Photo courtesy Richard Childress Racing

Will long wait for breakthrough season finally be at hand for Paul Menard in 2014?

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When Paul Menard won the Brickyard 400 in 2011, not only was it his first career Sprint Cup win, it was a huge leap forward in what had been a rather nondescript Sprint Cup tenure up to that point.

By winning what has become one of NASCAR’s crown jewels, Menard finally had something no one will ever be able to take away from him: that he’ll forever be known and referred to as both a Brickyard and Indianapolis Motor Speedway champion.

But since that huge win, Menard has been kind of stuck in neutral. With the Brickyard triumph, four top-5 and eight top-10 finishes, he ended the 2011 season in a career-best 17th place.

In 2012, he improved slightly to a winless 16th in the standings, and last season, went right back to 17th, again without another win.

That has to change this season, Menard told NBC Sports’ MotorSportsTalk during last week’s NASCAR Media Tour in Charlotte, N.C.

“I think we’re definitely capable and our goal is to make the Chase,” Menard said. “And to make the Chase, we have to win races. That’s what we’re going for. That’s what we do every week.”

Menard comes into 2014 in a significantly different position and role than he was in during his first three seasons driving for Richard Childress Racing.

With Kevin Harvick having moved on to Stewart Haas Racing and Jeff Burton running a part-time schedule for Michael Waltrip Racing as a prelude to becoming a TV analyst for NASCAR on NBC in 2015, Menard is now the guy with the most seniority at RCR this season,

But even with new teammates Ryan Newman and Sprint Cup rookie (and Childress grandson) Austin Dillon, Menard claims there really hasn’t been that much of a change in the overall dynamic at RCR.

“Honestly, it’s not that different,” Menard said. “(Dillon and Newman are) guys I’ve known for a long time. I’ve worked with Austin for the last several years, and Ryan, I’ve raced against him for years. It’s really not that different.

“It’s welcoming Ryan into how RCR does things. He’s a smart guy, he’s going to fit right in, has a lot of the same interests as Richard and myself and Austin and Ty. So, it’s been pretty seamless.”

With so much attention focused on Dillon, at least at the beginning of this season due to his driving the fabled No. 3 car for the first time on the Cup circuit since the tragic death of Dale Earnhardt in the 2001 Daytona 500, and with Newman coming over from SHR, Menard loves the position he finds both himself and the organization in.

“Yeah, it’s two new guys and two guys that are very different in their personalities and the way they think,” Menard said. “You have Ryan, who is a degreed engineer, been around the sport a long time, a multi-time race winner and a Chase guy every year.

“And then we have Austin, who is this young and enthusiastic guy and full of energy. It’s really cool to see how all three of us are going to work together. I feel like we all have the same interests, we can talk about racing, talk about hunting, talk about just being outside or doing something totally different, spend time together doing that and get to know each other a lot better.”

Ever since that win in the Brickyard, it has appeared Menard has been ready for an even bigger career breakthrough.

Unfortunately, he’s still waiting.

But now in his fifth season with crew chief Slugger Labbe, Menard believes this could be a magical year for him, Labbe and RCR.

“We balance each other out really well, I think,” Menard said of Labbe. “Slugger is a very hands-on crew chief, at the shop every day, with the cars, really enjoys the cars and understands the mechanics of the cars. He’s a real go-getter, I guess.

“Myself, I enjoy working with the engineers and understanding what makes the car go fast. That’s pretty cool for me. I guess we just learned to work together a long time ago, it’s clicked, we enjoy working together, we’re good friends on and off the track and this is just one of those deals that works.”

One thing that won’t work is Menard returning to Indianapolis behind the wheel of an Indy car. While his father John has been involved in the Indianapolis 500 for more than three decades, Paul will not try to emulate what AJ Allmendinger and Kurt Busch are hoping to do – namely, race in the 500 in May and then compete later that same day in NASCAR’s most grueling race, the Coca-Cola 600.

“It’s something I’ve thought about, for sure, but I don’t think it’s doable, honestly, to give it a good, fair shake,” Menard said. “I drove an Indy car 10 years ago, they’re just totally different today. They have a ton of grip until they don’t, there’s no saving them.

