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Healed and stronger, Denny Hamlin ready to pick up in 2014 where he left off at Homestead


When the green flag drops to start the 56th Daytona 500 on Feb. 23, it’ll be 98 days and 290 miles between races for Denny Hamlin.

But even with the time lapse and the distance between Hamlin’s 2013 season-ending win at Homestead Miami Speedway and the 2014 Sprint Cup season opener at Daytona International Speedway, the Virginia native still feels like it was just yesterday that he took home the checkered flag.

And even with the layoff, Hamlin still feels like he has the best momentum of pretty much any fellow competitor coming into this year’s 500, based upon how he ended the most difficult year of his career at Homestead.

“Homestead, for me, made me believe that it’s possible, that if I get back healthy, this is the kind of results we can expect and this is how I should expect to run,” Hamlin told MotorSportsTalk. “So, not that Homestead made me change how hard I worked in the gym this off-season, but it definitely motivated me to know that if I’m feeling good, I’m going to be running good.”

There’s no denying how difficult and frustrating last season was for Hamlin. He was in the worst wreck of his career, forced to miss the next four races as a result of the back injury he sustained in a head-on crash into a unpadded retaining wall at Auto Club Speedway last March.

“It’s a dead year in a lot of ways,” Hamlin said.

To say Hamlin is more cerebral coming into 2014 is not a stretch. Up until last season, he relied more so on his talent to lead him behind the wheel. But now, he’s much more of a thinking man’s driver.

“What I take from it the most, I would say, would be just the appreciation of when you do run well,” he said. “I took for granted just making the Chase every single year and winning multiple races every year. Just like it was easy, really didn’t have to prepare for it.  I just showed up and we did it.

“With the competition and how we ran at the end of last year, you’ve got to think about preparing for more weeks and preparing to be good, you can’t just rely on talent to do it. “It’s looking over what you struggled with last time. It’s all about debriefing and figuring out in your meeting how can you get better? Not just chalking it up, ‘Oh, it’s just a bad weekend. We’ll rebound next weekend.’ No, why? Why did you struggle? How can you get better?”

Just putting the pedal to the metal won’t get it done anymore, Hamlin acknowledges. And what’s brought about the biggest change in him has nothing to do with Denny the race car driver, but more so Denny the man.

“I had a daughter, that helped a lot,” Hamlin said. “One thing’s for sure, as crappy as my weekends were week in and week out, it lasted as long as the plane ride home. That helped a ton.

“Those two events, having a daughter and having to sit out a few races, made me probably change my outlook more than anything has in the eight years that I’ve been in the Cup series on getting through those bad weeks and getting to the good ones and hopefully seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. Those two things have changed the way I think about my job and what I have to do and hopefully it’s all for the good and shows up in 2014.”

Hamlin ultimately finished 2013 in 23rd place, which in and of itself is pretty significant. Sure, it was the worst finish of his Sprint Cup career, but he still managed to do so in just 32 races, compiling the win at Homestead, four top-5 and eight top-10 finishes.

By comparison, Hamlin finished higher than eight other full-time Cup competitors – including Casey Mears, Talladega spring winner David Ragan and Danica Patrick – in less races.

There were a number of critics that implored Hamlin to sit out the rest of the season and recuperate from the serious compression fracture he suffered at Fontana, that he needed complete rest and he was in effect hurting both himself and his team by playing hurt.

To his credit, Hamlin turned a deaf ear to the naysayers. And while admittedly his performance suffered, particularly in the middle of the season, he persevered and tuned out both his critics and the pain.

But no medicine could have made Hamlin feel better than the win at Homestead. Sure, his accomplishment was overshadowed by Jimmie Johnson winning his sixth Sprint Cup championship the same day, but Hamlin got exactly the kind of dose he needed: to go out a winner and build upon that momentum going into 2014.

“As the season got further towards the end, I started feeling better and better, and our performance just really started going with it,” he said. “Hopefully, my results (in 2014) go with all the hard work I’ve put in because I’ve done everything that I can to make sure that I’m well for this year. I don’t want to be the weak link, like I was during the summer, I feel like, for our team.”

So with the season opener now less than 10 days away, how is Hamlin feeling?

“I haven’t had anything, really,” he said when asked if he’s had any lingering pain. “Everything’s been good. I just feel so much stronger than I have been, so it shouldn’t be an issue at all. I think that really everything’s roses from here on out and we’ll see how it goes.”

