Budweiser Duel 1

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.

Tost: Kvyat deserving of Toro Rosso F1 drive for 2017

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 21:  Daniil Kvyat of Scuderia Toro Rosso and Russia during practice for the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 21, 2016 in Austin, United States.  (Photo by Peter Fox/Getty Images)
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Scuderia Toro Rosso team principal Franz Tost believes that Daniil Kvyat is deserving of his drive for the 2017 Formula 1 season, after the Russian’s future was secured last weeke in Austin.

Kvyat made his F1 debut with Toro Rosso in 2013 before moving up to Red Bull’s senior team for the following season.

After a disastrous Russian Grand Prix in May that saw him crash into Sebastian Vettel twice, Kvyat was demoted from Red Bull back to Toro Rosso in a move designed to allow him to regain his form.

Kvyat endured a rough patch of form before appearing to find confidence following the summer break, leading to last Friday’s announcement that he would be remaining with Toro Rosso for the 2017 season.

Speaking to the official F1 website, Tost expressed his belief that Kvyat was deserving of his seat for 2017, as well as adding stability to the Toro Rosso operation.

“Red Bull decided to [announce in Austin] because we are convinced that Daniil is the right choice for 2017, and to end rumors and bring stability to the team for the last four races,” Tost said.

“Daniil deserves the drive next year, as he showed great performance in Singapore and was pretty competitive in Malaysia and Japan, with a car that has an engine on which development has stopped and which is short of 60 to 70 horsepower.”

Red Bull junior Pierre Gasly had been the only candidate to replace Kvyat for 2017, with Carlos Sainz Jr. also staying on with Toro Rosso in the second seat.

Toro Rosso currently sits seventh in the F1 constructors’ championship, having failed to stay ahead of McLaren due to the lack of development on its 2015-spec Ferrari engine.

Despite the circumstances that have perhaps limited the team’s potential in 2016, Tost admitted his disappointment when offering a review of Toro Rosso’s season.

“No it was not a good season for us. Absolutely not,” Tost said.

“It would be wrong for me to say that I am satisfied. P5 [in the constructors’] – then I would have gone home with a smile.”

F1 Preview: 2016 Mexican Grand Prix

MEXICO CITY, MEXICO - NOVEMBER 01:  Nico Rosberg of Germany and Mercedes GP celebrates in Parc Ferme next to Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP after winning the Formula One Grand Prix of Mexico at Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez  on November 1, 2015 in Mexico City, Mexico.  (Photo by Lars Baron/Getty Images)
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12 months on from the victory that, at the time, seemed merely academical, Nico Rosberg returns to Mexico City with his first Formula 1 drivers’ title within reach.

Hundreds of thousands of fans packed into the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez last November to welcome F1 back after a 23-year absence from Mexico, making the grand prix one of the events of the season.

The on-track race offered little in the way of drama. Fresh from wrapping up his third F1 title one week earlier in Austin, Texas, second place was by no means a bad result for Lewis Hamilton. Rosberg’s win, in the grand scheme of things, seemed meaningless.

Yet come this year’s race in Mexico City, that victory must be considered as part of the transformation that Rosberg has undergone in the past 12 months. The trio of wins to close out 2015 gave him a boost heading into the winter that carried over in the new season; they were important.

Rosberg’s lead may have been cut from 33 to 26 points last weekend in Austin after Hamilton’s victory, but he need not panic. Two seconds and a third in the remaining three races will still be enough to clinch him a maiden F1 crown.

Can Rosberg take another step towards the title in Mexico? Will Hamilton’s revival continue? Or, as is mathematically possible, will we be crowning a world champion on Sunday?

Here is our complete grand prix preview.

2016 Mexican Grand Prix – Talking Points

Rosberg’s ‘one race at a time’ approach to continue

Nico Rosberg may be within three good results of his first F1 title, but the German has long insisted that he is taking things ‘one race at a time’. His comments are perhaps a little tiresome, yet the approach is working well.

The Rosberg we saw on-track in Austin was a little less aggressive than he has been at earlier points in the year. Off the line, he chose to follow Hamilton’s line around the first corner instead of trying to dive up the inside – which, ironically, was something he fell victim to when Daniel Ricciardo jumped up to second.

