56th Daytona 500

With Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Daytona 500 win, everything is right in the NASCAR world — at least for one day

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – There’s no question NASCAR has faced its share of challenges in recent years.

From falling attendance to slumping TV ratings, and then NASCAR officials trying several ways to right the ship – from new-style cars to the recently announced changes in this season’s Chase for the Sprint Cup – things have been tried, some with success, others not and others to be determined.

But for one night, Sunday night at Daytona International Speedway, everything was right in the NASCAR world because its most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr., just won the Daytona 500, the sport’s biggest race, it’s Super Bowl.

Four years ago, NASCAR chairman Brian France took an unprecedented step by publicly stating that if it was to thrive again, the sport needed Earnhardt to win races and championships.

It wasn’t a request, it was a plea. If all was right in Junior’s world – and that indeed means winning races and contending for championships — everything would likely be right in NASCAR’s world. France isn’t stupid: as Junior goes, NASCAR goes.

So now that Earnhardt has won his second Daytona 500 – 10 years apart, mind you – could this be not only Earnhardt’s comeback year of sorts, his year to finally win the championship so many have predicted, hoped for and prayed for over the last 15 years, and ultimately be the year NASCAR makes its long awaited comeback?

It sure seems that they’re all intertwined, doesn’t it? When Junior was going good and strong during his years at Dale Earnhardt Inc. from 2000 through 2007, NASCAR was at the height of its popularity.

But when the economy started going south near the end of 2007 and into 2008, it was also the time that Earnhardt made the split from the company his father founded, Dale Earnhardt Inc., and joined Hendrick Motorsports.

Of course, the economy going south and Junior moving on were coincidental, but there is definitely a symbolism and synergy that some NASCAR fans can’t be blamed if they feel those events truly were tied together in some strange fashion.

And now that we’re here in 2014, the economy is improving, unemployment is dropping, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. finally not only won a race after a 55-race dry spell, he did it in the most dramatic and big fashion, capturing the biggest race of the year – and potentially the biggest race of his career.

Not only is it just one race into the 2014 season and Junior has already clinched a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup – 26 races from now – but this could very well be the year that he truly does win that elusive first Cup championship and NASCAR makes the big comeback its officials and fans have hoped for.

Earnhardt won Sunday with arguably the best car in the field, but like a delicious stew, there was so much more that went into it.

There’s the fact crew chief Steve Letarte was atop the pit box for his last Daytona 500. Junior would like nothing more than to send Letarte out a winner before the latter joins NBC as a TV analyst in 2015. He started with Sunday’s win; he hopes to finish his gift to Letarte with the Sprint Cup championship at season’s end.

“If you’re going to win one, this is the one you want to win,” Letarte said. “(Earnhardt) knew how much I wanted to win this one.

“I’m a little said this is going to be my last 500. … Everyone has a bucket list and you don’t work in racing and not have the Daytona 500 on your bucket list. It seems awkward or surreal, but my career defining moment came in my last shot at it.”

There’s the fact Junior will be 40 years old later this year, a kind of unofficial demarcation line that if he doesn’t win a championship by then, the opportunities he’ll have left after he turns the big four-oh will quickly become fewer and fewer with each passing year.

“It’s not a weight when you’re able to deliver. It’s a weight when you’re not able to deliver,” Earnhardt said. “When you’re running fifth or 10th every week, it’s very challenging because you want to deliver and you’re not delivering. This brings me a lot of joy. … I don’t know I’ve realized how big a deal it is, but I know I have a lot of fans that are real happy about what we did tonight and can’t wait to go hang around the water cooler and brag to their buddies tomorrow.”

There’s the fact that Junior had finished runner-up in three of the four previous Daytona 500s. As Brad Keselowski said after the race, no other driver likely was more due to win Sunday than Junior.

“Winning is all that matters when it comes to Daytona,” Earnhardt said. “They won’t remember you for running second. I’m grateful to have won it twice now; I was grateful to win it once. In six months, I’ll probably be as urgent to win it as I was with the first.”

