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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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Rosberg keeps cool amid Spa madness to win Belgian GP

SPA, BELGIUM - AUGUST 28:  The safety car leads Nico Rosberg of Germany driving the (6) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo, Daniel Ricciardo of Australia driving the (3) Red Bull Racing Red Bull-TAG Heuer RB12 TAG Heuer and Nico Hulkenberg of Germany driving the (27) Sahara Force India F1 Team VJM09 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo on track during the Formula One Grand Prix of Belgium at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps on August 28, 2016 in Spa, Belgium  (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)
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Nico Rosberg got his bid for a maiden Formula 1 drivers’ championship back on-track with a controlled victory in a manic Belgian Grand Prix at the Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps on Sunday.

Rosberg went lights-to-flag from pole position with a dominant display reminiscent of those at the beginning of the season when he won four straight races, yet he faced a number of challenges throughout the race.

Start-line drama and contact, a tire blow out, debris, a safety car period and even a red flag all threatened to spoil Rosberg’s day and bring title rival and teammate Lewis Hamilton back into contention.

After starting 21st thanks to a grid penalty, Hamilton made the most of the frenetic early stages to rise up to third place after his first scheduled pit stop, bringing himself into the mix for a stunning victory.

However, a lack of pace through the middle stint and a slow pit stop meant Hamilton had to settle for third place, which despite being somewhat disappointing for the three-time champion meant he left Spa still leading the drivers’ championship.

Rosberg made a clean getaway from pole to retain the lead on the short run to La Source, leaving echaos to ensue just behind. Max Verstappen tried squeezing past Kimi Raikkonen for second place, only for the two to make contact and run into the path of Sebastian Vettel on the outside. Vettel was sent into a spin while both Verstappen and Raikkonen were left with damage, forcing all three to pit for repairs at the end of the first lap.

Vettel and Verstappen were serviced swiftly, but Raikkonen’s stop featured yet more drama when a small fire broke out underneath his Ferrari. It was quickly extinguished, allowing the Finn to head back out on-track, albeit one lap down.

A Virtual Safety Car period was called moments later when Carlos Sainz Jr. suffered a tire failure, causing damage to his rear wing and leaving debris on the track. Once the mess had been cleared, the race returned to green with Rosberg leading from Nico Hulkenberg and Daniel Ricciardo. Hamilton, meanwhile, had risen to P12 on the medium tire.

The race went under the safety car on lap six after a huge crash for Kevin Magnussen at the top of Raidillion after losing the back-end of the car. Thankfully, the Dane walked away from the crash, albeit with a limp after a severe hit. Renault confirmed soon after that he had been taken to hospital with a minor injury to his ankle for further checks.

Many of the super-soft runners took advantage of the safety car period to dive into the pits, leaving Rosberg to lead from Ricciardo and Hulkenberg, the latter emerging from the pits in P3 ahead of medium-shod Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton now sat P4 and P5.

After three laps under the safety car, race officials took the decision to red flag the race due to the damage caused to the guardrail by the crash. All drivers were sent to the pit lane and able to change tires before the race restarted behind the safety car some 20 minutes later.

The race went back to green on lap 11 with Rosberg leading the pack on the medium tire. Mercedes teammate and title rival Hamilton opted to switch to softs in P5, and with an array of sets still fresh after cutting qualifying short on Saturday, the Briton was in a strong position.

Rosberg quickly set about creating a gap to the chasing pack, immediately moving out of DRS range for the chasing Ricciardo. Hamilton eased past Alonso for P4, leaving just two cars between himself and his teammate.

Further back, Verstappen and Raikkonen once again entered battle while fighting over 14th position. Verstappen forced the Finn off the road at Les Combes before making an aggressive defensive move the next lap, leaving Raikkonen fuming over his radio to the Ferrari pit wall.

Rosberg was able to eke out a lead over Ricciardo in the laps that followed while Hamilton toiled behind Hulkenberg, keeping a close eye on his tires. The Briton eventually battled past into third place on lap 18, but was hungry to catch the leading pair.

Hamilton was not able to make inroads to Rosberg and Ricciardo as he would have liked, though. As his soft tires began to fade, Mercedes took the decision to bring Hamilton in on lap 21 and move him onto another set of soft tires, trying to get the undercut on the cars in front. A slow stop meant Hamilton returned to the track in P9 behind Valtteri Bottas.

The battle behind Hamilton saw Hulkenberg and Perez, running net P4 and P5, enter the pits together on lap 23. A quick stop from the McLaren crew allowed Alonso to get the jump, but Hulkenberg kept his nose in around the outside at pit exit, resulting in contact. Hulkenberg got back past at the end of the Kemmel Straight, ensuring their battle would rage on.