So will Rosberg take a similar approach – don’t try and win the race off the start, just make sure you don’t lose it – in Mexico?

Pressure on or pressure off for Hamilton?

Lewis Hamilton’s victory in Austin last weekend broke a dry spell of form that had seen him go within a win since the end of July. While the title is still out of his hands, it did at least ensure that he arrives in Mexico with momentum; a key word in this year’s title race.

The added pressure for Hamilton this weekend is that a failure to score points could see Rosberg be crowned champion, should the German go on to win the race also. So, a bit like Rosberg, he must strike a balance between pushing hard for victory while also ensuring he finishes the race.

Pressure makes diamonds and bursts pipes. Will Hamilton thrive with the stakes raised once again this weekend in Mexico?

Ricciardo, Verstappen aim to have a say in title race

Red Bull’s resurgence has arguably been one of the stories of 2016. Both Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen have hit the top step of the podium, and, as seen last time out in Austin, both have the pace to get in the mix with the Mercedes drivers – and possibly split them.

Right now, Ricciardo and Verstappen are Hamilton’s best friends. He needs their help if he is to stand any realistic chance of winning the world championship without trouble striking Rosberg’s car. if Austin is anything to go by, when Rosberg lucked in with the Virtual Safety Car to get back ahead of Ricciardo, it’s more than possible.

The high-speed nature of the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez should play into Mercedes’ hands, but it would be foolish to rule the Red Bulls out of playing a part in the title race this weekend.

Points drought ended, Haas turns focus to consistency

Haas F1 Team’s first home grand prix weekend in Austin proved to be an odd one. While Romain Grosjean was able to finish the race 10th and snap a points drought for the team that dated back to the beginning of July, the rest of the weekend had gone far from smoothly.

Issues throughout practice left Grosjean and teammate Esteban Gutierrez running blind heading into qualifying, with the recurring brake issues the team is facing forcing the latter into retirement from the race.

Gutierrez faces a big weekend in Mexico. It will be the first time he is racing in front of his home fans, and with his own points drought still stretching back to the 2013 Japanese Grand Prix, Sunday would be the perfect time to get back into the top 10.

Mexico bids to emulate last year’s party

Last year’s Mexican Grand Prix was the event of the season. Packed grandstands, a vibrant atmosphere and an infectious passion made for a roaring comeback for the sport at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez.

The battle for the organizers this year is emulating and even trying to better last year’s event. Ticket sales are thought to be up even on 2015. With Gutierrez joining fellow Mexican Sergio Perez on the grid, there is more home interest as well.

Perez has hit the podium twice in 2016 (Monaco and Baku), and with Force India looking more and more at ease in fourth in the constructors’ championship, there is nothing to rule him out of adding to that haul, should things fall his way. And just imagine the celebrations that would then follow.

2016 Mexican Grand Prix – Facts and Figures

Track: Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez
Corners: 17
Lap Record: Nico Rosberg 1:20.521 (2015)
Tire Compounds: Medium/Soft/Super-Soft
2015 Winner: Nico Rosberg (Mercedes)
2015 Pole Position: Nico Rosberg (Mercedes) 1:19.480
2015 Fastest Lap: Nico Rosberg (Mercedes) 1:20.521
DRS Zones: T17 to T1; T3 to T4

2016 Mexican Grand Prix – TV Times

Free Practice 1: NBC Sports app 11am ET 10/28
Free Practice 2: NBCSN 3pm ET 10/28
Free Practice 3: NBC Sports App 11am ET 10/29
Qualifying: NBCSN 2pm ET 10/29
Race: NBC 2:30pm ET 10/30 (F1 Extra on NBC Sports app from 5pm ET).

Ferrari flop: F1’s famous red cars expected better in 2016

during the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 23, 2016 in Austin, United States.
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AUSTIN, Texas (AP) Ferrari expected much better than this in 2016.

After ending last season with three wins and promises of pulling closer to Mercedes, Ferrari instead slid backward.

