Dale Jr. tops Sprint Cup “Happy Hour” at Martinsville

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Seeking to claim his first Sprint Cup win on NASCAR’s shortest track, Dale Earnhardt Jr. led this morning’s final practice at Martinsville Speedway for Sunday’s Goody’s Headache Relief Shot 500 powered by Kroger with a lap of 19.415 seconds (97.533 miles per hour).

Earnhardt qualified 12th yesterday for Sunday’s race, but may have a pace quick enough to perhaps have a say in the outcome. Earlier, in the first practice session today, he was third-fastest behind Joey Logano and Kyle Busch.

“Driver 88” is currently the “best of the rest” in the 2013 Chase for the Sprint Cup, albeit by a slim margin. He sits sixth in points (52 points behind leader Jimmie Johnson, 18 behind fifth-place Jeff Gordon), but only holds a one-point edge on seventh-place Greg Biffle and a five-point edge on eighth-place Clint Bowyer.

Bowyer was second on the “Happy Hour” time sheets behind Earnhardt, posting a lap at 97.133 mph. Kasey Kahne was third in the session (97.068 mph), followed by Kyle Busch (97.038 mph) in fourth, and Matt Kenseth (97.033 mph) in fifth.

Chase leader Jimmie Johnson, currently holding a four-point lead over Kenseth with four races remaining in the season, was sixth-fastest (97.023 mph). Pole sitter Denny Hamlin was 17th in the session (96.489 mph).

Wolff can see Hamilton finishing F1 career with Mercedes

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Mercedes Formula 1 chief Toto Wolff says he can see three-time world champion Lewis Hamilton completing the rest of his career with the team, something he did not think would happen one year ago.

Hamilton has raced with Mercedes since 2013, claiming two F1 drivers’ titles in that time and the majority of his grand prix victories.

Hamilton is currently in the second of his three-year contract with Mercedes, and will be 33 upon its expiration at the end of next season.

Speaking to the Daily Mail, Wolff said he could see Hamilton remaining at the team “forever”, believing their relationship to be stronger than ever.

“If you would have asked me the same question one year ago, I would not have been very optimistic, but now it is different,” Wolff said.

“I have the feeling that it can’t be much better in a different place, for him and for us.

“This is very strong now, and I am not speaking only about on-track performance because there are going to be difficult moments, but I am speaking about the relationship.

“After five years, this relationship has become so strong in a way that it wasn’t last season. For Lewis it will be important to see whether we are competitive or not.

“But at the moment there is such a solid basis that I can imagine it going on forever.”

Wolff believes there has been a shift for Hamilton in the wake of Nico Rosberg’s departure from the team at the end of 2016 following the German’s world title win.

Hamilton and Rosberg enjoyed a frosty rivalry that saw them clash a number of times on-track, with the latter’s exit helping to ease some of the tension within the team.

“Definitely the biggest positive development I have seen between 2013 and now happened over the winter and after Nico left the team,” Wolff said.

“Drivers are sometimes viewed within teams as contractors and they will always look after their own agenda rather than the team’s interest.

“But Lewis is now in his fifth year with us and that has changed. He has become a part of the team.

“I would not use the world team player because that goes against the DNA of a racing driver, but I think he has realized, acknowledged and respects the whole effort that is happening in the team.

“Somehow it has become natural, he towards the team, and the team towards him. We have built a trustful relationship.”

WATCH LIVE: Monaco GP on NBC, NBC Sports app from 7:30am ET

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Formula 1 hits the streets of Monaco today for one of the most hotly anticipated races of the year – and with the grid shaken-up, we could get a Grand Prix that lives up to the hype.

F1 MONACO GRAND PRIX LIVE STREAM

Kimi Raikkonen sprung a surprise on the F1 paddock by charging to his first pole in almost nine years, ending a drought that dated back to the French Grand Prix in 2008.

The Finn will head up the second all-Ferrari front row in the space of three races, with drivers’ championship leader Sebastian Vettel sitting second.

Vettel’s chief title rival, Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton, starts all the way back in 13th after a woeful qualifying that saw his car setup problems cost him dearly.

Valtteri Bottas gave Mercedes some cheer by running to third on the grid, with the Red Bull duo of Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo starting fourth and fifth.

You can see a full run-down of what to watch for in today’s race in our Sunday preview.

You can watch the Monaco Grand Prix live on NBC and the NBC Sports app from 7:30am ET. CLICK HERE for NBC live stream.

F1 Countdown begins at 7am ET on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app, and runs until the NBC coverage begins. CLICK HERE for NBCSN live stream.

You can also try out a new ‘Mosaic View’ for the race that includes the race simulcast, in-car cameras, driver tracker and pit lane cam. CLICK HERE to watch the Mosaic View live stream.

Leigh Diffey, David Hobbs and Steve Matchett will be on the call on the ground in Monaco, with pit reporter Will Buxton providing updates and interviews throughout the race.

Also be sure to follow the @F1onNBCSports Twitter account for live updates throughout the race.

Ferrari F1 drivers Raikkonen, Vettel free to race in Monaco

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Ferrari Formula 1 drivers Kimi Raikkonen and Sebastian Vettel will be free to race and fight each other for victory in Sunday’s Monaco Grand Prix following their front row lock-out in qualifying.

Raikkonen stormed to his first F1 pole since the 2008 French Grand Prix on Saturday afternoon, edging out Vettel by just 0.043 seconds in the final stage of qualifying.

The result came at a time when Raikkonen has faced criticism for failing to match Vettel for pace through the opening five rounds of the season.

While Vettel has two wins and three second-place finishes to his name, Raikkonen has finished on the podium just once, and is yet to finish ahead of his teammate.

Vettel currently leads the F1 drivers’ championship ahead of Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton, who starts 13th in Monaco after a disastrous qualifying session on Saturday.

While Ferrari has history in throwing its support behind one driver for the championship early in a season, both Raikkonen and Vettel stressed there would be no team orders in play in Monaco, leaving the pair free to fight so long as it is clean and fair.

“We know what we are doing, we are racing for the team and, you know, we have certain rules and respect against each other,” Raikkonen said.

“We are allowed to fight but obviously, we have to do it as clean as we can and not take each other out.

“I don’t know why people expect that it is something different tomorrow than it’s been the last two years.

“Nothing has changed. Just try to make a stupid story out of nothing.”

Vettel added: “I think we have done enough races so we know what to do normally in the first corner. We’re here to race, we’re here to race each other.

“The start is important here, the first corner is important, the race is important! The start is the beginning of the race, but not the end so we’ll see.

“We know that pole is important in Monaco, so we’ll see what happens.”

The Monaco Grand Prix is live on NBC and the NBC Sports app from 7:30am ET, with F1 Countdown starting at 7am ET on NBCSN.

2017 Indy 500 driver-by-driver one-liners

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INDIANAPOLIS – As is a quick tradition on MotorSportsTalk, we’ve put together some quick one-liners on the field of 33 drivers set to compete in the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

Sadly some one-liners stretch to two or three lines. Because words.

Included in the field are seven past winners and four rookies. Past one-liners are linked here (2013, 2014, 2015, 2016).

Without further adieu, the 2017 edition:

Row 1

9-Scott Dixon, Camping World Honda

TDZ: In a year where there’s not been a clear favorite defined or established, the polesitter, in a Honda, the greatest all-around driver in the series and one of the greatest in IndyCar history is the favorite here to win Sunday’s Indianapolis 500, and end a drought for polesitters dating to Helio Castroneves in 2009.

20-Ed Carpenter, Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet

TDZ: A potential hugely popular winner; Carpenter has looked great in both single-car running and in traffic thus far. For the first time since his accident in practice two years ago, vintage “oval master Ed” is back in search of that first ‘500 victory.

98-Alexander Rossi, NAPA Auto Parts/Curb Honda

TDZ: More relaxed, more experienced and even faster this year than last. If Rossi’s debut month of May was stellar, his sophomore year is next-level. Has a serious chance to defend his crown, but this time would understand the significance in the moment.

