Dale Earnhardt Jr

Dale Earnhardt Jr. tops speed charts in first practice for Sprint Unlimited

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Can you say, “Junior, Junior, Junior!”?

If anyone doubts that Dale Earnhardt Jr. is more determined than he’s ever been to not only win his first Sprint Cup championship but also to send Steve Letarte out a winner in his final year as a NASCAR crew chief before moving to an analyst role on NBC Sports in 2015, think again.

The winner of the 2004 Daytona 500 made it very clear Friday in the first practice session for Saturday’s Sprint Unlimited that he intends on going fast and – more importantly – win in 2014.

Earnhardt topped the 18-driver field late Saturday afternoon with a best lap of 198.421 mph on the 20th of 30 laps he turned in practice.

Kyle Busch, who many media members are predicting as perhaps Jimmie Johnson’s biggest challenge for the 2014 Sprint Cup championship, was second-fastest at 198.255 mph, turning his fast lap on the 21st of 30 laps. The younger Busch brother and Earnhardt were the only drivers to complete 30 laps of practice.

In total, six drivers eclipsed the 198 mph mark, with the other four being: Kurt Busch (198.124), Kevin Harvick (198.111), Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (198.094) and Matt Kenseth (198.024).

In his first appearance in a race car since his horrific crash in a sprint car last August 5, Tony Stewart did very well, all things considered, turning a best lap of 197.377 mph, good for 10th in the session.

Danica Patrick, who won the pole for last year’s Daytona 500, was right behind her boss and Stewart Haas Racing teammate with the 11th fastest speed at 197.118 mph.

Surprisingly – or could it be a case of sandbagging – Johnson was the slowest with a top lap of just 190.359 mph in 12 total laps.

Check back with NBCSports.com’s MotorSportsTalk again later this evening for results of the second practice session.

Here’s the top lap speeds for all 18 drivers:

1. Dale Earnhardt Jr. 198.421 mph

2. Kyle Busch 198.255

3. Kurt Busch 198.124

4. Kevin Harvick 198.111

5. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. 198.094

6. Matt Kenseth 198.024

7. Ryan Newman 197.954

8. Marcos Ambrose 197.850

9. Denny Hamlin 197.420

10. Tony Stewart 197.377

11. Danica Patrick 197.118

12. Carl Edwards 197.096

13. Joey Logano 196.846

14. Brad Keselowski 196.812

15. Jamie McMurray 196.812

16. Jeff Gordon 196.730

17. Terry Labonte 190.852

18. Jimmie Johnson 190.359

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Next batch of Indy Lights drivers set to test at Sonoma

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From L to R: Negrao, Urrutia and Veach have their first IndyCar tests. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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Zach Veach, Santiago Urrutia and Andre Negrao are the next three Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires drivers who will have a chance to make their maiden IndyCar tests this year as part of an Indy Lights Driver Test day.

Belardi Auto Racing’s Veach will score a long-awaited first test in one of Ed Carpenter Racing’s Chevrolets (is listed in Josef Newgarden’s car), while Schmidt Peterson Motorsports with Curb-Agajanian teammates Urrutia and Negrao are set to share James Hinchcliffe and Mikhail Aleshin’s Hondas, respectively.

Veach told NBC Sports of the opportunity he “feels like a kid the night before Christmas,” while the SPM twins make a natural step up.

The test occurs September 8 at Sonoma Raceway, in preparation for the Verizon IndyCar Series season finale there September 18.

Meanwhile the three of them will complete their running at Sonoma and then head south to Monterey, where the Indy Lights finale takes place as part of an all-Mazda weekend at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca.

Urrutia currently leads that championship heading into the penultimate round at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca from Sept. 9-11. The Uruguayan seeks his second straight title on the Mazda Road to Indy after winning the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires last year.

They also join this list of Indy Lights drivers or graduates, who’ve tested an IndyCar this year:

  • Jack Harvey (2015), Zachary Claman De Melo, SPM, Mid-Ohio
  • Felix Rosenqvist, Chip Ganassi Racing Teams, Mid-Ohio
  • RC Enerson, Dale Coyne Racing, Mid-Ohio (debuted for race team the next week)
  • Ed Jones, RLL Racing, Watkins Glen
  • Dean Stoneman, Dalton Kellett, Shelby Blackstock, Andretti Autosport, Watkins Glen
  • Santiago Urrutia, Andre Negrao, SPM, Sonoma
  • Zach Veach, ECR, Sonoma

It leaves only Felix Serralles, Kyle Kaiser and Neil Alberico as the only full-season drivers in Indy Lights this year who have not had a run in an IndyCar as yet.

Verstappen will be on hostile Ferrari territory in Monza

SPA, BELGIUM - AUGUST 28: Max Verstappen of the Netherlands driving the (33) Red Bull Racing Red Bull-TAG Heuer RB12 TAG Heuer leads Kimi Raikkonen of Finland driving the (7) Scuderia Ferrari SF16-H Ferrari 059/5 turbo (Shell GP) on track during the Formula One Grand Prix of Belgium at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps on August 28, 2016 in Spa, Belgium  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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If Max Verstappen attempts any more jostling with the Ferrari cars this weekend, he’s going to get a rough reception from the crowd at the Italian Grand Prix.

