Formula One Emirates Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka
Rosberg dominates race to extend his points lead
October 9, 2016: Nico Rosberg started from the pole and, save for a mid-race pit stop, he led all the way, winning the race win here in Japan by a comfortable margin of five seconds over Max Verstappen. His rival teammate, Lewis Hamilton, started from the front row but a bad start dropped him to eight. By the end of the race he was challenging Verstappen for second but he had to settle for a third-place finish.
This result extended Rosberg's points lead to a 33-point margin over Hamilton (313-280) with four more races remaining. In addition, this win for Mercedes clinched the 2016 manufacturer's title for them.
In practice Rosberg beat out his teammate in every session and in the final Q3 qualifying round. The Ferraris seemed to have found more speed and they recorded times within three-tenths of a second behind the Mercedes duo – but accumulated penalties saw Vettel starting from sixth and Räikkönen from eighth place. Had they been able to start from the second row positions their speed had earned, they might have been able to mount a greater challenge on the silver cars than the Red Bull duo were able to do.
Hamilton's hopes to challenge Rosberg for the win blew up on the start when he stumbled and fell back to eighth place. Meanwhile Rosberg executed a flawless start and jumped out into the lead – a lead that was never to be challenged – ahead of Verstappen who had inherited second place after Hamilton's poor start.
Rosberg had to be conscious of the Hamilton's engine failure the week before and he seemed to drive a thoughtful race going fast enough to maintain a comfortable lead over Verstappen without unduly stressing his car's engine.
Once his start line misstep was behind him, Hamilton was able to get up to speed and he worked his way up through the field – up to fourth after just 16 laps and third on lap 35 of the 53-lap race . He had more speed than Verstappen but the young Dutchman drove a well-calculated race, drawing on his car's electrical reserves at the critical point on each lap to spurt out ahead of his challenger. On the final lap, Hamilton made a run going into the chicane in an attempt to get past but Verstappen in his familiar – yet controversial – style made a last-moment blocking manoeuver and Hamilton was forced to abort his charge and go up the escape road – thus ending any hope of making the pass for second place. Ferrari protested Verstappen's blocking move but they later withdrew the complaint.
The two Ferraris made up for their back-in-the-pack starting placements and they were able to claim fourth for Vettel and fifth for Räikkönen – about 15 seconds back of Hamilton. Verstappen's teammate Daniel Ricciardo was sixth – but, on the strength of his consistently good finishes so far this year, he stands third in the points standings, some 101 points back of Rosberg.
The next Grand Prix will be the one at the Circuit of the Americas at Austin, Texas in two weeks time – October 23rd.
NASCAR Sprint Cup Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway
Johnson finally scores a win and avoids elimination in the current round
October 9, 2016: Jimmie Johnson may be a six-time NASCAR champion but, since the creation of the multi-round elimination style Chase for the championship, he has never made it past the second round. This year, his performance and results have been lacklustre but, since the Chase began, he and his team have been putting up better performances – indeed, but for a few mistakes on his and his crew's part he might have already won a race. But here at Charlotte, everything came together. No mistakes and lots of problems for his other championship challengers saw him gliding home the winner here and, with that, an automatic pass into the next elimination round. This is big because the current round includes the race at Talladega and anything can happen there. The "big one" which is almost standard at Talladega could well knock many of the Chase runners out of contention and failing to advance to the next round – and that has nothing to do with how well they are running in the race. It's pretty much a lottery and anyone might be eliminated – anyone, that is, but Johnson the winner at Charlotte and the winner of next week's race at Kansas City.
The fact that Johnson currently heads to the list of Chase challengers means little. Once he moves on to the third elimination round, the points reset and essentially all eight survivors will be starting that round on an equal footing.
This race was supposed to be a night race on Saturday night but with Hurricane Matthew cruising up the coast, the Charlotte area was deluged with rain, and the race officials first postponed the Friday night Xfinity race to Sunday and then when the forecasts called for rain into Saturday night, they moved the Cup races to Sunday as well, creating a double-header – which ran in dry weather under sunny skies. The crowd on Sunday was sparse, but who knows how big it would have been had the race run in good weather on Saturday evening as originally planned.
Against Johnson's winning day, this race seemed to be jinxed for almost every other championship hopeful.
Kevin Harvick started from the pole and led for 12 laps of the 334-lap race before he was passed by rookie Chase Elliott who led for the next 101 laps. Meanwhile, Kyle Busch's day, who had started from the second row, had his day start to go wrong when he pitted on lap 88 with a tire failure, going a lap down. Joey Logano, who had been running in the top five, hit the wall on lap 117 when he had a tire failure. He continued but he brought out the next caution as well when he had an even more disastrous tire failure and slammed into the wall again. Now he was truly out of contention.
At the same time Harvick came into the pits with his engine not running. It seemed to be some kind of ECU failure but after the crew pushed him behind the wall they struggled to figure out just what the problem was. Regardless, his day was over – and his chances of making it to the next elimination round are looking bad.