There have been no victories, just one podium finish in the last nine races and Ferrari is once again fending off questions about discord within Formula One’s most popular team.

Just look at last weekend’s race at the U.S. Grand Prix: After a disappointing qualifying in which both drivers started on the third row, Sebastian Vettel finished fourth and Kimi Raikkonen didn’t finish at all when he was forced to return to the garage after leaving a pit stop with an improperly attached wheel.

Judged by race officials as an unsafe release, Ferrari was hit with a fine. Seeing sparks fly as he pulled away, Raikkonen put the car in reverse for a humiliating return drive back downhill as Ferrari slipped further behind Red Bull for second place in the team championship, which it hasn’t won since 2008.

“Far from ideal” is how the deadpan Raikkonen summed it up.

The same could be said about Ferrari’s entire season as Formula One heads to the Mexican Grand Prix this weekend.

Ferrari landed in Mexico last season full of optimism. Vettel’s had scored the non-Mercedes wins all year. He was a regular on the podium and Ferrari was cruising toward a second-place finish in the constructor’s championship.

There’s been none of the same confidence this year. The Ferrari drivers – both former world champions – have made more noise with their mouths than their cars, with Vettel complaining about slow drivers and he and Raikkonen both criticizing the defensive tactics of Red Bull’s brash Dutch teenager Max Verstappen as dangerous.

Luca Baldisseri, Ferrari’s former chief engineer who left the team after last season, caused a stir around Formula One before the U.S. Grand Prix when he told Italian media that Ferrari leadership had created a “climate of fear.”

“They are no longer a team, but a group of frightened people,” Baldiserri said.

Ferrari team principal Maurizio Arrivabene dismisses external criticism.

“It’s an old story. Ferrari in Italy is like the Italian football national team. I think pressure is normal, having tension is normal, having criticism is normal, so you have to live with that. Then, sometimes it’s going too far,” Arrivabene said.

“This is part of the job … if you work for a brand like Ferrari, you have to accept all of this, like it or not. The atmosphere inside the house is completely different to what people thought about, or what you are reading sometimes in the newspaper.”

To be fair, Ferrari is far from the panic that had set in in 2014 when Mercedes blew everyone away with their new V6 turbo hybrid engines. Ferrari had scrapped its way back to best-of-the-rest in 2015, making this season’s results so frustrating.

And Red Bull’s resurgence has some thinking that’s the team to knock off Mercedes in 2017. Red Bull teammates Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo have the only non-Mercedes win this year and those two are considered likely contenders for future world titles.

Ferrari hasn’t won a driver’s championship since Raikkonen in 2007 and the last time it was seriously in the hunt was 2012 with Fernando Alonso. The pairing of Raikkonen with Vettel, who won four titles with Red Bull, gives Ferrari a powerful 1-2 punch behind the wheel if they can get competitive cars.

Vettel is under contract with Ferrari through next season and said he won’t think about starting negotiations until after this season is finished.

“I don’t think it’s important to look into details as such,” Vettel said. “My contract is all fine for next year.”

The Mexican Grand Prix at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez was not a good experience for Ferrari in 2015.

Brimming with confidence from a good drive in Texas his team’s season-long surge, Vettel qualified third but was knocked back by a tire puncture on the first lap, then knocked out when aggressive driving led to a late crash. Raikkonen also didn’t finish after breaking a real axle in a bump with Williams driver Valterri Bottas.

It was the first time since 2006 that both Ferrari cars failed to finish a race.

Column: Should NHRA get with the times to grow sport? (Also, vote in poll)

nhra logo

Drag racing has been one of the biggest motorsport passions of my life.

Ever since the first time I went to the now-defunct U.S. 30 Dragstrip in northwest Indiana – with the famous loud and echoing radio liner, “Sunday, Sunday, Sunday, at beautiful U.S. 30 Dragstrip, where the GREAT ONES Runnnnnnn!” – in the early 1970s, I’ve been a big fan of the quarter-mile.

(By the way, for those in the Midwest who remember U.S. 30, which closed nearly 30 years ago, efforts are under way to bring it back. But I digress.)

