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Wild night: Denny Hamlin avoids 9-car wreck, pace car fire en route to Sprint Unlimited win

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After winning last year’s season finale at Homestead Miami Speedway, Denny Hamlin picked up where he left off by starting the new 2014 season with a win in Saturday’s Sprint Unlimited at Daytona International Speedway.

Hamlin, who started the night from the pole, was the class of the field, leading 27 laps across the three segments of the 75-lap exhibition race to win the entire event.

It was further affirmation that Hamlin is fully back from last year’s devastating wreck early in the year at Fontana, Calif., that knocked him out for four races and forced him to drive in pain for most of the remainder of the season.

But his win at Homestead was the best medicine Hamlin could ask for and provided momentum and motivation not only coming into Saturday night’s race, but certainly for next Sunday’s Daytona 500 and the rest of the 36-race season.

“The best car won, that’s for sure,” Hamlin said of his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota Camry. “We’re two in a row and building on something. It was survival of the fittest, for sure. With three (laps) to go, we were at the tail end of a very small pack and it’s really hard to get a run, but this car was just phenomenal.”

What started as an 18-driver field ended with only eight cars remaining at the end. Brad Keselowski finished second, followed by Kyle Busch, Joey Logano, Kevin Harvick, Jamie McMurray, Marcos Ambrose and Ryan Newman.

With a full moon shining down on the track, it was perhaps one of the strangest nights of racing NASCAR has seen in a long time.

It started with defending Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson spinning out by himself and ending his night early by slamming into the inside retaining wall on the final lap of the first segment, a 30-lap affair.

On the sixth lap of the 25-lap second segment, a massive nine-car wreck brought out a race-stopping red flag. The mayhem began when Matt Kenseth cut down on the front end of Joey Logano, triggering the wreck.

Drivers involved in the wreck were Danica Patrick, Carl Edwards, Kenseth, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick, Logano, Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch.

The night grew even stranger when the final part of the big wreck resulted in Stenhouse slamming into the side of his girlfriend’s car.

Stenhouse was unable to see where he was going due to damage incurred in the first split seconds of the crash. To her credit, Patrick avoided all of the slamming and banging around her and slid to a stop – only to have her boyfriend run into her and end her night.

Earlier in the day, hours before the Sprint Unlimited during practice for Sunday’s front row qualifying session, Patrick and Stewart suffered motor failure in engines leased from Hendrick Motorsports. Patrick and Stewart drove different cars with different motors in the Sprint Unlimited.

But wait, it got even stranger: As Hamlin and the other eight drivers that were left to start the final segment came to the green flag, the pace car caught fire! (See video below)

The pace car was quickly brought to a halt and track fire and safety personnel converged upon it to put out the small blaze — certainly nothing like the inferno that took place in the 2012 Daytona 500 when Juan Pablo Montoya slammed into the rear of a track jet dryer.

Other things of note in Saturday’s strange night:

* Kyle Busch went on a wild single-car ride when he spun out in the third segment, but was able to regain control and continue on early in the final segment, rallying for a third-place finish.

* Dale Earnhardt Jr. was knocked out of the race midway through the final 20-lap segment when he was hooked into the outside retaining wall by Marcos Ambrose.

Before taking his mangled car to the garage, Earnhardt managed to catch up with Ambrose on the track and expressed his displeasure at what happened.

But after climbing from his car and watching a TV replay, Earnhardt backed off on fully blaming Ambrose for the incident.

“It looks like I was trying to get down there and Marcos went to the outside and I didn’t know he was there,” Earnhardt said. “Hard racing and I hate to have it happen.

“I was upset with him, but I can’t really say it was his fault. He was going to the outside and I didn’t know he was up there. I thought he was staying with me because he’d been pushing me down the straightaway. I thought he was committed to that situation, and a lot was happening right there, and we just got turned around.”

While Earnhardt’s night was over at that point, Ambrose was able to continue on.

All in all, the Sprint Unlimited may not have played out the way many had hoped, but in the end a strange night ended with an exciting finish and a great storyline for the winning driver. We can only hope that next Sunday’s Daytona 500 plays out that well.

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

Helmut Marko: Modern-day F1 drivers are overpaid

xxxx during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Austria at Red Bull Ring on June 19, 2015 in Spielberg, Austria.
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Red Bull Racing team advisor Helmut Marko believes that modern-day Formula 1 drivers are overpaid due to the reduced risk and easier driving conditions they experience.

Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton and Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel are two of the highest-paid drivers on the grid in 2016, earning upwards of $30 million per year from their teams.

However, Marko believes that drivers in F1 are overpaid as there is now a reduced risk of suffering a fatal accident, and that with the cars being easier to drive, their worth has decreased.

“Basically, the drivers of today are definitely overpaid for two reasons,” Marko told Sport Bild in Germany.

