Underdogs ready to spring surprise Sunday in Daytona

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They’re not necessarily “marquee” names, or driving for “marquee” teams.

No matter. What some of the underdog drivers that made the field in the Daytona 500 have in spades are heart and tenacity.

And a collective desire to spoil the party for the establishment.

If you’re betting, odds are Swan Racing’s pair of rookies Parker Kligerman and Cole Whitt, Phil Parsons’ Josh Wise, BK Racing rookie Alex Bowman, Circle Sport Racing’s Landon Cassill, HScott Motorsports’ pair of Justin Allgaier and Bobby Labonte, and Go Fas Racing’s Terry Labonte are long for them to win on Sunday.

But making the field on Thursday, in some cases unexpectedly, at least gives them a shot.

Kligerman has probably generated the most headlines of that group this week. He’s a young, insightful driver and a burgeoning writer in his own right, writing columns for the popular Jalopnik automotive site.

Still, he was better known as “The guy that got crunched in that wreck on Wednesday” with his car flipping over. It required a switch to Swan’s only backup car, now adorned with new LendingTree sponsorship.

Then he nearly made it in based on his result in his Budweiser Duel, before his gauges went haywire on the last lap and he dropped from an automatic qualifying position. And that began the wait through Duel 2 before he was informed he made it.

“The only way I could compare it is I’m pretty into politics, is like running for the presidential election,” he explained in the post-race press conference. “No one has the right info, everybody is saying the info they think they have, but you don’t know.  It was like that for an hour.

“We were constantly doing the math, screaming and yelling and looking around.  I think I was more animated than I normally am, I know that says a lot.”

Teammate Whitt had adversity to overcome as well. He had the first wreck of the day on Wednesday, when his car slid into the outside retaining wall and collected two others.

He was originally set to take the team’s backup car, with a seat put in, but plans changed after Kligerman’s accident later on Wednesday. In the repaired primary car, Whitt drove to 11th in Duel 1 to make the show.

“For both of us to overcome what we could to get down here, and me cutting the whole side off, my hats are off to the guys and everyone at Speed Stick GEAR,” Whitt told FOX Sports after the race.

Cassill, the former BK Racing driver, competed most of last year for Circle Sport in the car that alternated between No. 33 and 40 depending on whether Richard Childress Racing’s fourth car was entered. In what’s been a bizarre week for the Des Moines, Iowa native, he got hit by a car, and it gave him a black eye.

“As far as my eye, I was riding my bicycle in Daytona on Saturday and got hit by a car,” he said.  “It was pretty bad, but I’m all right now. Unfortunately, it was the motorist’s fault.  I mean I blame myself a lot for the position I put myself in.  I was in the bike lane and had the right-of-way.  It’s really not funny, I could have gotten really hurt.”

Fortunately he wasn’t affected worse, and Cassill, 24, will have the chance to compete in his second Daytona 500 on Sunday with new CarsforSale.com sponsorship.

Bowman, 20, will make not just his Daytona 500 debut, but his Sprint Cup debut in the former No. 93 Toyota, now renumbered No. 23 for Dr Pepper sponsorship and its 23 flavors. He’ll be the sole focus for Ron Devine’s team as unfortunately for them, his fellow rookie teammate Ryan Truex failed to qualify.

“I mean, I got the call to come drive a Cup car,” said Bowman, who only got the call to test in January before being appointed to the 23. “I was really excited about that. To make the Daytona 500, it’s huge.

“We were running 7th there for a while. I was like, ‘Please, don’t shuffle up.’ And of course it started shuffling.  I crossed the white flag probably 18th or 19th, but was fortunate enough to get the right runs at the end and pass the exact number of cars.”

Parsons’ Wise, as yet unsponsored, had the best finish of said “underdogs,” fifth in Duel 1. Allgaier (Brandt sponsorship) had a fraught Duel but like Kligerman, made it in on owner points.