There’s also the likelihood that the once-massive Junior nation has dropped in size, fervor and hope over the last several years. With each passing season that Junior didn’t win a championship and was once again an also ran, many of his fans lost interest or belief in him.

Seeing his Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Jimmie Johnson, win six championships in eight years didn’t help matters for Junior. Those were seasons that were in the prime of his racing career, and yet he came away with nothing but a pat on the back and everyone telling him, “Don’t worry, we’ll get it next year.”

After so much frustration, close calls and shortcomings, it couldn’t help but work on Earnhardt’s belief in himself.

But perhaps when he was at his lowest when it came to thinking he could win more races and championships, team owner Rick Hendrick linked Earnhardt with Letarte, and the best driver-crew chief combo that Junior had since Tony Eury Sr. early on in his DEI days began.

Letarte found a way to get inside Earnhardt, to make him believe in himself, to make him believe in his team, to make him believe he could be a winner – even if Junior had only won just one race prior to Sunday with Letarte on the pit box.

All that is a distant memory now.

“When I crossed the finish line, I was relieved I had done it and I did it with the people I was with,” Earnahrdt said. “It’s like I was back.”

Where does Earnhardt go from here? Will the third time be the charm? By that I mean, when he broke his nearly two-year winless streak in 2008 at Michigan, Earnhardt predicted he’d go on a tear and start winning lots of races.

He did the exact opposite, going more than 130 races before finally reaching victory lane again – at Michigan, no less – in 2012.

Now it’s the third time, not a time to strike out but to rather hit a home run.

Will this time be different? Will Junior be able to take his Daytona win and build upon it with several more wins in the next 35 races this season?

Will he finally bookend his season-opening win with a season-ending championship?

All that remains to be seen. But on a day that started at 1 p.m. ET, included a six hour, 22 minute rain delay and ended nearly 11 hours later, in a town that some are already starting to call Dale-tona, everything for at least one day truly was aligned, balanced and right in the NASCAR world.

No less an expert than Jeff Gordon admitted as much.

“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 third in Sunday’s race.

And if Junior has anything to do with it like the way he did in winning Sunday, NASCAR as a whole will be as much of a beneficiary as he will be.

“I’m pumped up, man,” Earnhardt said. “Trust me, we are going to have a blast this year.”

It’s certainly started out that way.

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

Franchitti praises INDYCAR’s direction with ’18 renders, urges series not to rush Halo

ST PETERSBURG, FL - MARCH 29:  Former driver Dario Franchitti of Scotland stands on pit wall prior to qualifying for the Verizon IndyCar Series Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg at the Streets of St. Petersburg on March 29, 2014 in St Petersburg, Florida.  (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)
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BIRMINGHAM, UK – Dario Franchitti has praised INDYCAR’s plans to revamp the bodykits used in the Verizon IndyCar Series from 2018, calling the series’ direction “fabulous”.

Franchitti raced in IndyCar between 1997 and 2013, claiming four championships with Chip Ganassi Racing before being forced to call time on his career after sustaining injuries in a crash at Houston. The Scotsman remains heavily involved with the series as an advisor to the Ganassi team.

Following INDYCAR’s release of the first car renders for 2018, Franchitti was quick to praise the series’ officials for moving away from the “ugly” aerokits currently being used.

“The drawing of the rending is just that right now, but the direction they’re going in is fabulous,” Franchitti told NBC Sports at Autosport International.

“I talked to Jay Frye quite a bit about what I felt was wrong with the current body kit.

“And I believe that all the drivers sung from the same song sheet of wanting more underbody downforce, get rid of all this top side nonsense. Make the cars look a bit better again, because the car has got quite ugly.

“I have to say that his team have listened to everybody. They know the direction they want to go in now. I think it’s going to be good.”

Part of INDYCAR’s five-year plan discussed in Detroit included further discussions regarding the introduction of cockpit protection, with the Halo device tested in Formula 1 on the table.

