56th Daytona 500

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


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

Brembo cites disc issue for Gutierrez’s USGP retirement

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 22: Esteban Gutierrez of Mexico driving the (21) Haas F1 Team Haas-Ferrari VF-16 Ferrari 059/5 turbo on track during final practice for the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 22, 2016 in Austin, United States.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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AUSTIN, Texas – Esteban Gutierrez felt a brake issue was the primary culprit for his retirement on Lap 17 from Sunday’s United States Grand Prix, and Brembo has confirmed this was likely a disc issue.

Brembo released a statement regarding the retirement:

“In relation to what happened to the driver Esteban Gutierrez of Haas F1 Team during the United States Formula One Grand Prix, Brembo regrets that the withdrawal of the driver at the end of lap 17 was caused by a possible issue connected to the braking system.

“After a first analysis of our technicians present at Austin, it would seem that in correspondence with the front left wheel a problem in the dragging area of the disc has been identified.

“It will be Brembo’s responsibility to carefully investigate, in collaboration with the team, the causes that led to the technical issue.”

Haas has had a number of brake-related issues this year, but team owner Gene Haas reiterated a commitment to Brembo over the weekend.

Gutierrez told NBCSN’s Will Buxton after the race he thought for sure it was a brake failure.

“Yes, it was,” the Mexican said in the immediate aftermath. “We think one of the discs broke. Not what we wanted for a race weekend. Not easy to accept either. Difficult start of the weekend and it was not going to be easy. We went on. We did a great qualifying, optimizing what we had. We pushed to the maximum. We got into the top 10 the first few laps. Aggressive strategy. At some point lost the brakes. Fortunately didn’t run into the barrier (in Turn 11).

“It’s very disappointing but we have to continue focusing on the positives. I want to thank everyone for the enthusiasm and support all weekend. I’m sorry for all of you who were here to support us and ensure we are doing our best.”

Gutierrez’s teammate, Romain Grosjean, got a point on Haas F1’s home soil with 10th place.

A Brembo carbon brake. Photo courtesy Brembo
A Brembo carbon brake. Photo courtesy Brembo

Coincidentally, I guess, I caught up with Brembo F1 brake engineer Andrea Pellegrini earlier this weekend on Friday, who explained that Circuit of The Americas is a low-energy braking circuit, and only requires more braking capability than Silverstone, Spa, Suzuka and Interlagos.

He explained the initial temperature of the carbon brakes is about 400-450 degrees Celsius, with a peak temperature of over 1,000 degrees.

“You don’t want it too high to avoid the wear, and not too low, because it’s complicated. There’s initial bite and friction. Every disk has a special cooling dedicated to different circuits. Austin is a medium circuit in energy for the brakes,” he told NBC Sports.

A list of more information from Brembo is linked here.

United States GP Paddock Notebook – Sunday

during the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 23, 2016 in Austin, United States.
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AUSTIN, Texas – A near perfect weekend from Circuit of The Americas featured not the most scintillating United States Grand Prix, but still packed enough moments from the race and the last few days to make it memorable.

A year after hailing his 2015 win in Austin “the best day of his life” and securing this third FIA Formula 1 World Championship, Lewis Hamilton was more relieved to have a clean, trouble-free race en route to his first race victory since July in Germany on Sunday.

Meanwhile, Nico Rosberg performed a decent bit of damage limitation to come second after a tougher weekend. Daniel Ricciardo matched his car number in a perhaps unlucky third, but still created a lot of smiles with his Aussie-Texan hybrid accent in various interviews throughout the weekend, and his getting Gerard Butler to do a “Red Bull Shoey” on the podium.

Here’s a roundup of today’s posts, features and analysis from Sunday at Circuit of The Americas:





Hamilton in “cool” mode

Lewis Hamilton was back to a cool, stealthy mode this weekend that he hasn’t been in for a while. We’ve written about it quite a bit this weekend but it felt as though he was the USGP favorite from the outset, and it would have taken a perfect performance to beat him. With an amazing pole lap on Saturday and a peerless drive on Sunday, Hamilton cruised to his 50th career win, and has entered the record books as only the third driver in F1 history to achieve that milestone.