And then there are the Labontes. Both former Cup champions in the waning stages of their careers, it was going to be a challenge for both Bobby (Florida Lottery backing) and Terry (C&J Energy Services) to make the field given their positions in the 2013 owner points’ standings, past champion’s provisional rankings and qualifying speeds.

So when the last-lap wreck happened in Duel 2, they moved up to 12th (Terry) and 13th (Bobby) at the finish, enough to race their way in and not require any help.

For “Texas Terry,” this year’s 500 will be his 32nd and last official 500. Fitting, as he’ll drive car No. 32.

“I still love it, but I’ve been dragging this retirement out for about seven years,” Terry Labonte told MRN Radio after the race. “I told (team boss Frank Stoddard) I really mean it this time.”

You could argue the Front Row Motorsports and Tommy Baldwin Racing pair of two-car teams fall under this realm too, but the pair of squads have run well before in restrictor-plate races. David Ragan and David Gilliland pulled off the shock 1-2 finish for FRM at Talladega last spring, while Baldwin nearly won the Daytona 500 two years ago with Dave Blaney.

Ragan and Gilliland race once more for FRM this weekend, while TBR’s new pair are Reed Sorenson and rookie Michael Annett.

Good news for F1: Gloves are off between Hamilton and Vettel

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BAKU, Azerbaijan (AP) The gloves are off between Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel, and Formula One is already the winner.

After so much talk of mutual respect, their previously harmonious relationship melted in the heat of Sunday’s hectic Azerbaijan Grand Prix.

Hamilton said Vettel “disgraced himself” by deliberately driving his Ferrari alongside and swerving it into the side of him. Vettel, who was given a time penalty, said he only did it in response to a dangerous braking move by Hamilton right in front of him.

Whatever the arguments, F1 finally has what it craves: a saga between fiercely competitive champions that promises to last all season.

“Now we have a situation where there is more controversy. It was clear this could happen the closer it gets,” Mercedes head of motorsport Toto Wolff said. “(It) certainly doesn’t help their relationship going forward. So now the gloves are off.”

Hamilton and Vettel have won a combined seven F1 titles and more than 100 races. Vettel has four of those titles, while Hamilton has three. But the British driver has won more races, 56 to 45.

This season they are evenly matched, with three wins each, and Vettel leads Hamilton in the overall championship by 14 points after eight races.

While Hamilton often tangled with former Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg over the past three years, losing the title to him last year, this new showdown is more intriguing. Not only does it oppose multiple world champions – which was not the case with Rosberg – it also pits Mercedes against a fiercely proud Ferrari team chasing its first drivers’ title since 2007 and its first constructors’ since 2008.

Ferrari is desperate to end its barren run and is banking on Vettel to deliver. The German driver is under enormous pressure.

“The sport needs the rivalry and what we’ve seen has the ingredient of a great championship,” Wolff said. “At a certain stage, the best ones that compete for world championships can’t be friends. Maybe we’ve seen the limitation of that respect.”

Wolff has noticed a change in behavior from Ferrari, too.

“Normally I get a breakfast (at Ferrari) on Sunday morning. (This time) only a tea,” he said. “For me the analogy is like rugby, during the race they are our enemies. But we must be capable, once the race is done, to have a beer like rugby players and acknowledge someone’s performance.”

Although Vettel appeared to be more to blame on Sunday, Wolff had some sympathy for him.

“They’re warriors and you’re at war at that moment, fighting for the race win and the championship,” Wolff said. “Emotions are running high.”

Hamilton finished fifth in Sunday’s race, while Vettel was fourth. Although that meant Hamilton lost a bit of ground, he saw something to exploit over the remaining 12 races, something he considers Vettel’s vulnerability under high pressure.

“As a team we can only look at that as a positive for us,” Hamilton said. “He’s obviously under pressure and that’s not a bad thing if that’s how he reacts.”

The next race is the Austrian GP in two weeks, Round 9 of their heavyweight contest.

