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.

Performance Tech home for Kyle Masson to flourish, star early in 2017

Kyle Masson. Photo courtesy of IMSA
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Cadillac and Wayne Taylor Racing will get a lot of the accolades for completing the “36 Hours of Florida” sweep to kick off the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season.

But another team did so as well, with a less likely cast of characters and after two flawless runs of their own: Brent O’Neill’s Performance Tech Motorsports.

O’Neill took a stab at young talent, all of whom have full pro level potential but not full pro level experience yet at the top flight of endurance sports car racing. In James French (24 years old), Pato O’Ward (17), Kyle Masson (19) and Nick Boulle (27), O’Neill had a quartet of young drivers with a combined three Rolex 24 at Daytona starts. What followed was a flawless drive under the miserable conditions en route to deserved win in the Prototype Challenge class.

What better way to follow it up, then, with a second straight star turn at the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring? French, O’Ward and Masson pulled off the back-to-back effort themselves after a second successive brilliant run, this time finishing fifth overall.

French, O’Ward, Masson and O’Neill. Photo courtesy of IMSA

Of the trio, Masson was the busiest at Sebring, and for good reason. The 19-year-old out of Windermere, Fla. was also starting his season in IMSA’s Prototype Challenge Presented by Mazda series competition this weekend, also with Performance Tech, in the formerly L1 but now MPC class with the venerable, Elan DP02 open-top prototype (we’re trying to make this as least confusing as possible).

This meant he had three races to run at Sebring in one weekend, in two entirely different open-top cars, in two different multi-class series.

And all Masson did was go three-for-three in winning them all, sweeping the pair of MPC races before joining his teammates in the PC class in the big show to complete the Daytona to Sebring double.

As the younger Masson explained, keeping both cars straight was a challenge he had to master.

“Because everything was under the same tent, the time management wasn’t that difficult,” Masson told NBC Sports. “We entered with the focus of me winning the (MPC) races. The PC car, I could figure out in the race. The Lites was more on edge, and I had to push and figure it out.

No. 38 Performance Tech Motorsports Oreca FLM09. Photo courtesy of IMSA

“The biggest difficulty I had was going back and forth from the Lites (MPC) to the PC car, totally different styles. They don’t drive similarly at all. The (Lites) car is so planted, it’s so physical, you have the muscle it. The PC car is delicate, twitchy, with power steering. When you’re going back and forth, it becomes tainted with elements of the other! I was learning how to re-drive the car in middle of the (Lites) races.”

There was another element that made the MPC races difficult to master. IMSA has adjusted the former Prototype Lites series to now add LMP3 chassis, which is a separate class from the MPC class, the former top class of the prototype development series when it was called L1. Because the cars have speed in different areas, Masson had to figure out how to race the new cars without them compromising his own race.

“The P3 cars had more speed on the straights and that made it more difficult to pass,” he explained. “A P3 car had held me off for a couple laps, would block in the corners and pull away on the straight. That pushed me into the JDC entry in MPC and kept us together to battle and fight. The two classes combined are a bit hectic, but we’ll learn how it goes.”

Masson had to learn Daytona from the Roar Before the Rolex 24 while at Sebring, he estimated he had more than 1,000 laps at the track a couple hours south of Orlando. For a driver who’s only been competing for two and a half years since graduating from Skip Barber, it’s already become a track he’s learned to master. That track experience made it easier, if not outright easy, to switch between the two cars.

No. 38 Performance Tech Motorsports Oreca FLM09. Photo courtesy of IMSA

The weather differences between Daytona and Sebring’s races could not have been wider apart, either. Daytona was rain-drenched with ambient temperatures barely above 40 degrees; Sebring, sunny in the 70s on race day, actually made it a bonus to be in the venerable open-top cars rather than a hindrance as it was in Daytona.

“Daytona was absolutely miserable. I was freezing… I think I got out with hypothermia!” Masson laughed. “But Sebring, with the cooler air, the open-top and dry weather, allowed us to stay cool in the car.”

Masson and O’Ward were the two young proteges under French, the 24-year-old out of Sheboygan, Wis. who has evolved into Performance Tech’s undisputed team leader and lead driver the last couple seasons.

Masson and O’Ward gelled from the off having been teammates with Performance Tech in the Elan MPC cars last year at Sebring, and reconnected at the all-Mazda combined Mazda Road to Indy and Mazda Road to 24 weekend at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca last September. It became natural to be paired up with French, who Masson said has been an invaluable coach and resource.

“It was a daunting task stepping up. I was extremely nervous,” Masson admitted. “I know how to drive a car and use the clutch, but hopping into the PC car felt foreign. I knew almost nothing at the Roar. It was such a big jump that it felt like something I hadn’t done before.

“But James was a mentor. I always looked up to him. He was like an idol to me! He’s helping coach me along. He helps stay calm, cool and collected. He has the experience but we’re really close friends.”

Kyle and Robert Masson. Photos courtesy of IMSA

Family is a big word around both the Masson name and the Performance Tech team. Masson’s dad, Robert, is a neurosurgeon… who is also Kyle’s teammate with Performance Tech in the MPC class this season.

Meanwhile O’Neill’s team is a true privateer effort; the Deerfield Beach, Fla.-squad has a family atmosphere that drivers who’ve been there have hailed before going onto other programs. Prior to his graduation to Mazda’s factory prototype team, Tristan Nunez raced here.

“They are an amazing group of guys,” Masson said. “I only got into racing 2.5 years ago, fresh out of Skip Barber, and there’s so many paths and roads to go down. I could have gone down the Road to Indy or the Road to 24, because there’s so many teams and options. I was so lucky to meet up with Brent and Performance Tech.

