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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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PIRTEK Team Murray rolls out several tidbits as Brabham preps for debut

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Photo: PIRTEK Team Murray
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It’s been a busy last week or so for PIRTEK Team Murray and driver Matthew Brabham around the Indianapolis area.

And they haven’t even begun practicing or qualifying or even racing in the Indianapolis 500 on May 29.

* First, the team announced that the most decorated police officer in New York City Police history, Walter Wasilewski, has joined PIRTEK Team Murray’s CK Crew of Veterans and First Responders that will take part in the Tag Heuer Pit Stop Challenge for the Indianapolis 500 (photo below; photo credit: PIRTEK Team Murray).

056Wasilewski received over 200 medals and awards before retiring. He made over 3,000 arrests during his career with the NYPD, and also served at Ground Zero following the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center.

The CK Crew, will allow the Chris Kyle Frog Foundation to host 500 members of the military and first responders at Indianapolis Motor Speedway throughout the month of May. Kyle was a highly-decorated NAVY Seal and sniper who was killed in 2013 in his native Texas.

Seven of those 500 members of the CK Crew will train and crew Brabham’s PIRTEK Team Murray car in the Tag Heuer Pit Stop Challenge, to be held on Miller Lite Carb Day on May 27.

“This concept is unique and it will allow a number of guys and girls to come together and form a team to hopefully get PIRTEK Team Murray to victory lane in the Pit Stop Challenge,” said Walter Wasilewski.

“Everyone knows what Chris Kyle did for America and Taya (Kyle’s widow) is carrying on his legacy with such dignity and class. I’ve had the chance to meet with Taya on several occasions in New York and she is an amazing American.

“My career in the Police Department was through some of the most dangerous times in New York’s history. Period.

“That training is going to come in handy when standing waiting for the PIRTEK Team Murray racecar to come at me. In the Police Department, you have to have faith in those around you to protect you – in this case, I have to have the faith in Matt to stop the car on his marks so we can then go about our job.”

* Second, Brabham recently had the opportunity to take part in the Indianapolis Colts’ NFL Draft announcement (see main photo).

Brabham, 22, joined four-time and reigning Verizon IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon in announcing two of the Colts’ draft picks: Hassan Ridgeway from Texas and Florida’s Antonio Morrison.

The draft announcement was made on the start-finish line of bricks at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

“I knew nothing about American football when I first moved back to the US from Australia in 2012, but I have really grown to love it,” Brabham said. “I have been to several Colts games and the more I know the more I am really starting to get into it.

“We had a fantasy football league with several of the drivers last year and I won it, so I must be learning something.

“It is great that we can combine two things as significant as the Colts and NFL Draft and the Indianapolis Speedway and the 100th Indy 500.

“To get up close to the Colts’ 2006 Super Bowl trophy (Vince Lombardi Trophy) was pretty cool. You don’t get to do that every day.”

* Third, Matthew Brabham’s grandfather, three-time Formula One champion Sir Jack Brabham, has been named to “The Top 100 Most Important People in Indy 500 History” by the Indianapolis Star.

“Sir Jack,” as he was called in the later years of his life, is ranked 56th on the list. The patriarch of the Brabham family passed away on May 19, 2014 at the age of 88.

Young Matthew is only the third third-generation racer to attempt to race in the 500, following his grandfather and father Geoff.

The other two families that have had three generations of racers compete at Indianapolis are the Vukovich family – Bill, Billy Jr. and Billy III – as well as the Andretti family: Mario, Michael and Marco.

“We have said it many times, but it is just an honor and a privilege to be part of this year’s Month of May and everything that goes with it,” Matthew Brabham said in a media release.

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Marty Snider’s son Myatt Snider set for ARCA debut

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Photo: Cunningham Motorsports
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Myatt Snider, the 21-year-old eldest son of NBCSN NASCAR and IndyCar reporter Marty Snider, will make his ARCA Series debut later this month.

His series debut will come at Toledo Speedway on May 22, driving the No. 22 Ford for Cunningham Motorsports. It will be the first of nine starts for him this year.

“This is the big opportunity that I have been dreaming about for several years,” the younger Snider said in a release. “I feel so blessed to drive for Paul Andrews and Cunningham Motorsports. I’m confident the move up to ARCA will be a smooth transition, especially since Jeff Caudill will be coming with me and continue being my crew chief.”

With Kevin Lee’s son Jackson also a rising star in the karting ranks, it’s cool to see the next generation of talent start to grow and develop in the stock car ranks. Marty Snider will work on NBCSN’s IndyCar broadcasts through Road America on June 26 on pit road, before the return of NASCAR on NBC on July 2 at Daytona.

A more extensive report can be found here via NASCAR TALK’s Nate Ryan.

