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Dale Jr.: Letarte leaving an initial shock, but pairing ready to end on a high

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The racing element of Steve Letarte leaving Hendrick Motorsports and joining the NBC Sports NASCAR broadcast team for 2015 is how Dale Earnhardt Jr. will be affected. Earnhardt said Friday at Daytona he had an idea of the decision at last year’s season finale in Homestead, and has spent the offseason trying to process it.

But when he was first informed this was a possibility, at the fall race in Charlotte, “Junior” was “in shock.”

“It’s definitely a unique situation,” he said Friday morning during NASCAR Preseason Thunder at Daytona. “He actually included me in on the discussion before the end of last year, and I had a pretty good understanding, whether he knew or not, what he was going to do. I had a pretty good understanding what his decision was going to be when I left Homestead.

“So I’ve had time to really wrap my brain around it. It was hard because we are such good friends, and I really do enjoy working with him a lot.”

Still, Earnhardt acknowledged Letarte’s desire to spend more time with his family is a good one.

“But at the same time I’m happy for him because it gives him the opportunity to spend time with his family,” Earnhardt said. “It’s something that’s really important to him, and the way these races are broadcast and how they’re presented to the fans is a big part of how the sport remains healthy, and I think that he’s going to be incredible in that role. I think that he’ll – I think that he’ll be really good.

“I’m excited for him because I know he’s really looking forward to it,” he added. “You can tell when he talks about it how genuinely enthused he is about the opportunity.”

Earnhardt said he will not be involved in the process of finding Letarte’s replacement. His biggest fear, he said, was finding someone as talented. An early name to consider could be Ron Malec, longtime car chief on the No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet driven by Jimmie Johnson, but it’s way too early to have any prognostications of who will be on the No. 88 box in 2015.

“I won’t make any suggestions at all. I will leave that up to Rick (Hendrick), Doug (Douchardt),” Earnhardt said. “I would love to have input from Chad Knaus and Steve. I think that Steve knows what makes this team work.

“I think it’s important that Chad has got a lot of influence because he knows how well the shop works together and what the culture is in the shop and how a guy, a particular guy may mesh in that environment. But I don’t really want to have any influence on the choice.”

Earnhardt acknowledged this will be Letarte’s last go-‘round in the garage area and there’s an extra bonus, and extra incentive, to ensure Letarte can go out on a high. In the last three years, Tony Stewart’s crew chief Darian Grubb, Dodge as a manufacturer, and Kevin Harvick at Richard Childress Racing have delivered titles or near-titles in their final seasons in their current roles.

“Fortunately we get to work together one more year,” Earnhardt said. “I feel almost lucky in that regard that I get the opportunity to work with him for one more season.

“He’s not going to work for another driver or another team, so it’s kind of his last hurrah, and hopefully he never has to come back to that job again and his broadcasting career takes him on into the rest of his life. And I think it will. I think he’s going to be fantastic.”

Verstappen leads Red Bull one-two in second Belgian GP practice

SPA, BELGIUM - AUGUST 26: Max Verstappen of the Netherlands driving the (33) Red Bull Racing Red Bull-TAG Heuer RB12 TAG Heuer on track during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Belgium at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps on August 26, 2016 in Spa, Belgium.  (Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images)
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Max Verstappen headed up a Red Bull one-two in the second Formula 1 practice session for the Belgian Grand Prix on Friday afternoon at Spa-Francorchamps.

After seeing Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton lead for Mercedes in FP1, Red Bull bounced back in the second session with Verstappen setting a fastest lap of 1:48.085.

Verstappen finished three-tenths of a second clear of teammate Daniel Ricciardo at the top of the timesheets, giving the army of Dutch fans that had made the trip to Spa plenty to smile about.

Mercedes opted to alter its usual FP2 running plan by getting both Rosberg and Hamilton to focus on their long-run pace ahead of Sunday’s race instead of chasing optimum lap time.

Rosberg finished the session sixth-fastest as the leading W07 Hybrid driver, with Hamilton down in P13. The Briton also has a 30-place grid penalty hanging over him for the race.

Nico Hulkenberg continued Force India’s impressive start to the weekend by finishing third-fastest for Force India, with teammate Sergio Perez following half a second behind in P5. Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel split the pair in fourth, while Kimi Raikkonen was seventh in the second SF16-H.

Haas drivers Romain Grosjean and Esteban Gutierrez both finished inside the top 10 in FP2, ending up P8 and P10 respectively at the checkered flag. Jenson Button was ninth for McLaren.

The session was without major incident bar one short Virtual Safety Car period following a stoppage for Renault’s Jolyon Palmer. Palmer was able to get his car back going again while sat in the run-off area and returned to the pits.

