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

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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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Sebastian Vettel: Ferrari still in the dark over 2017 F1 chances

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Sebastian Vettel believes that Ferrari is still unsure about its Formula 1 championship chances in 2017 despite finishing as the fastest team through pre-season testing.

Following a winless campaign in 2016, Ferrari sprung a surprise in winter testing by dominating proceedings in Barcelona, with Vettel and teammate Kimi Raikkonen finishing as the fastest drivers.

The new SF70H car appears to be a marked improvement on its predecessor following the change in the technical regulations, with three-time world champion Lewis Hamilton naming Ferrari as the favorite to win the first race in Australia this weekend.

Vettel remained coy about his chances when speaking in Thursday’s FIA press conference, saying it won’t be until the first sessions of the weekend in Melbourne are complete that Ferrari will truly know where it stands.

“So far we don’t know anything. For all of us it will be exciting to find out where we are on Saturday and Sunday, to get a first impression,” Vettel said.

“For us a lot of new things last year didn’t really go the way we expected, so I think for this year we have really focused on ourselves. We have tried to do our job back in the factory and in testing.

“I think testing times, I don’t think they are that crucial, I think it matters much more what you show from here onwards. We’ll see. I think we are a bit in the dark like everyone else, not knowing what other people have done.

“For ourselves we can be reasonably happy, we did decent mileage, we didn’t have any major issues with the car and hopefully we can carry that momentum into the race.”

Vettel added that Mercedes rival Hamilton “must be” the favorite for the drivers’ title in 2017 given the German team’s form, having won over 50 races in the past three years.

“Mercedes obviously has been in very, very strong form the last three years and even though we changed the regulations, if a team is strong then they will build a strong car the year after, no matter what you do with the rules,” Vettel said.

“I think it’s very clear who is the favorite. For all of us sitting here, we are trying our best to catch-up. How much we have succeeded, we will see and, as the season goes on, I’m sure the cars will have big progression and all the teams will bring lots of stuff to develop the cars.

“So, whoever’s in a good place in the beginning and still in a good place at the end will have a chance.”

Full 2017 F1 on NBC Grand Prix race schedule, air times and networks

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NBC Sports Group has released the air times for all 20 Grands Prix ahead of the 2017 season, with all races live on either NBC, NBCSN or CNBC.

Coverage begins with this weekend’s Australian Grand Prix; full times and details for the race at Melbourne’s Albert Park circuit can be found here. The race coverage starts at midnight on March 26 with F1 Countdown, with lights out at 1 a.m. ET on NBCSN.

There’s nearly 200 hours of coverage throughout the year throughout the networks. With most races on NBCSN, the four traditional NBC races (Monaco, Canada, United States, Mexico) continue and the remaining three races will be on CNBC for their live first airing.

NBC Sports Group’s Formula One commentating team returns for a fifth consecutive season, with lead race announcer Leigh Diffey (play-by-play), veteran analyst and former driver David Hobbs, analyst Steve Matchett, a former race mechanic for the Benetton F1 team, and F1 insider Will Buxton, who will provide live reports on-site for all 20 races this season.

This week’s coverage of the Australian Grand Prix will also include a season preview from veteran motorsports essayist Sam Posey, as he discusses the retirement of 2016 F1 champion Nico Rosberg, and the state of F1 without Bernie Ecclestone at the helm for the first time in 40 years.

Last season, NBCSN’s 2016 F1 coverage (14 races) averaged 429,000 viewers, up 3% vs. 2015 (418,000; 13 races), to rank as the best F1 season for a single cable network since 1995 (ESPN: 755,000 viewers). Viewership has more than doubled since the first season on NBCSN, up 107% vs. 2013. Click here for more information on last year’s record F1 viewership.

In addition, NBC Sports Group will present comprehensive coverage of practice and qualifying of all 20 races across its family of networks and NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app. Streaming coverage will also enhance race coverage with dedicated feeds, including:

