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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Lauda on Hamilton’s Baku pole lap: ‘I’ve never seen anything like it’

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Formula 1 legend and Mercedes non-executive director Niki Lauda was quick to heap praise on Lewis Hamilton after qualifying in Azerbaijan on Saturday, saying he had “never seen anything like” the Briton’s Q3 pole lap.

Hamilton charged to the 66th pole of his F1 career at the Baku City Circuit on Saturday after a last-ditch effort took his four-tenths of a second clear of Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas.

Hamilton was overjoyed by the lap, having struggled to tame the Baku circuit during its inaugural race in 2016, and three-time world champion Lauda was equally as impressed.

“We had some problems on Friday, but the team really did a fantastic job to set the car up in the right way. And Lewis with his lap today… I’ve never seen anything like it,” Lauda said, as quoted by the official F1 website.

“It was not plain sailing at all, but a lot of thinking, digging, back to the factory, and in the end the improvement the engineers and mechanics did to the car is outstanding.

“And then Lewis, what he did today, no one else I think can do that.

“He’s fantastic, especially thinking about his lap time here, because the difference he makes to everybody – it’s only Lewis.”

Hamilton will go in search of his fifth win of the season in Baku on Sunday, with coverage of the Azerbaijan Grand Prix live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 8am ET.

WATCH LIVE: Azerbaijan GP on NBCSN, NBC Sports app from 8am ET

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Formula 1’s second trip to the new Baku City Circuit, but first actually as the Azerbaijan Grand Prix, takes place today and you can see it live this morning on NBCSN.

F1 AZERBAIJAN GRAND PRIX LIVE STREAM

Pre-race coverage runs for an hour from 8 a.m. ET through to 9 a.m. ET, with lights out at that point.

After his 66th career pole put him into second all-time, Lewis Hamilton looks to continue to close the battle for the championship and become the first driver to win a second straight race this season.

The Mercedes AMG Petronas driver leads teammate Valtteri Bottas, who starts second, and the pair of Scuderia Ferrari drivers of Kimi Raikkonen and Sebastian Vettel.

Vettel leads Hamilton by 12 points, 141-129, heading into today’s race. The Red Bull, Force India and Williams drivers were also in the top 10 in qualifying.

You can see a full run-down of what to watch for in today’s race in our Sunday preview.

You can watch the Azerbaijan Grand Prix live on NBC and the NBC Sports app from 8am ET. CLICK HERE for NBC live stream.

You can also try out a new ‘Mosaic View’ for the race that includes the race simulcast, in-car cameras, driver tracker and pit lane cam. CLICK HERE to watch the Mosaic View live stream.

Leigh Diffey, David Hobbs and Steve Matchett will be on the call, with pit reporter Will Buxton providing updates and interviews throughout the race from Baku.

Also be sure to follow the @F1onNBCSports Twitter account for live updates throughout the race.

What to watch for: Azerbaijan Grand Prix (NBCSN, NBC Sports app from 8am ET)

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The momentum that Lewis Hamilton gained with his victory in the Canadian Grand Prix two weeks ago carried through to qualifying in Baku on Saturday as he swept to his 66th pole position in Formula 1.

One year on from one of the most underwhelming performances of his grand prix career at the Baku City Circuit, Hamilton looked more at ease this time around, producing a stunning late lap in Q3 to bag pole ahead of Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas.

With F1 title rival Sebastian Vettel starting fourth for Ferrari, the odds are stacked in Hamilton’s favor as he bids to reclaim the lead of the drivers’ championship – but as we have seen already this weekend, the Baku track can punish the smallest of errors.

You can watch the Azerbaijan Grand Prix live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 8am ET on Sunday. CLICK HERE to watch via live stream.

Here’s what to watch for in today’s race.

2017 Azerbaijan Grand Prix – What to watch for

Hamilton, Bottas look to continue Mercedes’ momentum swing

Even after Lewis Hamilton’s convincing victory in Canada two weeks ago, Ferrari entered the Azerbaijan race weekend as the favorite given the SF70H car’s ‘work everywhere’ nature and the mix of high- and slow-speed sections in Baku.

Yet qualifying saw Mercedes deliver a result that was reminiscent of its devastating qualifying form last year when it was regularly gapping the field by a second. 2017 form it ain’t.

So does this point towards a sea change in the pecking order at the top of the field? Maybe. If Mercedes can sweep to another one-two here and convincingly beat Ferrari, it would be more proof that the “diva” W08 car is slowly starting to come good.

Can Red Bull get in the fight?

Red Bull may have been marooned as the third-fastest team for much of the season so far, but the early signs in Baku are that the team could be in the mix to fight with Mercedes and Ferrari at the front of the field.

Max Verstappen led both practice sessions on Friday and nearly outqualified Vettel, pointing to an improved pace in the RB13 car, even if we didn’t see as much from Daniel Ricciardo after his prang in Q3.

While on raw pace Red Bull may struggle to keep up in the race, should things turn in its favor much as it did in Spain and Malaysia last year, Verstappen looks primed and ready to pounce.

Another one-stop race in store

Pirelli’s more conservative tires have certainly been a big talking point so far this season, with one-stop races appearing to become the norm, and you can expect the same in Baku today.

