56th Daytona 500

Dale Earnhardt Jr. wins Daytona 500

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – In a battle of weather vs. patience, NASCAR’s most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr., endured a six-hour, 22-minute rain delay that included two tornado warnings to win the 56th Daytona 500 Sunday night at Daytona International Speedway.

In winning his second Great American Race (first time was in 2004), Earnhardt held on in the 200-lap green-white-checker finish to beat Denny Hamlin to the checkered flag. Earnhardt’s winning speed was 195.109 mph.

Nothing could stop Earnhardt, not even what appeared to be a trash bag wedged into his front grill.

“Man winning this race is the greatest feeling that you can feel in this sport, aside of accepting the trophy for the championship,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “It feels as good if not better than the first. Especially running second after all the years.”

“Congrats to Junior, the world is right, Dale Jr. just won the Daytona 500. That’s a sign the 2014 season is going to be a good one,” fourth-place finisher and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon said.

Brad Keselowski finished third, just behind Gordon at the time of a caution right at the finish for a multi-car accident.

Jimmie Johnson was fifth, with Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Matt Kenseth, Greg Biffle, polesitter Austin Dillon, and Casey Mears rounding out the unofficial top 10.

The race was marred by two big multi-car wrecks. The first one, a 12-car wreck, occurred on Lap 146, with Danica Patrick being spun and ran head-on into an unprotected retaining wall at nearly 200 mph.

Patrick was an innocent victim in the 12-car wreck, which occurred coming out of Turn 4. The wreck appeared to begin when Brian Scott went up the track into the car of Aric Almirola, who hit the wall and spun down towards the infield, collecting several cars in the process.

Patrick was in the wrong place at the wrong time and plowed straight into a part of the retaining wall that is not protected by a SAFER barrier.

When asked by crew chief Tony Gibson whether she was okay, Patrick, whose voice appeared shaky on the team radio, responded, “Yeah what the hell happened?”

Later, interviewed by Fox Sports, Patrick added, “I thought everything was going pretty well. … It’s a bummer but that’s kind of the excitement of speedway racing that anything can happen and it’s unfortunate that I was at the short end of it all.”

Drivers besides Patrick, Almirola and Scott that were involved in the wreck included Kevin Harvick, Parker Kligerman, Paul Menard, Michael Waltrip, Reed Sorenson, polesitter Austin Dillon, Kasey Kahne, Marcos Ambrose, Justin Allgaier and Josh Wise.

Sixteen laps later and in virtually the same spot as the earlier wreck, with two high-profile Sprint Cup rookies battling for the same real estate on the racetrack, Daytona 500 pole-sitter Austin Dillon spun Kyle Larson, triggering yet another big wreck involving 10 cars.

Dillon, who may have had a tire going down, appeared to get into the rear of Larson, with the cars of Kasey Kahne, Michael Annett, Marcos Ambrose, Brian Vickers, Casey Mears, Jamie McMurray, Ryan Newman and Brian Scott all being caught up in the resulting carnage.

“I don’t know if Austin got loose and shuffled up the track and got into me and turned us,” Larson said. “It’s Daytona, it sucks to end it like this.”

Trevor Bayne, winner of the 2011 Daytona 500, was involved in a one-car wreck with 16 laps remaining. Kurt Busch then took a solo spin with 10 laps left, but was able to continue on to pit road without a caution flag falling.

Just when it appeared wrecking was over for the night, Dillon triggered yet another wreck, running into the rear of his Richard Childress Racing teammate, Ryan Newman, ending with seven cars being involved.

Other drivers in the wreck were Terry Labonte, making his 33rd and final Daytona 500 start of his career, along with Allgaier, Scott, Cole Whitt and Parker Kligerman.

But the crashing still wasn’t done as yet another multi-car wreck occurred on the last lap.

Among drivers involved were Sorenson and Carl Edwards.

Three drivers who were among those considered to be potential winners had their nights end not the way they wanted, two due to blown engines, and one other for a different type of mechanical failure.

Martin Truex Jr. lost the motor in his Furniture Row Racing Chevrolet on Lap 31, seven laps before the race was red-flagged for rain.

Clint Bowyer then lost his engine on Lap 126.

“If it was going to blow up, I wish it would have blown up four hours ago,” an obviously dejected Bowyer said.

Tony Stewart took his Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet to the garage on Lap 135 with fuel pressure problems.

Stewart was able to get back on the track, but finished a dismal 35th in his first Sprint Cup race back since he suffered a severely broken leg in a sprint car crash early last August that resulted in him missing the final 15 Cup races of the season.

Stewart was looking to break a jinx similar to that of the late Dale Earnhardt, who didn’t win his first Daytona 500 until his 20th try. Stewart is now winless in the sport’s biggest race in 16 tries.

The fastest lap of the race was by Dillon, who put down a turn around the 2.5-mile high banks of DIS at 204.3 mph.

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Longtime Knoxville Raceway promoter, Ralph Capitani, dies

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Photo via @KnoxvilleRaces Twitter
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Knoxville Raceway likely wouldn’t be what it is as one of the country’s most renowned short tracks without the work of Ralph Capitani.

Capitani has died following a battle of cancer (according to Speed Sport), news of which was announced Monday by the track. The longtime promoter at the track was born in 1932.

Capitani, better known as “Cappy,” oversaw a huge rise in the stature and popularity of the track’s premier event – the Knoxville Nationals – after taking the reins as the track’s new race director and promoter in 1978.

Some of the elements Capitani worked to implement were improved facilities, purses, safety standards, car counts and audience, the latter of which saw the Knoxville Nationals eventually make it to TV. He also established the Knoxville Raceway Hall of Fame.

In his 40th year at Knoxville in 2007, Capitani said the prestige of the Knoxville Nationals remained incredible.