“Firstly, there is only a small risk that serious accidents can result in injury or even be fatal.

“Secondly, young top talent like [Max] Verstappen or [Pascal] Wehrlein can take the modern car and straight away easily do 100 laps without tiring.

“Previously you had even a Vettel have to take breaks because he was not used to the high centrifugal forces. This means that the cars are easier to drive. The drivers must do less.”

Wolff: Wehrlein, Ocon deserve Formula 1 roles

SPIELBERG, AUSTRIA - JUNE 23:  Pascal Wehrlein of Germany and Mercedes GP drives during Formula One testing at the Red Bull Ring on June 23, 2015 in Spielberg, Austria.  (Photo by Andrew Hone/Getty Images)
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Mercedes AMG Petronas team boss Toto Wolff believes that junior talents Pascal Wehrlein and Esteban Ocon have both earned their roles in Formula 1 for the 2016 season “on merit”.

Wehrlein will make his grand prix debut in 2016 with Manor Racing after winning the DTM title for Mercedes last year, becoming the youngest champion in the history of the series.

Ocon has been loaned to Renault Sport F1 Racing for its comeback season, and will work as the team’s reserve driver following his GP3 title success last year.

Wolff feels that both drivers deserve their chance in F1 this year, and also said that Mercedes will look to expand its junior program across the course of the season.

“We’re delighted that Pascal and Esteban will tackle a fresh set of challenges in 2016,” Wolff said. “Our aim is to build their experience in the best possible environment and, following positive discussions with our counterparts at Manor and Renault, it became clear that their respective Formula 1 programmes presented ideal opportunities to achieve that.

“It is very pleasing to see young drivers earning their spot in Formula 1 on merit and to see that talent is being rewarded by the system. Pascal and Esteban have proven themselves to be amongst the top young drivers out there – and both come into 2016 as champions of their respective series.

“But they still have plenty to learn and they will be staying humble, with their feet on the ground. This is an important year for them and we will be following their progress with great interest, while also looking to expand our junior program.

“Mercedes-Benz has a strong tradition of developing young racing talent and our eyes are very much open to other promising prospects for the future.”

Social roundup: When Mika Hakkinen met CJ Wilson, and other cool shots

SHANGHAI, CHINA - APRIL 15:  Former F1 World Champion Mika Hakkinen is seen during practice for the Chinese Formula One Grand Prix at the Shanghai International Circuit on April 15, 2011 in Shanghai, China.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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What happens when you put a McLaren P1 owned by baseball star and CJ Wilson Racing team principal, and occasional driver, CJ Wilson, with two-time F1 World Champion Mika Hakkinen, and you turn them loose at The Thermal Club for a track day?

Pure awesomeness.

Of course there’s other cars besides the McLaren and hockey legend, Teemu Selanne, was also on site.

This really isn’t a post so much that needs words, but one that does need proper photos and noise.

The CJWR pairing of Marc Miller and Daniel Burkett, who drive the No. 33 One Capital/Motor Oil Matters Porsche Cayman GT4 Clubsport dubbed “Darth Cayman” in the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge, have been coaching and driving at an event this weekend out at The Thermal Club, a luxury race track in California.

See a mix of photos and videos below:

Ecclestone gives Monza until end of February to resolve F1 future

MONZA, ITALY - SEPTEMBER 06:  Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP celebrates on the podium next to Sebastian Vettel of Germany and Ferrari after winning the Formula One Grand Prix of Italy at Autodromo di Monza on September 6, 2015 in Monza, Italy.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Formula 1 CEO Bernie Ecclestone has given officials at the Autodromo Nazionale Monza until the end of February to resolve the future of the Italian Grand Prix.

Monza has hosted the Italian Grand Prix for all but one year since 1950 when the F1 world championship was formed, establishing itself as one of the series’ most historic and legendary venues.

However, its future has come under increasing scrutiny in recent months following a cut in the amount of tax relief that the race receives by the Italian government.

Ecclestone said back in November that he had “no doubts” the race would remain on the calendar and extend its contract beyond the end of 2016 when it expires.

However, the 85-year-old has now cast fresh doubt on the race in an interview with Reuters, giving the circuit until the end of February to resolve its future.

“It’s Italian. A lot of conversations at the moment and not much action,” Ecclestone said.

“They said to me a few months ago: ‘Everything is sorted out, we know exactly where we are and it’s all agreed and no dramas.’

“And now I heard yesterday it’s become very political… They’ll get on with it. Or not. I don’t know what’s going to happen. Nothing we can do about it.

“The only people that can sort this out are the people that are currently involved in Italy. They can take as long as they like, provided it’s by the end of this month.”

The 2016 Italian Grand Prix is set to take place at Monza on September 4.