Federated Auto Parts 400 - Qualifying

One day later, Clint Bowyer addresses NASCAR penalties (UPDATED)

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NASCAR may have severely punished Michael Waltrip Racing for “manipulating the outcome” of Saturday’s Chase-deciding event at Richmond International Raceway, but it would appear that a wide margin of people believe NASCAR didn’t do enough.

Clint Bowyer, the man who started all of this controversy when he spun out with seven laps to go in the Federated Auto Parts 400, may have been docked 50 points along with his MWR teammates, Martin Truex Jr. and Brian Vickers. But Bowyer’s still in the Chase, whereas Truex no longer is.

However, Bowyer will still have to face constant questions about his actions Saturday night. That questioning began today, when he made a visit to ESPN as part of NASCAR’s “Chase Across America” media tour.

Before Bowyer’s lunch-time appearance on SportsCenter, Ryan Newman told ESPN that he had received a call from him regarding the events of Saturday night.

According to Newman, who ascended to the second Wild Card spot after Truex was booted out of the Chase, Bowyer apologized – telling him that he had been “sick to his stomach” over the matter.

But while Bowyer felt that the phone call “needed to be made,” he wouldn’t answer a question about whether the call was an admission that he had spun out intentionally at RIR.

“Let’s not dig too much into this,” Bowyer said. “I’ve dealt with that the last couple of days – there are a lot of opinions on the things that happened. Obviously, I gave my interview after the races of what happened.

“You know, we’ve been penalized – the biggest penalty in NASCAR history. We’re gonna get through this as a race team. There’s a lot of racing left with what’s going on. The Chase is alive, it starts this weekend. And somehow, through all of this, I’ve got to get my focus back onto the Chase – business as usual.

“I have a lot of fans that have followed us through this and have been behind me, and I appreciate that. For the fans that don’t agree or are upset, I apologize.”

A follow-up question on what exactly he was apologizing for yielded a response from Bowyer that wasn’t especially clear.

“I went from leading the race into the middle of a disaster,” he said. “I’m extremely disappointed in the way the race was. I could’ve easily have been in Victory Lane. It’s a bad deal, a bad deal all the way around for MWR. Again, we’ve been penalized for this. We stand by our actions and we own up to them, and we’re gonna get through this together and go on.”

Bowyer then got grilled by Cup driver-turned-ESPN analyst Ricky Craven, who asked him about how he plans to deal with his fellow racers at Chicagoland Speedway this weekend.

“I’m gonna go there like I always have – I’m gonna go there, put my helmet on, and compete and race as hard as I can for a win for [sponsor] 5-Hour Energy, for Toyota and for all of our partners,” Bowyer said.

“It’s a bad situation. It is. If you think I can look into a crystal ball and tell you everything that happened after that race and do all of this, it’s crazy to think that. We’re all competitive, we’ve all been in this sport a long time and we’ve all seen a lot of wild things happen over the years…There’s only one thing that I can promise you: Chicago’s gonna happen this weekend and I’ll be ready.”

Bowyer also talked about how he and MWR will deal with the issue as a team moving forward, noting the inherent pressures involved in NASCAR’s championship stretch.

“Let me tell you something, people don’t realize how much pressure is around the Chase,” he said. “I don’t want this story to be the story of the Chase. There’s tremendous amounts of pressure.

“There’s a lot on the line for a lot of race teams, and a whole year’s work went into this. We were locked into the Chase weeks ago. We’ve been preparing for this for a long time, and I feel like we’ve got a shot, and I’m excited.”

But Craven, who said he’d give Bowyer the “benefit of the doubt,” still got in some words that likely resonate with the portion of the NASCAR fan base that believes Bowyer was in the wrong at Richmond.

“You wanna talk about pressure? Look at the economy and the people that spent their hard-earned money to fly to Richmond, to buy a ticket, to participate in the weekend, and they might have felt like they got robbed,” he said.

“I’m only bringing that point up to suggest that this is much bigger than any one of us. What happened Saturday night put into play the integrity of the sport.”

UPDATE (1:56 p.m. ET): Clint Bowyer had a second live SportsCenter interview in which he talked about the Chase controversy surrounding him and Michael Waltrip Racing. As you’d figure, some of the territory covered in “Round Two” was relatively the same as that of “Round One.”