Bird to skip Nurburgring WEC in favor of New York Formula E race

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Sam Bird has confirmed that he will miss the FIA World Endurance Championship race at the Nürburgring on July 16 in order to enter the inaugural New York Formula E round on the same weekend.

Bird was one of a handful of drivers forced to choose between commitments in WEC and Formula E after the series were unable to avoid a clash despite previously enjoying a gentleman’s agreement to not hold races on the same weekend.

Bird races with DS Virgin Racing in Formula E and with AF Corse in WEC, and previously hinted that a decision regarding the July 16 weekend would hinge on his result at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Alongside full-season teammate Davide Rigon and Le Mans addition Miguel Molina, Bird finished fifth in the GTE-Pro class in the No. 71 Ferrari 488 GTE at Le Mans and as the fourth-highest WEC entree.

Despite being just 14 points off the GT world championship lead, Bird confirmed on Monday that he would be missing the race at the Nürburgring to take part in the New York double-header, with races on July 15 and 16 in Red Hook, NY.

“With the first ever FIA-sanctioned motorsport event to be held in New York, Formula E is continuing to push the boundaries and break new ground, and it’s exciting to be part of that,” said Bird.

“I know we’ll put on a great show for the people of New York and I’m expecting big crowds to turn up on both days. Being a double race event, there’s a huge amount at stake for all the teams and the drivers so it’s definitely one to watch.”

Bird’s teammate for the New York weekend is still to be confirmed, with regular racer Jose Maria Lopez contracted to race for Toyota in the WEC at the Nürburgring on that weekend.

Reserve driver Alex Lynn is set to bail on his own WEC duties with G-Drive Racing in LMP2 in order to make his Formula E debut in New York, but DS Virgin team boss Alex Tai said that the team is still “assessing options”.

Formula E championship leader Sebastien Buemi is yet to formally confirm his absence from New York, but, like Lopez, he is contracted to race for Toyota at the Nürburgring on that weekend.

Newgarden on Road America runner-up: ‘It’s going to sting’

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ELKHART LAKE, Wis. – With arguably his most complete weekend as a member of Team Penske in the books at Road America, Josef Newgarden looked a likely winner in Sunday’s KOHLER Grand Prix.

Alas, an ill-timed caution and being on the wrong compound of Firestone tires at the wrong time cost the Hendersonville, Tenn. native now living in Charlotte likely his second win of the season.

Scott Dixon moved around him on the outside of Turn 1 following a restart on Lap 31, and wasn’t headed the rest of the way.

The win lost though, Newgarden was able to at least match his car number – 2 – with a runner-up finish in his now No. 2 DeVilbiss Team Penske Chevrolet, and his fourth podium finish of the season. He won at Barber, came third at Long Beach and came second in race two at Detroit. This finish today comes after starting third, and after leading 13 laps.

“It stings a little bit coming home second when you feel like you have a winning car. Scott was great today. So was Ganassi Racing. Those guys did a great job. Certainly very deserving of the win.

“But that’s tough coming up a little bit short. I felt like when the caution came out and we were on the primary tires, Helio and Scott had the alternates, I thought this is probably not going to be very good on the restart. It was hard to get temperature in them to get up to speed for the restart.

“I don’t know if it sealed our fate, but once the race was over, I was like, That’s what sealed our fate. It was an ill-timed caution. If that didn’t come out, we would have gotten 10 laps or so on the tires, we would have been okay.

“Once we shuffled back to third, it was about trying to get back by those guys. At that point we were on the same strategy pretty much the last stint. So it was hard to do anything with Scott. Felt we were a touch quicker than him, but couldn’t do anything on that final stint.

“Tough coming up short, but a great weekend for us at Team Penske. We were strong all weekend. Just didn’t get it done when it counted in the race, so that’s going to sting.”

Incidentally, Newgarden’s Barber win was probably at a race he didn’t figure to win – but he’d usurped Dixon for what became the lead there – while here this looked a race he planned to win but didn’t, and lost out to Dixon in the process. He reflected on the humor of this in the post-race press conference.

