After 2013, what will Matt Kenseth do for an encore? Be even better in 2014, that’s what

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If Matt Kenseth was a concert pianist who just gave the performance of his life, he invariably would be be asked afterward what he’ll do for an encore.

Being the mild-mannered soul that he is, Kenseth would likely answer very simply, “Be even better the next time.”

Kenseth unquestionably had the best season of his career in 2013 after moving to Joe Gibbs Racing, winning a Sprint Cup Series-high seven races and just barely losing out in the championship battle to Jimmie Johnson.

Now that he’s had time to reflect during the offseason over all the good that happened to him and his team in 2013, not to mention the bad – like the Chase race at Phoenix that essentially cost him the championship – Kenseth is ready to begin his encore performance with the season-opening Daytona 500 on Feb. 23.

“Just keep working on it,” Kenseth said during Thursday’s Media Day at Daytona International Speedway when asked what he can do better in 2014 than he did in 2013. “There’s a lot of people that would love to have our season — it was a great season last year and we’re just going to try to improve and try to be better if that’s possible this year.”

The Wisconsin native is going for his third 500 crown and potentially may try to mirror Johnson in a sense: Johnson began the run to his sixth Sprint Cup championship by winning last year’s 500 and then bookending the season by winning the championship in the season-ending race at Homestead Miami Speedway.

Maybe yet another 500 win will be the final piece to the puzzle for Kenseth to win his second career Cup championship in 2014.

“You always go back after every race, every practice, every qualifying session, certainly every season and you look back and try to see what you can do to improve,” Kenseth said. “I’m super far from perfect so certainly there are mistakes I could have eliminated.

“There’s certainly things I can do a lot better, so I think you always do that and you look back and try to make it better. Last year was a spectacular year for us obviously. We had really, really fast cars, led a lot of laps, qualified good, won a lot of races and really had a pretty decent last 10 races.”

But then Kenseth had to admit a twinge of regret:

“Would have been good enough to win (the championship) some years, it just wasn’t last year.”

Admittedly, NASCAR’s so-called hangover effect is somewhat of a concern for Kenseth. That’s essentially what happens when a driver has an outstanding season one year – some even go so far as to win the championship – only to have a big fall the following year.

It happened to Brad Keselowski in 2013. He failed to defend his Cup championship from the year before. In fact, Keselowski didn’t even make last season’s Chase for the Sprint Cup.

It also happened to Carl Edwards in 2012, after just barely missing winning the championship in 2011, losing in a tiebreaker to Tony Stewart. Instead of picking up where he left off the season before, Edwards suffered through a winless and Chase-less year in 2012.

Stewart certainly knows that feeling well, too. He won his second of three Cup championships in 2005, only to miss qualifying for the Chase the following season.

Kenseth is optimistic that won’t happen to him in 2014.

“If anybody was going to have a hangover the next year you would think it would be Jimmie (Johnson) winning the championship because they had a lot of fun,” Kenseth said. “I’m not a big believer in that stuff. Every situation is a little bit different. I don’t know why that would be. Certainly as we got into the Chase and as we were leading and tied and behind and ahead again — we were tied with two races to go or three races to go and not to win it when we were that close and going to tracks that we thought were going to be really good was a little disappointing for sure.  We’d be lying if we said it wasn’t.

“On the other hand, it was our first year together. When we sat here last year at this time we were really excited, we didn’t really know exactly what to expect or how we were going to do. We all had high hopes.  Our goals were high that we were going to go out and win races and compete and make the Chase.

“To expect that and hope for that is different than doing it so I don’t think anybody expected us to have the year that we had. It was way better than we expected. I feel as good today as I did sitting here last year. I don’t know why we shouldn’t be better this year.”

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A full day of Fernando: Alonso takes Barber by storm (VIDEO)

Brown and Alonso. Photo: IndyCar
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Fernando Alonso was a busy man today at the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama, as he prepares for the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil and made the rounds of media and promotion in doing so as part of his joint entry into the race thanks to McLaren, Honda and Andretti Autosport.