But there were some differences:

1) In the second interview, Bowyer directly addressed a tweet from Jeff Gordon that said he did not agree with “the guy who started all of this” not losing his spot in the Chase. While doing so, he referenced their infamous post-race confrontation last fall at Phoenix.

“Everybody knows Gordon and I have had our issues. I got wiped out of the championship chase with two races to go and he got penalized. No different than I got penalized at MWR.”

Gordon was fined $100,000 and lost 25 points for his role in the 2012 Phoenix incident.

2) In the first interview, Bowyer seemed to dance around the question of whether he had spun intentionally at Richmond. But in the second interview, when he got the same query, he responded “No.”

He was then asked about the matter of no one else being around him at the time of the spin.

“Again, how did we go from a car fast enough to lead the race – we couldn’t even line up,” Bowyer replied. “I went straight backwards. Trust me, when the 15 car’s on the race track, it goes forward, and if it doesn’t, something’s wrong.”

Marcus Ericsson excited about Pascal Wehrlein’s arrival at Sauber for 2017

SPIELBERG, AUSTRIA - JULY 02: Pascal Wehrlein of Germany driving the (94) Manor Racing MRT-Mercedes MRT05 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo on track ahead of Marcus Ericsson of Sweden driving the (9) Sauber F1 Team Sauber C35 Ferrari 059/5 turbo during qualifying for the Formula One Grand Prix of Austria at Red Bull Ring on July 2, 2016 in Spielberg, Austria.  (Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images)
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Marcus Ericsson is relishing the opportunity to work with Pascal Wehrlein at Sauber through the 2017 Formula 1 season, saying he rates the German driver highly.

Wehrlein made his F1 debut in 2016 with Manor, scoring just the second top-10 finish in the team’s history at the Austrian Grand Prix.

The Mercedes junior was announced as a Sauber driver for 2017 on Monday, replacing Felipe Nasr after the Brazilian lost his financial backing.

Speaking to the official F1 website, Ericsson spoke warmly of Wehrlein’s arrival, believing that they will forge a strong partnership that will help Sauber to develop.

“I think it’s great news for me and Sauber. Pascal is a very fast and respected driver with a great CV,” Ericsson said.

“I think we can really push each other and the team forward, so I am looking forward to a great season.

“I honestly rate [Wehrlein] highly. He’s won the DTM championship and been part of the Mercedes family for a long time, so they seem to believe a lot in him.

“Of course my aim is to beat him – what else? – and I expect it to be a tough fight. But that’s exactly what I need in order to perform at my best.”

Sauber was at risk of collapsing at midway through the 2016 season, having struggled financially for some time before being taken over by Longbow Finance during the summer.

The team subsequently went on a recruitment drive, bringing in a number of management and engineering staff, with Ericsson noticing a difference.

“It definitely takes time, but I think it’s clear that if you look at the second half of last season we really made some big progress,” Ericsson said.

“And the aim is, of course, to continue that way in 2017. We’ve had some great people decide to join the team in the last couple of months and that also makes a difference.

“So all in all it feels like we’re moving in the right way. And with two young and hungry drivers in the cockpits we should be on a good run.”

VIDEO: Valtteri Bottas’ first day as a Mercedes F1 driver

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Following Valtteri Bottas’ official unveiling as a Mercedes driver on Monday, the team wasted little time in showing the Finn the ropes at its base in Brackley, England.

Bottas was released from his contract by Williams so he could join Mercedes for 2017, replacing world champion Nico Rosberg following the German’s shock decision to retire from F1.

Bottas was announced as Mercedes’ new driver on Monday, completing the puzzle for the 2017 driver market and putting an end to six weeks of speculation.

In the above video released by Mercedes, Bottas gets to grips with life at Brackley after signing his new contract with team chief Toto Wolff and meeting his new team members for the first time.

In related news, Mercedes announced on Friday that it had struck an agreement with the Wihuri Group, a Finnish conglomerate that has previously sponsored Bottas.

Wihuri’s branding will appear on the Mercedes drivers’ racesuits and helmets, as well as on the team’s trackside uniform.

“We are delighted to welcome Wihuri to the Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsport family today,” Wolff said.