Unlike last weekend’s Belgian Grand Prix, which was the closest thing to a home race for the 18-year-old Dutch driver, Verstappen will be on hostile territory in Monza – which is effectively Ferrari’s home track.

There was a high-profile tangle between Verstappen and both Ferraris on the first turn in Spa, and Verstappen then infuriated Kimi Raikkonen with some aggressive blocking moves when the 36-year-old Finn tried to get past him at high speed later in the race. Raikkonen lost his cool and angrily berated Verstappen.

While Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg at Mercedes remain the drivers to beat, the developing rivalry between Verstappen – Formula One’s rising star – and Ferrari threatens to overshadow what happens at the front.

In May, Verstappen drove brilliantly to win the Spanish GP on his Red Bull debut – joining from feeder team Toro Rosso after just four races of this season – and he followed that up with three more podium finishes. In Belgium, he became the youngest driver ever to qualify on the front row, starting from second, only to finish a disappointing 11th.

Verstappen sits sixth in the drivers’ standings, just behind Ferrari’s Vettel and Raikkonen.

By winning in Belgium, Rosberg moved within nine points of Hamilton at the top of the standings. While Hamilton had to start from the back row in Spa as a result of too many engine-part changes this season, he should be free of penalties in Monza.

Here are some other things to know about the Italian GP:

CIRCUIT CONTRACT: Monza’s contract with F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone expires this year but the Italian Automobile Club (ACI) is prepared to offer a new three-year deal worth 68 million euros ($76 million).

Ecclestone had requested 25 million euros ($28 million) per year.

No circuit has hosted more F1 racing than Monza, which was on the inaugural 1950 calendar and has been a mainstay ever since, only dropping off in 1980 when Imola hosted the Italian GP. The track located in a royal park outside of Milan will be hosting its 66th GP this weekend.

FULL THROTTLE: With parts of the Monza circuit still featuring long straight sections from an old oval track, it features the fastest speeds in F1.

Speeds can reach 370 kph (230 mph) on the approach to Turn 1 at the end of the start/finish straightaway.

Teams prepare low-drag configurations that are generally only seen in Italy.

While average speeds are high, cornering speeds are reasonably low, which minimizes tire wear.

Most teams will aim for a one pit-stop strategy. All the top-10 finishers in last year’s race stopped once.

DISTINCTLY DIFFERENT: “I love the notion of coming to a racetrack that’s distinctly different from the others,” McLaren Honda driver Jenson Button said. “People often think that Monza is all about the straights, with tight, small corners. But that’s not really true. Corners like the Lesmos, the Ascari chicane and Parabolica are big, fast corners that require precision and commitment. It’s a great track.”

HARD BRAKING: Much of the action in Monza occurs at the start. The track is very wide along the start-finish straight, which gives cars plenty of room to maneuver on the long run to Turn 1. Drivers accelerate up to 300 kph (185 mph) then brake hard entering the slowest corner on the track.

CHANGES PLANNED: Changes are planned for the Monza circuit for the 2017 race, with a new first corner bypassing the sweeping Curva Grande. So this should be the last race on the classic layout.

Andrew Dampf on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/asdampf

MRTI: Rinus VK confirmed with Carlin’s USF2000 program

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Photo: Rinus VK Racing
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Dutch talent Rinus VK (Van Kalmthout) was announced to join the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda back in May during the weekend at Indianapolis, and now his team is set with the new Carlin Benik program.

Dutch driver Rinus VK today announced he will be making his debut in the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda in 2017 with powerhouse team Carlin.

“We have spoken with several teams in the last few months, but when the opportunity to join Carlin Benik came along I didn’t have to think long. Making the deal with Carlin Benik is an important step for us. Having secured the seat I now feel I truly am an USF2000 driver”, Rinus VK says.

Having announced his intent to compete on the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires ladder system in May at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Rinus now has his plans firmed up, and Racing Director Trevor Carlin couldn’t be happier about having secured the teenager for the team’s initial foray into USF2000.

“Sander Dorsman, team manager at MP Motorsport, tipped me about Rinus”, Trevor explains. “I know Sander very well from the GP2 Series and respect his judgement. I started to follow Rinus and soon knew he would be the perfect young talent for our new USF2000 team at Carlin Benik.”

Carlin is one of the winningest teams in the history of junior open-wheel racing, having won 15 championships, scored over 300 race wins and 800 podiums. The team has worked with Verizon IndyCar Series champion Will Power as well as race winners Josef Newgarden, Charlie Kimball and Takuma Sato. They’ve also had a crucial role in the development of F1 drivers such as Sebastian Vettel, Daniel Ricciardo and Nico Rosberg, and Rinus plans on taking full advantage of the team’s heritage and infrastructure. Carlin have joined forces with top US kart team Benik, to create a strong package for the team’s debut in USF2000 in 2017.

