Earnhardt rallies from loose wheel for Top-5 result

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Junior Nation is still waiting for a win, but Dale Earnhardt Jr. continued his above-average post-season with a fourth-place finish yesterday at Phoenix International Raceway that strengthened his grip on a Top-5 spot in the Sprint Cup championship.

Earnhardt encountered early problems on Lap 63, when he was forced to pit from sixth place under green for a loose wheel. That put him one lap down, but he was able to get the “lucky dog” free pass after a Lap 131 incident involving Dave Blaney brought out the caution.

After that, Earnhardt would race into the Top 10 as the race hit its middle stages, which saw the scoring pylon repeatedly scrambled through pit strategies. He had been cycled back to seventh by the Lap 282 caution for debris, and following the final restart with 25 laps to go, he peeled off several positions before finishing fourth after Carl Edwards ran out of gas.

“It was a good car – we knew it in practice,” said Earnhardt, who collected his third Top-5 finish in his last four races and seventh Top-10 in his last eight.

“Since this Chase has started, we have been quick. If we don’t win Homestead [next week], hopefully we have that speed when we show up in Daytona [in February].

“I have to give credit to the team. They are working hard and just because we aren’t in the title hunt doesn’t mean they have given up. They work just as hard as anyone out there.”

Earnhardt remains fifth in the Chase, but saw his gap over sixth-place Jeff Gordon grow to 17 points after Gordon logged a 14th-place result in Phoenix.

He also stands a chance to rise even further in the standings this Sunday at Homestead, as Kyle Busch only sits six points ahead of him in fourth position (Busch finished seventh in yesterday’s race).

Alonso, Vandoorne get grid drops in Baku after power unit changes

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McLaren Formula 1 drivers Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne are set to start this weekend’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix from the last row of the grid after the FIA confirmed that both will receive a 15-place drop from their qualifying position.

Alonso and Vandoorne are yet to score a single point through the opening seven races of the season amid ongoing difficulties for engine partner Honda, whose power unit has lacked both performance and reliability so far this season.

Alonso’s struggles continued in practice in Baku on Friday as he was forced to park up at the side of the track during FP2 with an apparent engine issue, adding to McLaren’s ongoing plight.

The Spaniard said in McLaren’s race preview that he expected to take a grid penalty for changing a number of parts on his power unit, with the drop being officially confirmed by the FIA on Friday.

Both Alonso and Vandoorne will take a 15-place grid drop from their final qualifying position on Friday, meaning they are likely to start from the final row of the grid.

The only other driver with a grid penalty in Baku is Carlos Sainz Jr., who will drop three places as punishment for causing a collision at the start of the Canadian Grand Prix two weeks ago.

Wickens set for IndyCar practice debut after last-minute hustle

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ELKHART LAKE, Wis. – It hasn’t even been 24 hours yet since Robert Wickens got the call that he’d be deputizing, temporarily, for Mikhail Aleshin in the No. 7 Lucas Oil SPM Honda in today’s practice sessions for the KOHLER Grand Prix at Road America (Sunday, 12:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

But the 28-year-old Canadian out of Guelph, Ontario is fully stoked for the opportunity that he’ll be in at least today, and potentially further if Aleshin is unable to make it time for the weekend.

Wickens said repeatedly in a brief media availability that he is taking this weekend “day-by-day” and will look to gather data today in his first official running in an IndyCar, and second ever following his test at Sebring in March.

“First off, I’m excited to be here. It was definitely a last-minute trip!” Wickens said Friday morning. “I found yesterday at 2 p.m., then got on a flight, got to the hotel last night at 10, and got here as soon as the gates opened.

“I haven’t been here since 2007 when I raced in Atlantics. It’s a steep learning curve! But I know how exciting the car is and I’m super excited to drive it.”

The aforementioned 2007 Atlantics race is, surprisingly, Wickens’ only start at Road America, even though he starred in Formula BMW prior to his graduation to Atlantics as part of Red Bull’s Junior Team with Forsythe Racing. Fittingly, he beat James Hinchcliffe in that Atlantic race – Wickens was seventh and Hinchcliffe was 14th.

His running this morning will come only after a whirlwind period of getting the call to drive, then clearing it with his necessary Mercedes-Benz and HWA bosses.

“I was supposed to be in Europe… so I was home in Toronto. I thought I’d have a relaxing weekend at home before next race in Germany, as DTM is my priority,” he said.

“I had to call the HWA CEO who’s my first call in demand, but he’s more than happy for me to get seat time, he understood the situation, and said drivers driving different cars will make you better in our day job. So he called Toto (Wolff).

“I was more nervous about the timeframe, as this all happened extremely last minute. He’s in Azerbiaijan; and we needed a quick answer, yes or no. Five minutes later he called me back, and said, pack your helmet and have fun. It wasn’t that hard to convince him.”