“As a respected brand both in Finland and globally, Wihuri will be a valuable addition to our team and we look forward to working with them and helping to expand their Formula One experience.

“This year will be a new challenge for our team, with a new driver line-up, including our new Finnish driver Valtteri Bottas of course, and new regulations.

“I am sure it going to be a very exciting year to be involved with our team and the sport of Formula 1.”

Yamaha, Ducati enjoy launches ahead of new MotoGP season

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MotoGP heavyweights Yamaha and Ducati geared up for the new season of motorcycle racing’s premier championship with launches this week.

Yamaha and Ducati both enter 2017 with a new line-up following Jorge Lorenzo’s decision to move from the former to the latter, acting as one of a number of shake-ups in the rider market.

Three-time MotoGP champion Lorenzo replaces Andrea Iannone at Ducati, who sought refuge at Suzuki after a seat was freed up by Maverick Viñales following his move to Yamaha in replace of – the man who started the merry-go-round all – Lorenzo.

Yamaha was the first to take the covers off its new bike at a launch in Madrid on Thursday, with Viñales being joined by nine-time world champion Valentino Rossi for the unveiling of the YZR-M1.

The new bike features a darker blue as its main livery color, as well as greater presence for title sponsor Movistar.

“I had the first test in Valencia after the race, but particularly after we moved to Sepang and we could have more kilometers and [do] more work on the new bike,” Rossi said.

“We discovered a very good potential. It looks like we can be stronger. For sure now it’s important to work in the three tests before the first race, and try to arrive ready in Qatar. But the first impression is very good.”

Ducati followed suit earlier today by unveiling its new livery for 2017, with Lorenzo making one of his first official appearances in the team’s colors following the expiration of his Yamaha contract on December 31.

The team presented its 2016 bike, the Desmosedici GP16, in ’17 colors, as well as removing the controversial – and now banned – winglets from its model.

The new MotoGP season begins in Qatar on March 26, with pre-season testing set to start at the end of January in Malaysia.

Neuville leads Ogier midway through Monte Carlo Rally

Thierry Neuville (BEL) competes during the FIA World Rally Championship 2017 in Monte Carlo, Monaco on January 20, 2017
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MONACO (AP) Belgian driver Thierry Neuville took a 45-second lead Friday over defending world rally champion Sebastien Ogier midway through the season-opening Monte Carlo Rally.

Overnight leader Neuville won three of Friday’s six special stages, while Ogier struggled early on before pegging Neuville back by winning the last two. Ott Tanak of Estonia is third.

Four-time champion Ogier is now driving for Ford M-Sport after switching from Volkswagen last month. The Frenchman was eight seconds behind Neuville’s Hyundai overnight and quickly under pressure.

Tanak, who also drives for M-Sport, won Friday’s first special stage – the third of 17 overall – ahead of Neuville, with Ogier in ninth.

Difficult morning conditions saw snow and sheet ice on the roads. With all the top drivers fitting studded winter tires, Ogier still went off into a ditch.

“It happened at a junction, it was very, very icy. I pulled the handbrake but the car never turned,” Ogier said. “I slipped into the ditch and became stuck.”

Neuville won the next three specials – with Ogier second on 4 and 5 – but Ogier finally found his best form to trim back the deficit from 1:12 to 45 seconds. He also overtook Tanak, who is a fraction of a second behind Ogier.

Conditions were slushy in the afternoon as the icy roads began melting.

“For me this was more tricky than this morning and difficult to know what rhythm to go,” Neuville said.

A spectator was killed on Thursday night after being hit by a car during the first stage.

Organizers said the spectator was struck by a car driven by New Zealand driver Hayden Paddon during the first of two night stages.

That stage was canceled but the second went ahead, with Neuville beating Ogier.

There are six specials Saturday with the race concluding Sunday lunchtime.

Last year, Ogier won by nearly two minutes ahead of then-teammate Andreas Mikkelsen of Norway.

Ogier announced last month that he was going to drive the Ford Fiesta for M-Sport this season. A fifth title would move him into outright second place on the all-time list behind countryman Sebastien Loeb, who won nine straight titles.

The 33-year-old Ogier, who has won 38 career races, is tied with Finnish drivers Tommi Makinen – who won four straight – and Juha Kankkunen.

The next event in the 13-race season is in Sweden in three weeks.