“I think everybody is looking at [Halo], but it has to be done in the right way,” Franchitti said.

“We’re here in the UK, it makes you think of Dan and Justin. We lost both of those guys to head injuries. Would they have survived with a Halo? Who knows.

“But if it’s going to be done, it’s got to be done right. And there are so many unintended consequences when you do that.

“You don’t want to rush into it, but you want to introduce it as quickly as possible.”

Franchitti also previewed the 2017 IndyCar season, set to start in St. Petersburg on March 12, and is intrigued to see how the fight between defending champion team Penske and Honda-returnee Ganassi plays out, as well as how a number of drivers fare with new teams.

“The driver market a wee bit obviously with Sato to Andretti, Newgarden to Penske, the Foyt guys have changed around,” Franchitti said.

“Bourdais has gone to Dale Coyne. Dale Coyne seems to have really strengthened his team.

“And then us with the Ganassi team going back to Honda. There are some big changes there. It will be interesting to see how it all plays out.

“That’s going to be the interesting fact because last year the two big teams had Chevy. Now it’s split. It’s going to be fascinating how it all plays out.

“We’ve tested the car. I can’t say much about it, but it will be an interesting season.”

Timeline: Tracking six weeks that flipped the 2017 F1 driver market

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 27:  Valtteri Bottas of Finland driving the (77) Williams Martini Racing Williams FW38 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo and Felipe Massa of Brazil driving the (19) Williams Martini Racing Williams FW38 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 Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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The waiting is finally over. After six or so weeks of speculation, rumors and theories about who might replace Nico Rosberg at Mercedes, Valtteri Bottas was finally unveiled by the team as its second Formula 1 driver for 2017 on Monday.

Bottas’ arrival from Williams has been expected since about the middle of December, making the news hardly surprising. Nevertheless, it is still highly significant.

With Pascal Wehrlein joining Sauber and Felipe Massa due to return at Williams, the driver market is – for now – complete. We still wait for news on Manor’s future after it entered administration earlier this month.

Can’t remember all that has happened since Nico dropped the mic and walked away from F1? Here’s a timeline of events to refresh your memory.

November 27 – Nico Rosberg clinches his maiden F1 world title in Abu Dhabi, finishing second in the race to win the championship by five points. Felipe Massa makes what was planned to be his final F1 start.

December 2 – Rosberg announces his immediate retirement from F1 in a press conference ahead of the FIA gala in Vienna, Austria.

December 3 – Mercedes non-executive director Niki Lauda says he has received calls from half the F1 grid enquiring about Rosberg’s seat.

December 4 – Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel dismisses the suggestion he could leave Ferrari and take Rosberg’s seat for 2017. Lewis Hamilton claims he’s not chasing number one status at Mercedes following Rosberg’s departure.

December 6 – Mercedes F1 chief Toto Wolff admits the team has to consider Fernando Alonso for the vacant seat, but hints a deal for 2017 would be unlikely.

December 8 – Mercedes posts a tongue-in-cheek advert in Autosport magazine regarding its driver vacancy for 2017.

December 9 – Former manager and long-term confidante of Alonso, Flavio Briatore, says that the Spaniard will not take Rosberg’s seat.

December 11 – Hamilton and Wolff enjoy an “amazing” meeting regarding plans for the 2017 season. Hamilton says Mercedes will have “the strongest partnership” to defend its titles. BBC Sport reports that Valtteri Bottas is Mercedes’ prime target and has already tabled an offer for the Finn.

December 13 – Alonso tells the entire McLaren team at its base in England that he remains committed to the project, ending speculation about a possible move.

December 14 – Williams’ Pat Symonds says that keeping Bottas is “crucial” to the team’s future success.

December 15 – Mercedes confirms that it will make no announcement regarding Rosberg’s replacement until January 3 at the earliest. Claire Williams says that Williams was open to letting Bottas leave, relying it could find a suitable replacement.

December 16 – Red Bull F1 chief Christian Horner says he would not allow junior driver Carlos Sainz Jr. to take Rosberg’s seat.