Strategic chess match more than an outright thriller

I’ll have more on this in a column tomorrow looking back on the weekend as a whole, but last year’s USGP at COTA felt as though it was a race to save a weekend of frustration, given the onslaught of rain that hit Austin like a tidal wave. This year’s race was not nearly as good as last year’s; that said, it had its moments, and the upside of the weekend being so much better on the whole prior to the race itself was that it didn’t need the race to be a thriller.

All about the strategy and reacting to it

With both Mercedes drivers and Red Bull’s Max Verstappen starting on Pirelli’s soft tires, rather than supersofts as the rest of the top 11 drivers on the grid did, how the tire strategies played out over the race would prove pivotal to watch.

Indeed it was such that with Verstappen pitting early, it forced Mercedes to react. Rosberg’s move then onto mediums forced him to “play the long game,” but his race came back around courtesy of the Virtual Safety Car that cost Ricciardo later in the race.

There were other pit mistakes too, with Verstappen and Kimi Raikkonen’s races both ending shortly after bad stops. Verstappen pitted what seemed to be too early, then made into his box before resuming and having an engine issue a couple laps later. Raikkonen’s race ended after a wheel wasn’t secure, and he stopped at pit out.

Races where you have to follow the strategy closer don’t necessarily play to rave reviews on TV as much as daring passes too. But if you’re a more introspective fan or observer, these races have their place, and today was one of them.

Retirements/setbacks promote a number of surprise drivers into points

From fifth-placed Fernando Alonso through to 10th-placed Romain Grosjean, a number of drivers who started either lower in the top-10 to well outside it made the points.

Alonso, Carlos Sainz Jr., Felipe Massa, Sergio Perez, Jenson Button and Grosjean started 12th, 10th, ninth, 11th, 19th and 17th, respectively, and all made it into the points.

Granted, roughly four of those openings were created by retirements for Nico Hulkenberg, Kimi Raikkonen and Max Verstappen and an early delay for Valtteri Bottas. But nonetheless, it was cool to see a few somewhat surprising faces – at least from their qualifying positions – make it into the top-10.

Recapping the post-race penalties

Two were assessed:

  • Raikkonen’s Scuderia Ferrari outfit has been fined 5,000 Euros as his car was released in an unsafe condition just prior to his retirement. Per the FIA, the car was released before all mechanics had finished fitting all the wheels correctly. The fine is imposed since the car was not classified. After a reprimand for Sebastian Vettel on Friday, that’s two “oopsies” in the same weekend for the Scuderia.
  • Renault’s Kevin Magnussen got a five-second time penalty added for exceeding track limits to make a move on Toro Rosso’s Daniil Kvyat for 11th place in the waning laps. That said, the position swap didn’t affect either in the grand scheme of things since it was outside the points. Neither Renault driver – Magnussen nor Jolyon Palmer – had a good weekend with the pressure on between them to see if either will stay alongside Hulkenberg next year.

Alonso’s forceful pass of Massa for sixth place at Turn 15 triggered no further action from the race stewards, although Massa was less than pleased and had a puncture.

Improved COTA crowd

Buoyed in large part by the Taylor Swift concert – Circuit of The Americas revealed a crowd number of 83,000 for it although estimates varied to run a bit higher or lower depending on who you talked to – the crowd felt up in a big way both on Saturday and then into race day on Sunday.

The number was then announced as 269,889 for the weekend on Sunday afternoon, and marks a COTA official attendance record.

While ordinarily I’m a bit skeptical of COTA attendance release numbers – sports car weekends here in the past have seen an allegedly disproportionate amount noted from the track versus what it’s felt like actually on the ground – there’s good reason to believe this high number is closer to the mark.