The on-track action at Spa resumes on Saturday with FP3, live on the NBC Sports app and on desktop from 5am ET.

Hamilton gets another fresh power unit, up to 30-place grid penalty for Spa

SPA, BELGIUM - AUGUST 26: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo on track during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Belgium at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps on August 26, 2016 in Spa, Belgium.  (Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images)
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Lewis Hamilton has taken another fresh power unit ahead of the second Formula 1 practice session in Belgium on Friday, causing his grid penalty to rise to 30 places.

Hamilton confirmed on Thursday that he would be taking a grid penalty at Spa for exceeding the number of permitted engine components for the season.

The F1 drivers’ championship leader was forced to make unplanned changes earlier in the year due to issues on his power unit, making a grid drop inevitable later in the season.

Mercedes confirmed on Friday morning that Hamilton had taken a fresh power unit for first practice for the Belgian Grand Prix, before taking the decision to take another new one for FP2 in the afternoon.

Hamilton has now taken seven MGU-Hs and seven turbochargers on his power unit, as well as five MGU-Ks and internal combustion engines (ICE). Drivers are allowed to use five of each component across the course of the season.

Hamilton will receive a 10-place grid penalty for the first ‘seventh’ component and five for the second, meaning the fresh power unit costs him 15 places on the grid. Combined with the penalty taken this morning, his grid drop for the Belgian Grand Prix is now up to 30 positions.

Hamilton takes initial 15-place grid drop at Spa

SPA, BELGIUM - AUGUST 26: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo on track during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Belgium at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps on August 26, 2016 in Spa, Belgium.  (Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images)
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Lewis Hamilton has taken an initial 15-place grid penalty for this weekend’s Formula 1 race in Belgium after exceeding the number of permitted power unit components for the season.

Issues in the early races of 2016 meant a grid drop was inevitable for Hamilton later in the year, given that drivers are limited to using five of each power unit component across the course of the season.

Hamilton confirmed on Thursday that he would be taking his grid drop in Spa in the hope that further penalties could be avoided later in the season.

Mercedes announced during first practice on Friday that both Hamilton and teammate Nico Rosberg had taken fresh power units for the race weekend.

“Fresh power units this morning for both Lewis and Nico,” a team spokesperson confirmed. “For Lewis this comprises ICE 4, MGU-K 4, MGU-H 6 and TC 6. This incurs a 15-place grid penalty.

“For Nico, it is his fourth of all those items.”

It is feasible that Mercedes will take additional new components for Hamilton before the race on Sunday, meaning his 15-place grid drop may grow.

However, both Marcus Ericsson (10 places) and Fernando Alonso (35) are also set to take grid drops after also exceeding the five component limit, meaning Hamilton may not start last.

Nevertheless, the advantage does lie firmly with title rival Rosberg heading into the race weekend as the German looks to cut the 19-point gap to his teammate.

Rosberg quickest in Belgium FP1 as Halo gets further tests

SPA, BELGIUM - AUGUST 26: Nico Rosberg of Germany driving the (6) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo fitted with the halo on track during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Belgium at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps on August 26, 2016 in Spa, Belgium.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Nico Rosberg marked Formula 1’s return from its summer break by topping the opening practice session for the Belgian Grand Prix on Friday morning.

Rosberg spent the first part of the session testing the ‘Halo’ cockpit protection device, which is going through further evaluation ahead of a possible introduction for 2018.

The Halo has previously been used only on one-lap runs, but Rosberg completed an extended stretch to aid in giving feedback. Nico Hulkenberg, Carlos Sainz Jr. and Daniel Ricciardo also lapped using the Halo in the early part of the session.

With the Halo fitted and super-soft tires on the car, Rosberg recorded a fastest lap time of 1:48.348 during the 90-minute session to finish three-quarters of a second clear at the top of the timesheets, heading up a Mercedes one-two.

Lewis Hamilton finished second in the sister W07 Hybrid, but is already on the back foot after Mercedes confirmed that he will take a 15-place grid penalty for Sunday’s race.

Kimi Raikkonen was the best of the rest for Ferrari, finishing third ahead of Force India’s Sergio Perez. Sebastian Vettel was fifth in the second Ferrari ahead of the Red Bull duo of Ricciardo and Max Verstappen, who is set to enjoy a sizeable amount of support this weekend thanks to the large number of fans making the trip from his native Netherlands to Belgium.

Nico Hulkenberg finished eighth in the second Force India ahead of Williams’ Valtteri Bottas, while Esteban Gutierrez made a strong start to the weekend to finish P10.