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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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Firestone: the tire that Indianapolis 500 and Verizon IndyCar Series ride upon

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More Indianapolis 500 winners have driven to Victory Lane on Firestone tires than all other tires combined.

The synergy and history between Firestone, parent company Bridgestone and Indianapolis Motor Speedway is nothing short of legendary.

MotorSportsTalk has compiled some very interesting facts about the relationship between Firestone, IMS and the Indy 500:

* Firestone has issued tires to all teams in Sunday’s Indianapolis 500 that will carry names of all the drivers who have won the 500 on Firestone rubber inscribed on the sidewalls of the tires.

* Other names included in the sidewall inscriptions include Louis Meyer (the first driver to drink milk in Victory Lane), and Mario Andretti (Voted Driver of the Century).

firestone indy 500 tires 2016

* Firestone produced over 5,000 tires with the commemorative Indy 500 sidewalls to be used during the month of may for practice, qualifying and the historic race itself on Sunday.

* Firestone has accounted for exactly two-thirds of the wins at the Indy 500 – 66 of 99 races contested to date.

* Firestone has won the Indy 500 in 1911, 1913, 1920 through 1941, 1946-1966, 1969-1971, 1996 and 1997, and 2000-2015.

* Firestone has carried more drivers to Indy 500 wins than all other tire manufacturers combined. Goodyear has won 29 races, BFGoodrich won two, Michelin won one and Palmer Cord Tires won one.

* The first winner on Firestone rubber was also the first winner of the Indy 500 – Ray Harroun in 1911.

* Tires will also carry red and white Firestone “F shield” logos that are unique to the Indy 500 and indicate which tires will go on which side of each race car: red for right side and white for left side tires.

firestone racing logo* Firestone Racing joined the IndyCar Series in 1996 and has been at every race since. It competed vs. Goodyear for four years (1996-99) until becoming the exclusive tire provider for the 500 in 2000, a position it has held ever since.

* Firestone became the Official Tire of the IndyCar Series and the Indianapolis 500 in 2002. The current contract for both of those roles runs through the 2018 season (originally extended in Dec. 2012).

* Firestone also sponsors the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg and the Firestone 600 at Texas Motor Speedway. It is also the Official Tire of the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.

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Simon Pagenaud has tunnel vision about Indy 500 — but that’s a good thing

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(Photos: IndyCar)
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To say Simon Pagenaud is a thinking man’s driver is an understatement.

The French driver has one of the most analytical minds in the Verizon IndyCar Series. It seems like he’s always thinking, always figuring out different scenarios, trying to outthink his fellow competitors.

He’s certainly had a lot to think of recently. He’s riding a three-race winning streak. He’s part of Team Penske’s 50th anniversary celebration.

But right here, right now, Pagenaud has just one race on his mind. As far as he’s concerned, Belle Isle next week is 10 years away, while Texas the week after that is 20 years away.

And don’t even ask Pagenaud if he’s thinking about winning the IndyCar championship.

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To say Simon Pagenaud is pumped up for Sunday’s Indianapolis 500 is an understatement.

The only thing on Pagenaud’s mind is winning Sunday’s 100th running of the Indianapolis 500. Not only would it be the biggest win in the Frenchman’s career, it would also extend team owner Roger Penske’s record to 17 Indy 500 victories.

“I’m thinking about the race itself, statistics are after the race,” Pagenaud told NBC Sports. “It’s hard on the last lap if you think about it! I’m always focused on the task itself. Prepare the best we can and try to win.

“When you step into the car, you have to think about how to do the best job you can with your machine. It’s you and your machine, you and your team, let’s get the best strategy possible, make the best pit stops and make no mistakes.

“So you have to be clear-minded and focused on the task. It’s a tunnel vision thing. I’m not thinking of anything else. I’m not thinking about the 50th anniversary of Team Penske, or it being the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500.

“If I was, I tell you what, they wouldn’t work really well. It’s about being in the moment and not thinking about anything else.”

Even with his three-race winning streak (Long Beach, Birmingham Grand Prix of Indianapolis), preparations for the 500 have not gone as well as Pagenaud would like.

“It’s not as good as I wanted to be honest,” said Pagenaud, who will start in eighth position, the middle of Row 3 on the starting grid. “We’re not as dominant as we were last year. It’s been tough. It’s not been easy to get speed out of the car. We’ve done a good job of trying, but we haven’t found the speed of the Hondas.”

But as concerned as Pagenaud may seem, Penske is more confident than concerned.

“Obviously he’s a hot hand right now and he’s shown how good he is,” Penske said of Pagenaud. “That’s the reason we hired him a year ago.

“I think he wasn’t as happy with his performance in 2015. This is a different race. This race is wide open. It’s a long-distance race. It’s four different corners, lots of strategy.

“Certainly executing in the pits, you saw how good he was last year and bumped into a back marker when he was trying to make a pass there. So I think he’s going to have a great chance. He’s certainly excited.

“John Menard (Pagenaud’s primary sponsor of Menard’s Home Improvement Stores) coming on board is probably one of the great things of the month for us because John has spent a lot of time and a lot of money here over the years.

“(It was) great to see his car in the Winner Circle at the Angie’s road race here a couple of weeks ago. I think (Pagenaud’s) on his way to a championship. We’ve just got to continue to stay focused.”

