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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.”

Gutierrez takes grid penalty after Wehrlein incident in Spa FP3

SPA, BELGIUM - AUGUST 26: Esteban Gutierrez of Mexico driving the (21) Haas F1 Team Haas-Ferrari VF-16 Ferrari 059/5 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 Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Haas driver Esteban Gutierrez has been hit with a five-place grid penalty after forcing Pascal Wehrlein onto the grass during the final Formula 1 practice for the Belgian Grand Prix on Saturday at Spa.

Coming through the kink on the Kemmel Straight following Eau Rouge and Raidillion, Wehrlein came across a slow-moving Gutierrez while on a hot lap.

Gutierrez appeared to move right to let Wehrlein through before crossing back across the track, forcing Wehrlein to dive onto the grass at one of the fastest points on the circuit to avoid a collision.

Wehrlein managed to get back on to the track without crashing, but was less than impressed, asking his Manor team: “F*****g idiot, what is he doing?”

The stewards looked dimly on the incident, handing Gutierrez a five-place grid drop and three penalty points on his FIA super licence.

Gutierrez qualified 13th on Saturday afternoon, meaning he will drop to P18 on the grid for the start of Sunday’s race.

“It was a really good effort from the team. We’ve been struggling with the car setup, but managed to find the best balance,” Gutierrez said after qualifying.

“In qualifying, it felt like a step forward considering the high track temperatures, which is making things a little complicated with the tires.

“In FP3 there was a miscommunication that cost us a five-place grid penalty, which is obviously very painful, but we will try to put that aside.

“I’ll start the race and give everything I’ve got to recover the lost positions and I’ll be fighting all the way to get into the top 10.”

The Belgian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 7am ET on Sunday.

Grosjean: Aggressive tire strategy could give Haas points at Spa

SPA, BELGIUM - AUGUST 27: Romain Grosjean of France driving the (8) Haas F1 Team Haas-Ferrari VF-16 Ferrari 059/5 turbo in the Pitlane during qualifying for the Formula One Grand Prix of Belgium at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps on August 27, 2016 in Spa, Belgium.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Romain Grosjean believes that an aggressive strategy could see the Haas Formula 1 Team score points in Sunday’s Belgian Grand Prix after qualifying 11th at the Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps.

Grosjean struggled with the setup on his car throughout practice, venting his frustration over the radio on a number of occasions, but managed to rein the VF-16 car in during qualifying to get into Q2.

Although the Frenchman was unable to secure Haas’ first Q3 appearance since entering F1 at the beginning of the season, he was pleased with the result and the progress made by the team.

“The car was fine in qualifying. We made a good step before the summer break, so I’m more happy with the car,” Grosjean said.

“There are still a few things we can improve but, generally, it’s not a bad place to be after qualifying.

“For the race, I don’t think we’ll be as challenged as some of the other teams. Hopefully, we can have a good, aggressive strategy and try to make it work to get some points.”

Grosjean has scored all 28 of Haas’ points so far this season, with his P6 and P5 finishes in Australia and Bahrain respectively coming in part thanks to canny strategy calls by the pit wall.

The Belgian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 7am ET on Sunday.

Rosberg wary of Verstappen, Hamilton threats in Belgium

SPA, BELGIUM - AUGUST 27:  Nico Rosberg of Germany drives the  Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo during qualifying for the Formula One Grand Prix of Belgium at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps on August 27, 2016 in Spa, Belgium.  (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)
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Nico Rosberg may have swept to his sixth pole position of the 2016 Formula 1 season in Belgium on Saturday, but the German remains wary of the threats posed from either end of the grid by Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton.

Mercedes opted to curtail Hamilton’s qualifying program early due to the array of penalties he has picked up for engine changes that meant he would start last regardless of where he finished in qualifying.

This left Rosberg to go relatively unchallenged to pole, making it through Q2 on the soft tire before seeing off late charges from Verstappen and Kimi Raikkonen to top the timesheets in Q3.

However, Rosberg felt the result was never secure, particularly after struggling in final practice just three hours earlier.

“We had a difficult weekend until qualifying, especially this morning we were thinking that we were off the pace a bit,” Rosberg said.

“So I was really happy to grab pole today. The Red Bulls were quickest on the long runs on Friday, so we need to be at our best to beat them.”

With Verstappen starting on the front row with the super-soft tire, Rosberg believes he could slip behind off the line with his soft compound Pirellis.

“The tires are a big challenge in the heat here this weekend. The degradation is very high,” Rosberg said.

“My disadvantage at the start is that I have a harder tire with lower grip, so Max should get off the line quicker on the super-soft.”

Rosberg will also be keeping an eye on Hamilton’s progress, believing he could come into contention despite being set to start from the back row.

“I reckon that with some luck and a maybe a safety car, Lewis can climb up to the top very quickly, so he can’t be ruled out either,” Rosberg said.

“In any case, I’m pleased with my qualifying and looking forward to tomorrow. It will be an exciting and intense race.”

The Belgian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 7am ET on Sunday.

IMSA: Magnussen leads Corvette Racing 1-2 in VIR qualifying

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Jan Magnussen has broken a personal drought to continue Corvette Racing’s weekend pace ahead of Sunday’s Michelin GT Challenge at VIRginia International Raceway, the GT-only round of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season.

Magnussen hadn’t qualified on the pole since the Long Beach street race in 2014 in the No. 3 Corvette C7.R he shares with Antonio Garcia, but broke that duck today by edging teammate Tommy Milner by just 0.011 of a second. Garcia scored a pole at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park for the No. 3 car’s – and Corvette’s – first pole of the year.

Magnussen’s best lap was 1:41.557 to Milner’s 1:41.568; Milner and co-driver Oliver Gavin lead the points tables in GT Le Mans heading into Sunday’s two-hour, 40-minute race.

“I’m so happy. We’re here alone. Overall pole makes it even better!” Magnussen told IMSA Radio’s Shea Adam. “It’s so close up front. I knew we had to get every hundredth to beat the 4 car! It was a fantastic effort from the whole team.”

The No. 66 Ford Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GT (Joey Hand, Dirk Mueller) starts third ahead of the No. 62 Risi Competizione Ferrari 488 GTE and No. 100 BMW Team RLL BMW M6 GTLM. The top Porsche, the No. 911 Porsche North America Porsche 911 RSR, starts seventh, a spot ahead of Gavin and Milner’s closest title rivals Richard Westbrook and Ryan Briscoe in the No. 67 Ford.

Meanwhile, the No. 48 Paul Miller Racing Lamborghini Huracán GT3 continued its pace this weekend with Madison Snow scoring his first, the car’s second (Bryan Sellers, Detroit) and the manufacturer’s third (Spencer Pumpelly, Change Racing, Lime Rock) pole of the year in GT Daytona.

Snow’s best time was 1:44.956, and that time led a top six sweep from brands under the VAG umbrella. The three Lamborghinis were first, third and fifth with the two Stevenson Motorsports Audi R8 LMS cars in second and fourth and the lone Porsche in GTD, the No. 23 The Heart of Racing Porsche 911 GT3 R, in sixth.

Those six were separated by 0.607 of a second, and Ben Keating was seventh in the No. 33 Riley Motorsports Dodge Viper GT3-R and the only other driver within a second at 0.724.

Christina Nielsen qualified the points leading No. 63 Scuderia Corsa Ferrari 488 GT3 in eighth.

Tomorrow’s race rolls off at 1:30 p.m. ET on FS1.

Qualifying results are linked here.