“I mean, Scott’s one of the hardest to pass. It was funny, because it was kind of a reverse Barber situation,” he laughed. “At Barber this year, you had Scott behind me at the end with a little more overtake, then it was me behind Scott this time with a little more overtake. You kind of had a similar result almost.

“I think it doesn’t necessarily matter who it is. For sure, you know, you give Scott a lot of credit, he’s going to be tough. He’s not going to make a lot of mistakes. You really got to push the issue with him.

“But I think I was concerned about getting by him, just his race pace. We were quicker than him, but we weren’t quick enough to overtake him. We were probably only 2, 3/10ths quicker than him outright speed, which wasn’t enough to do much with him.

“Once we were up to temperature, we were all running full, we both had red tires on, they were new tires for both of us, it was kind of hard to do anything once we got up to speed. I couldn’t make anything happen. As soon as I did something with overtake, he would do it. We were just kind of tit for tat till the end. He’s obviously one of the toughest to race against.

“I think if the situation were reversed, we would have been okay, as well, to win the race. So it’s just tough strategy today.”

Newgarden at least had a simpler weekend at Road America this year. He took in the ambience of the weekend without many of the distractions of a year ago, recovering from a collarbone injury and having launched a children’s book.

“I mean, certainly no distractions. Last year there was probably a little more distraction from trying to deal with comfort inside the cockpit. But from a performance standpoint, I don’t think it was much different.

“I wouldn’t blame the injuries last year for any performance deficit. I thought we were actually very good in the race last year. We had a top 10. I made a mistake in qualifying, which I think if we didn’t do that, we probably could have had a top five last year. If anything, it was nice not having any distractions personally.”

It was a solid weekend altogether though. Newgarden sits fifth in points with 318, 61 behind Dixon at the top.

He heads next to Iowa, where in his most authoritative of his four career victories, he led 282 of 300 laps last year. That race comes up Sunday, July 9, at 5 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

Smith: Baku, Ricciardo, Stroll shine as Vettel/Hamilton title fight ignites

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Almost 24 hours have passed since the checkered flag fell in Baku, yet the dust shows few signs of settling after one of the most explosive Formula 1 races in recent memory.

It was inevitable though, wasn’t it? The chummy, cordial, sickly-sweet duel between Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel for this year’s F1 drivers’ title had to blow up at some point.

And boy, did it blow up.

This was a race that had it all. A far cry from some of the more processional races that have been rather regular in recent times, the inaugural Azerbaijan Grand Prix will be remembered for all of the right reasons (well, unless you’re Sebastian Vettel); a defining moment for the 2017 season and the new era of F1 that started in Australia.

THE INEVITABILITY OF SEB VS. LEWIS

It was bound to happen in the end. There was no way that a direct fight between the two of the finest racers of F1’s current generation could not descend into chaos at one point.

It’s perhaps surprising that we made it eight races before the first cracks in the Gatsby-esque “well done old sport” camaraderie between Hamilton and Vettel began to show.

This will be looked back on a key flashpoint in the title fight for 2017 and the wider rivalry between Hamilton and Vettel. Baku was where things got nasty.

The incidents themselves were pretty cut and dry. Anyone watching could see what happened.

The first contact between them coming out of Turn 15 was a result of Vettel misjudging how Hamilton was controlling the pack. With the safety car’s lights going out and peeling away, Hamilton became the defacto safety car. He had every right to go as fast or as slow as he liked.

Vettel was expecting Hamilton to accelerate out of Turn 15, perhaps thinking the Briton would bolt early as he did on the first restart. Hamilton instead kept at a steady pace, with the FIA data confirming as much, leading to the contact between the pair.

Vettel was unhappy and frustrated. That was perhaps justified. But what happened next was not. Not one bit.

Drawing alongside Hamilton, Vettel wanted to make his feelings known. He raised his hand in complaint, which may have been enough to get the Mercedes driver to speed up. After all, he needed to stay ahead as the lead car.

