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Reunited with crew chief Mike Kelley, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. looks for big gains in sophomore Sprint Cup season

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It was a rough ride for Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in his rookie season on NASCAR’s Sprint Cup circuit last season.

Sure, he won Rookie of the Year honors, but the lack of wins, just one top-five finish and a 19th-place overall season finish were things the Olive Branch, Miss., native just wasn’t used to.

“Oh, it sucked,” Stenhouse told NBC Sports’ MotorSportsTalk at last week’s NASCAR Media Tour in Charlotte, N.C. “Last year was (one of the few) years I didn’t win a race in my career of racing from the time I was six. So, that was disappointing, but at least with Rookie of the Year, we kind of won something.”

Stenhouse looks for a significantly improved sophomore Cup season in 2014. The biggest change – and one that he feels will make a world of difference – is being reunited with crew chief Mike Kelley.

That’s not a slight against Stenhouse’s crew chief last season, Scott Graves. The duo got along fine, had good communication and worked well together, but it just wasn’t the same kind of relationship that Stenhouse and Kelley had.

And what a relationship it was: from the moment Kelley took over from Ben Leslie after the sixth race of the 2010 season, he and Stenhouse immediately grew into a formidable duo.

Sure, there were some growing pains in that first season, as Stenhouse finished 16th in the Nationwide standings, didn’t win a race, led just 40 laps and managed only three top-five finishes. It was also the season that team owner Jack Roush sat Stenhouse out of three races to drive home a point that either Stenhouse change his attitude and stop wrecking race cars unnecessarily, or else his NASCAR career would be short-lived.

Roush’s plan worked, and with Kelley’s help, Stenhouse began to make a dramatic turnaround that manifested itself in 2011 and 2012 with back-to-back NNS championships. Stenhouse won two races in 2011, along with 16 top five and 26 top 10 finishes and three poles. For an encore in 2012, he dominated the NNS with six wins, 19 top five and 26 top 10s, as well as four poles.

Almost all the credit for that turnaround, besides Roush of course, was Kelley atop the pit box. And now that the pair is reunited for 2014 in the Sprint Cup Series, Stenhouse has hopes that what the duo did in the NNS can be replicated in the Sprint Cup circuit.

“Having Mike back on the pit box is going to be huge,” Stenhouse said. “That chemistry that we had in the Nationwide Series is tough to match. Him and I are having a lot of fun in the offseason, the guys are having fun and that’s what teams are all about.

“Just because you have the best mechanics on a team doesn’t mean you’re going to have the best team. You still have to have that chemistry and I think we have that this year, and that’s exactly what I felt what we were missing last year.”

Indeed, there was a lot missing last season as Stenhouse had no wins, just one top-five, three top 10s and one pole as a rookie Sprint Cup driver. In addition, he led only 35 laps, and had an average start of 18.3 and average finish of 18.9.

“It was disappointing, but I think towards the end of the season we got going in the right direction, we qualified better and started running more up front and getting a few more top 10s,” Stenhouse said. “So, I think we’re going to take that momentum, apply it to this year and really hit it strong.”

Kelley chose to serve as crew chief for Trevor Bayne last season rather than joining Stenhouse in the jump to Sprint Cup. Family reasons were part of it, but the lure of working together and trying to replicate in Sprint Cup what they did in the Nationwide Series was just too much of a lure for Kelley to pass up a second straight season.

“There’s no reintroduction time between myself and Mike,” Stenhouse said. “From the time that we started running together in Nationwide in 2010, I don’t think there’s been a day that we haven’t talked. Even last year, I talked to him every single day, we texted every day, and after every race we’d call each other. If him and Trevor had a bad race, he’d call me, and if I had a bad race, I’d call him. We just never lost that chemistry that we had, so it takes no time to get back into that.

“The fun we had in those three years in Nationwide kind of also brought him back. I think the excitement that we had, the level of fun that we had with our race team and him and I together, but also the results. He was here in the Sprint Cup garage as a car chief, learning from Jimmy Fennig and winning championships and races, and just like every other crew chief, mechanic, driver, spotters – everyone was working to get to that top level.  … I’m kind of glad he let me get my feet wet in the Sprint Cup Series first before him jumping over, and I think we can start off a little bit faster that way.”

Admittedly, it wasn’t just a rough season for Stenhouse in 2013, it also was difficult for his Sprint Cup teammates, Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards. While the latter two drivers both made the Chase for the Sprint Cup, their performance in the 10-race playoff left a lot to be desired: Biffle finished ninth in the Chase, while Edwards was dead last in the expanded 13-driver field.

Much of the reason for that deficiency was the overall perception that Ford motors just didn’t have the kind of horsepower to keep up with their counterparts at Chevrolet and Toyota. That perception proved to be reality, as Ford-powered drivers combined for just a paltry six wins in last season’s 36 Sprint Cup races.