Pagenaud disappointed by Boston drop; would love Watkins Glen option

LONG BEACH, CA - APRIL 17: Simon Pagenaud is the winner of the 42nd Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach on April 17, 2016 in Long Beach, California.  (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)
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The Verizon IndyCar Series points leader, Simon Pagenaud, was one of several drivers the series deployed to Boston (James Hinchcliffe was another) to promote what would have been the inaugural Grand Prix of Boston on Labor Day weekend.

“The underground aspect is very unique,” Pagenaud said in a series release in January. “I mainly look forward to hearing the sound of the car as I drive under it. The layout is very fun and the track itself is in a fast-growing area with a great dynamic. I should be able to get good speed because the wide track, fast corners and smooth roads after all of the work (is completed) will most likely make this track one of the fastest tracks there is.

“The Verizon IndyCar Series is very excited for the potential that Boston brings as a whole,” he added. “It is exciting to be able to reach out to another population in a great area and hopefully see its economy change for the better as a result of the race. I would really like to thank the city of Boston for this opportunity.”

But with news emerging late Friday that the race wouldn’t be on the 2016 schedule after all, Pagenaud reflected a bit of disappointment that people didn’t understand what the event could have provided.

“Yeah, I’m very disappointed,” Pagenaud told reporters Wednesday during a teleconference. “That was going to be a great event, perfect position in the city.

“I managed to see the excitement of I guess half of the population in Boston, because I know some of the population was not excited about it. There were a lot of people that were pulling for the race. I saw the excitement.

“The racetrack itself looked like it was going to be a beautiful layout. We were going to go through a tunnel, which would have been really cool.”

Naturally, the next follow-up question is where would Pagenaud like to race provided INDYCAR could fill the slot on the calendar.

A permanent road course in the vain of Road America – where Pagenaud’s had success in sports cars and clinched his Champ Car Atlantic crown in 2006 – immediately came to mind.

“I hope we can replace the race. For sure, I’m thinking of Watkins Glen. I’ve never been there, but it looks like a beautiful track. It’s been repaved, as well, recently. That would be a good market and really cool track to go to.

“There’s plenty of tracks in America that could be exciting to go to. I’d like to go back to Fontana personally. I love that oval. But I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

For what it’s worth, Watkins Glen has been discussed openly as an option although whether INDYCAR could make it happen and whether the track will be able to accommodate it remains to be seen.

Watkins Glen International Michael Printup told the Boston Herald that while the track would “be a great site for them,” it remains a long ways off and would require a minor miracle to do some schedule jostling.

“Where there’s a will, there’s a way, but we’re not even there yet. It’s a huge challenge,” Printup told the Herald, with neither INDYCAR officials nor Grand Prix of Boston officials available for further comment.

I had to joke with Pagenaud, who’s now driving a Menards-backed entry with John Menard’s support for the full month of May and for IndyCar’s return to Road America in late June, whether he could persuade Menard to help IndyCar return – again – to the Milwaukee Mile.

“There you go,” Pagenaud laughed, although such an option doesn’t seem realistic at this juncture.

Space dreams occur for Hildebrand, Daly at NASA’s Johnson Space Center

Hildebrand Daly
(Photo courtesy Conor Daly official Twitter page)
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To some awe-struck fans, their dreams of driving an Indy car are an out-of-this-world experience.

For Conor Daly and JR Hildebrand, driving an race car in the Verizon IndyCar Series is an orbital experience what they do for a living.

Earlier this week in Houston, on Tuesday, Daly and Hildebrand enjoyed a REAL out of this world experience as they visited NASA’s Johnson Space Center.

The day-long visit was an exceptional trip for the two drivers, who hung out with robots, did a virtual tour of the International Space Station, saw mockups of the Space Shuttle and more.

But the best part for the duo was the opportunity to have a live 10-minute conversation with astronauts Tim Kopra, Jeff Williams and Tim Peake.

“Man, I wanna go to space,” Daly said, via IndyCar.com. Of note, the driver of the No. 18 Jonathan Byrd’s Hospitality Honda also went to “Space Camp” prior to the series’ most recent round at Barber Motorsports Park.

Added Hildebrand, “Ultimately, you end the day feeling overwhelmed about how much amazing stuff you got to see.”

Later, as their trip came to an end, the drivers were more than just appreciative. They left the JSC in a kind of awe that they’ll likely feel for a long time to come.

“Right away we were able to find common ground on things that we do compared to things that they do,” Hildebrand said. “Coming from the motorsports community, there is so much crossover in terms of the way that things happen at NASA.”

Added Daly, “This is probably one of the greatest experiences of my life.”

Check out some of the many tweets both drivers and their new friends, the astronauts in the ISS, posted, as well as tweets of others including Indianapolis Motor Speedway president J. Douglas Boles:

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