“I’ve seen a lot of good guys get hurt really bad, and I think it’s something you definitely have to respect. If you’re going to run a race, especially the Indy 500, you have to be there the whole month. You have to start with a lot of downforce in your car and start trimming it out until you feel that comfort. It’s going to be real hard to go out there and go fast and have your car trimmed out and not crashed and not break both your legs. That’s just my opinion.”

And then with an impish grin, Menard added, “Besides, those guys (IndyCar drivers) are little. They’re 5-foot-5 and 120 pounds. I’m six foot and 200 pounds. For one, I don’t think I could fit in the car with enough padding and security to be safe with it, and secondly, it’s a huge weight disadvantage, carrying 60 more pounds than the next guy.”

So, will 2014 really, truly be the long-awaited breakthrough year that Menard and his fans have long hoped for?

“I’m really looking forward to 2014,” he said. “It’s a year of change, for sure, not only for RCR but our sport. I’m really excited about the changes coming down the pike in our sport, and I’m really looking forward to working with Austin and Ryan this year.

“I’m just excited to get down to Daytona and kick the year off. I’m looking forward to getting back into the race car and kicking off 2014 on the right foot.”

Menard already has a Brickyard 400 win. Could a Daytona 500 win in less than two weeks be next?

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Cooper Tire extends as FIA World RX official tire supplier

CANTERBURY, ENGLAND - MAY 25:  Andreas Bakkerud of Norway leads Timmy Hansen of Sweden out of a corner drives during the FIA World Rallycross Championship at Lydden Hill Circuit on May 25, 2014 in Canterbury, England.  (Photo by Jordan Mansfield/Getty Images)
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Cooper Tire has been confirmed Tuesday as the official tire supplier for the FIA World Rallycross Championship for three more years, starting in 2017.

The move was announced today by the FIA World Motor Sport Council.

It continues Cooper Tire Europe’s run as the official tire supplier that’s occurred for several years.

Hinchcliffe embraces ambassadorial role to help grow IndyCar

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MAY 27:  James Hinchcliffe, driver of the #5  Honda Dallara, prepares to practice during Carb Day ahead of the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motorspeedway on May 27, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
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Those of us who remember the early James Hinchcliffe videos circa 2006 to 2008 – the brat video at Road America, the novelty size check, the spot-on Kimi Raikkonen imitation among others – knew then that the Canadian was never shy of being goofy to help promote not only himself, but his racing series that he competed in at the time. At that point, it was the Champ Car Atlantic series, where he spent three years before moving into Indy Lights for two years in 2009. These were the early days for the “Mayor of Hinchtown,” the head of his own fictional city.

Now though, into his sixth season in the Verizon IndyCar Series, the driver of the No. 5 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda is busier than ever with other external commitments, but he’s never stopped being an ambassador for the sport.

If anything, he’s continued to grow in that department.

This year alone has been no exception. Hinchcliffe won the pole for the 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil, which made for a remarkable story in its own right, and also meant he’d be going through the ringer of the in-between week media tour to help promote the race.

Then there was Hinchcliffe’s role as one of five IndyCar drivers on an appearance of Celebrity Family Feud, along with Helio Castroneves, Tony Kanaan, the surprisingly funny Will Power (those of us in the paddock know his humor, but probably not the national audience at large) and Hinchcliffe’s roommate and good friend Conor Daly.

Today, of course, Hinchcliffe has been named to the cast of the new season of “Dancing with the Stars.” It’s a move that sure, can grow his profile, but by default is also tasked with growing IndyCar’s, knowing how dedicated its smallish but hardcore group of fans are.

“For me personally, it’s a great opportunity to get outside my comfort zone and do something you probably don’t have the opportunity to do again,” he said during a conference call today. “After everything last year, it’s definitely given me a different approach to life and maybe given me a little bit more confidence to try things like this.

“But certainly getting one of our drivers out into some primetime, mainstream media and especially during the off-season, kind of keep IndyCar’s name out there a little bit. Again, we’re all assuming this is me making it past week one, so it’s already a bit of a bold statement. But for sure, it’s definitely got two sides to it.”

Couple all this with his outside business commitments – Hinchcliffe has been a race analyst for Champ Car races in the past, now hosts his own “Mayor on Air” podcast, has his own beer brewed by Flat 12 Bierworks (Hinchtown Hammerdown) is a co-founder of Speed Group, a driver development, management and social media/PR company and he’s a spokesperson for Honda Canada via a personal deal – and sometimes you wonder how the 29-year-old Canadian does it all.

