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.

Jenson Button tests a Honda Civic Red Bull GRC car (VIDEO)

during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of China at Shanghai International Circuit on April 15, 2016 in Shanghai, China.
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Jenson Button’s racing plans for 2017 aren’t settled yet, other than we know he’s staying affiliated with McLaren Honda as the team’s third and reserve driver.

Honda, of course, spreads its wings in so many other forms of motorsport, Red Bull Global Rallycross among them. And given Button’s love of rallying, you wondered if one day, the 2009 World Champion might test a Honda Civic that’s entered by the Honda Red Bull Olsbergs MSE team.

Wonder no more. Button posted this Instagram video of him testing a one of the OMSE Civics at Sebring International Raceway, and thanked OMSE team principal Andreas Eriksson for the opportunity. Button called the test “pure driving” and “pure joy” within the caption.

Button turns 37 tomorrow and it would be a gift not just for him, but for American fans, if this test were eventually to blossom into something more with the team. The OMSE team is yet to reveal its Red Bull GRC program with Honda for the second season of competition for the Civic.

Button isn’t the first high-profile open-wheel driver to have sampled the car, as IndyCar driver Conor Daly did so as well the day after the season finale in Los Angeles.

NAPA returns to Rossi’s No. 98 at Andretti Autosport

during the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motorspeedway on May 29, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana.
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After a shot-in-the-dark last-minute deal with Andretti-Herta Autosport to support Alexander Rossi’s No. 98 Honda at the 100th Indianapolis 500, NAPA Auto Parts entered into sponsorship immortality aboard the winning car.

The discussion from there was always going to be whether the relationship would continue and expand for either the rest of 2016 or into the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series. After a one-weekend continuation into the Detroit doubleheader last year, NAPA and Andretti Autosport confirmed a greater relationship in 2017.

NAPA will serve as co-primary sponsor for Rossi’s car at seven races this season, including the month of May in Indianapolis. St. Petersburg will see the first NAPA appearance, with additional ones at Long Beach, Road America, Watkins Glen and Sonoma.

The NAPA adorned show car has made a number of appearances around the country, including a recent one at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

“We are pleased to announce our continued partnership with one of the more iconic brands in all of motorsports, the Andretti brand” stated NAPA President, Dan Askey. “We are equally excited to partner with one of the rising stars in the sport in Alexander Rossi and proud to have Alexander representing NAPA both on and off the track. We were fortunate to come on board in May of 2016 becoming a part of history as we rode along with Alexander capturing the 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500. Andretti Autosport remains one of the elite teams in the IndyCar Series and we look forward to what 2017 holds.”

“NAPA is a storied, American brand and I couldn’t be more proud to announce our partnership is continuing,” added Andretti Autosport CEO Michael Andretti. “We were pleased to have previously announced that Alexander will be returning for the full season, and now to be able to confirm that NAPA is back on board – what a great way for us to start 2017. Our relationship with NAPA came together quickly during our Month of May program last year, and it wasn’t long before the partnership was written into history books. We can’t wait to add a few more pages to history together.”

New GTD manufacturers add intrigue to 2017 Rolex 24 at Daytona

Nos. 33 and 50 Riley Motorsports Mercedes-AMG GT3s. Photo courtesy of IMSA
Nos. 33 and 50 Riley Motorsports Mercedes-AMG GT3s. Photo courtesy of IMSA
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The trio of new manufacturers entering the 2017 Rolex 24 at Daytona – Acura, Lexus and Mercedes-AMG – add three more bullets to an already loaded GT Daytona 27-car class field for the season-opening round of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season. It brings the total number of manufacturers entered this year up to nine, joining six returning brands (Porsche, Audi, Ferrari, Lamborghini, BMW, Aston Martin) from 2016.

The new cars have all taken an interesting road to get here as they make their U.S. race competition debuts, following either or both of testing and international class racing.

Acura enters with arguably the most buzz among the three manufacturers. The sister brand to Honda has the cache of the history of the NSX brand from the early 1990s, and the long-awaited revival of the new NSX as a GT3 model comes with much anticipation.

No. 93 Acura NSX GT3. Photo courtesy of IMSA
No. 93 Acura NSX GT3. Photo courtesy of IMSA

In Michael Shank Racing, Acura has a team with nearly two decades of endurance experience, in collaboration with Peter Cunningham’s RealTime Racing which has been an integral part of the testing process. The car was revealed last spring in New York and made its on-track testing debut in late July at the Pirelli World Challenge weekend at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, not far from Honda of America Manufacturing in Marysville, Ohio. A further public test at Utah Motorsports Campus in August followed.

Testing hasn’t been entirely smooth, which is to be expected as teams work through the mechanical niggles and prefer to diagnose issues early. As Shank explained to at the Performance Racing Industry (PRI) Trade Show in Indianapolis in December, the working process has gotten better with each run.

“Every time we take the car out, it’s getting better, literally,” Shank told NBC Sports. “Every time it goes out the door, there’s more done to the car to make it endurance-worthy, comfortable for drivers, quick – it’s just a huge bucket list, a punch-out list of stuff to get done that we’re slowly taking care of.”

Acura’s pair of NSX GT3s slotted in 20th and 23rd at the Roar Before the Rolex 24 test, which may not be representative of the car’s ultimate pace.

With their lineups of Ozz Negri, Jeff Segal, Tom Dyer and Ryan Hunter-Reay in the No. 86 Acura and Andy Lally, Katherine Legge, Mark Wilkins and Graham Rahal in the No. 93 car, the team has assembled eight all-star drivers who are all close and consistent enough on pace to keep the cars in the fight.