Owned and operated by long-time karting industry members Ben Cruttenden and Nick Mitchell, Benik Kart operates out of Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, close to Carlin’s US base in Delray Beach, where the team’s USF2000 cars will be prepared. Combining the expertise of both teams with young drivers, Carlin will provide all personnel and technical expertise when the Carlin Benik squad take to the track.

Rinus is delighted with the signed contract: “Carlin is known to be strong in new competitions and an endless number of Carlin drivers have made it to the top in motorsport all over the world. I’m sure Trevor and his team will have the new USF2000 chassis built up in the best possible way, so I think they can help me to perform on top of my ability.”

Rinus is one of three Dutch drivers on the renowned KNAF Talent First development program. The program has seen drivers such as Max Verstappen rise through the ranks en route to the top levels of the sport. He is also supported by Holland’s largest supermarket chain, Jumbo, which have been supporters of racing for several decades.

Rinus and Carlin Benik will begin their off-season preparations at the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course via the Chris Griffis Memorial test on October 8-9, 2016. The date will mark the first opportunity for teams and drivers to sample the all new Tatuus USF-17 racecar that will be utilized for the 2017 USF2000 season.

MRTI: Can SPM Indy Lights road course juggernaut be stopped?

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Urrutia (55) and Stoneman (27). Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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With just two race weekends left on the top rung of the Mazda Road to Indy ladder, the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, it appears the road to the title will go through Schmidt Peterson Motorsports with Curb-Agajanian.

Via both incredible weekend performance and the best luck, both Santiago Urrutia in the No. 55 Soul Red Mazda and teammate Andre Negrao in the No. 17 Lucas Oil-backed Dallara IL-15 Mazdas have been on a roll of late.

Urrutia’s won the last three races on permanent road courses and four overall this year; they’ve been the site of all four of his wins this season.

Additionally, the Uruguayan who seeks his second straight Mazda Advancement scholarship after winning last year’s Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires crown, has been a points-scoring machine on the road courses.

He has 201 points in the eight permanent road course races, two apiece at Barber Motorsports Park, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course, Road America and the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. Closest title rivals Dean Stoneman and Ed Jones are second and third, respectively, with 165 and 163 points.

That being said, Urrutia has also had luck on his side. He’s one of only two full-season drivers – Shelby Blackstock is the other – who has had not a DNF in one of the eight road course races this year.

Either mechanicals or accidents have hit the rest of the grid at least once. So with three road course races remaining, you worry if the law of averages will catch up with Urrutia.

Negrao, meanwhile, has been on a roll as well and this could be the site of his first career victory. He’s scored two seconds and a third in the last three road course races, and with second in Toronto race two as well, he’s been on the podium four of the past six races.

Since Road America race two, Negrao has scored 115 points, which is second only to Urrutia’s 151 in the same time frame of six races.

Zach Veach (111), Felix Serralles (105), Stoneman (103), Kyle Kaiser (101) and Jones (89)  – the other title contenders – have all scored less in that same time frame.

With just the two cars, SPM’s road course performance has perhaps surprisingly gone up in the last two road course weekends – and SPM has six of a possible six podiums achieved in the last three races. Stoneman, with two at Mid-Ohio, and Veach, with one at Road America, have been the only drivers to break the stranglehold.

Jones, surprisingly, has not stood on a road course podium since his win at the first of two IMS road course races back in May. Carlin teammate Serralles managed a third behind Veach and Stoneman in Road America race one, the last weekend before Indy Lights Race Director Tony Cotman placed Jones, Stoneman and Urrutia all on probation for the rest of the season.

So what will happen at Watkins Glen? It’s a one-race weekend, and only a two-day event with two practice sessions on Friday before qualifying and the race both take place on Saturday (race airs Sunday, 1 p.m. ET on NBCSN, as a lead-in to Verizon IndyCar Series race coverage).

Judging by recent performances, it’s hard to say SPM will be toppled. The repaved Watkins Glen track will produce smooth, fast lap times.

And while the cars were different, SPM has a potential setup edge – along with Andretti Autosport – from having run here in Indy Lights’ past races at Watkins Glen from 2005 to 2010. Combined, they won the last six Indy Lights races (Andretti with Wade Cunningham, Raphael Matos and JR Hildebrand and Schmidt with Alex Lloyd, Richard Antinucci and JK Vernay) from 2007 through 2010.

But Andretti’s trio could do well here. Stoneman, Blackstock and Dalton Kellett all recently tested one of Andretti’s IndyCars apiece here – so they have a bit of track experience. Blackstock loves the circuit; he has a good amount of sports car experience here, and a podium or top-five finish should not be discounted for him. Jones, who tested with RLL Racing, also had a chance to sample this track surface.

Meanwhile Carlin, Belardi Auto Racing, Juncos Racing, Team Pelfrey will all be making their first Indy Lights starts at the track. Belardi’s Veach and/or Pelfrey and Garett Grist could be sleepers; Pelfrey team manager Gary Neal knows the track well from 8Star Motorsports’ sports car days and Grist has overachieved at times in his first few Indy Lights starts.