December 20 – Reports suggest that Massa has agreed to come out of retirement and return to Williams for 2017, paving the way for Bottas to leave the team.

December 30 – Massa posts on Instagram that he is back “training hard” in America.

January 3 – The earliest date for an announcement from Mercedes passes.

January 4 – Mercedes confirms it will launch its 2017 F1 car, the W08, at Silverstone on February 23.

January 6 – Manor – the team Wehrlein raced for last year – enters administration, raising doubts over the team’s future and place on the 2017 grid.

January 15 – Claire Williams says she expects to make an announcement about Bottas’ future within a week.

January 16 – Pascal Wehrlein is officially announced by Sauber; photos of Bottas in Mercedes team gear leak online; Williams confirms Massa will return; finally, Bottas is announced officially at Mercedes.

Valtteri Bottas joins Mercedes F1 for 2017 season as Rosberg’s replacement

Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez, Mexico City, Mexico.
Sunday 30 October 2016.
Valtteri Bottas, Williams Martini Racing.
Photo: Glenn Dunbar/Williams
ref: Digital Image _X4I0171
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Valtteri Bottas has officially joined Mercedes AMG Petronas ahead of the 2017 Formula 1 season, replacing World Champion Nico Rosberg.

The long-expected announced was made by Mercedes on Monday, putting an end to six weeks of speculation in the wake of Rosberg’s decision to walk away from F1.

It followed two other announcements made the same morning, with Pascal Wehrlein going to Sauber and, more importantly for Mercedes’ case, Williams Martini Racing’s release of Bottas to Mercedes and confirmation Felipe Massa would come back for one more year.

Mercedes still managed to have fun with the now worst-kept secret in F1, building up the “suspense” on Twitter:

And then Mercedes made it official, via a live video from its factory in Brackley.

Bottas joins Mercedes for his fifth season in F1, having raced with Williams since 2013 and recorded a best finish of fourth in the drivers’ championship in 2014.

The Finn led Williams to third place in the constructors’ championship in 2014 and 2015, scoring nine podium finishes during his time with the team.

Mercedes had been due to field an unchanged line-up of Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton in 2017, only for Rosberg to announce his immediate retirement from racing five days after winning his maiden F1 title in Abu Dhabi.

The news sent the F1 driver market into a late flux, with Bottas appearing towards the top of Mercedes’ shortlist alongside its in-house junior driver Pascal Wehrlein.

Mercedes decided against promoting Wehrlein due to his inexperience, having only completed one season in F1, leaving Bottas as its prime target.

Bottas had re-signed with Williams for 2017, rejecting a move to Renault, and had been set to partner 18-year-old Lance Stroll during his rookie campaign.

Mercedes’ first approach for Bottas included Wehrlein as part of the deal, only for Williams to reject the German on account of his inexperience and the need to have at least one driver over the age of 25, as per a requirement for title sponsor Martini.

Williams found a solution by luring Felipe Massa out of retirement, the Brazilian having raced for the British team since 2014.

Massa said an emotional farewell to F1 in Abu Dhabi, but is now set to return for at least one more season to help the team develop its new car, the FW40, during a period of regulation change.

With Massa agreeing to return for 2017, Williams gave the green light for Bottas to join Mercedes, ending the six-week waiting game that had played out.

Having missed out on seats at Mercedes and Williams, Wehrlein is now due to race for Sauber in 2017, replacing Felipe Nasr at the Swiss team.

The only remaining seats on the F1 grid for 2017 are at Manor, which is yet to confirm either of its drivers amid ongoing takeover talks with American-Mexican investor Tavo Hellmund.

