Denny Hamlin, pictured after winning last November's season-ending race at Homestead, is looking to start the 2014 season with a win in the Daytona 500. Given how he's performed thus far in Speedweeks, Hamlin has to be considered one of the favorites to win Sunday in the Great American Race.

Denny Hamlin eyes Speedweeks trifecta with Daytona 500 win; 5 fail to make field

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Denny Hamlin staked his claim as the favorite to win Sunday’s Daytona 500 after capturing the second Budweiser Duel 150 Thursday at Daytona International Speedway, in addition to last Saturday’s triumph in the Sprint Unlimited.

Hamlin held off late charges by both Jeff Gordon and Kurt Busch. Hamlin’s win put a decided Joe Gibbs Racing bookend on the evening, as teammate Matt Kenseth won the first of the two Duel races a couple of hours earlier.

“Just keep doing what we’re doing,” Hamlin said when asked what are his thoughts now going into Sunday’s race. “We’re on a roll obviously and we executed the race today great.”

Hamlin, who ended last season with a win at Homestead, is looking to become the first driver in Sprint Cup history to sweep all three major events of the season-opening Speedweeks: the Sprint Unlimited, one of the two Duels and cap it off with a win in the Great American Race.

But despite the success he’s had so far this year, Hamlin is not taking anything for granted, either.

“We still don’t have any more points than anyone at this point of the year, so we still have a lot of work to do,” Hamlin said.

With his runner-up showing in the second Duel Thursday night, Gordon will start sixth in Sunday’s main event, right behind Hendrick Motorsports teammate Kasey Kahne (fifth) and three spots ahead of Dale Earnhardt Jr. (ninth).

“I think we snuck in there with a quiet, under the radar, very fast car that’s capable of winning this race,” Gordon said. “I like it that way. Let some of those other guys get all the attention and get that target on their back.”

Fellow HMS teammate and defending Daytona 500 winner Jimmie Johnson – who also hopes to begin his march to a record-tying seventh Sprint Cup championship on Sunday, as well – will start 32nd after running out of gas on the final lap of the second Duel and had his car hit by Jamie McMurray, triggering a multi-car wreck.

Kurt Busch will be the highest starting of the four Stewart-Haas Racing drivers in the 500, taking the green flag from the eighth spot.

Tony Stewart will start 21st, Danica Patrick 27th and Kevin Harvick, whose runner-up finish in Thursday’s first duel was disqualified for a track bar violation, will start 38th.

“It’s a great start for us,” Busch said. “Thanks to Gene Haas and Tony Stewart, it’s away we go. … We’re proud to be upfront in the Great American Race.”

Busch is still in pursuit of his first Daytona 500 victory. He came close in 2007, finishing second, pushing then-Penske Racing teammate Ryan Newman to the win.

Given how quickly he’s fit in at Stewart-Haas Racing, Busch feels at home in his new NASCAR address.

“It’s been everything I’ve hoped it to be,” Busch said. “This is a first-class organization built upon a championship foundation. It’s time to race. This is where you roll your sleeves up and where you lean on the communication of the team.”

When he was brought into the DIS media center after the second Duel, Busch was unaware that Harvick’s runner-up finish in the first Duel earlier in the evening had been disqualified after failing post-race inspection due having “exceeded the maximum split on the track bar,” according to NASCAR spokesman Kerry Tharp.

Busch tried to add some levity to the incident, saying with a laugh, “Oh, that’s not good. Maybe there was a 12-pack in the trunk.”

The younger Busch brother, Kyle, was not laughing, though, finishing 21st of 24 drivers in the second duel. Kyle Busch will ultimately start Sunday’s race from the 37th position, alongside Harvick, ironically enough.

Austin Dillon will lead the field to the green flag from the pole position in Sunday’s 500-mile season-opener, with Martin Truex Jr. alongside on the front row.

Kenseth and Hamlin will share Row 2, Kasey Kahne and Gordon on Row 3, Marcos Ambrose and Kurt Busch on Row 4 and Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Paul Menard will start from Row 5.

(Full starting grid at bottom of this story)

Five drivers failed to qualify for the race: Eric McClure, Ryan Truex, Joe Nemechek, Michael McDowell and Morgan Shepherd, who was attempting to make the field as the oldest driver to ever race in a 500 (Shepherd is 72).

Starting lineup for 56TH Daytona 500 on Sunday, Feb. 23, 2014:

Row 1

Austin Dillon, Martin Truex Jr.

