baja 500; where the team successfully debuted the second-generation “TSCO” chassis; and a second-place Class 7 finish at the Vegas-to-Reno event.

Proctor won his class in the Baja 1000 in both 2015 and 2016 with the Ridgeline, finished second in class in 2017 and 2018; and won the companion SCORE Baja 500 race both in 2016, 2018 and again earlier this year. The Ridgeline competes in Class 7, for unlimited six-cylinder production-appearing trucks and SUVs.

“We are stoked to have Alexander back racing with us in Mexico for his sophomore attempt at this iconic off-road race,” Proctor said. “This year’s 52nd annual Baja 1000 course covers ALL of the toughest terrain and areas in Baja Norte….as always, it will be tough.

“Alex is one of the brightest motorsports minds I’ve worked with, and he is a great asset to our team.”

The Baja 1000 begins Friday and runs through the weekend along the Baja Peninsula of Mexico.

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500