Teammate Jimmie Johnson congratulates Dale Earnhardt Jr. after his win in Sunday's Daytona 500.

No conspiracy: Dale Earnhardt Jr. wasn’t handed Daytona 500 win, he earned it

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Kyle Busch raised a lot of eyebrows when he said early during last Sunday’s front row qualifying for the Daytona 500 that there might be a conspiracy theory to put both Austin Dillon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. on the pole and outside pole.

Busch was kind of half-right in the sense that Dillon won the pole. And when Earnhardt rallied to win the actual race Sunday night, there’s the potential that conspiracy theories could light up again.

Forget it, said third-place finisher Brad Keselowski. Earnhardt earned his win in the Great American Race, pure and simple, fair and square, by effort not divine intervention – or gift – from the NASCAR gods.

“This particular race, there’s no drama, there’s no feeling that I don’t feel like anyone can legitimately have that there was some voodoo magic reason why he won. He earned it in every sense,” Keselowski said.

Even though he was disappointed not being able to get past Earnhardt to win the race himself, Keselowski couldn’t have been happier for his friend.

“He did a great job,” Keselowski said when asked by MotorSportsTalk. “If there’s ever a guy who’s due, it’s a guy who’s finished second three out of the last four years. That’s really saying something.

“He’s been right there, he’s knocked on the door, he runs restrictor plate races as an elite driver, probably in the top three, hadn’t got the win he probably deserved a couple times from a whole bunch of circumstances out of his control. He was due and today was his day. I’m happy for him.”

Keselowski probably feels a greater affinity for Earnhardt winning than most other competitors. Earnhardt provided Keselowski his big break to drive the No. 88 for the Earnhardt-owned JR Motorsports’ team in the Nationwide Series in 2007, after Keselowski had lost his main ride midway through the season.

“Dale obviously gave me my big opportunity and is probably my best friend in the garage outside of my teammate, Joey Logano, and his spotter is my neighbor,” Keselowski said. “There’s a lot of cross-pollination there. It’s good for them. I’m happy for him.”

Runner-up Denny Hamlin was especially bummed to finish second, telling reporters several times how disappointed he was.

But when asked by MotorSportsTalk if he was happy for Earnhardt winning his first race in nearly two years and only his third race since the start of the 2007 season, Hamlin seemed to temporarily snap out of his funk.

“It’s big for a lot of reasons,” Hamlin said. “He’s going into the last year with his current crew chief. They’re going to start making Chase plans now early. It’ll be good for the race team. They’re very flexible going forward with what they can do and try.

“It’s very significant if any Earnhardt wins at Daytona,” he added. “You’re going to have a tough time getting around Earnhardt in a green-white-checker at Daytona, anyway. Obviously, it’s a very significant day for their family and it’s great for the race team.”

Seated next to Hamlin on the media center stage, Dillon also chimed in on his thoughts about Earnhardt.

“It’s awesome,” Dillon said. “Junior has been so supportive of me bringing back the 3. … I want to thank him and congratulate him. For me, he’s been a little bit of a bigger brother for me, so it’s kinda cool.”

But perhaps the best quote of the night came immediately after the race from Jeff Gordon, Earnhardt’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate, who finished fourth in the race.

“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,” said Gordon, who finished fourth in the race.

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Vettel, Raikkonen complete hot laps in Ferrari F1 cars at Daytona

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Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen enjoyed their final Formula 1 run-outs of 2016 on Sunday at Daytona International Speedway, taking part in a special demonstration for the Ferrari Finali Mondiali.

The Finali Mondiali acts as the world final for the continental Ferrari Challenge series, bringing together competitors from the North America, Europe and Asia Pacific championships.

As part of the weekend’s running, Vettel and Raikkonen were on hand to complete demonstration laps behind the wheel of recent Ferrari F1 cars, with Vettel also completing some donuts in front of the main granstand at Daytona.

Here are some of the videos and pictures from the event.

Sebastian Vettel dismisses suggestion he could replace Rosberg at Mercedes

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 27: Nico Rosberg of Germany and Mercedes GP is congratulated by Sebastian Vettel of Germany and Ferrari on the podium during the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 27, 2016 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Sebastian Vettel has brushed off suggestions that he could take Nico Rosberg’s vacant Formula 1 seat at Mercedes next year, saying his focus lies on working with Ferrari to improve on their 2016 season.

Rosberg sensationally announced on Friday that he would be retiring from F1 with immediate effect, just five days after winning his maiden World Championship.

Rosberg’s move has sent the driver market into a late flux, with Mercedes’ Niki Lauda claiming that half of the F1 grid has been in touch regarding the seat despite many of them having contracts.

Vettel has been named as a possible candidate for Rosberg’s seat despite having one year remaining on his Ferrari deal, but when speaking at the Finali Mondiali at Daytona International Speedway, the German stressed he is focused on his current commitments at Maranello.

“I think it’s no secret the fact that me and Kimi Raikkonen have a contract for next season,” Vettel is quoted as saying by La Gazzetta dello Sport.

“Kimi and I are already committed. In 2017 we will be competitive.

“We have not reached the goal this year, but now it will be important to do the job at the factory in the next two months.

“I am confident that we will definitely present an improved package.”

Vettel signed off with a message to Rosberg, wishing the retiring champion “happy holidays!”

Vettel finished 2016 fourth in the drivers’ championship without a win to his name as Ferrari struggled to keep up with Mercedes and Red Bull in the pecking order.

Mercedes is set to begin its search for a replacement on Monday, with the other big-name driver besides Vettel linked to the seat being McLaren’s Fernando Alonso.

Should Mercedes want to promote one of its junior drivers, Pascal Wehrlein and Esteban Ocon are both also available, although neither has more than a season of F1 experience.

Hamilton not chasing number one status at Mercedes after Rosberg exit

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 25: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP walks in the Paddock during practice for the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 25, 2016 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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Lewis Hamilton says he is not chasing number one driver status at Mercedes as the team begins its search for a replacement for Formula 1 World Champion Nico Rosberg.

Rosberg edged out Hamilton for the F1 drivers’ championship in Abu Dhabi last Sunday before sensationally announcing his immediate retirement from the sport five days later.

Mercedes has said it will take its time when looking for a replacement for Rosberg, with the majority of the F1 grid tied up contractually for 2017.

Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel have both been linked with the Mercedes drive in the wake of Rosberg’s departure, leading to questions about whether Hamilton would want another big-name star alongside him.

Mercedes has always stressed that it does not have a number one driver, and Hamilton said that he would not insist on that changing when his new teammate arrives.

“I’ve never been a driver to ever request that,” Hamilton said when asked about number one status.

“I know a lot of the other drivers Sebastian, Fernando make sure that’s in their contract.

“I’ve just always asked to have equal rights. As long as we’re treated fairly, it doesn’t really matter who’s alongside you.

“But of course, we’ve got great team bosses, who I’m sure will choose the right people to be representing the brand.”

Whoever replaces Rosberg will become Hamilton’s fifth teammate in F1, the Briton having previously worked with Alonso, Heikki Kovalainen and Jenson Button during his time at McLaren before joining Mercedes in 2013.

Rosberg: Hamilton’s late-season form ‘the best Lewis I’ve ever seen’

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 27: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo neads Nico Rosberg of Germany driving the (6) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo on track  during the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 27, 2016 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Nico Rosberg believes that Lewis Hamilton produced some of the best performances of his career towards the end of the 2016 Formula 1 season when the Briton had nothing to lose in the championship fight.

Rosberg clinched his maiden F1 drivers’ championship by five points in Abu Dhabi last Sunday, defeating Hamilton for the first time during their time as teammates.

Rosberg closed out the season with four straight second place finishes, with Hamilton’s run of victories in the same period not being enough to catch up in the standings.

Speaking in a video produced by Mercedes after his championship win, Rosberg said that he felt the most pressure after his final win of the season in Japan, the result that meant he could wrap up the title without taking another victory.

“The changing moment was Suzuka for me, when all of a sudden I had the 33-point lead and that meant it was in my hands, and it’s mine to lose, because it was enough to do second-second-second and third,” Rosberg said.

“That’s when really the pressure started for me because it became real, the chance to win the championship and to beat Lewis. It was real.”

Rosberg was only assured of the title when he crossed the finish line in Abu Dhabi, with Hamilton going deliberately slow in a bid to back the German into the chasing pack.

“Abu Dhabi was intense. It was the most intense experience I’ve ever had in a race car,” Rosberg said.

“Even qualifying, the laps in qualifying, not easy really. And for sure it has an impact on your performance. It’s not possible that you do the same performance as if you’re in Lewis’ position where he has nothing to lose.”

Rosberg believes that the lack of pressure brought the very best out of Hamilton, as he closed out the campaign with four consecutive victories from pole position.

“That’s why he got the pole positions and why I was second in the last couple of races because he’s free, has no weight and nothing to lose,” Rosberg said.

“It was the best Lewis I’ve ever seen, the last few races, because not only was he completely free, but also the most determined and motivated ever, working as hard as ever.

“[It was] massively difficult to beat him in those circumstances.”

Rosberg announced on Friday that he would be retiring from racing with immediate effect, meaning we have likely seen the last of his rivalry with Hamilton in F1.