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Ocon crowned GP3 champion after edging Ghiotto in finale

2015 GP3 Series Round 9
Yas Marina Circuit, Abu Dhabi, UAE.
Sunday 29 November 2015.
Esteban Ocon (FRA, ART Grand Prix) 
Photo: Sam Bloxham/GP3 Series Media Service.
ref: Digital Image _G7C8630
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Esteban Ocon became the sixth winner of the GP3 Series on Sunday in Abu Dhabi after edging out championship rival Luca Ghiotto in a tantalizing title decider at the Yas Marina Circuit.

Ocon entered the final race of the season leading Ghiotto by six points after taking pole position on Saturday and finishing fifth following a time penalty.

The two championship protagonists started fourth and fifth on the grid, but it was Ocon who made a better start to jump ahead of Ghiotto.

Contact was made between the duo, costing Ghiotto a small part of his front-wing endplate and dropping the Italian down to P7.

Ghiotto fought his way back up to fourth place, knowing that he had to catch and pass Ocon in third if he was to stand any chance of winning the title for Trident.

However, Ocon managed to eke out a small advantage over the laps that followed, dropping Ghiotto into the clutches of Jimmy Eriksson behind.

Although Ghiotto managed to stay fourth, he could not catch Ocon, who kept his cool to cross the line third and claim the series title.

Despite winning just one race all year long, a further 13 podium finishes in 18 races proved crucial as Ocon beat Ghiotto by eight points in the final standings.

“It’s what we wanted to achieve since the beginning of the season, and I’m very happy to finally achieve it,” Ocon said.

“It was a long season, and especially a long weekend, a lot of stress but yes, very happy to end up with the championship win.”

The Frenchman recently joined Mercedes’ driver academy as a full member, and has been tipped for a move into either GP2 or DTM for the 2016 season.

The race in Abu Dhabi was won by Campos Racing’s Alex Palou, marking the young Spaniard’s first victory in GP3. He beat Ferrari youngster Antonio Fuoco by 4.4 seconds as the Italian picked up his second podium finish of the year.

Hamilton nominated for BBC Sports Personality award

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 29:  Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP walks to the drivers' parade before the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 29, 2015 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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2015 Formula 1 world champion Lewis Hamilton has been nominated for the prestigious BBC Sports Personality of the Year award.

Hamilton won the award for the first time in 2014 after clinching his second F1 title, and will defend his crown at a ceremony in Belfast, Northern Ireland on December 20.

The BBC Sports Personality of the Year award celebrates the highlights of the British sporting year, and has previous winners including David Beckham, Steve Redgrave and Lennox Lewis.

From F1, Hamilton is not the only former winner: Damon Hill, Nigel Mansell and Jackie Stewart all winning the trophy in the past in recognition of their on-track feats.

Hamilton features on a shortlist of 12, and is joined by tennis player Andy Murray following Great Britain’s first Davis Cup win in 79 years, boxer Tyson Fury after his defeat of Wladimir Klitschko on Saturday night and Tour de France winner Chris Froome.

You can see the shortlist in full here.

GP2 season finale cancelled due to barrier damage

2015 GP2 Series Round 11.
Yas Marina Circuit, Abu Dhabi, UAE.
Sunday 29 November 2015.
The cars queue up in the pit lane during the red flag.
Photo: Sam Bloxham/GP2 Series Media Service.
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The final race of the 2015 GP2 Series season in Abu Dhabi was cancelled on Sunday after a multi-car crash on the first lap caused damage to one of the barriers.

The crash was sparked by DAMS driver Pierre Gasly, who spun at turn two before trying to point his car back in the right direction, only to move into the path of the oncoming cars.

Nicholas Latifi, Artem Markelov, Daniel de Jong and Sean Gelael were all caught up in the accident, spearing into the barrier on the left-hand side of the track. Sergey Sirotkin and Arthur Pic also collided in a separate incident.

Race officials acted quickly to throw the red flag so that the cars could be recovered, only to find that the barrier had been severely damaged.

A lengthy wait followed as the marshals tried to repair it, but with the season-ending Formula 1 grand prix’s start time drawing ever nearer, the race eventually had to be called off.

Alex Lynn had been leading, but with less than a single lap completed, no points could be awarded for the race.

Subsequently, the standings following Saturday’s feature race in Abu Dhabi would stand as the final championship result with title winner Stoffel Vandoorne finishing the year 160 points clear of American driver Alexander Rossi in second place.

Sirotkin held onto third place despite not scoring in Abu Dhabi, while Rio Haryanto ended the year in fourth just one point further back. Mitch Evens ranked fifth in the final standings ahead of Lynn, Raffaele Marciello and Gasly who all finished on 110 points.

The GP2 teams will return to the track in Abu Dhabi later this week for the beginning of winter testing.