But Stenhouse perceives a whole different reality in 2014.

“I think the cars that Roush Fenway are building now are going to be a step above of what we had,” he said. “And I’m really just looking forward to getting on the racetrack and seeing everything that we’ve worked for in this offseason kind of merge together and pay off.”

No story about Stenhouse would be complete without at least a mention of his highly publicized relationship with fellow Sprint Cup racer Danica Patrick. When news broke about a year ago that the two were a romantic item, there was considerable notoriety and attention from the media.

But as the season went on, Patrick and Stenhouse the couple were all but forgotten, with the majority of interest being on Patrick and Stenhouse the race car drivers and their respective struggles in their first full seasons in the Sprint Cup series in 2013.

“We knew at the beginning of the season there was going to be a lot of questions, but I think (the media) did fairly well at giving us the respect and focusing in on the racetrack stuff,” Stenhouse said. “I was definitely thankful for that because it let us focus on our racing and worry about what we needed to do to be better on the racetrack.”

Patrick and Stenhouse are still going strong off the racetrack and the man that some fans have teasingly called “Mr. Danica Patrick” – something he takes good-naturedly – thinks both their relationship and their on-track performance will both grow even stronger in 2014.

“We’re both ready to get back on the racetrack and improve upon what we did last year,” Stenhouse said. “We both feel like we have a lot of room for improvement and are both looking forward to it.”

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

Yamaha, Ducati enjoy launches ahead of new MotoGP season

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MotoGP heavyweights Yamaha and Ducati geared up for the new season of motorcycle racing’s premier championship with launches this week.

Yamaha and Ducati both enter 2017 with a new line-up following Jorge Lorenzo’s decision to move from the former to the latter, acting as one of a number of shake-ups in the rider market.

Three-time MotoGP champion Lorenzo replaces Andrea Iannone at Ducati, who sought refuge at Suzuki after a seat was freed up by Maverick Viñales following his move to Yamaha in replace of – the man who started the merry-go-round all – Lorenzo.

Yamaha was the first to take the covers off its new bike at a launch in Madrid on Thursday, with Viñales being joined by nine-time world champion Valentino Rossi for the unveiling of the YZR-M1.

The new bike features a darker blue as its main livery color, as well as greater presence for title sponsor Movistar.

“I had the first test in Valencia after the race, but particularly after we moved to Sepang and we could have more kilometers and [do] more work on the new bike,” Rossi said.

“We discovered a very good potential. It looks like we can be stronger. For sure now it’s important to work in the three tests before the first race, and try to arrive ready in Qatar. But the first impression is very good.”

Ducati followed suit earlier today by unveiling its new livery for 2017, with Lorenzo making one of his first official appearances in the team’s colors following the expiration of his Yamaha contract on December 31.

The team presented its 2016 bike, the Desmosedici GP16, in ’17 colors, as well as removing the controversial – and now banned – winglets from its model.

The new MotoGP season begins in Qatar on March 26, with pre-season testing set to start at the end of January in Malaysia.

Neuville leads Ogier midway through Monte Carlo Rally

Thierry Neuville (BEL) competes during the FIA World Rally Championship 2017 in Monte Carlo, Monaco on January 20, 2017
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MONACO (AP) Belgian driver Thierry Neuville took a 45-second lead Friday over defending world rally champion Sebastien Ogier midway through the season-opening Monte Carlo Rally.

Overnight leader Neuville won three of Friday’s six special stages, while Ogier struggled early on before pegging Neuville back by winning the last two. Ott Tanak of Estonia is third.

Four-time champion Ogier is now driving for Ford M-Sport after switching from Volkswagen last month. The Frenchman was eight seconds behind Neuville’s Hyundai overnight and quickly under pressure.

Tanak, who also drives for M-Sport, won Friday’s first special stage – the third of 17 overall – ahead of Neuville, with Ogier in ninth.

Difficult morning conditions saw snow and sheet ice on the roads. With all the top drivers fitting studded winter tires, Ogier still went off into a ditch.

“It happened at a junction, it was very, very icy. I pulled the handbrake but the car never turned,” Ogier said. “I slipped into the ditch and became stuck.”

Neuville won the next three specials – with Ogier second on 4 and 5 – but Ogier finally found his best form to trim back the deficit from 1:12 to 45 seconds. He also overtook Tanak, who is a fraction of a second behind Ogier.

Conditions were slushy in the afternoon as the icy roads began melting.

“For me this was more tricky than this morning and difficult to know what rhythm to go,” Neuville said.

A spectator was killed on Thursday night after being hit by a car during the first stage.

Organizers said the spectator was struck by a car driven by New Zealand driver Hayden Paddon during the first of two night stages.