“They will always be family to me now. They will be always my first family. They’re always there for me. They care so much. They want to win races so badly. The performance matters.. it’s so serious and you know they won’t sacrifice an ounce. It’s a great environment.”

At 19, there’s no knowing how high Masson’s career might rise. He’s already got a Rolex watch and a Sebring trophy under his belt… and this is in the off time when he’s not studying for a double major in business and finance at the University of Central Florida.

But there’s already a confidence there that this is just the start of great things to come for the rest of his burgeoning career.

“I had a feeling signing up for this that if everything went well, we could dominate,” he said. “We’re so consistent. Realistically, we are a team without any ‘am’ drivers, lap-time wise. We’re all running ‘pro’ times. We’re all up there on the sheet. Having that as a cushion, we don’t need to push to our limit, which keeps the car to its limit. Having that as a team in endurance racing is a big advantage.

“Since it’s my second year in these cars, my confidence has skyrocketed. Now I know how to push myself to my limit and get the most out of the car. Last year, for the JDC guys (Austin Versteeg, Clark Toppe) it was their second year and my first year in any real car on slicks.

“Now it’s a completely different story. I picked up a lot of new skills. I’m able to translate that and put it all together as best I can, thanks to the people around me.”

Ricky Brabec wins 2017 Sonora Rally (PHOTOS, VIDEO)

Ricky Brabec wins Sonora Rally. Photo: Sonora Rally
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Honda rider Ricky Brabec, who won a stage at this year’s Dakar Rally, has captured the victory in last week’s Sonora Rally, held March 21-24 in Sonora, Mexico.

He led all four of the special stages in a start-to-finish romp for victory.

Despite Joan Barreda and Steve Hengeveld’s injuries that ruled them out of the rally, Brabec still had to focus on the job at hand.

“You are really racing against yourself out here, against the terrain,” he said in a release.  “I’m much more familiar now with open up a course than I was back in January at Dakar when I had to do it for the first time.”

Fellow Honda riders Mark Samuels and Andrew Short completed the podium. Samuels won the Sonora Rally’s Dakar Challenge, which presents a free opportunity for a rider to enter the 2018 Dakar Rally.

“The hard work of getting to Dakar is still ahead of me, but I will do everything in my power to make America proud,” Samuels said.

Polaris ATR rider Dave Sykes won the UTV class, with Eric Pucelik and Mike Shirley winning the Cars class.

On background, the Sonora Rally is the only event of its kind in North America. The rally raid format requires street legal vehicles to transit along untimed “liaison” sections and timed “special stages” over multiple days, with the lowest combined time winning the event. Now in its third year, the Sonora Rally realizes the vision of founders Scott Whitney and Darren Skilton to bring a world class rally raid event to these shores (2016 recap).

Brabec’s winning ride is captured in the below video, via Race-Dezert.

Meanwhile, because photos do this event more justice than words do, those are below (All Photos: Sonora Rally)

Webber: Alonso may not see out the season with McLaren

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Mark Webber never had the easiest time in Formula 1, particularly his latter years as the number two driver at Red Bull Racing to Sebastian Vettel.

That being said, he was never on the verge of leaving it directly until he announced his plans to move to Porsche’s LMP1 Team, where he raced for three years from 2014 to 2016 before retiring at the end of last season.

But the Australian pondered whether Fernando Alonso might not be able to see out the season with McLaren Honda, if the team and manufacturer’s woes continue.

“Alonso may not stay with the team,” Webber told Belgian outlet Sporza. “Maybe Stoffel (Vandoorne) soon will have a new teammate.”

“I could see it happen that Alonso does not drive out the season. He is very frustrated. Fernando doesn’t start for a sixth or seventh place; he wants to fight for the podium.”

Webber added that for Vandoorne’s sake, starting in a team with lower expectations might not be the worst thing for him. It may allow the Belgian rookie to learn without extra pressure, since the onus is focused on the team.

For Alonso though, time is of the essence for what’s left of his career in F1. This is his last season under contract with McLaren Honda and he made no secret of his frustration for how well he drove at Melbourne, yet the car wasn’t up for it.

“Well the race was good, one of my best races driving like that,” Alonso told NBCSN post-race. “The car’s uncompetitive and to be close for a point was a nice surprise. It was good fuel saving as well. I was surprised to keep it in the points. A suspension (issue) stopped us from getting this point.

“I feel very well prepared, driving at the best of my career, and I’m fighting for one point. That’s disappointing and frustrating. But so long as I’m driving at my best, it’s a problem for the team… not me.”

Rosberg, Button soak up their first weekends out of F1 (PHOTOS)

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Since 2008, Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel have won seven World Championships. The two drivers that won titles in that period not named Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel – Nico Rosberg (2016) and Jenson Button (2009) – were both enjoying their first weekends not on a Formula 1 grid as full-time drivers for the first time in more than a decade this weekend as the 2017 season commenced at Melbourne’s Albert Park.

Rosberg made a visit to preseason testing in Barcelona a few weeks ago for his first appearance as spectator since winning the World Championship. But he watched from home this weekend with his family and posted a few thoughts during both qualifying and the race:

We’re now quite familiar with Rosberg’s home TV set and coffee table. This is the first time Rosberg has been out of an F1 race since 2005, the year he won the first GP2 championship.

Button meanwhile paid a visit to California for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series weekend at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana… once he got off his couch. He checked in with seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson at Fontana.

Do you guys know if there's anything good to watch on tele this weekend? @storm_and_rogue_pomskies

A post shared by Jenson Button (@jensonbutton_22) on

Given McLaren Honda’s struggles, Button is probably smart to have got out when he did. He’d been on the grid since 2000, save for a couple races out in 2005 when BAR-Honda was barred from competing after being disqualified from the San Marino Grand Prix.

Meanwhile for Rosberg, he watched as Mercedes was unable to win the season opener for the first time since 2013.