Then came this race's own "big one" on lap 260 with 74 laps to run . Austin Dillon had been running back outside the top ten so, when the sixth caution flew, his crew opted to change only two tires – in spite of the tire failures others had been having. This promoted him up to second alongside Johnson for the restart. When the green flew, the second row cars made a better jump than the front row, Truex pushing Dillon and Hamlin pushing Johnson. Both the front two cars wiggled but it was Dillon's car that spun out of control. Behind them carnage broke out, with at least 12 cars involved.
The race was red-flagged to allow for track clean up. Both Dillon and Elliott were unable to continue. During the red the TV people talked to Denis Hamlin who was now set to restart in second place alongside Johnson. He was quietly confident of his chances to win the race.
The race went back to green and racing resumed with Johnson and Hamlin up front. But one more caution was to fly – for oil on the track when Hamlin's Toyota blew up big time on lap 308.
Matt Kenseth beat Johnson off pit road while Truex had some kind of strange electrical problem which saw him coming back out of pit road in 18th place and out of contention for the win. However, on the restart, Johnson easily took the lead ahead of Kenseth and he led the remaining 18 laps to the checker.
Kenseth finished second 1.4 seconds behind while Kasey Kahne, Ryan Newman and Kyle Larson – all no longer in contention for the championship – were third, fourth and fifth. Kyle Busch, despite his problems finished sixth.
This was a race in which many Chase contenders were hit with misfortune but so many had trouble that Harvick, who stands 12th and last in the Chase standings, is only eight points behind Hamlin in the eighth and final transfer spot in the standings. So, with two more races in this round, including the ever-unpredictable Talladega, except for the locked-in Johnson, almost any combination of the current 12 contenders might be the ones to move forward to the third round.
The next Sprint Cup race is the race at Kansas City next Sunday.
Xfinity Series Drive for the Cure 300 at Charlotte Motor Speedway
Cup driver Logano a surprise winner in the Xfinity race
October 9, 2016: Last week when rain forced the Xfinity race into a Sunday double-header with the Cup race, three Cup drivers who had been scheduled to drive in the Xfinity race opted to sit it out. This week when we again had a rain out which produced an 800-mile Sunday double-header, none of the four Cup drivers scheduled to race in the Xfinity race dropped out. Perhaps it was because the Xfinity race ran after the Cup race. And these Cup drivers made things difficult for Xfinity Chase hopefuls going for a win or a good finish to keep them in the Chase, this being the third and final race in the first elimination round of the Xfinity Chase.
Cup driver Joey Logano won the race, while Cup driver Kyle Larson dominated most of the race, leading for 165 laps of the 200-lap race, finishing fourth.
Larson started on the pole and he dominated most of the race. For the first half the front three runners where Larson, Erik Jones and Daniel Suàrez. Into the second half of the race, Logano moved up into fourth ahead of Suàrez. By the 150 lap mark only these four runners were still on the lead lap. And, after that, it started looking like it was going to wind up with just one car – Larson's – left on the lead lap. But, nowadays, NASCAR drivers have many ways to get back on the lead lap and after the third caution on lap 177, a number of cars were able to get the 'wave around" and thereby get back onto the lead lap for the restart. Then there was another caution on lap 185 and the field was back to a more normal configuration – albeit with Larson still in the lead.
Larson took this final restart beside Justin Allgaier with Logano and Suàrez in the row behind. The front row went into the first turns side-by-side with Logano alongside as well. By the end of the lap Logano had jumped into the lead and he held it to the finish. Meanwhile Elliott Sadler, who had been nowhere near the front up to now, took over third. Larson, who likes to run up against the wall bounced off the wall twice in these closing laps and dropped back to finish fourth behind Sadler and Suàrez. Erik Jones who had been in danger of being eliminated from the Chase after troubles in the previous two races, finished in fifth and avoided elimination. In the end nine cars finished on the lead lap.
Four drivers were eliminated from the Chase after this, the third and final race in the first elimination round. They were Ty Dillon, Brendan Poole, Ryan Sieg and Brandon Jones. Had not Dillon been knocked out of the Kentucky race in a collision with Jones he would surely have made the cut into the next elimination round.
While Erik Jones, now that he has managed to survive the cut this week, continues to look like the favourite to win the championship, Suàrez and Sadler, who top the points standings going into the second elimination round, look like good prospects as well. Darrell "Bubba" Wallace, who drives for Roush, managed to squeak into the next round by the slimmest of margins. The 33-year-old Wallace is a popular driver with NASCAR and its fan base but so far he has failed to win any races in this series and if he doesn't soon show a bit more in the way of results, his future with Roush and his hopes of moving up to a good Cup ride any time soon have to be growing slimmer. Perhaps he will score a win in the next elimination round.
If the crowd for the rescheduled Cup race was sparse, the crowd that stayed around for the Xfinity race which followed it was almost non-existent. This Charlotte weekend on Columbus Day weekend used to be a big event on the NASCAR calendar.
The next Xfinity race is next Saturday at Kansas City.
F1: Wolfgang Wilhelm © Daimler AG
NSCS: Sarah Crabill/Getty Images
NXS: Jerry Markland/NASCAR via Getty Images