As a reporter, I’ve covered drag racing since the early 1980s. I still get as excited today following the sport as I did back then.

But … and you probably figured a but was coming.

While the changes Peter Clifford has brought about since becoming NHRA president nearly a year and a half ago have been very positive, I’m troubled by something – and some of those in the sport as well as a number of fans feel the same way.

For background, the NHRA was founded in 1951 in Southern California by the late Wally Parks. When NHRA began holding large national events in the 1960s, it became almost a standard element that race weekends lasted three or four days. And five or six days when it came to the biggest race of the year, the U.S. Nationals on Labor Day Weekend near Indianapolis.

I’ve long heard – and continue to hear today – from numerous past and present NHRA officials that they will never NOT race on Sundays. That was non-negotiable, by Parks’ edict.

But as the 2016 season has gone by, and with just two races remaining (this weekend in Las Vegas and Nov. 10-13 in Pomona, California), I’ve noticed things that are making me wonder whether additional change to the structure and even tradition of the sport is necessary to make it grow even more.

And that means potentially changing long-held practices like mandatory racing on Sundays.

Please indulge me explanation:

This season started out stronger than most other seasons since perhaps the mid-to-late 1990s. A new TV deal with Fox Sports 1 offered promise of greater visibility and reach. And more fans were coming out to race tracks from Pomona to Gainesville, and from Indianapolis to Sonoma.

But over the last few months, things have begun to regress, including TV ratings. Also since August, NHRA has laid off several employees. Other sanctioning body employees have left on their own.

One thing I take pride in is talking regularly with not only officials of the sanctioning body but also drivers, team owners and team officials to see what’s happening in the sport.

NHRA teams are not like their NASCAR counterparts. They don’t have $20 to $30 million budgets. They don’t have as many well-heeled sponsors. Money is seemingly always tight.

Thus far this season, there have been four sellouts (and two other near-sellouts) on Saturdays at various NHRA national events. That’s quite admirable and commendable. To see the stands packed on Saturday at the U.S. Nationals outside Indianapolis for the first time in years this past September brought a huge smile to my face.

But of all the 24 races on the schedule, there has been just one full sellout of final eliminations on Sundays (at Sonoma).

While it’s great to have sellouts for qualifying on Saturday, a lot of those same fans don’t come back to watch the best part of the show on the following day – who winds up winning the event in their respective classes. Part of the reason is fans can’t pay the additional cost to return Sunday, they have to travel back home, etc.

One other thing that continues to be a big fan lure is when NHRA pro qualifying is held at night. It’s one of the best fireworks shows you’ll ever see, with flames spewing from engine headers and sparks shooting out when the cars bottom out on the track and more.

In light of the significant recent TV ratings drops, and at-track attendance taking a hit on recent Sundays when NHRA goes up against the NFL or MLB, I think it might be astute for NHRA to do some significant schedule adjustments going forward.

NHRA says it would prefer to keep weekends at the same length, says Terry Blount, NHRA Vice President of Public Relations:

Every event is subject to review at the end of the season, which we do every year. However, we believe our events work well as three-days shows. It allows our fans the option of buying full-event tickets or choosing a day that works best for them and their family.”

This is the first season in a decade where NHRA has seen sellout crowds and near sellouts at many of our events, including fall races during football season. And our attendance is up overall from a year ago, along with the incredible increase in our TV ratings for our first season on FOX Sports. It’s an indication to all of us that NHRA is trending upward and truly is the fastest growing motorsport in America.

With that, I’ll pose three questions to you, the fans, and I’d love to get your feedback in comments below this story:

1) Is it really necessary to have four qualifying rounds split over two days, and then a third day for final eliminations?

2) Might it be more affordable for fans and teams to have NHRA cut several – if not the majority – three-day race weekends to two, with one day dedicated to, say, three qualifying runs and the second day would be four final elimination rounds?

3) Do you agree that night qualifying – and potentially a few final elimination rounds run at night – would present a show that would enhance the NHRA’s popularity – not to mention become a great lure to bring more fans to the track or in front of their TVs?

Let’s hear your thoughts and we’ll potentially have a follow-up column soon.

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