The two-time Formula 1 World Champion arrived on pit lane for Sunday’s morning warmup and set up in Ryan Hunter-Reay’s No. 28 DHL Honda pit, where he’d interact with Michael Andretti and the rest of the team.

Alonso then made it to the media center for a formal press conference with Andretti, McLaren F1 executive director Zak Brown and Hulman & Co. CEO Mark Miles, the head of INDYCAR’s parent company. Alonso was high on life through most of the press conference and had a few playful jabs at some of his competitors.

Before the race, Alonso signed some autographs for fans, who were pleased he was on site.

Photo: IndyCar
Photo: IndyCar

From there, it was a chance to head to the grid and speak with NBCSN IndyCar analyst Townsend Bell.

Alonso’s day wasn’t done, as he visited both the NBCSN booth and the Advance Auto Parts IndyCar Radio Network booth for further interviews. A portion of the NBCSN interview is below.

Alonso will now head to Indianapolis with the team this week for a seat fit and further preparation for his May 3 test at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, his first run in the car. He’ll then be off to Sochi, Russia for next weekend’s Russian Grand Prix, which you can see on NBCSN (times here).

Dixon maintains excellent start despite another tough P2 at Barber

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Such is the brilliance of Scott Dixon that his start to his 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season – finishes of third, fourth and second – can be viewed as disappointing because potential wins have gone begging.

The latest chapter of his almost-winning-but-not-quite saga to open this year’s campaign occurred at the track where he has his best results without a win, Barber Motorsports Park.

Dixon was top Honda on the day in the No. 9 NTT Data Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing in the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama, but alas, one spot short of a victory as he scored his seventh Barber podium in eight races – all of them either seconds or thirds.

On this occasion, Dixon did his usual masterstroke of fuel saving by running longest in the first stint, running to Lap 24 and leading two laps.

Dixon also got ahead of Josef Newgarden on the final pit stop sequence despite running behind him and Will Power on the road during the middle stint.

But after a restart from the second and last full-course caution on Lap 68, Newgarden muscled his way past Dixon at Turns 15 and 16 for third place on the inside, leaving Dixon very little room on corner exit in a forceful but not dirty passing move.

While that was for third at the time, it wound up being the pass for the win because Dixon’s teammate, then-leader Charlie Kimball, pitted from an off-sequence strategy and the would-be winner, Power, pitted with a left rear puncture.

It left Dixon high and dry but in his usual so good, yet so close, P2, with three laps led. He felt worse for Power and gave Newgarden plaudits for the move.

“I saw him late coming into Turn 15 or 16. I tried to hold him back, but I wasn’t able to hold him back. It’s deserved for him,” Dixon told NBCSN’s Marty Snider post-race.

“The NTT Data car was strong. I feel bad for Will Power. It was a false flat tire perhaps? So yeah, that and a good job to Josef.”

Dixon elaborated a bit more on the day in the post-race press conference.

“I typically hold a fairly tight line there. But, yeah, he dove it in there, with some speed. He couldn’t make the corner at the appropriate time, so we kind of both ran wide there. But, you know, it was a great move.

“Josef did a hell of a job there on the blacks. Obviously had a clean start and really had some good longevity on that stint and was able to pit short and jump on reds.

“I think, you know, I feel bad for Will obviously with the flat tire issue there, but then also left the door open a little bit in 16. Josef put his nose in there. Tried to turn down, but through that whole complex, 14, 15, 16, I was just so loose. If I turned more, would have spun out.

“Credit to Josef. Drove a hell of a race. Team Penske, congratulations to them. Seventh podium here at Alabama without a win. Good in a lot of ways, but unfortunately we come here to win and we came up short.”

Despite not winning, Dixon still sits second in the points, just six points behind Sebastien Bourdais, who finished eighth.

Dixon and the rest of the Verizon IndyCar Series head to the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix next weekend (Saturday, 9 p.m. ET, NBCSN), where he has a win to defend.

