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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Sato return to RLL Racing made official

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Formal confirmation of Takuma Sato’s return to Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing has been expected for several weeks, but has now been made official following the conclusion of the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season at Sonoma.

Neither Sato nor RLL Racing could comment publicly on the deal when news of it broke at the Gateway Motorsports Park weekend in late August, although Andretti Autosport team principal Michael Andretti confirmed Sato’s departure in multiple reports.

Now Sato and RLL Racing have both confirmed the news, which will see the reigning Indianapolis 500 champion back for a second tour of duty with the team at which he nearly won the 2012 race.

Sato, now 40, will be in the second Honda-powered entry alongside Graham Rahal, who had tough 2013 and 2014 seasons since coming home but has since starred over each of the last three seasons.

“I’m excited about having Taku back with us,” said Bobby Rahal, co-owner of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing with former CBS Late Show host David Letterman and Mi-Jack co-owner Mike Lanigan. “I have such admiration for his spirit and how he approaches everything and was so happy for him when he won the Indy 500 this year. The chance to bring him back to the team was too good to pass up. He and Graham get along very well and we will have two strong cars that can win any race in 2018. I think that will give our team a great chance at being contenders in every race but it’s also going to give each of our drivers a chance to have their best years ever. I’m excited about it and even though the 2017 season just concluded, I can’t wait for the 2018 season to start.”

“I am extremely happy to be back with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing,” added Takuma Sato. “Bobby, Dave and Mike have always been very supportive of me. The team has been ultra-competitive the past few seasons. I can’t wait to be a part of it in 2018. I think we can achieve some great things together!”

Rahal had eyed Sato over the summer and told NBC Sports in July, “A guy like Taku, we have a lot of warm feelings having worked with him a number of years ago.”

Sato finished a career-best eighth in this year’s IndyCar championship in his lone year with Andretti Autosport, much of the standing aided by a whopping 137-point haul at the double points Indianapolis 500.

His first top-10 finish in eight years in IndyCar supplanted his previous best result of 13th in 2011.

Rosenqvist, Heidfeld retained by Mahindra for Formula E season four

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Mahindra Racing will enter the new FIA Formula E season with an unchanged driver line-up after confirming Felix Rosenqvist and Nick Heidfeld in race seats on Wednesday.

Mahindra charged to third place in the teams’ championship in the 2016/17 campaign, taking its maiden victory with Rosenqvist in Berlin and nine further podium finishes.

The team had long been expected to run with an unchanged line-up for the 2017/18 season, with confirmation arriving two weeks before pre-season testing begins in Valencia, Spain.

“We’re thrilled that both Nick and Felix will remain with Mahindra Racing next season,” team boss Dilbagh Gill said.

“With them, we’re confident that our new race car, the M4Electro will prove to be our strongest yet and Mahindra will consistently be fighting at the front of the field for wins and championships.”

“I am proud to be part of Mahindra Racing where we have been going from strength to strength in Formula E,” added Heidfeld.

“It’s exactly where I want to be and I am delighted to extend my contract and commitment to target even more success. I am thrilled and can’t wait to compete in my M4-Electro in this ever-improving championship.”

Rosenqvist finished season three as Formula E’s top rookie, and despite links with an IndyCar drive after a successful test at Mid-Ohio over the summer, the Swede is relishing the chance to continue his development in the series.

“I’m thrilled to be back for a second season in Formula E and to extend my relationship with Mahindra Racing That was our mutual intention from the very beginning, and we’ve already completed a series of promising tests with the M4Electro in recent months,” Rosenqvist said.

“Moving into season four, I will draw on everything I learned in 2016-17 to try and lift us to the next level. It will be a massive challenge with stiff competition, but we have a solid foundation and are all fully committed to taking the fight to the very best.”

Formula E’s fourth season kicks off in Hong Kong on December 2.

NASCAR America: Newgarden recaps rise to IndyCar title (VIDEO)

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Newly crowned Verizon IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden joined NBCSN’s NASCAR America on Tuesday to reflect on his rise to the top of the series.

Newgarden chatted with show host Carolyn Manno about his championship season, integration to Team Penske and bonding with his three teammates, Will Power, Helio Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud.

Pagenaud won Sunday’s GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma season finale but it wasn’t enough to overcome Newgarden’s points lead.

 

Report: Verizon likely to drop IndyCar title sponsorship after ’18

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One of the under-the-radar elements that’s percolated in the Verizon IndyCar Series paddock this year is Verizon’s activation strategy itself, in its fourth year of its first five-year deal as title sponsor of the championship.

Hulman & Co. CEO Mark Miles, head of INDYCAR’s parent company, told the Sports Business Journal’s Adam Stern while he thinks it’s likely Verizon will end its title sponsorship of the series after 2018, they hope to continue the relationship in a different capacity.

While Verizon got in before 2014, IndyCar was a viable platform for the wireless company to activate in a way it couldn’t in NASCAR, when Sprint was the Cup Series’ title sponsor.

That’s since changed with Sprint’s contract ending after 2016. Verizon still activates within the paddock, working with CSM Sport & Entertainment, but its activation outside the paddock has seemed rather limited this year.

Verizon’s primary point of access or reference point of digital technology has been the Verizon IndyCar Mobile app, which was initially only for Verizon Wireless users but was later expanded to other carriers. That provides some app-specific exclusive content as well as a compilation of written, photographic and video content from IndyCar.com.

Even in the paddock, a Verizon-sponsored “Lunch with Legends” series – where some of IndyCar’s stars from the past had lunch at tracks with fans to provide some exclusive access – was not retained for 2017. Verizon hosted an event at a 5G-outfitted house in Indianapolis this year, prior to the Indianapolis 500, to showcase some of that network capability and virtual reality (VR) technology.

Provided Verizon does not continue as title sponsor past 2018, it would leave the IndyCar series in almost the same situation as prior title sponsor IZOD was in 2013, with a lame duck year.

The absence of a Verizon contract renewal has lurked beneath the surface all year in a year when INDYCAR (sanctioning body) has announced several long-term extensions with key manufacturer partners Dallara, Firestone, Chevrolet, Honda and many of its race tracks.

The competition side of IndyCar has done rather well and has enough momentum with Jay Frye at the head of its President of Competition and Operations for the last two years.

But it’s imperative for IndyCar’s sake its commercial side does as well too, which will make the 2018 season an interesting one from a “how to progress” and find a partner that can truly activate to lift the series’ profile even bigger than it is now.

The title sponsor evolution and the series’ new TV contract, with the current one set to end after 2018, enter as the early leaders in the clubhouse for biggest off-track stories to follow over the winter and into the start of 2018.