Row 2

26-Takuma Sato, Ruoff Home Mortgage Honda

TDZ: Sato is known for his tenacious “no attack, no chance” style but he’s been far more consistent this month – and year – than in recent years. From his best Indy 500 starting position he has by far his best possible win chance, if he can avoid any pitfalls.

29-Fernando Alonso, McLaren-Honda-Andretti Honda

TDZ: You’ve heard the two-time Formula 1 World Champion is racing at Indianapolis, right? Perhaps? Maybe? Snark aside, Alonso’s been on it from day one. How he handles the Indy race craft and procedural aspects will define his day. An ideal finish for me? Fourth to eighth, to leave him close enough to the front, but wanting more.

21-JR Hildebrand, Preferred Freezer Service Chevrolet

TDZ: Imagining a JR win at Indy – after his infamous final lap in 2011 and contact with Helio Castroneves last year that cost both drivers a shot – is imagining one of the best possible story lines that could drop on Sunday.

Row 3

10-Tony Kanaan, NTT Data Honda 

TDZ: He hasn’t looked especially great in practice, but this is TK, he’s got his usual engineer back in Eric Cowdin and this is Indy. I picked him to win this race preseason, and I’ll be highly surprised if he isn’t in contention late again Sunday. 

27-Marco Andretti, United Fiber & Data Honda

TDZ: A quiet air of confidence is there around Andretti this year that hasn’t been in recent years. This feels his best shot to break back into win contention since 2014, and with Bryan Herta on the box, he has the defending champ strategist in his corner. 

12-Will Power, Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet

TDZ: Thus far Penske’s best driver results-wise in the weeks leading up to the race, Power remains in search of his first Indy 500 win. Could this be the year?

Row 4 

28-Ryan Hunter-Reay, DHL Honda

TDZ: His qualifying draw hurt his chances of a Fast Nine position, but “RHR” has been solid and steady all month. Motivated to get his second ‘500 win and end a long winless drought overall, I fully expect at least a top-three run here. 

19-Ed Jones, Boy Scouts of America Honda

TDZ: The Dubai-based Brit has been the undoubted welcome surprise of the month. He’s been very solid on ovals. Not a likely winner, but could well eclipse Alex Lloyd (fourth in 2010) or the late Justin Wilson (fifth in 2013) as a Coyne top-five finisher.

16-Oriol Servia, Manitowoc Honda 

TDZ: Would it not be surprising to once again see Servia running fourth or fifth with 20 laps to go, after not paying much attention to him all day? That’s the line of note for the popular Catalan in his 200th career start.

Row 5

7-Mikhail Aleshin, SMP Racing Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda

TDZ: Other than a hold-your-breath moment in Monday practice, and a line questioning some drivers’ anatomies, the usually “Mad Russian” has been quieter than normal this month. Expect that to change Sunday. 

15-Graham Rahal, Steak ‘n Shake Honda

TDZ: Rahal wanted this to be a better month and a move forward from 26th to 14th on the grid is a good start, but it hasn’t yet looked like a winning month. Rahal’s been good in several ‘500s past and has an ability to charge forward when the car’s right.

8-Max Chilton, Gallagher Honda

TDZ: Chilton entered the oval portion of the month on a high after a strong GP and has carried the momentum through. Perhaps not a winner, but stands a very good chance of bettering his 15th place of a year ago; say maybe seventh or eighth, here.

Row 6

83-Charlie Kimball, Tresiba Honda

TDZ: One of Indy’s more underrated solid drivers – Kimball has finished between third and 13th in five of his six ‘500s – now appears to have the right package at his disposal. Armed with new engineer Todd Malloy, he could surprise once again.

5-James Hinchcliffe, Arrow Electronics Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda

TDZ: Pole last year, 17th this year. It’s been baffling to see the No. 5 car this far down the order, but if the car’s better in race pace than it’s appeared in practice and qualifying, Hinchcliffe can succeed.

22-Juan Pablo Montoya, Fitzgerald Glider Kits Team Penske Chevrolet

TDZ: JPM will have the world at his disposal as a one-off entry this race. With nothing to lose, they can try a strategy play, a traffic play, or a pure pace play to move to the front from P18 on the grid.