Row 2

Matt Kenseth, Denny Hamlin

Row 3

Kasey Kahne, Jeff Gordon

Row 4

Marcos Ambrose, Kurt Busch

Row 5

Dale Earnhardt Jr., Paul Menard

Row 6

Josh Wise, Brian Scott

Row 7

Aric Almirola, Trevor Bayne

Row 8

AJ Allmendinger, Kyle Larson

Row 9

David Gilliland, Landon Cassill

Row 10

Ryan Newman, Clint Bowyer

Row 11

Tony Stewart, Jamie McMurray

Row 12

Cole Whitt, Terry Labonte

Row 13

Greg Biffle, Bobby Labonte

Row 14

Danica Patrick, Casey Mears

Row 15

Alex Bowman, Carl Edwards

Row 16

Brian Vickers, Jimmie Johnson

Row 17

Brad Keselowski, Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

Row 18

Joey Logano, Michael Annett

Row 19

Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick

Row 20

Reed Sorenson, Justin Allgaier

Row 21

Parker Kligerman, Michael Waltrip

Row 22

David Ragan

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Williams felt bad asking Felipe Massa to come out of F1 retirement

SAO PAULO, BRAZIL - NOVEMBER 13:  Felipe Massa of Brazil and Williams waves farewell to the Brazilian crowd during the Formula One Grand Prix of Brazil at Autodromo Jose Carlos Pace on November 13, 2016 in Sao Paulo, Brazil.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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Williams Formula 1 deputy team boss Claire Williams says she felt bad asking Felipe Massa to backtrack on his decision to retire from racing and return for the 2017 season.

Massa announced in September that he would be calling time on his 14-year F1 career at the end of 2016, making what was expected to be his final start in Abu Dhabi.

Massa’s departure freed up a seat at the team for 18-year-old rookie Lance Stroll, who was due to partner Valtteri Bottas through 2017.

Bottas was released from his Williams contract after being approached by Mercedes to replace Nico Rosberg following the world champion’s shock decision to retire, announced in December.

With Williams keen to hire an experienced driver to partner Stroll in his rookie year, the team turned to Massa and asked him to come out of retirement.

“We are never going to put a driver in the car who we don’t believe can deliver,” Claire Williams told Sky Sports.

“As everyone saw even in his last race last year, he delivered for this team. He has lost none of his motivation.

“I know there’s a lot of talk out there ‘let the guy retire, leave him alone’ – he wants to come back.

“Little-known to me, I didn’t actually realize that he didn’t really want to retire and so I think Felipe is going to do a good job this year.”

Williams said she felt bad asking Massa to go back on his decision following the fanfare and tributes surrounding his final few races, but her fears were allayed when the Brazilian was receptive to the offer.

“Bless him, Felipe had announced his retirement, we had a whole fanfare around it, and then to have to phone your ex-driver up and say ‘would you mind coming out of retirement?’ you feel quite bad about it,” Williams said.

“But I’ve never heard anyone so happy and excited, so it was a big relief for us.”

Massa will return to on-track duties with Williams next month, taking part in the first pre-season test in Barcelona on February 27 alongside Stroll in the FW40 car.

Spectator dies after accident on opening stage of Monte Carlo rally

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Officials have confirmed that a spectator has died following an accident on the first stage of the Monte Carlo Rally on Thursday night, the opening round of the FIA World Rally Championship.

Hyundai driver Hayden Paddon slid off the route towards the end of the 21.25 km stage between Entrevaux and Ubraye, with his car blocking the course.

Emergency services were quickly called when it emerged that a spectator had been hurt in the accident, with rally officials confirming later in the evening that the fan had died as a result of injuries sustained.

“The Automobile Club de Monaco regrets to advise further details following incident of the car #4 (Paddon/Kennard) in SS 1,” a statement from the rally organizers read.

“The spectator was transported by helicopter from the stage to hospital in Nice. Despite the best efforts of the medical staff, the spectator has sadly died.

“An investigation has commenced into the incident and all involved parties will provide assistance to the authorities.

“Everyone associated with the event extends their deepest sympathies and condolences to the families, friends and individuals affected.”

Hyundai issued its own statement soon after: “Hyundai Motorsport is deeply saddened to learn of the tragic passing of a spectator during the opening stage of Rallye Monte-Carlo on Thursday evening.

“The incident occurred at the same time as the #4 Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC of Hayden Paddon and John Kennard crashed into the mountainside, after the car hit a patch of black ice at the entry to a left-hand turn.

“The team and crew have pledged their full support to the event organisers and authorities to understand the full details.

“Hyundai Motorsport extends its condolences to the family, friends and individuals affected.”

The stage was cancelled following the incident, with the rally resuming on stage two later in the evening. Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville currently leads by 7.8 seconds from defending world champion Sebastien Ogier.

Paddon’s car has been withdrawn from the remainder of the rally as a result of the incident on Friday.