One, he has a good group of people around him.

And two, he takes it seriously in terms of knowing what he needs to do to help promote the sport he’s been so blessed and fortunate to be a part of.

“It’s a combination of things,” he said. “From a young age, I was counseled that this is the world, this is the motorsports world that we live in, and I’ve always just prepared myself for that, and so I’ve not shied away from extra commitments.

“I’m a very driven person on track and off, whether it’s my racing or promoting the sport or outside business ventures I’m involved in. I like staying busy. I like staying active in that sense. This is a big part of our sport and is a huge help.

“This kind of thing, sure, it benefits me personally but it also benefits the sport, and I’ve always said from day one that anything that I can do outside of a race car to help grow the sport of IndyCar racing is something you can sign me up for because I’ve got such a passion for this sport.”

Hinchcliffe is in his sixth IndyCar season, but only fifth full-time after his injuries sustained last May at Indianapolis sidelined him for the rest of the year.

But like Castroneves – Hinchcliffe’s now “DWTS” compatriot and predecessor – his goal is to keep driving first and then tackle the rest of the to-do items later.

And looking at Castroneves provides him a window to do just that. The Brazilian is 41, but is in his 17th straight season with Team Penske, 19th overall since debuting as a rookie in CART driving for Tony Bettenhausen in 1998. Yet he’s still at the top of his game and in the top-five in points; Hinchcliffe is not too far behind him in eighth.

“I plan on being around it for a long time as a driver, for a long time after that, as well, and I just love the fact that we’ve got the opportunity to do this kind of stuff,” Hinchcliffe said.

“You just try and help spread the word and show people that IndyCar racing is an incredible form of sport.”

On a lighter note, Hinchcliffe’s training and dancing schedule will mean that he’ll spend quite a bit of time away from his home in Indianapolis. Daly, his good friend, is also his roommate.

Hinchcliffe joked that that part of the preparation is underway.

“I have a tremendous concern. I’ve already set up a network of people that will be coming to check on him and the house in my absence,” he deadpanned, in classic “Hinch” form.

Sabres’ favorite to sing Canadian, American anthems for IndyCar race at Watkins Glen

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Don’t be surprised if some fans attending Saturday’s Indy Lights race or Sunday’s Verizon IndyCar Series Grand Prix at the Glen, both at Watkins Glen International, wear jerseys or jackets of the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres.

The Sabres’ beloved national anthem singer, Doug Allen, will sing both the Canadian and American Anthems prior to the start of both of this weekend’s races.

Known as “Anthem Guy,” Allen has gotten Sabres fans fired up before home games for over 20 years by singing “O Canada” and “The Star Spangled Banner.”

Allen is also known for his charitable side, serving as Facilities Coordinator for the Buffalo City Mission and Worship director at his church, Fellowship Wesleyan Church in West Seneca, New York.

Sunday’s race is the second-to-last event on the 16-race IndyCar schedule. It replaces the originally scheduled race for this weekend, the inaugural event in Boston, which was subsequently cancelled.

Here’s an example of Allen and his stirring rendition of the anthems:

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Kevin Magnussen set to race Italian GP pending final check

during final practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Belgium at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps on August 27, 2016 in Spa, Belgium.
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Following a series of checks both on-site in hospital at Verviers and further checks back home in Denmark, Kevin Magnnussen appears set to compete in this weekend’s Italian Grand Prix, barring any hiccups from a final check on Thursday from the FIA.

Renault Sport F1 Team released the following update on Tuesday:

During the Belgian Grand Prix held at Spa-Francorchamps on Sunday 28 August Renault Sport Formula One Team driver Kevin Magnussen exited the track at high speed. After initial checks at the circuit’s medical centre, Kevin was referred to a local hospital in Verviers for further routine examinations.

Kevin had heavily bruised his left ankle but the tests showed no fracture or serious injury and he was released from hospital the same day and returned home to Denmark. He has since undergone further checks in Denmark that indicate he is able to race at the Italian Grand Prix in six days.

The FIA will confirm Kevin is fit to compete following a final assessment on Thursday in Monza.

Kevin commented, ‘I’m feeling much better, which is very good news. I’ve had several checks that show I am fit to race in Monza and I am sure I will be in the car this weekend. We were running in the top ten in Belgium and I’m very motivated to repeat this again in Italy.’

No further comment will be given.