Jenson Button captures Formula One opener

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MELBOURNE, Australia — McLaren driver Jenson Button won the Formula One season-opening Australian Grand Prix on Sunday, taking the checkered flag Down Under for the third time in four years.

Button beat reigning world champion Sebastian Vettel, of Red Bull, by 2.1 seconds after the race turned into a 17-lap shootout after Vitaly Petrov stopped on the main straight, bringing out the safety car.

Pole-sitter Lewis Hamilton, of McLaren, was third, just ahead of local hope Mark Webber of Red Bull.

With a strong performance, McLaren showed it had closed the gap on the Red Bull team which dominated 2011, and set the stage for a more competitive season.

“It was an amazing day,” Button said. “Starting the year strong for this team is really important. The past two years for us have been tricky for us coming into the first race. It points us in a great position for the next few races and on the right foot.”

Fernando Alonso of Ferrari was fifth, with Williams’ Pastor Maldonado crashing hard into a wall on the final lap while on the tail of the Spaniard.

Sauber’s Kamui Kobayashi overtook Maldonado for sixth.

HENDRICK HAS ROUGH DAY: Jeff Gordon was having a decent day at Sunday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup race Bristol until contact with teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. ended his race.

It marked a bad day for Hendrick Motorsports, which got a team-best ninth-place finish from Jimmie Johnson.

Earnhardt seemed headed toward a top-10 until he was flagged for speeding on the final pit stop.

Earnhardt finished 15th, and Gordon ended up 35th after his incident with Earnhardt.

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