2017 Formula 1 driver line-ups

Mercedes: Lewis Hamilton/Valtteri Bottas
Red Bull: Daniel Ricciardo/Max Verstappen
Ferrari: Sebastian Vettel/Kimi Raikkonen
Force India: Sergio Perez/Esteban Ocon
Williams: Felipe Massa*/Lance Stroll
McLaren: Fernando Alonso/Stoffel Vandoorne
Toro Rosso: Carlos Sainz Jr./Daniil Kvyat
Haas: Romain Grosjean/Kevin Magnussen
Sauber: Marcus Ericsson/Pascal Wehrlein
Manor: TBA/TBA

Felipe Massa backtracks on F1 retirement, confirms Williams return for ’17

SAO PAULO, BRAZIL - NOVEMBER 13:  Felipe Massa of Brazil and Williams stands with a Brazilian flag for his last home Grand Prix with his son Felipinho on the drivers parade before the Formula One Grand Prix of Brazil at Autodromo Jose Carlos Pace on November 13, 2016 in Sao Paulo, Brazil.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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Less than six weeks after making what was set to be his final start in Formula 1, Felipe Massa has confirmed his return to the grid for 2017 with Williams, on a one-year deal.

The news was announced by the team on Monday, completing its line-up for the 2017 campaign ahead of the season-opener in Australia on March 26.

“Firstly, I am very happy to have an opportunity to return to Williams. I always intended to race somewhere in 2017, but Williams is a team close to my heart and I have respect for everything it is trying to achieve,” Massa said. “Valtteri has a great opportunity, given the turn of events over the winter, and I wish him all the best at Mercedes.

“In turn, when I was offered the chance to help Williams with their 2017 Formula One campaign, it felt like the right thing to do. I certainly have not lost any of my enthusiasm for racing and I’m extremely motivated to be coming back to drive the FW40. The support from my fans over the last few weeks has been a huge boost and I’m grateful for that. I also look forward to working with Lance; I’ve known him for many years and seen his talent develop during that time, so I look forward to seeing what we can achieve together.”

Claire Williams, deputy team principal, added the experience Massa will bring should help the team this season.

“I’m delighted that Felipe has agreed to come out of retirement to be a part of our 2017 campaign. With Valtteri having a unique opportunity to join the current Constructors’ Champions, we have been working hard to ensure that an agreement could be made with Mercedes to give Valtteri this fantastic opportunity,” she said.

“Valtteri has been part of the Williams family since 2010 and in that time has proved a huge talent, securing nine podium finishes. I would like to take this opportunity to thank him on behalf of the whole team, and wish him a successful season as he joins Mercedes.

“Felipe has always been a much-loved member of the Williams family, and having the opportunity to work with him again is something we all look forward to. He was always going to race somewhere in 2017, as he has not lost that competitive spirit, and it was important that we had a strong replacement in order for us to let Valtteri go. Felipe re-joining us provides stability, experience and talent to help lead us forward. He is a great asset for us.

Massa, 35, announced in September that he would be retiring from F1 racing at the end of the 2016 season, making way for 18-year-old Lance Stroll to take his seat alongside Valtteri Bottas at Williams.

Massa made what would have been his final start in Abu Dhabi, having said an emotional farewell to his home fans in Brazil two weeks earlier in some of the most powerful scenes of the 2016 season.

However, following Nico Rosberg’s shock decision to retire from F1 just five days after winning his maiden world title, Mercedes identified Bottas as its primary target to replace the German.

Williams was offered a discount on power units and the services of Mercedes junior Pascal Wehrlein in return for releasing Bottas from his contract for 2017, but rejected the proposal.

Williams stressed it wanted a racer more experienced that Wehrlein – an F1 sophomore for the coming season – to aid the development of its new car through the change in technical regulations for 2017. The team also requires at least one driver over the age of 25 to satisfy sponsor Martini, an alcohol brand.

Williams instead turned to Massa and put together a deal to bring the Brazilian out of retirement for 2017 that was accepted in the lead up to the holiday season.

Following Jenson Button’s decision to step back from an F1 seat for 2017, Massa will be the third-most experienced driver on the grid for the forthcoming season, with Australia due to be his 251st race start.

Of the active drivers racing in F1, only Fernando Alonso (278) and Kimi Raikkonen (251) have made more appearances than Massa.