Hamlin braces for physical, mental battle at Darlington

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Denny Hamlin believes that he can withstand the physical pain of tonight’s Sprint Cup event at Darlington Raceway, which will be his first full-distance race since suffering a fractured vertebrae in a last-lap crash back in March at Auto Club Speedway.

But the mental challenge will still be a daunting one for the Joe Gibbs Racing driver, who started last weekend’s race at Talladega Superspeedway before giving way early to relief driver Brian Vickers.

“I’ll be able to make it physically, but it’s a matter of whether I can keep my mind engaged through whatever maybe physical pains I have towards the end to keep our finishes good and, obviously, have a chance to win,” said Hamlin, who starts sixth for tonight’s Bojangles’ Southern 500.

With a narrow racing groove that runs primarily up against the wall and a surface that’s regaining its traditional abrasiveness following a 2005 repaving, the 1.366-mile oval in the South Carolina sand hills is taxing enough for drivers that are fully healthy, let alone one that’s still working his way back to form.

But Hamlin is intent on gutting out the entire 500 miles tonight, and truly beginning his long-shot quest to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup. The Virginia native is currently 31st in the standings and will need to not only break into the Top 20 but win at least one race to give himself a chance at making the Chase as a wild card.

Hamlin has never missed the Chase in his seven-year Cup career.

“We didn’t get that much [points] last week, so it’s going to be all on my shoulders to make the run towards the Chase,” he said. “We fell back an additional three spots last week in the points, so we have a huge, huge hole that we’ve got to dig out of. But there’s nothing that wins can’t fix. That’s the bottom line.

“If we put ourselves in position and win a race here and there — more than likely if we win a couple of races — then we’re going to be Top 20 in points, I would think.”

Michael Andretti looking forward to new Australian Supercars venture

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If it seems like Michael Andretti is out to conquer the world, he is – kind of.

The former IndyCar star turned prolific team owner has won three of the last four Indianapolis 500s and five overall, second only to Roger Penske’s 16 Indy 500 triumphs.

Along the way, in addition to expanding his own IndyCar and Indy Lights operation, the son of Mario Andretti and the primary shareholder of Andretti Autosport has also branched out into Global RallyCross and Formula E racing in recent years.

And now, Andretti has further expanded his brand internationally, following Penske to the world down under — as in the world of Australian V8 Supercars.

Andretti has teamed with Supercars team owner Ryan Walkinshaw, along with veteran motorsports marketer and executive director of McLaren Technology Group and United Autosports owner and chairman, Zak Brown.

Together, the three have formed Walkinshaw Andretti United, based in suburban Melbourne, Australia. The new team kicks off the new season with the Adelaide 500 from March 1-4.

“It’s just extending our brand and putting it out there,” Andretti told NBC Sports. “The Supercars are such a great series.

“It all started with Zach Brown calling me and said ‘You have to talk to Ryan Walkinshaw. He’s got something interesting to talk to you about.’

“We talked and literally in like a half-hour, we said, ‘Let’s figure out how we’re going to make this work.’ And then Zack was like, ‘Hey, what about me?’ And then Zack came in as a partner and it’s cool now that we have the Walkinshaw Andretti United team.

“I’m really excited about that program, the guys at the shop are excited about it, we’ve been doing a lot of things to try and help it because it’s such a cool series and the cars are so cool.

“I went down there to Bathurst, which was to me one of the coolest tracks in the world. I wish I could have driven it, I really do. It looks like a blast.

“It’s amazing how big that series is when you go down there. It’s one of the biggest sports in Australia. It was just a great opportunity for us to extend our portfolio.”

Admittedly, Andretti had some extra incentive to want to get involved in the Supercars world: Penske joined forces with legendary Dick Johnson Racing in September 2014.

The organization came together quickly and the rebranded DJR Team Penske went on to win the 2017 V8 Supercars championship.

“Roger was down there the last few years,” Andretti said, adding that fact as incentive to get his own organization into the series. “So it’s cool to go race head-to-head with Roger. That was also in the back of our minds.”

This is no start-up venture for Andretti. The roots of the new venture began in 1990 as the Holden Racing Team, which went on to become one of the most successful organizations in Australian V8 Supercar racing, having won the drivers’ championship six times and the Virgin Australia Supercars Championship’s top race, the Bathurst 1000 (essentially Australia’s version of the Indy 500), seven times.

Last season, Holden Racing team morphed into Triple Eight Race Engineering and was renamed Mobil 1 HSV Racing.

And now the company has been renamed once again for the 2018 campaign under the Walkinshaw Andretti United banner.

The team will be composed of two Holden ZB Commodores with drivers James Courtney and Scott Pye, as well as a Porsche 911 GT3-R in the Australian GT championship.

What’s next for Andretti’s motorsports portfolio? Right now, it’s pretty full, but you can bet running for championships from Australia (Supercars) to globally (GRC) to Indianapolis (Indy 500) to the U.S. (Verizon IndyCar Series) are at the top of this year’s list.