The swipe that Vettel then made towards Hamilton was, as explored by NBCSN pit reporter Will Buxton in this thread, a scare tactic. It was meant to spook his rival. But he got it wrong and the two made contact.

The FIA’s response was to give Vettel a 10-second stop/go penalty, the strongest in-race sanction barring disqualification. It dropped Vettel back down the order and ended his win hopes, yet because of Hamilton’s unplanned pit stop to fit a new headrest, the German actually jumped ahead of his rival.

The end result should not be part of the context of the incident, though. Hamilton losing his headrest and dropping behind Vettel was totally separate and, frankly, just bad luck for the Mercedes man. The two incidents were unconnected.

Would Hamilton have been so aggrieved had he won the race and regained the lead of the championship from Vettel? One would hope so. Because it was a dangerous incident that, as Hamilton told NBCSN after the race, sent out totally the wrong message to young drivers coming through the ranks.

You do not, even just to spook your rival, deliberately drive towards another car like that under the safety car.

Why no disqualification? A report from Germany’s Auto Motor und Sport after the race suggested there were fears it could impact the title fight. Exclusion may have been a strong response, but it would certainly have sent out a clear message. Perhaps this was a missed opportunity to do exactly that.

Instead, Vettel and Hamilton will now be left to stew over it for a couple of weeks before heading to Austria. Once both drivers have cooled off, hopefully proper, adult talks can take place in a bid to clear things up.

We may like a bit of heat between sporting rivals, but respect is a rarer, more precious thing. It is something that was severely lacking in Baku.

Hopefully we can then see them settle things out on-track the proper way, just as they have done for much of the season so far.

BAKU, AZERBAIJAN – JUNE 25: Race winner Daniel Ricciardo of Australia and Red Bull Racing celebrates his win in parc ferme during the Azerbaijan Formula One Grand Prix at Baku City Circuit on June 25, 2017 in Baku, Azerbaijan. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

“BUTTER MY BUTT AND CALL ME A BISCUIT”

Daniel Ricciardo rarely disappoints when it comes to a good a quote, with the words of wisdom above gracing his Twitter account in the aftermath of the race. Frankly, we couldn’t have put it any better.

Ricciardo’s charge from P10 on the grid to victory was an unlikely one, requiring him to negotiate a number of pitfalls that caught out his rivals – and, as proven by his qualifying crash on Saturday, had already bitten him.

Ricciardo attacked the race with his usual gusto and bravado, with the race-winning move – albeit just for third at the time – being a brave double-pass on the Williams pair of Felipe Massa and Lance Stroll into Turn 1 after the safety car restart.

Ricciardo has a knack for being in the right place at the right time. All five of his F1 wins have come from starting outside the top three, and all have required a good dose of fortune. Alas, a win is a win – and when the front-runners falter, more often than not it is Ricciardo who is there to pick up the pieces.

Ricciardo’s victory also means that we have more than two teams winning races in a season for the first time since 2013, when Red Bull, Mercedes and Ferrari again shared the spoils. Variety is never a bad thing.

The top officials at Red Bull are under no illusions about the team’s current standing in F1. It still remains the third-fastest team and, under normal conditions, would stand no chance of beating Ferrari or Mercedes in a straight fight.

But that doesn’t devalue Ricciardo’s win at all. Instead, it makes it all the more impressive that he was there to capitalize on the opportunity that came his way.

BAKU, AZERBAIJAN – JUNE 25: Second place finisher Valtteri Bottas driving the (77) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO8 crosses the line ahead of third placed Lance Stroll of Canada driving the (18) Williams Martini Racing Williams FW40 Mercedes during the Azerbaijan Formula One Grand Prix at Baku City Circuit on June 25, 2017 in Baku, Azerbaijan. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

A FLYING FINNISH FOR BOTTAS

While the majority of the plaudits after the race lay with Ricciardo and Lance Stroll (who we’ll come onto), perhaps the greatest fightback of all in Baku came courtesy of Valtteri Bottas.