No. 14 Lexus RC F GT3. Photo courtesy of IMSA
No. 14 Lexus RC F GT3. Photo courtesy of IMSA

Lexus enters into GTD following a roller coaster year-and-a-half of buildup. The team’s initial RC F GT3 lacked outright competitiveness before homologation issues, and required a new build of a second generation car that spent the latter half of 2016 building up mileage.

The former Rocketsports Racing – or RSR when it was in IMSA’s Prototype Challenge class – has had a mixed history with GT cars. Paul Gentilozzi’s effort was a race- and championship-winning machine in the Trans-Am days, most recently with a Jaguar XKR in the early 2000s. However, when the RSR Jaguar program entered into GT2 (now GT Le Mans) in the American Le Mans Series, it struggled for both pace and reliability.

Toyota, Lexus’ sister brand, seems entirely committed to the Lexus project, and the renamed 3GT Racing has a great future-looking lineup with Sage Karam, Jack Hawksworth and Robert Alon – all 25 or less – as three of its four full-season drivers. And in Scott Pruett, they have one of the most successful sports car drivers of all-time as their lead driver and mentor-in-chief.

“To have the passion and ability he has at 56, to be a wheelman is unreal,” Karam told NBC Sports. “That dude can still wheel a car. Listening to how he talks and goes about everything, it’s unlike anyone else. I’m blessed to have a teammate like Scott.”

Endurance race extras include a capable quartet of Ian James and Gustavo Menezes (No. 14) and Austin Cindric and Dominik Farnbacher (No. 15), the latter of whom probably has been most integral to the Lexus development process. Lexus was 21st and 24th at the Roar.

The most ironed out car should, in theory, be the new Mercedes-AMG GT3. The car tested for the first time at Daytona in November 2015, which gives it already more than a year up on the other two outright new cars. It had success in European GT racing last year.

In Riley Motorsports, Mercedes has a team that is perhaps the most well-sorted in the paddock. Bill Riley leaves no stone unturned and even with new cars, with the Dodge Viper GT3-R retired from competition, the expectation is that Riley’s pair of Mercedes will be instant competitors. Jeroen Bleekemolen and Ben Keating share the team’s No. 33 car while the WeatherTech Racing pair of Cooper MacNeil and Gunnar Jeannette lead the team’s No. 50 car.

“It’s not too hard (of a transition) because this car is so nice and easy to drive,” Bleekemolen told NBC Sports. “I’ve always said of the SLS, this is the easiest car I know and this car is similar in that way. It’s a very easy car to drive. You get a feel for the car pretty quick and that makes it also a good all-around car. In difficult conditions, it’s going to be good, it’s going to be easy. I love this car.”

Pace at the Roar backed that up. The No. 33 Mercedes was second, the No. 50 Mercedes 11th, and the third Mercedes – the No. 75 SunEnergy1 Racing entry – split them nearly right down the middle in seventh.

Audi won its first WeatherTech Championship race last year in GTD with its new R8 LMS, which extended the new car’s run of early success in international endurance races to four wins in its five most recent starts. The Mercedes’ run of international success last year included a top-four sweep at last year’s 24-hour enduro at the Nürburgring as part of 18 overall wins, so it follows that even though this race is its IMSA debut, it could and probably should contend for class honors.

For Acura and Lexus, the goals are different. With this being the first race for both cars, finishing is the first and most important goal. Ford achieved a wealth of success as it went on with the Ford GT throughout 2016, but arguably fell flat on its face with a litany of issues that popped up on its worldwide race debut at Daytona.

Provided each of those two manufacturers can get one car home to the finish, it will have been a solid start. For Mercedes-AMG, meanwhile, a win at Daytona is within range to extend its run of form, provided it gets past the other outstanding challengers in class.

Pierre Gasly confirmed for Super Formula drive

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 27:  Pierre Gasly of France and Prema Racing celebrates winning the GP2 drivers championship before the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 27, 2016 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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Pierre Gasly has followed Stoffel Vandoorne in now two areas: he’s won a GP2 championship, and he’s spending his next season of racing in Super Formula in Japan.

The 20-year-old Frenchman, part of the Red Bull Junior Team, missed out on a Scuderia Toro Rosso drive when the team retained Daniil Kvyat alongside Carlos Sainz Jr. for the upcoming Formula 1 season.

However with Red Bull keen to keep Gasly racing sharp, he’ll be placed into Super Formula this season with a team to be announced at a later date.

It’s a deep open-wheel field and usually takes a bit of time for newcomers to establish themselves, and so how Gasly gets on will be one of the more interesting parts of the year. Vandoorne finished fourth this year, and won twice.

“It is all going to be very different, I have no experience with the car or the tracks and I know that the Japanese culture, philosophy, way of working, just about everything is different. It is a fantastic new challenge and I love that,” Gasly said.

Gasly’s placement was confirmed as part of the full Red Bull Junior Team announcement for the 2017 season.

The other four drivers confirmed are Dan Ticktum (17, Britain), Niko Kari (17, Finland), Richard Verschoor (16, Netherlands) and Neil Verhagen (15, U.S.).

Verschoor, Verhagen and Ticktum will all race in Renault 2.0, Verschoor and Verhagen with MP Motorsport and Ticktum with Arden International. Verschoor is already racing this winter in the Toyota Racing Series in New Zealand.

Verhagen, who tested a Tatuus USF-17 car for the USF2000 series over the winter, is the first American that’s part of the Red Bull Junior Team since John Edwards raced a Red Bull-backed Atlantic car in 2007. Edwards is now a BMW factory driver in sports cars.

Kari will race in GP3 with Arden in his second year as a Red Bull Junior.