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

F1 Paddock Pass: Azerbaijan Grand Prix (VIDEO)

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Formula 1 returns to Europe this weekend with the renamed Azerbaijan Grand Prix from the Baku City Circuit. The track is the second longest on the schedule and the race is renamed after being called the European Grand Prix last year (all times for the weekend via NBCSN or CNBC here).

Here with the latest from the paddock in Baku is the latest edition of the NBC Sports Group original digital series Paddock Pass, with F1 pit reporter and insider Will Buxton joined by producer Jason Swales.

Swales celebrates his 300th Grand Prix on site this weekend, a major milestone after his 250th was celebrated a couple seasons ago at the United States Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas. As you can see below, McLaren Honda’s Fernando Alonso has joined in the festivities.

There’s plenty of fun to recap and plenty of important angles to preview in this week’s show, which you can see below in three parts.

 

Raikkonen prepared to sacrifice himself to help Vettel

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BAKU, Azerbaijan (AP) Kimi Raikkonen is prepared to sacrifice himself in order to help Ferrari teammate Sebastian Vettel win a fifth Formula One title.

Vettel leads the championship by 12 points ahead of Mercedes rival Lewis Hamilton after seven races. Raikkonen is fourth and already trails Vettel by 68 points.

“When I don’t have a chance mathematically to fight for the championship, for sure I will help him. I have no issues with that,” Raikkonen said Thursday. “It’s about the team and the first thing is to try and make sure we are at the top with Ferrari.”

Ferrari is chasing its first drivers’ title since Raikkonen won his only title in 2007 and its first constructors’ title since 2008.

In the constructors’ battle, Ferrari trails Mercedes by eight points heading into this weekend’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix.

“We have a good car everywhere. Hopefully we’ll be at the front again,” Raikkonen said. “It’s been close every race this year.”

Although the Finnish driver looked set for victory at the Monaco Grand Prix last month, his hopes were ended when his team brought him into the pits for a tire change earlier than he wanted. That left Vettel in the clear to race away to victory, with Raikkonen finishing second.

Even though Raikkonen was disappointed in the aftermath of that race, and made his frustration known, he now appears fully committed to helping Vettel when the time comes.

“I think we have very clear rules in the team and what the team wants us to do. It goes by those rules,” Raikkonen said. “Nothing has changed and we know exactly when things will go either way. That’s fine.”

The 37-year-old Raikkonen acknowledged that Vettel’s consistency makes him the obvious choice as the team’s No. 1 driver.

“Seb has done very good races so far and has been strong everywhere,” Raikkonen said. “I was not starting very well the first races. I was not where I wanted to be.”

Kanaan finding IndyCar ‘more competitive than ever’

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Chip Ganassi Racing’s Tony Kanaan believes that the Verizon IndyCar Series is becoming “more competitive than ever” as the championship’s plans for the future begin to become clear.

INDYCAR bosses have outlined a five-year plan for the series moving forward, with a universal aero kit in 2018 and a push for a third manufacturer to join Chevrolet and Honda in the future on the agenda.

The 2017 season has kicked off in an unpredictable fashion as seven drivers have shared the opening nine race wins, with Will Power and Graham Rahal being the only repeat winners.

Kanaan feels that the series is only becoming more and more competitive, with the introduction of the universal aero kit poised to aid that from next year.

“I think it is going to be more competitive than ever as we still have different aero kits that can make a difference. Next year is going to be even tougher,” Kanaan said.

“At the last race [in Texas] we had 15 cars and two-tenths of a second. I think it is the right direction, and they are also trying to keep the costs down which is the biggest challenge in racing all over the world, to get the teams to afford to be there.

“The way they are doing the kits, trying to get more teams and new teams into the series, and it is working. We had three new teams at Indy 500 and they are looking forward to coming back. We should try to add more teams and not lose cars.”

Kanaan added that a third manufacturer would be “a big help” for IndyCar, saying: “They are in talks with two others but I don’t know who they are but more people, cars, manufacturers, teams will always help.”

Having made his debut in American single-seaters back in 1998, Kanaan has raced through many different eras, but does not believe the series has ever been more competitive.

“It doesn’t get any easier and I don’t get any younger. It goes the opposite way!” Kanaan chuckled.

“It is amazing as you cannot afford to have one little problem or one little hiccup in a race. Before if you did that you would finish third or fourth but now you will finish 15th.

“You have 22 cars and in some races 21 of them on the lead lap and five seconds from one another. It raised the game for the mechanics too with the importance of pit stops.”

Sauber driver Ericsson dismisses talk of favoritism in team

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BAKU, Azerbaijan (AP) Formula One driver Marcus Ericsson has dismissed talk of favoritism within Sauber following the unexpected departure of team principal Monisha Kaltenborn.

Kaltenborn, who was also Sauber’s chief executive officer, left Wednesday by mutual consent. The news came shortly after another team statement denying reports of unfair treatment between the Swedish driver and German teammate Pascal Wehrlein.

“There were a lot of stories in the press about this unfair advantage for one driver. It was upsetting, disrespectful, it’s false and untrue,” Ericsson said Thursday ahead of this weekend’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix. “For me and Pascal, it’s been very clear that’s not the case. We’ve both been given equal equipment.”

Ericsson has yet to score a point after seven races, while Wehrlein has four points after an eighth-place finish at the Spanish GP in May.

“We’re not going to go on holiday together, but as teammates goes we’ve been working really good together so far,” Ericsson said. “When we try different things across the cars, we discuss things.”

Sauber’s statement said Kaltenborn left “due to diverging views of the future of the company.” Her successor has not been announced.

The 46-year-old Kaltenborn joined Sauber in 2000 as head of its legal department and later became chief executive officer.

“We have to trust the owners that they know what they’re doing, and that they have a good plan for the future,” Ericsson said. “I have a lot to thank Monisha for. She was the one who gave me the chance to come here after my year in Caterham.”

Wehrlein also praised Kaltenborn for standing by him. He missed the first two races of the season after injuring his back in a crash at the Race of Champions in Miami in January, sustaining hairline cracks in vertebrae and compressing some of his intervertebral discs.

“Monisha was very close to me at one of my toughest times in my career so far,” Wehrlein said. “I am very thankful for that, and this is something that I will never forget.”