  • On-Board Feed –  NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app’s channel for live on-board cameras;
  • Pit Lane Feed – A dedicated channel on pit lane featuring all pit stops and team communication;
  • Driver Tracker – real-time data showing where all 22 cars are on track.
2017 FORMULA ONE SCHEDULE (all times ET)
Date Grand Prix Time Network
Sun., March 26 Australian Grand Prix 12:30 a.m. NBCSN
Sun., April 9 Chinese Grand Prix 1:30 a.m. NBCSN
Sun., April 16 Bahrain Grand Prix 10:30 a.m. CNBC
Sun., April 30 Russian Grand Prix 7:30 a.m. NBCSN
Sun., May 14 Spanish Grand Prix 7:30 a.m. NBCSN
Sun., May 28 Monaco Grand Prix 7:30 a.m. NBC
Sun., June 11 Canadian Grand Prix 2 p.m. NBC
Sun., June 25 Azerbaijan Grand Prix 8:30 a.m. NBCSN
Sun., July 9 Austrian Grand Prix 7:30 a.m. CNBC
Sun., July 16 British Grand Prix 7:30 a.m. CNBC
Sun., July 30 Hungarian Grand Prix 7:30 a.m. NBCSN
Sun., August 27 Belgian Grand Prix 7:30 a.m. NBCSN
Sun., September 3 Italian Grand Prix 7:30 a.m. NBCSN
Sun., September 17 Singapore Grand Prix 7:30 a.m. NBCSN
Sun., October 1 Malaysian Grand Prix 2:30 a.m. NBCSN
Sun., October 8 Japanese Grand Prix 12:30 a.m. NBCSN
Sun., October 22 United States Grand Prix 3 p.m. NBC
Sun., October 29 Mexican Grand Prix 3 p.m. NBC
Sun., November 12 Brazilian Grand Prix 10:30 a.m. NBCSN
Sun., November 26 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix 7:30 a.m. NBCSN

 

Hamilton maintains Ferrari is F1 favorite, says Vettel is cooling hype

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Lewis Hamilton has maintained that Ferrari is the team to beat heading into this weekend’s Formula 1 season-opener in Australia, believing that Sebastian Vettel is trying hard to keep a lid on the hype surrounding his chances.

Hamilton enters 2017 chasing a fourth world title after losing out to ex-Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg last year, and is one of the favorites for the drivers’ championship.

Ferrari sprung a surprise in testing by finishing as the fastest team ahead of Mercedes – winner of over 50 races in the last three years alone – after capitalizing on the change in the technical regulations for this year.

Hamilton said throughout testing that he believed Ferrari would be the team to beat in Melbourne, and did not change his view in the Thursday press conference ahead of Sunday’s race.

“I see Ferrari being the quickest at the moment and I think they will definitely be the favorites, but we’ll find out more going into the weekend,” Hamilton said.

“It’s interesting to see, Sebastian’s usually a lot more hyped and I can tell he’s trying to keep a lid on it. But their pace was obviously great in testing.

“I’m very keen to see what Red Bull bring because they were quite far behind through testing, at least compared to Ferrari and didn’t see them bring many upgrades, or an upgrade as far as I could see.

“So I’m assuming they’re bringing something here which I’m excited to see what they do bring.”

Hamilton has ordinarily battled with just one driver – Rosberg – for race wins over the past three years given Mercedes’ pace advantage, but is excited about the prospect of battling with multiple racers from different teams at the front in 2017.

“Having more teams and more drivers up at the front fighting for wins, that’s what racing is all about. I’m hoping that’s the case,” Hamilton said.

“As far as I know, no team has won back-to-back through rule regulation changes, so that is our goal as a team. We’re here to win, we’re here to do something no-one else has done.

“Whether or not we’re in the right place at this moment in the season, we’ll find out. But I have every belief in my team that we can do that.”

Sam Schmidt to enter the Southern Nevada Sports Hall of Fame

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Sam Schmidt, co-owner of Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, is set to be inducted into the Southern Nevada Sports Hall of Fame as part of its 2017 class. He joins boxer Floyd Mayweather, professional golf coach Butch Harmon, and 1950s college football star Overton Curtis as inductees. The Las Vegas Bowl college football game will also be inducted as part of the ceremonies.

“I’m truly honored to be recognized with this group of incredible athletes and organizations,” said Schmidt, who resides in Henderson, Nevada. “When you look at the other recipients over the past 21 years, it is truly a who’s who of Nevada sports and community leaders, all of whom I respect tremendously and several I call friends. I am proud that this award represents both accomplishments on the track and as a team owner, as well as a commitment to giving back to the local community which has always been important to my family.”

Dan Dolby, executive director of the Southern Nevada Sports Hall of Fame, described that this year’s inductees exemplify everything they look for in the Nevada sports community. “The class of 2017 is accomplished in so many different ways. We have an outstanding group of athletes who have contributed so much both in the competitive arena and in the community, as well as one of most iconic and longest-lasting sporting events in our city. This class again represents the best attributes of our community, and we are thrilled to bestow upon them the state’s highest sports honor in welcoming them to the Southern Nevada Sports Hall of Fame.”

Sam Schmidt’s teams have claimed seven Indy Lights championships, the most of any team in series’ history, although the Lights team ceased operations this offseason. His Verizon IndyCar Series teams have also claimed two poles for the Indianapolis 500.

But, Schmidt’s accomplishments extend beyond the IndyCar and Indy Lights paddocks. He piloted a specially prepared Corvette, using a combination of breathing and neck movements, that was designed by team partner and sponsor Arrow Electronics to the top of Pikes Peak, which stands at more than 14,000 feet. He also completed an exhibition run in the same car prior to pole qualifying for the 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

The ceremony will take place on June 2 a the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas.