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Sprint Cup Driver Review: Dale Earnhardt Jr.

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After talking about the big stories and ranking our Top 10 drivers from the 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season, my colleague Tony DiZinno and I are now going to start taking a look back on how each of the 13 Chase for the Sprint Cup contenders fared this past year.

Now comes our fifth-place driver in the championship, Dale Earnhardt Jr…

No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
2013 Stats: Fifth Place, No Wins, 10 Top-5s, 22 Top-10s, 342 Laps Led
Average Start: 13.9
Average Finish: 12.6
DNFs: 3

Estrada Says: Earnhardt would’ve preferred something else besides a goose-egg in the win column, but with five runner-up finishes (three of which came in the Chase), it’s definitely not like he wasn’t trying. All in all, he made a nice jump in performance and had the best year in his current tenure with Hendrick Motorsports. His 10 Top-5s equaled his output from 2012 and his 22 Top-10 finishes marked a career-best total there. And you have to remember how good he was in the post-season following his blown engine at Chicagoland. Getting regular season victories will be critical in battling the likes of Johnson and Kenseth next fall, but Earnhardt can be proud of his effort this year.

DiZinno Says: At this point in his career, Junior essentially “is what he is.” Seasons like 2001, where he won three races or 2004, when he won a career-high six, are long gone and exceptions rather than the norm. It’s taken two years for the No. 88 team to turn its consistency around and while that is something to appreciate, it’s still not good enough to satisfy the legion of “Junior nation” desperate for that elusive first championship (although, it is still good to net Most Popular Driver awards…). The good news is you know what you’ll get from him, and it will usually end up in the top 10; the bad news is that it’s just not as good as Jimmie Johnson. Several races where Johnson just flat beat him – second at both the Daytona 500 and Dover – were as much of psychological beatdowns as on-track defeats. Junior needs a spark to raise the team to a level of his Hendrick Motorsports’ teammates, otherwise he’ll continue in this mold for the rest of his career.

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IndyCar 2015 Driver Review: Gabby Chaves

Gabby Chaves
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MotorSportsTalk continues its run through the driver-by-driver field in the Verizon IndyCar Series. In 15th and the rookie-of-the-year for 2015, was Gabby Chaves.

Gabby Chaves, No. 98 Bryan Herta Autosport Honda

  • 2014: Indy Lights champion
  • 2015: 15th Place, Best Finish 9th, Best Start 12th, 0 Top-5, 2 Top-10, 31 Laps Led, 19.3 Avg. Start, 14.4 Avg. Finish

Some drivers finish better than their performances show. Some drivers have performances better than their results show. The latter statement applied to Gabby Chaves in his rookie year, in what was an impressive first season after making the step up from Indy Lights, which deservedly earned him rookie-of-the-year honors.

The best comparison I’d make for Gabby is of Josef Newgarden in 2012 with Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing, a first-year driver on a single-car, newish team to the series.

Chaves rarely dazzled in qualifying but that wasn’t his fault; he and engineer John Dick worked well together and Chaves recounted multiple times this year that a tweak here or tweak there, the wrong way, on the aero kit would send them down the wrong setup path.

Results in races didn’t measure up either but again that was through almost no fault of his own. The only time Chaves looked truly like a rookie was at St. Pete, when he had several collisions. Otherwise he was ahead of eventual winner James Hinchcliffe at NOLA before getting punted off, reliable through the month of May in Indianapolis, finally able to break through for a ninth place in Detroit race two, overachieving in Texas, 11th at Milwaukee after some great wheel-to-wheel racing with series winners and champions, and then phenomenal at Pocono as he was on course for a first career win or podium before late-race engine issues – his first DNF of the season.

For both Chaves and Herta, you’d love to see them together for another season, and the results and confidence for both parties will grow as a result. Those who’ve seen Newgarden’s rise over four years with Fisher and now CFH will note the long-term stability, and that’s what Chaves could do if he gets the time.

He planted the seed of being a great IndyCar driver, and he became pretty versatile during the year too with additional appearances in the DeltaWing prototype, a short-track midget and one of Herta’s Red Bull Global Rallycross cars. To boot, he’s a smart, great kid who is mature beyond his years, and someone you should be buying stock in now. Anyone who saw Chaves in the Mazda Road to Indy should not have been surprised by his rookie season in the big cars.

Off The Grid: Monza preview (premieres Saturday 10/10 on NBCSN)

F1 Grand Prix of Italy
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Having already taken you behind the scenes in Barcelona, Budapest, Singapore, Melbourne and Silverstone, Will Buxton and Jason Swales now head to one of Formula 1’s most iconic venues for the latest episode of Off The Grid.

Monza has appeared in all but one F1 season since the formation of the world championship in 1950, and is a firm favorite among drivers, teams and fans alike.

However, there is far more to the Italian Grand Prix than meets the eye, as we find out in Saturday’s premiere of Off The Grid: Monza at 9:30am ET (follows Russian GP qualifying).

Having honed his talents in go-karts as a kid, Red Bull driver Daniel Ricciardo is now trying to pass on his knowledge to the next generation of racers. But can he teach Will or Jason a thing or two?

We also catch up with Force India’s Nico Hulkenberg and get a feel for life on the road as he takes us for a tour of his lavish bus in which he travels in for the European F1 races.

Have you ever wondered just how the suits F1 drivers wear are made? We go behind the scenes at Alpine Stars’ factory in Italy and find out.

Off The Grid: Monza premieres on Saturday at 9:30am ET on NBCSN following Russian GP qualifying.