Ricciardo came into the pits at the end of lap 26 to switch to the medium tire, coming out ahead of Hamilton who still had one more stop to make. Rosberg continued to plug away at the head of the field on his mediums, having been given the call by Mercedes to push and move to ‘plan B’.

Rosberg came into the pits one lap after Ricciardo, taking on another set of mediums that would take him to the checkered flag. A lead of 10 seconds may not have been much, but it meant that Rosberg remained in control of a race that had taken many twists and turns.

Hamilton managed to run close behind Ricciardo, but his soft tires began to fade with around 13 laps remaining. Rosberg was able to increase his lead over the chasing drivers, running around one second per lap faster than both Ricciardo and Hamilton.

Mercedes brought Hamilton in at the end of lap 32, bringing the Briton back out behind Hulkenberg and ahead of Sergio Perez in the second Force India. With another set of mediums fitted, Hamilton questioned the decision taken by Mercedes, but soon found his feet to latch onto the back of Hulkenberg ahead. The pass was completed at Les Combes, lifting Hamilton back into a podium position.

At the front, Rosberg looked comfortable. While all about him appeared to lose their heads at Spa, the German had kept his to cross the line over 10 seconds clear and record his sixth win of the season and cut the gap to Hamilton in the drivers’ championship.

Ricciardo was able to follow Rosberg home in second place, increasing Red Bull’s lead over Ferrari in the constructors’ championship with another impressive drive.

Hamilton had hoped to cut the gap to Ricciardo and secure Mercedes a one-two late on, but the medium tire wasn’t quick enough, forcing him to settle for third place at the checkered flag.

Nico Hulkenberg’s wait for his first podium finish in F1 continued as he was left to settle for fourth place ahed of teammate Sergio Perez, capping off a hugely impressive weekend for Force India.

Sebastian Vettel recovered from the first-lap drama to cross the line sixth for Ferrari ahead of Fernando Alonso and Valtteri Bottas, the latter unable to make it through on the final lap despite closing up on the Spaniard.

Kimi Raikkonen’s rollercoaster race culminated in two points for P9, while Felipe Massa picked up his first point since Baku with P10 for Williams.

Verstappen’s home race weekend that held such promise ended without points as he crossed the line a lowly 11th ahead of Haas drivers Esteban Gutierrez and Romain Groseajn. Daniil Kvyat was 14th for Toro Rosso ahead of Jolyon Palmer, while Esteban Ocon was 16th on his F1 debut ahead of Sauber’s Felipe Nasr.

Magnussen taken to hospital with ankle injury after Spa shunt

SPA, BELGIUM - AUGUST 27: Kevin Magnussen of Denmark driving the (20) Renault Sport Formula One Team Renault RS16 Renault RE16 turbo on track during final practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Belgium at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps on August 27, 2016 in Spa, Belgium.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Kevin Magnussen has been transferred to hospital with an ankle injury after a hefty crash during Sunday’s Belgian Grand Prix.

Magnussen lost the rear end of his Renault Formula 1 car at the top of the hill after Eau Rouge and Raidillion, slamming into the wall on the right-hand side of the circuit at high speed.

The crash was severe enough to cause Magnussen’s head-rest to break free, leaving much of the car wrecked.

Magnussen did manage to get out of his car unaided, but was limping when walking away from the shunt.

Renault confirmed that Magnussen had been taken to the medical centre with an injury to his left ankle, and has since been transferred to hospital for further check-ups.

Belgian GP red flagged after Magnussen crash

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The Belgian Grand Prix has been red flagged following a frightening crash for Kevin Magnussen that caused significant damage to the barrier at Raidillion.

Magnussen went off at one of the fastest points of the circuit, losing the back-end of his Renault after running through Eau Rouge and Raidillion corners coming uphill.

The crash was so severe that the headrest in Magnussen’s car came loose, leaving his R.S.16 wrecked. Thankfully, the Dane was able to walk away, albeit with a limp.

Three laps after the crash, stewards decided to red flag the race as repairs needed to be completed to the guardrail, forcing all drivers to head to the pit lane.

Once the repairs were completed, stewards gave the call for the race to resume with a 10-minute warning, leaving Rosberg to lead away the pack once again.

