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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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Indy’s unsung heroes: RRDC hails Holmatro Safety Team (VIDEO)

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In this video produced by the Road Racing Drivers Club SAFEisFAST initiative, we take a look behind the scenes at the Verizon IndyCar Series’ unsung heroes: the Holmatro Safety Team.

You’ve heard about their heroic efforts over the years, particularly with saving James Hinchcliffe’s life last year in Indianapolis.

But how do they do what they do? This video explains it.

Red Bull, Aston Martin partnership continues into 2017

GAYDON, ENGLAND - JULY 05:  Daniel Ricciardo of Australia and Red Bull Racing talks on stage at the Aston Martin and Red Bull Racing Project AMRB 001 Unveil on July 5, 2016 at the Aston Martin Headquarters in Gaydon, England on July 5, 2016 in Gaydon, England.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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The partnership between Red Bull Racing and Aston Martin will continue into 2017, Red Bull confirmed on Tuesday.

Branding on the Red Bull Formula 1 chassis will continue, while bigger news has come in terms of the AM-RB 001 hypercar.

Red Bull and Aston Martin announced that all 150 road-going cars of the 175 cars built (the other 25 are track-only specials) have been sold and customer deliveries will begin in early 2019.

An AM-RB 001 prototype is expected to run for the first time by the end of this season.

“We first conceived our Innovation Partnership with Aston Martin in the realization that it could be truly pioneering,” said Christian Horner, Red Bull Racing team principal.

“In blending our distinct but unique skills under a shared creative vision, we have already seen tangible development to both of our brands and businesses. The extraordinary success of the AM RB-001 is testament to the expert and collaborative spirit in which it was forged, and extending our relationship with Aston Martin through 2017 was a simple and pleasing decision.”

Aston Martin President and CEO Andy Palmer added,  “By bringing together the talents of Red Bull Racing and Aston Martin, AM-RB 001 is destined to become the defining hypercar of this decade and a hugely desirable investment for collectors and enthusiasts.

“Our relationship with Red Bull Racing has done for Aston Martin exactly what we expected it to do,” he continued. “It is helping us to continue to build our brand across the globe. Partnerships like this are good for business both in terms of technical innovation and brand awareness, so we are pleased to continue into 2017.”

FIA WEC Prologue changes date to avoid Papal visit clash

VATICAN CITY, VATICAN - FEBRUARY 14:  Pope Francis attends a meeting with engaged couples from all over the world gathered today, on the feast of St. Valentine, in St. Peter's Square   on February 14, 2014 in Vatican City, Vatican. During the event, organised by the Pontifical Council for the Family, Pope Francis emphasised that living together is 'an art, a patient, beautiful and fascinating journey' which can be summarized in three words: please, thank you and sorry.  (Photo by Franco Origlia/Getty Images)
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The FIA World Endurance Championship Prologue has shifted dates, moving from its originally scheduled March 24-25 date to April 1-2 still at Autodromo di Nazionale, Monza.

The reasoning is that His Holiness Pope Francis will be making an official visit to Monza on those dates. Naturally, organizational, security and logistical preferences will follow for that.

The European Le Mans Series continues as planned on March 28 and 29 with its preseason test.

For fans of clashes, two more have been created on account of this date shift. The FIA Formula E Championship race at Mexico and Blancpain GT Series season opener at Misano fall on the same weekend as the Prologue.

The full revised calendar (for the moment, and for the last time, we hope) is below.

Wolff on Alonso to Mercedes rumors: ‘You have to consider Fernando’

SAO PAULO, BRAZIL - NOVEMBER 13:  Fernando Alonso of Spain and McLaren Honda walks in the Paddock during the Formula One Grand Prix of Brazil at Autodromo Jose Carlos Pace on November 13, 2016 in Sao Paulo, Brazil.  (Photo by Adam Pretty/Getty Images)
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Toto Wolff has responded to speculation about Fernando Alonso moving to Mercedes for the 2017 Formula 1 season by saying that officials at the team “have to consider” the Spaniard.

Just five days after winning his maiden F1 title with Mercedes in Abu Dhabi, Nico Rosberg shocked the motorsport world by announcing his immediate retirement from racing.

The news has left Mercedes in need of a driver for 2017, but after boasting the best car on the grid for the past three years, the seat is highly coveted.

Alonso has one year to run on his McLaren contract, but has been linked with the drive for 2017 as he looks to win his first World Championship since 2006.

Speaking to British broadcaster Sky Sports, Mercedes executive chairman Wolff said that Alonso had to be considered as a candidate for the seat, but acknowledged that the two-time champion remains under contract.

“You have to consider Fernando,” Wolff said.

“He’s a driver that I respect a lot, and combines the talent, speed, experience – it’s all there.

“But he’s in a contract with McLaren-Honda at the moment. We just need to weigh all the other options up.”

Whoever Mercedes opts to sign for 2017 will partner Lewis Hamilton, who said last week that he would not insist on having number one status at the team.

Wolff said that Mercedes would continue to operate with its equal chances philosophy between its drivers in 2017, regardless of who was signed.

“We will maintain the system like we had,” Wolff said.

“We will always have equal status for all drivers, give them equal opportunity to the best of our ability. I say that, meaning Abu Dhabi…

“I think we owe it to the fans and owe it to ourselves that you can’t have a pecking order straight from the beginning. It’s not what we’d like to see happening.”