Winning the biggest race in the world would also help Pagenaud’s countrymen.

“It’s great news that there’s a lot of interest (in France) in IndyCar,” Pagenaud said. “They’re showing races there. It’s big. There’s also half a large plane coming to the race from my hometown (Poitiers, France).

“I know it’s an American sport, but it’s a worldwide event. The last time a Frenchman won in Indy was 1920. It was Gaston Chevrolet, and I’m driving a Chevrolet! Hopefully, it’s my year.

“What would it mean (if he won)? I don’t know, to be honest. It wouldn’t be a bad time. We’re having a tough time in France right now, so a little bit of joy from the sport would be good.

“It’d be awesome to go back to France with that trophy and that ring on my finger.”

Tony DiZinno contributed to this report

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Honda bullish ahead of pivotal Indy 500

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MAY 27:  James Hinchcliffe of Canada, driver of the #5 ARROW Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Chevrolet,  drives  on Carb Day ahead of the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motorspeedway on May 27, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
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Honda Performance Development president Art St. Cyr feels bullish about the manufacturer’s chances in the 100th Indianapolis 500, believing all of its cars stand a serious chance of winning Sunday’s race.

Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ James Hinchcliffe ended a long drought for Honda in qualifying last weekend, claiming its first pole position since Simon Pagenaud won the Verizon P1 Award at Houston in 2014.

Sunday’s ‘500 is a pivotal one for Honda given the occasion and its standing among its numerous motorsport programmes, and is made all the more crucial given its winless start to the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series season.

“We weren’t expecting the outcome of the first few races that we got this year,” St. Cyr conceded.

“We thought we were going to be OK. But obviously when we first came out at St. Pete, especially Phoenix, we had to focus on those, as well.

“I wouldn’t say the beginning part of the season went according to plan. But we kind of know what we have right now and where we’re going with this one.

“We’re working and the other side is working as well to try to improve as much as you can.”

The Honda-powered cars impressed throughout practice and qualifying at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, appearing to make a significant step up in performance from the Angie’s List GP of Indianapolis two weeks ago.

Besides Hinchcliffe getting pole, the Andretti Autosport cars regularly ran quickest through the speed trap with Ryan Hunter-Reay qualifying third, while Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s Graham Rahal has looked strong in race trim.

“The Indy 500 is a major focus for Honda. We really worked hard for 12 months on this particular race,” St. Cyr said.

“We used two of our three allocated boxes from an aerodynamic standpoint on this race. We have a pretty major upgrade of our engine specification for this race.

“As you’ve seen, it’s fairly competitive at this point. Really our whole goal is to get all of our teams with a package that is capable of winning this race.”

And providing such a package is something that St. Cyr believes Honda has achieved.

“It’s pretty great,” he said. “The Andretti guys, the whole Andretti team, all five of their cars, have been fast. They unloaded fast. They typically do really well here. We expect good things out of them.

“The Schmidt Peterson Racing group, all three of them have just had stellar months. You want to give some shouts out to Dale Coyne and those guys who have shown pretty good speed, with people that don’t have a lot of experience running around this track.

“A.J. Foyt and Takuma Sato showed something at the end of qualifying. They qualified third in the last group, right? Graham, we expect him to have a real good race, as well.

“All of our teams have legitimate contenders to win this race, so we’re actually really thrilled about that.”

PWC: Bentley confirms Andrew Palmer sustains head injury

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Photo: Bentley Team Absolute
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Following an accident in practice ahead of today’s Pirelli World Challenge race at Lime Rock Park, Bentley Team Absolute driver Andrew Palmer has sustained a head injury following contact with another car, an Aston Martin driven by Jorge de la Torre.

Just after 6:30 p.m. ET, Bentley released the following statement:

“Bentley Motorsport can confirm that Bentley Team Absolute driver Andrew Palmer will remain in hospital following an incident at Lime Rock Park in Connecticut earlier today. He has sustained a head injury and is being closely monitored after treatment by specialists.

“Bentley’s Director of Motorsport, Brian Gush, comments: “Everyone at Bentley Motorsport is thinking of Andrew and we all send him our best wishes. We are a close-knit community and we have team members at the hospital with him and his family. We will continue to offer our support to them at this difficult time. Our thanks go to the trackside team at Lime Rock Park and the medical professionals who have helped Andrew so far.”

“No further update is expected today. Bentley Motorsport will release another statement in due course.”

An additional statement came from WC Vision just before 10 p.m. ET:

“As an update to the earlier released news on Andrew Palmer and Jorge De La Torre:

“Both drivers remain under treatment at Hartford Hospital. Bentley has provided the statement below regarding Andrew Palmer. WC Vision will release further information on the condition of both drivers when Hartford Hospital provides any updates.

That came after the first update issued by World Challenge officials which read as follows, and was released after 1 p.m. ET:

“Both Andrew Palmer and Jorge De La Torre were transported to Sharon Hospital where they were stabilized for transportation to Hartford Hospital.  That is all we know at this time.”

K-PAX Racing driver Alvaro Parente won his second race of the weekend in his No. 9 McLaren 650S GT3 in the afternoon, although the results of which matter little in the face of Palmer’s accident and injuries.

Our thoughts and best wishes go out to the drivers and their families affected at this time.