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Hard to believe: Dale Earnhardt Jr. turns 40 this year — wants to send Steve Letarte out as a winner

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. – For many, the image of Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been frozen in time since the late 1990s or perhaps his first full season on the Sprint Cup circuit in 2000: that of a young red-haired, cherub-faced kid just excited about life and living the dream of being a NASCAR driver.

But Earnhardt revealed some rather sober and potentially earth-shattering news Tuesday that potentially may shock many members of his legendary Junior Nation of fans:

NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver the last 11 years running is going to turn 40 this year!

October 10, to be precise.

“I think I turned 40 before I was supposed to,” Earnhardt laughed during the second day of the four-day NASCAR Media Tour. “I don’t feel 40, I don’t even feel close to 40. It’s weird for me to say that and I think about it all the time that I’m going to be 40 years old this year, because I don’t feel anything near 40.

“I don’t think I think like a 40 year old man, I still have a lot of immaturity in me and like to have fun and goof off. And I feel in my racing and work ethic and the way I approach what I’m doing and how long I’ve been here, I don’t feel 40.

“I don’t feel burned out, don’t feel worn out, don’t feel like this is old hat, don’t feel bored. I feel like I’m just as excited about Daytona as I’ve ever been each year that I’ve went there. I guess when it gets boring or it’s not as exciting, I’ll start to freak out. Yeah, I don’t feel 40, that’s weird. But maybe that means I’ll last a little bit younger than most guys.”

And if Junior has his way once he hits 40, he plans on racing for another decade, something his loyal fans will likely be happy to hear.

That means there’s still plenty of chances for that elusive first Sprint Cup championship – if not 10 titles in a row potentially (hey, you can’t blame him for being optimistic, right?).

“Ten’s a lot of years and that would be enough,” Earnhardt said. “I think if I retired at 50, I’d be real thrilled that I made it that long.”

While Earnhardt stressed that his main goal in 2014 is to win races – he hasn’t won a Cup race since 2012 and only two since 2006 – winning a championship would be a fitting sendoff and homage to Letarte, who will become a TV analyst for NBC Sports in 2015.

It’s important to send Letarte out on top, Earnhardt said.

“It’s important to me, but hell, it’s part of his responsibility, too,” Earnhardt said with a laugh.

But then, Earnhardt turned more serious on his feeling about Letarte.

“I’m going into the last season with Steve, who I love to work with, and I really want to enjoy that moment, that is, the whole season,” Earnhardt said. “Me and Steve are so close and this is going to be a lot of fun to work with him one more season. I want to make sure it’s one we enjoy and he can be happy when he’s finished and then we can move on and continue to compete.”

And that final farewell season to one of the best crew chiefs he’s had in his career starts in a few weeks, Earnhardt said.

“When we run Daytona, we’re going to run it for the last time, his last Daytona 500 as a crew chief,” Earnhardt said. “We’re going to be working every single lap to try to do the best we can for each other. And I think that’s good, it can elevate our performance and our team.

“I think the team could feed off that and we may be able to accomplish the things we set out to accomplish in this last season together.”

How has Earnhardt changed from a 23-year-old Busch Series driver in 1998 to a 40-year-old, 15-year Cup veteran in 2014? Hardly at all, Earnhardt said.

“I don’t think my personality is anything special or unique in any way, but I think I’m a good guy that tries to make good decisions and tries to treat people right.,” he said. “All the things, the success, star power, celebrity has been just short of a fluke, like an oddity that could have happened to anybody.

“The work ethic is however you want to be at your job, and if you enjoy what you do and want to be successful at it, you’ll work hard to try and do that. I know myself, I’ve learned a lot about work ethic over the last 20 years.

“You get into racing thinking you’re working your guts out, and then you learn there/s another step, and then you learn that there’s another step and you just keep finding more in yourself over a long period of time and look back at all those things you wish you’d known when you were a kid. It could have made things easier.”

Rosberg, Hamilton maintain similar approaches heading to Mexico

during the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 23, 2016 in Austin, United States.
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The official pre-race quotes from Mercedes AMG Petronas offers more of the same from Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton in terms of their mentality and psychological status heading to this weekend’s Mexican Grand Prix.

Hamilton scored a key victory on Sunday in the United States Grand Prix to keep his title hopes alive, but with Rosberg capitalizing on his team’s smart strategic play to get him a de facto “free stop” under a Virtual Safety Car period, he came second and so Hamilton only gained seven additional points.

Rosberg’s metronomic, one-race-at-a-time mentality has served him well all season and up 26 points heading to a race he won last year, he’s sticking to that focus this weekend.

“I came into Sunday with a good chance of winning but it didn’t work out,” Rosberg reflected in Mercedes’ pre-race advance. “That’s the way it is, so I accept that and now it’s on to the next one in Mexico.

“My goal is to try and win there just as it has been in every race. Of course, to be in a championship battle at the end of the year is awesome and I’m excited about that.

“But my approach is to keep it simple. There are so many things that can happen during a race weekend which are out of your control, so it’s best to just block all that out and focus on the job at hand. That’s what’s worked best for me and how I feel at my strongest.”

Hamilton, as you might also expect, is in a nothing-to-lose mode and looks to add Mexico to the list of countries and the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez the list of circuits where he won. A win this weekend would be his 51st, and tie him with Alain Prost for second all-time.

“It was great to finally get that 50th win after a couple of tough weekends,” he said. “I’ve just continued to keep a positive frame of mind, avoid dwelling on the past, work and train hard and I knew eventually the result would come.

“The moment you give up is the moment you lose. I’ve never been one to give up and I don’t plan on starting now. There are still plenty of points available and anything is possible.

“Next up it’s Mexico, which was a great experience last time out. It’s crazy how slippery the circuit is with the altitude giving you so little downforce from the car. It’s a big challenge, so even though last year’s race was a bit frustrating for me, I actually had a lot of fun out there. I’m looking forward to giving it another go and hopefully going one better this time.”

Same championship lineup back for Action Express in 2017

Photo: Action Express Racing
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As expected, the same quartet of IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship 2016 Prototype champions Dane Cameron and Eric Curran, and the previous two-time champs Christian Fittipaldi and Joao Barbosa, will be back with Action Express Racing in 2017.

Cameron and Curran (No. 31) and Fittipaldi and Barbosa (No. 5) will be in the same car numbers as they’ve been in the past couple years.

As General Motors has not publicly announced or confirmed its Daytona Prototype international program for 2017, the formal reveal of its car – expected to be a Cadillac-branded DPi entry – will come at a later date.

The Corvette DP program ended in 2016 as IMSA phased out the Daytona Prototype platform finishing with this year’s Petit Le Mans.

Cameron and Curran will be together for the third straight season, with Fittipaldi and Barbosa continuing on for a fourth straight season since the GRAND-AM/American Le Mans Series merger fusion into IMSA prior to 2014.

“It’s been a great experience working with everyone at Action Express Racing over the past two years and it’s exciting to be able keep some continuity with the same drivers and teammates,” said Cameron, who’s one of the proper stars of sports car racing.

“I think the relationship between the four drivers has been great over the past two years, and things really started to come together well over the past six months.”

Barbosa, the team’s longest-serving driver having been with Action Express Racing since the team’s winning debut in the 2010 Rolex 24 at Daytona, added, “I’ve been with Action Express Racing since the team started in 2010 – which is a long time. We have grown together as a team and all our years of working together have definitely paid off as we have had some great success as a race team. It’s very exciting to continue with the race team and I’m looking forward to another season together.”

Q&A: New Porsche Supercup champion Sven Mueller

Photos: Porsche AG
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On Sunday, Sven Mueller secured the 2016 Porsche Mobil 1 Supercup at Circuit of The Americas, thus becoming the third driver who’s clinched the title at the Supercup season finale in Austin since the track first hosted the series in 2014 (Earl Bamber won in 2014, Phillip Eng last year).

Mueller, in his third year in the Porsche Junior program, claimed a double title this year with both the Supercup and Porsche Carrera Cup Deutschland championships.

He entered the weekend only two points ahead of fellow Junior driver Matteo Cairoli (135-133), but a second-place finish coupled with a DNF for Cairoli following Saturday’s first race left him needing only to score one additional point to win the title on Sunday. He finished in eighth place on the road, and that was enough for the Lechner MSG Racing Team driver to do it.

Mueller won three races and scored eight podium finishes in 10 races, to beat Cairoli 162-151 in points despite Cairoli winning four races. The third Porsche Junior competing in Supercup, Mathieu Jaminet, used a weekend sweep of the two races at COTA to finish third in the standings with 146 points, and having scored three wins.

We caught up with Mueller, who’s also raced in the U.S. in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship on a couple of occasions this year in a GT Daytona class Porsche 911 GT3 R (Frikadelli Racing in the Rolex 24 at Daytona, Alex Job Racing at Road America), prior to Sunday’s race where he ultimately clinched the title.

For the 24-year-old who lives near Frankfurt, the Supercup title could well be a springboard to bigger things (more here from Porsche Newsroom):

MotorSportsTalk: This is your third year. What have you learned this year that has allowed you to take that next step as a driver compared to previous seasons?

Sven Mueller: “I feel my evolution as a driver is huge. In my first year in a Porsche, I also had quite good speed, but to finish the race was not always the goal. The speed was there, but the consistency and all this stuff, I learned from year-to-year. And especially in my third year, the important things that were around the track and racing, yeah, I also improved a lot. This year, my goal is the championship. Last week, I had already won championship in Porsche Carrera Cup and I was working three years to get this, and hopefully I can get my second championship today.”

MST: How has the competition level been this year with some of the new drivers?

SM: “Every year, you have new drivers. I think because now I’m at a really good level and I see that Matteo and Mathieu they are also really good. For me, this year is the hardest season I’ve ever had. I won only three times, Matteo won four times, Mathieu twice (before this weekend). We’re always on the podium and in qualifying, we’re always within a thousandth of a second. This shows how close the championship is.”

Mueller at Spa. Photo: Porsche AG
Mueller at Spa. Photo: Porsche AG

MST: How nice is it knowing driver talent makes so much of a different in this championship?

SM: “It does. This is a one-make Cup, it’s the same type of car, but also the teams they put quite a lot of effort to build up the car set-up wise that is the quickest for quali-simulation and also for quali-runs (qualifying runs). To have a really good car, it’s easier for a driver to handle this. To have a good car and a good driver, that’s the whole package. You can’t win with a bad car and good driver. The package always has to be perfect. For example, in qualifying, if you miss one of these parameters – being not 100 percent focused or the set-up is not 100 percent right – you can’t get the pole position. In Super Cup, to get the pole position or to win the race, everything has to be 100 percent.”

MST: What do you like about this track?

SM: “In 2014, I was here, so I had some experience in the dry. But Austin, or COTA, is by far the most difficult track at first for the driver because you have 21 corners and it’s so technical. For example, Turns 2 through 5 are really quick and all the corners are building up to the next corner. So if you start wrong entering the first corner, you’re going to end up in a mess. And the second thing is the car. It’s very difficult. The car and tires cannot rest, so they’re always under pressure. You only have one straight where the tire pressure and temperature can go down a bit, but Austin is really, really difficult. Yesterday, we had 14 laps and it felt really, really long – by far the longest race we’ve had in the season so far.”

MST: You’ve raced here now on multiple occasions. What do you like of the atmosphere of racing in the U.S.?

SM: “I really like racing in America. Daytona, I think, was not the best result I’ve ever had, but the whole week in Daytona, it was crazy and really nice. The racing and all the strategy with the team, it’s complex and difficult and you have to understand it. But with all the different manufacturers, to do proper racing, I really like it. And the fans, you can speak with them; in Europe, it’s a bit different. It’s also nice, but the Americans are really open and they’re not scared about asking questions or doing photos. I really like that.”

McLaren matched best ’16 result at COTA, 40 years to day after Hunt title

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 23: Fernando Alonso of Spain driving the (14) McLaren Honda Formula 1 Team McLaren MP4-31 Honda RA616H Hybrid turbo leads a line of cars including Esteban Gutierrez of Mexico driving the (21) Haas F1 Team Haas-Ferrari VF-16 Ferrari 059/5 turbo on track during the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 23, 2016 in Austin, United States.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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October 23 is a key day in McLaren F1’s history.

Some 40 years ago, on October 23, 1976, James Hunt scored his dramatic first and only World Championship in the scintillating 1976 season in Fuji, as Niki Lauda retired early while Hunt scored just enough points to usurp “the rat” and win the title. The season, of course, served as the inspiration for Ron Howard’s Rush, which was released in 2013.

October 23, 2016 may go down as the day McLaren began to look like McLaren again in terms of results, as it matched its best result of the season with Fernando Alonso finishing fifth, and Jenson Button in ninth in what may have been his last United States Grand Prix in Austin.

Alonso charged from 12th on the grid up to fifth, with late passes on Felipe Massa and Carlos Sainz Jr. being particularly impressive, while Button made a strong start early from 19th to get near the top 10, and then benefited from other retirements to score points.

It’s tough that a 12-point day is considered a high-water mark for McLaren in 2016 terms, but this result in Austin has matched a similar fifth and ninth place for the two drivers in Monaco this year as McLaren’s best points haul of the season.

McLaren sits a clear sixth in the Constructor’s Championship on 74 points for the year. Williams is fifth with 130 while Scuderia Toro Rosso is seventh with 55. By contrast, McLaren only scored 27 points total last year, ending ninth in the Constructor’s Championship.

“It was good and interesting today, I enjoyed it, especially the final part of the race,” Alonso said in the team’s post-race release.

“Carlos [Sainz] was on a different strategy and different tyres to me and Felipe, which allowed us to close the gap.

“Our tires were in better condition than the Toro Rosso’s and we took advantage of that. The last couple of laps were very intense, as we had some extra speed so we tried hard to overtake. It was quite easy to overtake the Toro Rosso as they’re slow on the straights, so you just need to open the DRS. I was following Carlos for 45 laps and he drove very well, very consistently, zero mistakes – so we had a great battle.

“To get past the Williams today you needed to overtake them in different places, like tight, slow-speed corners, and quite forcefully, and it was tough but hopefully enjoyable for the fans.

“Our result today is nice for motivation, so I’m happy with fifth, but we gained a couple of positions because of other people going out, and our pace hasn’t been great all weekend here, so we need to understand the reasons for that.”

Button added the start was key for him to get into a points-scoring position.

“I’m pretty happy to get into the points after a frustrating day yesterday,” he said. “The start was a bit of a crazy mess – there was so much action. Starting 19th makes your race a little bit more difficult but I had a good first couple of laps which I really enjoyed. I made up a lot of places and then fought my way into the top 10, and then I fluffed up my second pit-stop a little bit where I lost a place to Checo [Perez], but I think he would have got past me anyway.”