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Dale Jr. still NASCAR’s best hope for gaining mainstream fans

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Earlier this month on its website, Forbes released a story that will be in its Sept. 23 issue on Danica Patrick’s impact on NASCAR so far in her first full-time season of Sprint Cup racing. As you’d expect from that particular magazine, there’s a lot written about Patrick – and NASCAR as a whole – from the business and marketing perspectives.

It’s a well-written story from the author, Kurt Badenhausen. But the headline could be something more than a few race fans will take issue with: “A Winning Danica Patrick Is NASCAR’s Biggest Hope To Restart Growth.”

With all due respect to Forbes, if Patrick is indeed NASCAR’s biggest hope to return to its not-too-distant salad days, they’re going to have to hope for a little while longer.

Restrictor-plate racing notwithstanding, Patrick is not a regular contender for victory. At most tracks, she’s still just trying to gain experience. In time, she could be something pretty good in Cup, but there’s still a ways to go before she gets to that point. Let’s see where she stands around mid-season next year.

So if Patrick’s not NASCAR biggest hope, then who is it?

Come on. Who else could it be?

A winning Dale Earnhardt Jr. remains NASCAR’s best opportunity to augment their diehard base with the casual and mainstream fan. Unfortunately for the series, its biggest star – while competitive enough to run in the Top 10 most weeks – hasn’t been doing a lot of winning lately, with just two victories in the last seven seasons.

But while Earnhardt has cooled off a bit after starting 2013 strong, he’s still in this year’s Chase for the Sprint Cup, which begins this weekend at Chicagoland Speedway. And he has the opportunity to make a statement when it truly counts.

That’s the beauty of the playoffs in all of sports. You may be having an iffy year by some standards (maybe even your own), but if you can still make the post-season, you have the chance to catch fire at the right time.

One minute, you’re an afterthought. The next, you’re a champion.

And should Dale Jr. become a champion this fall, NASCAR would indeed reap the benefits. While he has been unable to win regularly, he remains the most popular driver in the sport by a considerable margin.

And more importantly, if you walked out on the street and asked any Tom, Dick and Jane if they knew of any NASCAR drivers, he’s still likely to be one of, if not the first name to tumble out of their mouths.

Should Patrick improve by a noticeable margin in the next year or two, perhaps Forbes’ assertion will come true eventually. But at this point and time, Earnhardt is the one NASCAR executives should be crossing their fingers for to do well.

Petrucci set for MotoGP return at Le Mans

PHILLIP ISLAND, AUSTRALIA - FEBRUARY 18: Danilo Petrucci of Italy and Octo Pramac Racing rounds the bend during the 2016 MotoGP Test Day at Phillip Island Grand Prix Circuit on February 18, 2016 in Phillip Island, Australia.  (Photo by Mirco Lazzari gp/Getty Images)
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Danilo Petrucci will make his comeback from injury at this weekend’s MotoGP race in Le Mans after missing the first four races of the season.

Petrucci underwent surgery on his right hand due to a recurring problem that meant he could not race in Qatar, Argentina, Austin or Spain for the Pramac team.

The Italian’s place was taken by Michele Pirro for the last three races, but Petrucci is now fit again and will race at the Circuit de la Sarthe this weekend.

“I trained a lot in the last few weeks. This time I did things more calmly, waiting for my body to give me permission to train,” Petrucci said.

“I’m happy to be back and I feel good. Of course we must see the reaction to the first impact with the track as the intense workout made at home certainly cannot be compared to a race weekend. But I’m very confident.

“I want to thank all the people who helped me, my trainer Marco Baglioni, Tommaso, Filippo, and my brother Francesco who have trained with me, pushing me every day.

“I also want to thank the Medical Team of Terni who provided me with all the tools for physiotherapy and Dr. Tarallo, from the team of prof. Catani, who operated me.

“Then a big thank to all my fans for their support. I can’t wait to be at Le Mans and I hope I can soon give to all of them so much satisfaction.”

The French Grand Prix takes place on Sunday May 8.

Magnussen named Driver of the Day for Russian GP

SOCHI, RUSSIA - MAY 01: Kevin Magnussen of Denmark driving the (20) Renault Sport Formula One Team Renault RS16 Renault RE16 turbo on track during the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on May 1, 2016 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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Kevin Magnussen has won Formula 1’s official Driver of the Day poll for the Russian Grand Prix.

Magnussen started 17th in Sochi after a difficult qualifying session, but made the most of the trouble at the first corner for many of the cars ahead to work his way into the top 10.

The Dane’s pace was impressive during the second half of the race to ensure he finished the race seventh, marking Renault’s first points as an F1 constructor since the 2010 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

The result was also Magnussen’s first top 10 finish in F1 since the penultimate race of the 2014 season when he raced for McLaren.

On Monday, the official F1 Twitter account confirmed that Magnussen had won the vote through its website.

Kvyat, Gutierrez, Sainz handed penalty points after Russian GP

SOCHI, RUSSIA - MAY 01: Esteban Gutierrez of Mexico driving the (21) Haas F1 Team Haas-Ferrari VF-16 Ferrari 059/5 turbo and Nico Hulkenberg of Germany driving the (27) Sahara Force India F1 Team VJM09 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo collide at the start during the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on May 1, 2016 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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The Russian Grand Prix proved to be a busy race for the FIA stewards as a number of incidents resulted in three drivers receiving penalty points on their super licences.

Daniil Kvyat, Esteban Gutierrez and Carlos Sainz Jr. were all sanctioned by the stewards for actions during the race.

Kvyat’s antics on the first lap defined a number of drivers’ races as he hit Sebastian Vettel twice in a matter of seconds, the second hit punting the Ferrari racer into the wall and out of contention.

Kvyat said after the race that it was easy to attack him, but the rest of the paddock was less than impressed, leaving many expecting an apology from the Russian.

After being handed a 10-second stop/go penalty during the race, Kvyat was also given three points on his FIA super licence, taking his tally up to five for the 12-month period.

Gutierrez was also penalized for an incident on the first lap after he took out Nico Hulkenberg and sparked a multi-car melee at Turn 2. He too received a time penalty during the race, but was handed two penalty points afterwards by the stewards.

Finally, Sainz was found to have forced Jolyon Palmer off track between Turns 2 and 3 during the race. He had 10 seconds added to his race time and also received two penalty points.

F1 Paddock Pass: Russian Grand Prix post-race (VIDEO)

SOCHI, RUSSIA - MAY 01:  Nico Rosberg of Germany and Mercedes GP celebrates his win on the podium next to Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP, Kimi Raikkonen of Finland and Ferrari  during the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on May 1, 2016 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)
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Nico Rosberg saw his Formula 1 championship lead swell to 43 points on Sunday after winning the Russian Grand Prix, marking his seventh straight victory.

The German has not lost since the Mexican Grand Prix back in November, and will head to the start of the European season in Spain later this month full of confidence.

It proved to be a race full of intriguing storylines as Lewis Hamilton fought back from 10th on the grid to finish second, Romain Grosjean took Haas back into the points and everyone got angry with Daniil Kvyat for causing mayhem at Turn 2.

Following the race on Sunday, NBCSN pit reporter Will Buxton brings you all of the latest news, interviews and insight in Paddock Pass.