Despite late start, CGR Rallycross started first Red Bull GRC season strong

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MotorSportsTalk takes a look back at Chip Ganassi Racing Rallycross’ first season in the Red Bull Global Rallycross. First up is a look at how the season started, and how late things came together for the two-car effort, with a further look at the season after the first couple races coming in part two.

At the start of the season, Chip Ganassi said of his latest new racing project, a two-car Ford Fiesta effort in Red Bull Global Rallycross, “I’m the person that likes to come in and under promise and over deliver.”

Mission almost accomplished.

About the only thing the new CGR Rallycross program didn’t achieve in 2015 was a final round victory in its first year.

It sounds bad on the surface, but consider the competition level and the fact Ganassi didn’t win its first IndyCar race until its fifth season in 1994, and you get the sense CGR Rallycross is closer to a breakthrough than its IndyCar program was at the same time in its lifespan.

The fact the team even ran two cars this season was testament to an incredible last-minute effort of preparation, as the cars were received mere weeks before the season-opening round at Fort Lauderdale, May 31.

Team manager Carl Goodman explained how close it came to missing the planned debut.

“We only just got the first one just a couple weeks before,” Goodman told MotorSportsTalk. “We had three days of testing this year; a three-day test in Florida before season started. And the drivers had to share that car… it was only one car!

“We didn’t even know if we’d have a second car in moving from Ft. Lauderdale to Texas (for X Games). So every race weekend has been a test for us.”

The team’s lineup of Steve Arpin and Brian Deegan didn’t actually debut in full until X Games, and Jeff Ward filled in for Deegan at Daytona and Washington D.C. due to conflicts.

Arpin, who was the team’s only entry at Ft. Lauderdale, added more to how tight the timeline was.

“Honestly if stuff got pushed back one week, it would have been trouble,” said Arpin, driver of the team’s No. 00 Loenbro entry. “Once we got the cars, we were lucky because they were good off the boat.

“We just dove in. All these guys, except for Carl, it was their first time seeing and working on a rallycross car. We did some simulation stuff here at the stop. So we got acclimated, quickly.”

Speaking even more to the newness of the program, Goodman, Arpin and Deegan were the only team members who had any sort of past rally experience.

Goodman, an M-Sport veteran, was re-entering the rally world after eight years in NASCAR with Michael Waltrip Racing. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect, given the Charlotte CGR team base and MWR’s own dwindling efforts in NASCAR.

“I was with M-Sport for about a month or two short of 10 years. But I left them at the end of 2006, just as they won a rally World Championship, the manufacturer’s championship,” he said.

“I moved to the U.S. and had my time with was MWR until about a year ago. So eight years of Cup years. When this opportunity came up, and with an M-Sport car, it just made it easier. I knew the car, how it’s built, all the parts fell together. It was a big professional team in CGR. All the parts came together at the right time. I’d had quite a break between M-Sport and rallycross.”

Goodman noted there were four full-time crewmembers, three with NASCAR experience, one with road racing and one with a dirt track background, with four others drawn from the workshop for race weekends.

“I think some of the guys were a bit daunted at first, but they’re all professional racers,” Goodman explained. “They all have that solid background of being at a track, so they’re not overwhelmed or awed by being there.

“They expected to know what to do, maybe not on this type of car, but they’re all very well versed in racing. It sounds on the face of it to be a completely different things, these cars blasting and jumping on the dirt, but they’re professionals and they adapted.”

Red Bull GRC courses, by their nature, are very different than any normal type of circuit racing. Some are more dirt-heavy, some more pavement-heavy but all have a dirt component, a jump and the Kobalt Tools Joker Lap.

Preparing the cars for these circuits helped take the crew out of their comfort zone, Goodman said.

“The main tools are there, with the springs, dampers and just your normal suspension tuning… the added tool is the differentials,” he said.

“In general the cars are quite soft. Everything is a compromise about them. Even if you have fast sections, you have tight and dirt sections. That can stop you from going too extreme, either direction.

“Barbados or even Daytona, they’re race tracks. You could turn up with a classic touring car. But with dirt and a jump, you can’t do that. You’re always governed by the fact that they have to get through the dirt. That’s the level of all the tracks.”

Things started well enough. Arpin was seventh at Ft. Lauderdale but a charge to second, a Silver medal, in only the team’s second ever start at the X Games at Austin’s Circuit of The Americas, was one of the season highlights.

“X Games… Steve just raced great and drove through the field. That certainly showed the potential of the car,” Goodman said.

Arpin added, “For the rewards, the X Games was the standout, but the final race in Vegas was the best for us.”

In part two of our look at CGR Rallycross, we’ll look at the remainder of their season after those opening two rounds that laid the groundwork for a successful first campaign in the championship.