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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Williams’ Massa, Stroll prep for new phases of their careers (VIDEO)

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In the video linked above, Williams Martini Racing’s Felipe Massa and Lance Stroll look ahead to what should be an intriguing 2017 Formula 1 season given their respective stages of their careers.

Massa, 35, returns to the Mercedes-powered team after what was meant to be a retirement following last season’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. But the subsequent retirement of Nico Rosberg at Mercedes AMG Petronas opened the door for Massa to come back once Valtteri Bottas left to replace Rosberg there, and has given Massa a second ‘farewell tour.’

Stroll, meanwhile, is just 18 – born a year and three days (October 29, 1998) after Williams won its last World Championship in 1997 with Stroll’s Canadian countryman Jacques Villeneuve. Having blitzed the junior categories, particularly the FIA European F3 Championship last year, Stroll’s arrival to F1 comes with some fanfare and some question marks as he’s been fortunate to have significant family support.

The two of them make up Williams’ team this season and along with deputy team principal Claire Williams, they look ahead to what is to come in 2017.

You can see this pair and the rest of the F1 grid as part of NBCSN’s coverage from Melbourne for the Australian Grand Prix. All times are linked here.

Lewis Hamilton completes Friday F1 practice double in Australia

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Lewis Hamilton continued his march at the top of the timesheets in practice for the Formula 1 season-opener in Australia on Friday afternoon, leading the way once again for Mercedes.

Hamilton entered the weekend unsure about his chances after an impressive display from Ferrari through pre-season testing, prompting the Briton to pick the Italian team as the favorite for victory in Melbourne.

Hamilton set the pace through first practice at Albert Park as the new-style F1 cars got their first official running, heading up a one-two finish for Mercedes with Valtteri Bottas in tow.

FP2 was expected to offer more insight into Ferrari’s true pace after it opted to limit its running through first practice, but it was Hamilton who led the way once again.

Running on the ultra-soft tire, Hamilton produced a stunning lap of 1:23.620 to finish half a second clear of Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel, the German driver unable to respond to his rival’s pace.

Bottas continued his impressive start to life with Mercedes, finishing the session third-quickest, while Kimi Raikkonen rounded out a Mercedes-Ferrari top-four lock-out in the second SF70H car.

Despite Ferrari’s inability to challenge Mercedes, it was Red Bull that came away from FP2 as the biggest disappointment after Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen had scruffy sessions en route to P5 and P6 respectively. Verstappen had been on a quick lap and due to improve his time, only to run wide at Turn 12 and narrowly avoid losing control.

Carlos Sainz Jr. finished a solid seventh for Toro Rosso ahead of Haas driver Romain Grosjean, who was fortunate to keep his car out of the wall as the American team’s brake issues arose once again. Nico Hulkenberg was ninth for Renault, with Daniil Kvyat rounding out the top 10.

FP2 was red flagged early on following a big shunt for Jolyon Palmer at the final corner. The Briton lost the rear-end of his car coming through the right-hander, causing him to slide into the wall and suffer a large amount of damage to his car. Felipe Massa was another driver to hit trouble, with his Williams FW40 grinding to a halt midway through the session, forcing the Brazilian to end his day early, while Marcus Ericsson spun off with five minutes to go, beaching his Sauber.

Lewis Hamilton sets rapid pace to open F1 2017 in Australia FP1

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Lewis Hamilton kicked off Formula 1’s new technical era in style by heading up a one-two finish for Mercedes in opening practice for the Australian Grand Prix on Friday morning in Melbourne.

Despite predictions from many that Ferrari and Red Bull would pose a greater challenge at the top of the timesheets in Australia, FP1 offered a familiar result as Hamilton led home new teammate Valtteri Bottas.

The added downforce of the new-style 2017 cars had the desired effect of slashing lap times, with Hamilton’s best effort of 1:24.220 being less than four-tenths of a second off his pole position time for last year’s race.

Bottas made a good impression in his first F1 weekend session in Mercedes colors, leading the bulk of the session before Hamilton jumped ahead on the ultrasoft tires with around 30 minutes remaining.

Daniel Ricciardo led Red Bull’s charge, finishing third ahead of teammate Max Verstappen, but Ferrari decided against showing its hand early and limited its running, only pushing for fast laps in the final 15 minutes of the session.

Kimi Raikkonen ended FP1 fifth in the SF70H, 1.1 seconds off Hamilton’s best time, while Vettel was a further tenth back in P6.

The session went by without any major incident, although a handful of drivers did have minor technical issues that are part and parcel of the first session of the year.

McLaren’s difficulties continued from pre-season as Stoffel Vandoorne was limited to just 10 laps, while Jolyon Palmer and Esteban Ocon also had their running cut due to problems. All three featured in the bottom five of the standings.

Times are below:

Sean Gelael set for Toro Rosso F1 tests in 2017

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Formula 2 driver Sean Gelael will play a part in this year’s in-season Formula 1 test running after agreeing a deal with Toro Rosso.

Gelael, 20, raced full-time in GP2 last year before the championship evolved into F2, scoring one podium finish in Austria.

The Indonesian driver also appeared in the final three rounds of the FIA World Endurance Championship, scoring an LMP2 podium for Extreme Speed Motorsports in Shanghai.

Gelael will race in F2 this year with Arden, but will also get his first taste of F1 machinery in the upcoming tests for Toro Rosso.

All F1 teams will get four days of in-season running this year (two in Bahrain, two in Hungary following their respective races) as well as the traditional end-of-year test in Abu Dhabi.

Gelael will feature in all three for Toro Rosso, having undergone a seat fitting at Faenza earlier this week.

All F1 teams are required to allocate at least half of their in-season running to junior drivers who have made fewer than two grand prix starts.

Gelael will make his first appearance for Toro Rosso following the Bahrain Grand Prix, with running set to take place at the Bahrain International Circuit on April 18 and 19.