Row 7

3-Helio Castroneves, Shell Fuel Rewards Team Penske Chevrolet

TDZ: In his eternal quest for his fourth Indy 500 victory, Castroneves has downplayed the lack of single-lap pace and hailed his race pace. Having been busy all month, it wouldn’t shock to see Castroneves emerge as a winner from 19th.

77-Jay Howard, Lucas Oil/Team One Cure Honda

TDZ: Howard starts 20th for his first Indy 500 in six years, the same place he started in his 2011 debut. He’s been quietly good all month and a top-12 seems achievable with a clean race.

24-Sage Karam, DRR Mecum Auctions Chevrolet

TDZ: With a car that looks dynamic in traffic, and a driver who can make moves like nobody’s business, Karam is an excellent pick to steal the show. Of course, the big question mark here is whether his Mecum car will make it all 200 laps.

Row 8

2-Josef Newgarden, hum by Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet

TDZ: This wasn’t in the script for Newgarden at Penske – his old team starts second and sixth while his new one has four of its five drivers starting 18th or worse. Is there a Newgarden or Penske magic act in store for Sunday?

1-Simon Pagenaud, Menards Team Penske Chevrolet

TDZ: Pagenaud’s weird season title defense tour rolls into Indianapolis where somehow, he’s finished top-five each of the first five races, led the points prior to qualifying, yet hasn’t looked “on it” all month. From 23rd, it’d be a surprise to see him win.

14-Carlos Munoz, ABC Supply Co. Chevrolet

TDZ: For having finished second twice, plus fourth among his four Indianapolis 500 starts, it’s weird to think of the 2016 runner-up as a longshot. But that’s what a change of scenery has done for him and in a rarity, he’s not got high expectations this year.

Row 9

88-Gabby Chaves, Harding Racing Chevrolet

TDZ: New team that has a lot of Indianapolis success individually elsewhere comes together for a debut run. This car is a hard one to project, but Chaves is a clean and consistent enough driver that a top-15 run could be achievable.

4-Conor Daly, ABC Supply Co. Chevrolet

TDZ: One of Indiana’s favorite sons, Daly and the Foyt team just has not had the speed of the other Chevrolet teams this week. After coming 22nd with a pit fire, then another fire before starting and a crash last year, a quiet top-20 finish would be a welcome run for him this year.

50-Jack Harvey, Michael Shank Racing with Andretti Autosport Honda

TDZ: After a tough start to the month, both Harvey and Shank improve steadily each day. Pit stops for both in an IndyCar setting will be an adjustment but Harvey could be a good under-the-radar driver to watch in its flashy livery.

Row 10

63-Pippa Mann, Susan G. Komen Honda

TDZ: Mann has not had her best month of May in the extra Dale Coyne car, but enters with having finished her last six 500-mile races started since 2014. If she does the same again in 2017, a chance to better 18th from last year beckons.

11-Spencer Pigot, Oceanfront Recovery Chevrolet

TDZ: As last year, a crash interrupted Pigot’s week of practice. The usually steady pair of hands also started 29th last year and improved to 25th; he will look to do better as he’s reunited with Ricardo Juncos for his team’s Indy 500 debut.

44-Buddy Lazier, Lazier Racing-Stalk It-Tivoli Chevrolet

TDZ: Finishing is the first and most simple goal for Indy’s favorite underdog and 1996 champ, who’ve overachieved in limited laps with the Mitch Davis-led crew.

Row 11

17-Sebastian Saavedra, AFS Chevrolet

TDZ: One of several drivers who hasn’t been in IndyCar in a couple years back this year and with a new team. Saavedra will look to replicate his 32nd-to-15th drive with KV in 2014, with Juncos featuring some ex-KV personnel.

40-Zach Veach, Indy Women in Tech Championship presented by Guggenheim Chevrolet

TDZ: The likable young driver has had a challenging first month of May, and will look to finish first; top-20 or better will be a respectable target.

18-James Davison, GEICO Honda

TDZ: Although this is the backup car and the backup driver, Davison’s always a sure bet to be entertaining, fast, and a possible top-15 finisher if all the cards fall right.