NHRA: Pro Stock teams get into confrontation during Houston race

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The temperature was only around 70 degrees but tempers got into triple digits Sunday at the NHRA Springnationals in suburban Houston, Texas.

The crews of Pro Stock drivers Tanner Gray and Alex Laughlin did a lot of pushing and shoving during a confrontation between both sides in the pits at Royal Purple Raceway in Baytown, Texas.

Gray had defeated Laughlin in their first round of eliminations matchup Sunday.

The relationship between the two teams had apparently become strained when Laughlin switched from Gray Motorsports engines to Elite Motorsports engines in his race car for this weekend’s event.

Laughlin told FoxSports.com, “I got down there, turned the car off and got out. We were both walking over to the ticket stand to get our time slips and I had absolutely nothing to say to him. He grabbed his ticket before I got mine and then he slapped me on the back and said ‘how the [expletive] did that work out for you?’”

Tanner Gray — Photo courtesy NHRA

After the first incident at the timing/scoring booth at the end of the track, the two teams confronted each other once both cars returned to the pits.

“We got back to the pit and I was telling Richard (Elite Motorsports boss Richard) the story and Tanner is standing over there smiling at us from his pit,” Laughlin told FoxSports.com. “Richard said, ‘What are you looking at?’ and Tanner throws his hands up like ‘bring it on,’ and that’s when the crews came together.”

Tanner Gray, who turned 19 years old on April 15, is in his rookie year of racing in the NHRA Pro Stock ranks.

“The whole thing is just stupid and could have been avoided if he just grew up a little,” the 28-year-old Laughlin told FoxSports.com. “He’s going to have a very hard career if he acts like a spoiled kid every race.”

There was no immediate comment from the Tanner Gray camp.

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Deflating end for Will Power’s Barber win hopes (VIDEO)

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Will Power’s luckless run of races continued in Sunday’s Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama, as the polesitter and driver of the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet saw a sure win evaporate with a left rear puncture inside the final 15 laps of the 90-lap race.

Both Team Penske and Firestone have confirmed the left rear puncture to Power’s car, which forced an unscheduled pit stop on Lap 77.

Despite leading 60 of 90 laps, Power was left to finish 14th – his fifth consecutive result of 13th or worse in the Verizon IndyCar Series dating to Watkins Glen on Labor Day weekend last September.

Power controlled the race from the front of the field, losing the lead only during the various pit stop sequences. He didn’t run as long as Scott Dixon on the first stint – Dixon was able to run 24 laps out of the gate – and then fell behind his recent sparring partner Charlie Kimball after Kimball ran a random off-sequence pit strategy to lead laps late in the race, even though he’d need to pit.

The Australian inherited the race lead once Kimball pitted on Lap 75 and looked poised to snap his recent run of rough luck, but fell victim to a left rear puncture after cutting his tire in the laps previous.

The Team Penske team had told Power to pit for a couple laps, with Power instead going against the call as he thought the tire wasn’t bad enough to merit giving up the lead and losing the race.

But he answered the call to the pits on Lap 77 and that was it as far as his day went. Power fell to 17th place and was only able to recover three positions afterwards.

Speaking to NBCSN’s Robin Miller, Power lamented another lost day.

“It was such a great effort. The car was awesome and so fast. I feel bad,” Power told NBCSN. “It was literally five races in a row. Three mechanical issues. And just yeah, I don’t know what to say.

“I was feeling it. I felt it start to bottom (out). I tried to tell ’em for as long as I could it was alright, but I could feel it. Yep, that’s it. Move onto the next one.”

The next one for Power is next week’s Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix, where he finished third last year in his first start of the 2016 season. After the five P13 or worse races and an eighth at Texas, it’s been since IndyCar’s last oval race – August 22 at Pocono Raceway – where Power last stood on the podium. That race, he won.

Small consolation was that Power did move up four positions in the points standings from 17th to a tie for 13th with Graham Rahal, and is just 10 points outside the top 10. He sits 67 markers behind series leader Sebastien Bourdais.