“I think the Knoxville Nationals is the best sprint car race of the year, bar none,” he said in 2007, via InLappedTraffic. “It is the only time you see ALL of the best sprint car drivers competing on the same playing field. It is a United States and Internationally wide event.”

He retired from the track at the end of 2011.

Knoxville Raceway released a statement confirming Capitani’s passing, and thanking him for all he did to put the track and race on the map.

A portion of the statement reads: “A visionary in the sport, Cappy aimed to make sprint car racing at Knoxville Raceway grander, the purses bigger and the grandstands fuller. He achieved them all with a smile on his face and a hearty handshake for every team owner, driver, crew member and fan that ever crossed his path.”

IndyCar’s last big pre-season test occurs this week at Sebring

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Conor Daly. Photo: IndyCar
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Pre-season testing for the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season will conclude this week with all eight full-season teams having two days at Sebring International Raceway’s short course on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Sebring marks the closest venue to simulate street course conditions; four of the first eight races are street races while only one street race, Toronto, occurs in the second half of the season.

Although this is private testing, this will be a de facto “spring training” on the 1.5-mile road course for teams to see what the others are running all at once. IndyCar’s official spring training, the Prix View test at Phoenix International Raceway’s 1-mile oval, occurred on February 10-11.

The bulk of the field runs tomorrow, with seven of the eight teams set to test – the only exception is Andretti Autosport. Andretti is listed to test on Wednesday.

All but one of the 21 full-season drivers expected for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg season opener on March 12 will test this week. The one not listed is Sebastien Bourdais of Dale Coyne Racing; Bourdais and Ed Jones tested at Sebring in January prior to the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

They’ll be joined by the three drivers making their test debuts, all for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports: Robert Wickens, Luis Felipe “Pipo” Derani and Luis Michael Dorrbecker.

Wickens tests tomorrow as part of his planned ride swap with James Hinchcliffe, with Derani and Dorrbecker set to test on Wednesday.

Sebring is usually a hotbed for tests over the IndyCar offseason. This year saw A.J. Foyt Enterprises (in late January with Chevrolet) and Chip Ganassi Racing (in early January with Honda) premiere their new manufacturers and aero kits at Sebring, among other teams that have tested here.

Although the test season has seen an increase in interest this year, the regular season starts in St. Petersburg and returns to NBCSN with Long Beach on April 9.

F1 Paddock Pass: 2017 launch roundup (VIDEO)

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The NBC Sports Group original digital series Paddock Pass returns today with a recap of the remaining launches of the 2017 Formula 1 cars that occurred over the weekend.

Williams was first to reveal a rendering of its 2017 car, but it wasn’t a formal launch. Sauber’s online launch properly kicked off proceedings last Monday, before Renault, Force India and Mercedes did actual launches, and then Ferrari (online) and McLaren (in Woking) both launched on Friday.

Official launches then followed for Williams, Red Bull, Haas and Toro Rosso over the weekend. Haas had pictures of its car leak the day before its planned launch as it was a filming day on track.

In this edition of Paddock Pass, NBCSN pit reporter and insider Will Buxton and producer Jason Swales recap the remaining cars revealed over the weekend.

Previous Paddock Pass editions from this week are below:

Testing continues this week with days two through four of the first test at Barcelona.

Alonso’s McLaren struggles on first day of F1 tests

MONTMELO, SPAIN - FEBRUARY 27: Fernando Alonso of Spain driving the (14) McLaren Honda Formula 1 Team McLaren MCL32 on track  during day one of Formula One winter testing at Circuit de Catalunya on February 27, 2017 in Montmelo, Spain.  (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)
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MONTMELO, Spain (AP) Troubled Formula One team McLaren has gotten off to a wretched start in preseason testing.

Fernando Alonso spent most of the first day waiting to get back out of the garage after his car broke down following just one lap at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya on Monday.

What the team identified as an “oil system” malfunction to its Honda-made engine kept the two-time world champion out of action until after the lunch break. Back behind the wheel, his 29 total laps was the lowest amount of the 11 drivers who participated.

Alonso also posted the second-slowest time, more than three seconds off the leading pace set by Lewis Hamilton in his Mercedes. Only Sauber’s Marcus Ericsson was slower.

“It’s disappointing,” Alonso said. “You work for three months and at the track on the installation lap something breaks down and you lose the day.”

This misstep is the latest technical hiccup to plague McLaren since it paired up with Honda.

One of F1’s most successful teams with eight constructor titles and 12 driver titles, the British outfit has struggled since it switched from Mercedes to the Japanese automaker before the 2015 season.

After earning just a combined 27 points from Alonso and Jenson Button in the first year with Honda, the team showed some growth last season with 76 points and two fifth-place finishes. But that is still a far cry from the glory days of the Woking-based team whose last race win was in Brazil in 2012.

For his part, Alonso hasn’t won a race since he claimed his 32nd victory back in 2013 at the Spanish Grand Prix while with Ferrari.

“It is fair to say that after the difficulties we had the last three seasons, it’s a nice temptation for the media,” Alonso said.

“From the point of view of the team, we are disappointed and sad to arrive to the first day of testing and not run.

“We are focused on what we have to do to make up the lost time. We know that we have four days for each driver and now one day is gone to prepare for the world championship.”

Stoffel Vandoorne, who has replaced Button, will get his turn for McLaren on Tuesday.

McLaren team chief Eric Boullier acknowledged that the relationship with Honda is far from perfect.

“It is like any marriage, you can have some ups and downs,” Boullier said. “We went through a lot of stress through the last couple of years, but we have a positive and constructive relationship and I don’t expect this to change in the future.”

The opening test will run through Thursday.

The track near Barcelona will host a second round of testing from March 7-10 before the season starts at the Australian GP on March 26.