That stage was canceled but the second went ahead, with Neuville beating Ogier.

There are six specials Saturday with the race concluding Sunday lunchtime.

Last year, Ogier won by nearly two minutes ahead of then-teammate Andreas Mikkelsen of Norway.

Ogier announced last month that he was going to drive the Ford Fiesta for M-Sport this season. A fifth title would move him into outright second place on the all-time list behind countryman Sebastien Loeb, who won nine straight titles.

The 33-year-old Ogier, who has won 38 career races, is tied with Finnish drivers Tommi Makinen – who won four straight – and Juha Kankkunen.

The next event in the 13-race season is in Sweden in three weeks.

BRDC: Reports Silverstone will definitely drop British GP ‘speculative and wrong’

NORTHAMPTON, ENGLAND - JULY 10:  The grid at the start of the race during the Formula One Grand Prix of Great Britain at Silverstone on July 10, 2016 in Northampton, England.  (Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images)
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The British Racing Drivers Club has issued a statement dismissing suggestions that Silverstone will definitely drop its Formula 1 race following the 2019 season.

Doubt was cast over the future of the British Grand Prix at Silverstone following a leaked letter from BRDC chairman John Grant, in which he admitted to concerns about the cost of hosting the race.

Grant admitted that BRDC officials were considering triggering a clause in Silverstone’s F1 contract that would allow it to end its commitment after 2019 due to “ruinous” costs.

In a statement issued on Friday, the BRDC stressed that no final decision had been made and that suggestions a final decision to drop the race had already been made were incorrect.

“The British Racing Drivers Club wishes to make clear that recent press reports suggesting that talks have been unsuccessful and that the British Grand Prix will definitely be dropped after 2019 are speculative and wrong,” the statement reads.

“Our objective is to preserve the British Grand Prix at Silverstone for many years to come but, of course, we can only do this if it makes economic sense,” Grant added.

“As I have said before, we will be considering over the next six months if we should give notice of our intention to exercise the break clause in our grand prix contract at the end of 2019. No decision has been made, or will be made, until mid-July.

“In the meantime, we will be using this period to explore all interested parties, hopefully in private, various ways in which we might work out a more sustainable proposition.”

Jacques Villeneuve: Indy 500 ‘the biggest, most important race in the world’

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MAY 25: Jacques Villeneuve of Canada driver of the #5 Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Dallara Honda during the 98th running of the Indianapolis 500 mile race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 25, 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)
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1995 CART champion Jacques Villeneuve has called the Indianapolis 500 “the biggest, most important race in the world”, believing that its long-running traditions are key to its enduring appeal.

Villeneuve won the Indy 500 in 1995 en route to the CART title, having finished second at the Brickyard the previous year.

Villeneuve moved into Formula 1 following his CART title victory, becoming world champion with Williams in 1997 before ultimately leaving the series mid-way through the 2006 season.

Villeneuve appeared in his third ‘500 in 2014, finishing 14th for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports (pictured above).

Speaking at Autosport International last week, Villeneuve spoke warmly of his experiences at the ‘500, saying it dwarfed any other race in motorsport.

“[You’re] running at an average speed of 230 mph in traffic, in a place where you’re still allowed to risk your life basically because it’s marginally safer than 20 years ago, and half a million people in the grandstands,” Villeneuve said.

“Back then it was an event that lasted three weeks. You would build on it so the energy was incredible. It felt like a big gladiatorial ring from the Roman Empire. It was very special.

“It is the biggest, most important race in the world. Obviously an F1 championship is bigger, but as a one single event, it’s the biggest one.”

Villeneuve said that he did not appreciate the enormity of the event until he finally raced at the ‘500, having followed F1 more closely as a child by virtue of his father, Gilles, who raced for Ferrari.

“The Indy 500, I didn’t grow up with it. I grew up with Formula 1, so I didn’t really know what it represented,” Villeneuve said

“I didn’t think about it until I raced in Atlantics and I thought ‘oh wow, there’s half a million people here, that’s cool’.

“I still didn’t really understand why there was one toilet where they didn’t put the door because one year there was a driver who didn’t close his door and they decided to keep it like that for the next 40 years.

“There’s lots of stuff in America that’s very important, the history of why things have happened. Why do you drink milk when you’ve won the Indy 500? It’s because – I don’t know which driver – in the past was thirsty and asked for a jug of milk. They gave it to him and it became tradition.

“All these little things keep it alive. To get a race where people come almost daily for three weeks, that takes a lot of passion. But when you’re in it, OK it’s just a race and there’s lots of people, great, but it’s a stepping stone to F1.

“When you’re out of it, you realize first of all I survived it, and then you’ve won it. And then you realize that it’s still present and alive.

“And then you realize that that win was 22 years ago, and then you understand the meaning of what you accomplished.”