Graham Rahal able to ‘tame the beast’ of Texas ghosts with win

FORT WORTH, TX - AUGUST 27: Graham Rahal driver of the #15 Mi-Jack/RLL Honda speaks at a media conference after winning the Verizon IndyCar Series Firestone 600 at Texas Motor Speedway on August 27, 2016 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Mike Stone/Getty Images for Texas Motor Speedway)
(Photo by Mike Stone/Getty Images for Texas Motor Speedway)
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FORT WORTH – Graham Rahal swears he didn’t give the final 177 laps of the Firestone 600 a single thought between June 12 and Aug. 27.

“I haven’t thought about it at all until this week,” said Rahal, who was now thinking about nothing else after winning said race by .008 seconds over James Hinchcliffe, a Texas Motor Speedway record.

Rahal and the rest of the Verizon IndyCar Series have been busy since June, competing in –  and actually finishing – five races since the Firestone 600 was postponed 77 days for rain after reaching Lap 71.

After visiting Road America, Iowa Speedway, Toronto, his home track of Mid-Ohio and Pocono, the 1.5-mile track in North Texas finally, surreally, came back around.

“It’s a very strange thing actually,” Rahal said, still wearing the 10-gallon Cowboy hat awarded to race winners by track president Eddie Gossage. “We came down here this morning, and I don’t know, it was just a weird day to kind of get into the groove of it. It was like, we landed so early, we had so much time to kill, then such a short practice, and then we just go racing.”

Due to what transpired over the those five races – not finishing better than fourth after a Road America podium and only leading two laps – Rahal was having very specific thoughts about Saturday night’s race.

“This week I knew, again, because of the year that we’ve had, it was an opportunity,” Rahal said. “I felt like in June we had a great race car, we just didn’t get to see it through and tonight obviously from the front, we went forward, and it was a great night.”

After restarting 12th in a car Rahal described after a brief practice session as a “f—ing rocket,” the No. 15 carved its way through the pack. By the final 25 laps it one of five cars on the lead lap, led by Hinchcliffe.

“I just thought if I could get there, we’d have a good chance, and then we went fighting at the end there,” Rahal said. “I had a lot of front tire degradation. I was having to take the early laps a bit slower to try to save that outside front. You could see Kanaan and (Scott) Dixon even a little bit quicker than me but 15 laps or so into the stint I closed back up because my car, I think, was better on the tires in the long run.”

Then, unlike Hinchcliffe, Rahal’s team decided to pit late for tires under caution. That decision set up an eight-lap sprint that will likely be considered the most thrilling of the season. With three and four-wide racing, it looked like the memorable Indy Racing League races at Texas of a decade ago.

On a night where TMS honored law enforcement, Rahal’s path through the field was oversaw by spotter Steve Turner, a retired police officer from Speedway, Indiana.

“Steve does a great job. But tonight I had to keep my eyes particularly peeled at all times to my mirrors, Rahal said. “I always trust the spotter but I want to make sure in a lot of cases that we gave ourselves a little extra room.”

In the closing laps, Rahal’s thoughts didn’t drift to those old “pack” races. They went to a more recent Texas visit in 2012. That year, Rahal led 27 laps at the climax of the race with Justin Wilson chasing him. With three laps left, Rahal bounced off the wall out of Turn 4, allowing Wilson to pass him and win.

It would be the last IndyCar win for Wilson, who died a year ago last week from injuries sustained at Pocono Raceway.

“You know what I was motivated by a little bit is I kept thinking about Justin there, because a couple years ago we had a great battle here,” Rahal said. “Quite honestly I was picturing him shooting those things off there the last couple of laps, just trying to get it done for ourselves here.”

That failure in 2012 came in the middle of seven winless seasons for the son of Bobby Rahal. Graham Rahal ended that last season with a win in another tense, hotly contested “pack race” at Auto Club Speedway.

“It’s just nice to kind of tame the beast a little bit,” said Rahal, who has made nine starts at Texas, but only finished in the top 10 three times. “This place is a tough place to win … So it feels nice. To not go through this year winless is the biggest pressure I feel off my shoulders. I can’t tell you how pleased I am to get that over because not that it would have been a dry spell like last time, but I don’t want to have to hear the questions again, so it was nice to just get that.”

Even when Rahal got the win, he was afraid he has celebrated too soon. As his car neared the finish line, he raised his right hand in a celebratory fist before quickly dropping it down right as Hinchcliffe was pulling even with him.

“I was like, ‘make sure his roll hoop says two.’ Looked over and I could see it said two, and I knew I had it,” Rahal said. “Those LED panels that IndyCar started using are awesome.”

The win also gave Honda just its second win of 2016, a year after it earned five. After two months of not thinking about a race, Rahal won’t want to stop talking about it.

“It’s special for us to get a win for Honda for sure, and be able to call corporate on Monday and have a good talk,” Rahal said.