Wickens said the fluid nature of the weekend has already changed his objective. Naturally, he wants to go through and race this weekend although he understands that if Aleshin makes it back, the Russian will be in the car.

“It’d be bittersweet if I can’t run the race; I’m excited to do an IndyCar race,” Wickens said. “My idol growing up was (the late) Greg Moore. I always watched CART, Champ Car, IndyCar. So it’d be cool to tick that box.

“But Mikhail and I were teammates at Red Bull. I feel for his situation. As an international driver it’s not easy with immigration.

“Obviously to be blunt, I’ll be disappointed if I don’t do the race. But then again yesterday, I was on my way to a relaxing weekend, now I’m at Road America.”

Wickens will enter into a field where he’s actually raced a lot of drivers before in either or both of the North American and European junior formula championships.

Included among that list are Hinchcliffe, Aleshin, Esteban Gutierrez, Alexander Rossi, Conor Daly and Josef Newgarden, among others.

“It’s pretty cool. Rossi and I go pretty far back. We always karted in same championship. And I think we raced the first time against each other in GP3 in 2010. We did 3.5 as well. Him and I were in the top three of the championship.

“I haven’t seen any of my friends yet other than Hinch! But then there’s Conor Daly, Josef Newgarden, Esteban Gutiereez and more. It’s so cool to see guys can make career opportunities here in IndyCar.”

Wickens, who is using a seat formerly used by Simon Pagenaud when he was at Schmidt Peterson Motorsports through 2014, will look to add to the team’s data collection this afternoon.

If he practices but doesn’t race, he’ll be the first driver to do so since Rocky Moran Jr. in Long Beach in 2015. Moran was announced to make his race debut with Dale Coyne Racing but sustained a hand injury in practice, which opened the door for Daly to fill in and make his road or street course debut.

That being said, Wickens wants to race. He told NBC Sports he and the team have not discussed further race weekends yet; it is worth noting that the DTM calendar does not conflict with any remaining road or street course races this year.

“I’m in the car, not 100 percent comfortable but short time frame, it’s pretty good,” he said. “The team just wants simple data. If Mikhail shows up, he’ll have a car that’s better off.”

Verstappen fastest in second Baku F1 practice, crashes late on

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Max Verstappen continued his impressive start to the Azerbaijan Grand Prix weekend by topping the second Formula 1 practice session in Baku on Friday evening, only to suffer a late crash in the final minute of running.

Verstappen set the pace for Red Bull in FP1 earlier in the day, and continued to lay down an strong pace through the second session as teams completed a mix of qualifying and race simulation runs.

Verstappen turned in a fastest lap time of 1:43.362 to finish one-tenth of a second clear at the head of the field, edging out Mercedes’ Valtteri Bottas.

Verstappen’s impressive pace was underpinned by Red Bull teammate Daniel Ricciardo, who ended up third, just 0.111 seconds off the pace.

However, the team’s day took a late hit when Verstappen slammed side-on into the barrier at Turn 1 when trying to steer his way out of a spin, causing damage to his RB13 car that will leave his mechanics with a busy night of work.

Kimi Raikkonen and Sebastian Vettel finished fourth and fifth for Ferrari, the latter being involved in a number of on-track incidents as he and many others struggled to find grip.

Besides Verstappen, a number of drivers had off-track excursions and took to the run-off area, with Vettel and Williams’ Felipe Massa both going off at Turn 8 at one stage, causing a traffic jam.

Jolyon Palmer was the only driver to end up in the wall, offering a repeat of Sergio Perez’s FP1 crash by slamming into the barrier at Turn 8, bringing out a red flag.

Palmer’s shunt prevented a number of drivers from completing qualifying simulation runs, including Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton, who finished the session 10th-fastest.

Lance Stroll put in an impressive display for Williams to finish sixth overall ahead of Sergio Perez and Daniil Kvyat, with Esteban Ocon taking ninth position.

Besides Palmer, Fernando Alonso was also forced to miss the latter part of the session after suffering an apparent engine failure while out on-track, forcing him to park up at the side of the circuit.

Scott Dixon makes young IndyCar fan’s day (VIDEO)

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After his significant accident in the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil, Scott Dixon was almost more frustrated with the fact his Chip Ganassi Racing team would have to build up a new chassis to replace his one that flew several hundred feet after catapulting over Jay Howard.

But a young fan named Lucy put the accident into its proper perspective, as was discovered by Advance Auto Parts IndyCar Radio Network’s Jake Query in IndyCar’s fan mail.

Query got together with the IndyCar PR team and Dixon to eventually make Lucy’s dream come true, as she got to meet her favorite driver in the Verizon IndyCar Series.

The full story from IndyCar.com is linked here; the full video is linked here.

This was highlighted during Thursday’s NASCAR AMERICA show on NBCSN, which you can see above. You can see Verizon IndyCar Series’ KOHLER Grand Prix coverage from Road America live, Sunday on NBCSN at 12:30 p.m. ET.