The super-soft tire was holding up so well that drivers were expecting to keep finding time on their starting set in Q3, only for the red flag to prompt a switch, and it is likely the compound will go deep into the race today as well.

While it may not offer many strategy variants, it does mean that teams can push for both the undercut and the overcut, as seen in Russia and Monaco earlier this year. So there are still a few routes to go down and options, particularly with the challenge of negotiating traffic through the tighter sections.

Will Baku madness finally strike?

Last year’s inaugural race in Baku caught many by surprise given its tameness and lack of incidents. No safety cars and no blockages around the circuit despite the earlier madness that had ensued in the GP2 race was not the expectation.

That might be different this year, though. We have already seen two drivers – Sergio Perez and Jolyon Palmer – get caught out at the tight Turn 8 section, while an incident in the Formula 2 feature event on Saturday prompted the race to end under a red flag.

As drivers look to gain positions and fight their way to the front, things could get crazy in Baku today…

McLare- oh you know the rest…

Yep, it’s another one of those days for McLaren. After ailing to its worst qualifying display of the season with a double-Q1 knockout on Saturday, racing director Eric Boullier said it was one of the worst weekends he’s had in racing. And you can understand why.

The Baku circuit’s tighter sections may suit the MCL32 chassis nicely, yet the high-speed stuff – and especially the never-ending home straight – lay the issues with the Honda power unit bare. Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne’s trap speeds were over 20 mph down on the leaders in qualifying – it’s a sad state of affairs.

From P18 and P19, McLaren can’t really expect much from its drivers today. That said, with an incident or two, and taking into account Alonso’s knack for dragging a car far beyond its rightful position, points are still a dream that are not totally out of the question…

2017 Azerbaijan Grand Prix – Starting Grid

1. Lewis Hamilton Mercedes
2. Valtteri Bottas Mercedes
3. Kimi Raikkonen Ferrari
4. Sebastian Vettel Ferrari
5. Max Verstappen Red Bull
6. Sergio Perez Force India
7. Esteban Ocon Force India
8. Lance Stroll Williams
9. Felipe Massa Williams
10. Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull
11. Daniil Kvyat Toro Rosso
12. Kevin Magnussen Haas
13. Nico Hulkenberg Renault
14. Pascal Wehrlein Sauber
15. Carlos Sainz Jr. Toro Rosso*
16. Romain Grosjean Haas
17. Marcus Ericsson Sauber
18. Stoffel Vandoorne McLaren**
19. Fernando Alonso McLaren***
20. Jolyon Palmer Renault****

* Sainz received a three-place grid penalty after causing a collision in the Canadian Grand Prix.
** Vandoorne received a 35-place grid penalty for power unit and gearbox changes.
*** Alonso received a 40-place grid penalty for power unit changes.
**** Palmer failed to set a time in qualifying, and starts from last at the discretion of the stewards.

You can watch the Azerbaijan Grand Prix live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 8am ET on Sunday. CLICK HERE to watch via live stream.

Another day, another photo finish in MX-5 Cup at Road America

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ELKHART LAKE, Wis. – The first of three sports car races held Saturday at Road America featured a familiar ending in the Battery Tender Global MX-5 Cup presented by BFGoodrich Tires: a photo finish.

For the third time in four races, a margin of victory of less than a tenth of a second was all that decided the race. This time it was defending series champion Nathanial Sparks of Sick Sideways Racing, edging Atlanta Speedwerks’ Todd Lamb by 0.0468 of a second, for the victory.

Sparks’ win slots in second in the three photo finishes. Friday’s race one saw Patrick Gallagher beat Bryan Ortiz by 0.0263 of a second. At Indianapolis last weekend, Robert Stout beat Gallagher by 0.0632 of a second.

Sparks, also known as “Sparky,” explained how he made the move for the win.

“I fell back a little and I put my head down and really drove hard and I found myself back up at the front,” said Sparks. “Ortiz, Gallagher, and all those guys were driving so hard and there was battling for position and jockeying and moving around. I had a good run coming up out of the last corner and I managed to make my Mazda motor just power me up and just drove it home. It was super excited bringing it home for my Sick Sideways team today.”

Lamb, who came up short, offered his take: “That was a lot of fun. It’s my first podium of the season. We’re starting to get these cars figured out and starting to figure out who is going to work with us and who’s not. It’s been a lot of fun and a good learning experience this weekend, I’m looking forward to more!”

Gallagher led the standings by 39 points over Sparks heading into the weekend and extended the lead with his win on Friday.

“It was definitely more chaotic today, nobody wanted to work together like they did yesterday,” said Gallagher. “Everyone thought they had to be in second, but they didn’t realize they needed to be there until the last lap. Everybody was trying to get to second place from lap one, people were leaning on me and I just had to be careful. I got shoved around a little bit, but it’s a long season, and the championship points we got here this weekend are most important.”

The McCumbee McAleer Racing driver finished third today, his season worst result (hardly a bad thing for the Thornville, Ohio native) and still leads the points as the series heads next to the streets of Toronto, July 14-16, for Rounds 7 and 8. That is also part of a Verizon IndyCar Series weekend.