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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.”

Malaysia considers dropping F1 race: ‘The product is no longer exciting’

KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA - OCTOBER 02:  Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo leads Daniel Ricciardo of Australia driving the (3) Red Bull Racing Red Bull-TAG Heuer RB12 TAG Heuer, Sergio Perez of Mexico driving the (11) Sahara Force India F1 Team VJM09 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo and the rest of the field at the start during the Malaysia Formula One Grand Prix at Sepang Circuit on October 2, 2016 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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The future of the Malaysian Grand Prix has been thrown into doubt following comments from government officials and the CEO of the Sepang International Circuit, saying F1 “is no longer exciting”.

Malaysia joined the F1 calendar back in 1999 and traditionally held the second round of the season from 2001.

The race shifted to a fall date for 2016 so that the track could complete an extensive redevelopment program, meaning it was held two weeks after the grand prix in neighboring Singapore.

Sepang signed a new three-year deal to host F1 in March 2015, but doubts have been raised about hosting the race beyond 2018.

Circuit CEO Datuk Ahmad Razlan Ahmad Razali told the New Straits Times that amid declining ticket sales and a falling global TV audience, Malaysia was considering dropping the race.

“Maybe it will do Malaysia good to take a break,” he said.

“I think the product is no longer exciting. It’s being dominated by one team.”

Malaysian government official Khairy Jamaluddin, the minister of youth and sports, sent out a series of tweets supporting Razlan’s comments.

Jamaluddin also revealed that officials considered making the grand prix at Sepang a night race, but found the costs to be too high.

The 2017 Malaysian Grand Prix is scheduled for September 17.

With Hamilton non-score, Rosberg could win maiden F1 title this weekend in Mexico

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 23:  Nico Rosberg of Germany and Mercedes GP celebrates finishing in second during the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 23, 2016 in Austin, United States.  (Photo by Lars Baron/Getty Images)
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Nico Rosberg will venture to Mexico for this weekend’s grand prix knowing that he could be crowned Formula 1 world champion for the first time on Sunday.

Rosberg has long insisted that he is taking his bid for the drivers’ championship ‘one race at a time’, and after finishing second to Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton in the United States Grand Prix, he is one step closer to a maiden crown.

Rosberg arrived in Austin, Texas with a 33-point lead in the drivers’ championship, meaning he could afford to finish second (and even third once) in the remaining four races and still win the title.

Rosberg battled back from a poor start to finish second at the Circuit of The Americas, meaning his lead now stands at 26 points with three races to go.

Mathematically, it means that Rosberg can in fact win the championship in Mexico this weekend, but only if he wins and Hamilton retires or finishes outside of the points.

Should Hamilton not score and Rosberg win, his lead would rise to 51 points with 50 remaining from the races following Mexico in Brazil and Abu Dhabi.

Rosberg has only been in a position to clinch the championship once before in his F1 career: the 2014 season finale in Abu Dhabi, where he lost out to Hamilton.

Naturally, Rosberg’s main aim in Mexico will simply be beating Hamilton on-track, having been left frustrated after failing to do so in Austin.

“I just feel that it’s a pity that it didn’t work out with a win this weekend,” Rosberg said.

“I was going for that. It would have been awesome here in America but it didn’t work out.

“Lewis did a great job this weekend, all the way through, qualifying and race so it just wasn’t to be.

“I’ll live with second place now and next race is another great opportunity.”

Sainz stars with charge to P6 at COTA, enjoys late battle with childhood hero Alonso

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 23: Carlos Sainz of Spain driving the (55) Scuderia Toro Rosso STR11 Ferrari 060/5 turbo leads Felipe Massa of Brazil driving the (19) Williams Martini Racing Williams FW38 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid 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 Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Carlos Sainz Jr. produced one of the stand-out displays in Sunday’s United States Grand Prix in Austin, Texas to finish sixth, matching his best result of the 2016 Formula 1 season so far.

Sainz qualified 10th for Toro Rosso on Saturday at the Circuit of The Americas, but rose up to P8 in the early stages after Nico Hulkenberg and Valtteri Bottas dropped back due to contact.

Sainz managed to jump Felipe Massa at the second round of pit stops to run seventh before Max Verstappen and Kimi Raikkonen retired, handing the Spaniard fifth.

After seeing off pressure from Massa, Sainz went wheel-to-wheel with his childhood racing hero, Fernando Alonso, in the final two laps, but was unable to keep the McLaren driver back.

Nevertheless, Sainz was delighted to finish sixth, particularly when Toro Rosso predicted he would finish outside of the points.

“I think we put on everything we could do. Our predictions were P12 or P13 because [we were] starting on super-softs,” Sainz told NBCSN.

“But we made it last, close to Williiams, on softs, created a good gap to Fernando. We got a bit lucky with the safety car. Suddenly we were ahead of Williams and McLaren. With softs it would be difficult.

“We committed to go to the end. I did all I could until the end. I just had to hold on to it!”

Sainz’s result was made all the more impressive by the fact he was racing with a year-old Ferrari power unit that had been significantly outdeveloped by the rest of the grid.

“You cannot mind. The team and I are evident with how Fernando passed me – it was evidence was the second worst engine overtook us like they were the best one!” Sainz said.

“To hold onto P6 here, after this weekend, with the long straights was just amazing.”

The result matches Sainz’s sixth-place finish at the Spanish Grand Prix in May as his best of the 2016 season.

Lewis Hamilton ‘petrified’ of car failure throughout USGP

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 23:  Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP celebrates his win on the podium during the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 23, 2016 in Austin, United States.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Lewis Hamilton felt “petrified” of suffering a car failure during Sunday’s United States Grand Prix in Austin, Texas amid memories of his Malaysia heartbreak.

Hamilton’s hopes of winning a fourth Formula 1 championship in 2016 were dented in Malaysia earlier this month when his engine failed while leading the race by 20 seconds.

Hamilton arrived in Austin 33 points behind Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg in the drivers’ championship, having not won a race since the end of July.

Hamilton scored pole on Saturday at the Circuit of The Americas before a good start in Sunday’s race saw him surge clear early on.

Despite coming under light pressure from Daniel Ricciardo at the beginning and Rosberg in the closing stages, Hamilton remained in control to pick up his fifth USGP victory.

“This one feels great. I feel super chilled right now,” Hamilton told NBCSN after the race.

“It’s not an ecstatic feeling; it’s more mellow and relieved the car made it.”

With the memory of his retirement in Malaysia still in his mind, Hamilton was wary of another issue on his car rearing its head in Austin.

“The whole race I was petrified the car wouldn’t make it. I was dreaded by the sound I heard in Malaysia,” Hamilton said.

“Lose power, or a gear, or gearbox or something. It was weighing on me the whole race. It’s the longest afternoon but we got the job done.”

Hamilton cut Rosberg’s lead in the drivers’ championship to 26 points, but would not be assured the title even if he won the remaining three races of the season. Rosberg can be assured of the title with two seconds places and a third.

However, Hamilton isn’t dwelling on the points permutations: “I just want my car to keep going! But I need to do the job. I can’t control what happens with these guys. This is a relatively easy feat. Staying ahead and winning races is my target.”