Gateway secures deal with Bommarito Auto for IndyCar race sponsorship

MADISON, IL - AUGUST 9:  Bryan Herta drives his #27 Andretti Green Racing Honda Dallara during practice for the IRL (Indy Racing League) IndyCar Series Emerson 250 at the Gateway International Raceway on August 9, 2003 in Madison, Illinois.  (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)
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Gateway Motorsports Park’s return to the Verizon IndyCar Series schedule will feature a two-year title sponsorship from Bommarito Automotive Group, it was confirmed on Thursday. The St. Louis Business Journal was first to report the news.

The largest auto dealer in St. Louis will see its name on the race, now titled the Bommarito Automotive Group 500. Gateway’s return comes on August 26 (9 p.m. ET, NBCSN), for its first IndyCar race since 2003.

“We are pleased to announce that Bommarito Automotive Group will join Gateway Motorsports Park in the production of our inaugural INDYCAR event as the title sponsor,” Curtis Francois, Owner and CEO of Gateway Motorsports Park, said in a release.

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Photo courtesy Gateway Motorsports Park

“This is a tremendous event for the St. Louis region and no one knows our town better than the folks at Bommarito. They are a progressive group, known for a high standard of quality and excellence. It’s the same standard of on-track action and family-friendly experience that we look forward to delivering with our landmark event.”

“We are excited to partner with Gateway Motorsports Park and the Verizon IndyCar Series,” said John Bommarito, President of the Bommarito Automotive Group. “When approached by Gateway about the return of INDYCAR to St. Louis, we felt it was important to have a major St. Louis company step forward and support the return of open wheel racing to the region.  We are extremely proud to be the title sponsor of the Bommarito Automotive Group 500.”

Gateway will be the sixth and last oval race of the season, following earlier races in Phoenix, Indianapolis, Texas, Iowa and Pocono.

Rahal wants to turn 2016’s unrealized potential into reality in 2017

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Graham Rahal likes to say “2016 was a year of tremendous potential.”

But it also was a year that some potential was not realized.

After a career season in 2015, when he finished fourth in the Verizon IndyCar Series and earning two wins and six podium finishes, Rahal slipped back slightly in 2016, finishing fifth with just one win and only four podiums.

So what does 2017 hold in store? If things go well for the son of 1986 Indy 500 winner Bobby Rahal, the tremendous potential of 2016 will morph into potential not only realized, but could result in the younger Rahal’s best year ever.

Rahal has the power, the car, the equipment and the personnel to make some major upward moves this year.

“We just have to find going forward a way to keep that performance level, enhance it a little bit,” Rahal said. “Obviously the cars aren’t really going to change at all (major changes are planned for 2018).

“I felt like speed-wise, our performance (in 2016) was actually better than 2015, pretty considerably. We just did our season reviews about a month and a half ago, and it’s pretty clear to see performance-wise, the team performed a lot better.

“However, we had a lot of things that just didn’t quite go our way, whereas in 2015 we had bounces that certainly did. 2016 the bounces didn’t happen. We had to fight a lot harder, still managed to get a top-five finish in the championship.

“I think that I probably drove better last year than 2015. But hopefully the best is yet to come. As a driver you always have to be critical of where can you improve, where were mistakes, what did you kind of let go, you know, and where did you lose points.”

The 28-year-old Rahal is particularly focused on potentially following in his father’s footsteps of winning the biggest race of all, the Indianapolis 500.

In nine starts in the Greatest Spectacle In Racing, the younger Rahal has just two top-10 finishes: third in 2011 and fifth in 2015. At the opposite end of the spectrum Rahal has four finishes of 25th or worse, including two last-place showings (2008 and 2014).

“We really need to improve at Indy,” he said. “That’s our main focus of everything this off-season. And also get a little bit of those breaks. You know, that’s kind of the goal. That’s what we feel like we need.”

The younger Rahal will also reunite for at least the Indianapolis 500 and probably more races with Oriol Servia, which should help upgrade Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s testing, race preparation and data sharing.

“Oriol is a clear plug-in for us,” Rahal said. “First of all, he’s a great guy. Second of all, he will help us. He’s going to help our performance at Indy. I can tell you that right now. And third, he’s been there so many times with the organization, he’s been in and out of the team a handful of times. He knows everybody. He’s been part of the team before. So it’s a clear fit.

“We need just a very experienced guy who can help lead us down the right path, and Oriol is going to be that guy.”

Interestingly, RLL had the opportunity to bring in a full-time second driver, but chose to go with the 42-year-old Servia in a limited number of races for now.

“There were several drivers who came to the team that wanted to run full season, had budgets to do it and everything else, and they were all turned away,” Rahal said. “The team is focused on making sure if there is the addition of a second car full-time, it has to fit the right environment.

“… We really are proud of the environment that we have, and so Oriol is a guy that fits that just perfectly and won’t upset the apple cart, so to speak. … He’s a great guy, and I think he’ll do a heck of a job for us. We’re looking forward to it.”

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