The Finn tangled with Kimi Raikkonen at Turn 2, sustaining a puncture that left him limping back to the pits for repairs and a lap down on the field. The race already appeared to have been turned into an extended test session.

But Bottas dug deep. He was able to get a wave-by under the first safety car, and then put the hammer down to pick his way through the field as those ahead began to lose their heads.

The drag race with Stroll to the line was dramatic, with Bottas emerging just 0.1 seconds ahead to clinch second place and salvage a big result from a pretty disastrous race for Mercedes, all things considered.

So what more can Bottas do to secure a contract renewal and ease the current “uncomfortable situation” he is in?

Frankly, nothing. He’s doing all he can. If the team wants harmony and stability, then surely keeping Bottas for 2018 and beyond is the way to do that.

If the appeal of Alonso, Vettel (well, maybe not after this weekend…) or Mercedes junior Esteban Ocon is a greater pull for the team, then it isn’t for want of trying on Bottas’ part he would depart, that’s for sure.

He has everything it takes to race for a title-winning team. Baku proved that.

BAKU, AZERBAIJAN – JUNE 25: Lance Stroll of Canada and Williams celebrates his first podium and finishing in third place during the Azerbaijan Formula One Grand Prix at Baku City Circuit on June 25, 2017 in Baku, Azerbaijan. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

STROLL COMES GOOD – FINALLY

Lance Stroll’s charge to third place in Baku may have come as a surprise, but it shouldn’t have.

He was, after all, F1’s best-prepared rookie since Lewis Hamilton thanks to an extensive test program prior to his debut, and came off the back of a record-breaking Formula 3 title win.

But after a raggedy first six races in F1, the critics were beginning to question Stroll’s readiness for grand prix racing, with his charge to ninth in Canada going some way to proving a point.

Sure, his rise has been accelerated by funding from his billionaire father, Lawrence, but the talent has to be there to back it all up. We saw that talent in Baku.

Stroll drove a clean, trouble-free race that would have seen many other rookies lose their cool at the chaos that was unfolding around them. The Williams FW40 is a quick car, and while he couldn’t keep Bottas back at the end, P3 was nevertheless a remarkable result for the young Canadian.

The catalyst for all of this may have been a revised preparation program for Baku. Following his run to his first points finish in Canada, Stroll stayed out in North America to complete a private test at the Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas with a 2014-spec Williams, and has also been working with a new driver coach.

All of this appears to have calmed the 18-year-old. Now with his first points and podium chalked up, Stroll will hopefully be more at ease. He doesn’t have a point to prove anymore. Perhaps that will yield more displays like the one in Baku on Sunday.

BAKU, AZERBAIJAN – JUNE 23: Max Verstappen of the Netherlands driving the (33) Red Bull Racing Red Bull-TAG Heuer RB13 TAG Heuer on track during practice for the European Formula One Grand Prix at Baku City Circuit on June 23, 2017 in Baku, Azerbaijan. (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)

WELL DONE BAKU

The trackside message of “Well Done Baku!” that ultimately turned into a meme during F1’s first visit to Azerbaijan actually rang true in the wake of this year’s race: the crazy Baku City Circuit delivered, and then some.

The track is one of the maddest on the F1 calendar, featuring a mix of slow-speed sections, two high-speed complexes – oh, and a castle. It’s the kind of thing you might find in Mario Kart.

It was all said prior to the 2016 race when a crazy event featuring multiple safety cars and crashes galore was expected, only for a disappointingly straightforward race to set in. This time around though, Baku threw up the madness that has been expected.

Much like the 2012 European Grand Prix at Valencia, yesterday’s race proved that street circuits can throw up some spectacular results. For an event that seemed an odd addition to the F1 calendar at first, Baku has found a good groove with its second running.

So, well done Baku. You’ve given us a race that will be looked back on in years to come. Good on you.