I checked out the line on Saturday afternoon from about 4 p.m. local time onwards and it was a bit crazy, but crazy good if I’m honest. Once the gates opened to get in line at 5:30, the line stretched from where I was standing outside the Esses at Turn 7, back to the Fly Emirates-backed spectator bridge just after corner exit at Turn 2, with more people coming across the bridge as the time went on. It figured that there’d be a bigger number of folks making the rounds here, and that was just it.

Recap of the remainder of the weekend festivities

Porsche Mobil 1 Supercup crowned its champion at Circuit of The Americas for the third year in a row, with the series running its only doubleheader round of the season.

Sven Mueller led fellow Porsche Junior Matteo Cairoli by two points (135-133) going into the weekend, but with Mueller finishing in second place and Cairoli retiring in the first race, it gave Mueller a near clinch of the title going into Sunday’s finale.

With eighth place in the finale on Sunday, Mueller has secured this year’s Porsche Supercup title, following Phillip Eng and Earl Bamber having clinched it the last two years. Mueller has also won the Porsche Carrera Cup Deutschland title this season.

I had a catch-up with Mueller prior to Sunday’s race, and a Q&A with him will follow on NBCSports.com in the coming days.

Lest Mueller and Cairoli have been the only Porsche Juniors in the spotlight, the third member of the Porsche Junior team in Supercup, Mathieu Jaminet, had a dream weekend to end the season. Jaminet swept both races for his second and third wins of the season.

Of note, Americans Alec Udell and Will Hardeman impressed for the local Moorespeed team. Udell, the 2016 Pirelli World Challenge GT Cup class champion, finished 11th on Saturday and a sterling seventh today in his Supercup debut. Hardeman’s 11th place today was a good shout for him, and he had Bamber coaching him this weekend.

In total, the Porsche Juniors swept the 10-race season amongst themselves. Cairoli won four races to Mueller’s three, and now Jaminet’s three.

Masters Historic Racing also fielded a wealth of old F1 cars in two 10-lap races. Katsuaki Kubota (No. 12 Gunnar Nilsson John Player Lotus 78) and Charles Nearburg (No. 27 Alan Jones Leyland TAG Williams Fw07B) won the pair of races. Cars entered were run from 1971 (Tyrrell 002) through 1983 (Tyrrell 011 and RAM March).

VIDEO: Ricciardo forces shoey upon Gerard Butler, turns on Texan accent

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 23:  Actor Gerard Butler does a shoey on the podium with Daniel Ricciardo of Australia and Red Bull Racing after Daniel finished third in the race during the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 23, 2016 in Austin, United States.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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Daniel Ricciardo may have been disappointed to lose second place in Sunday’s United States Grand Prix after a badly-timed Virtual Safety Car period, but that didn’t stop the Red Bull driver offering some entertainment on the podium.

Ricciardo made a rocket start to run second behind Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton early on at the Circuit of The Americas, with championship leader Nico Rosberg struggling to keep up in third.

Mercedes rolled the dice with Rosberg’s strategy, only to get a free pit stop under VSC when Ricciardo’s temamate, Max Verstappen, suffered a gearbox failure.

Rosberg jumped up to second in the process, much to Ricciardo’s frustration.

Ricciardo eventually crossed the line third, marking his sixth podium finish in the last eight races and tightening his grip on P3 in the drivers’ championship.

The podium interviews were conducted by actor Gerard Butler, who had Ricciardo’s infamous ‘shoey’ forced upon him, only with Red Bull in place of champagne.

“Gerard told me he doesn’t drink alcohol, so we had to figure something out,” Ricciardo told NBCSN after the race.

“Then one of the boys threw Red Bull up. Much to his dismay, he did it.”

Ricciardo then turned on his Texan accent, something he had broken out intermittently over the COTA weekend after spending Wednesday working on an authentic local farm.

Ricciardo also broke it out when talking to NBCSN’s Will Buxton after the race, even quoting racing icon and star of Talladega Nights, Ricky Bobby.

“I’m not sure what to do with my hands! My friend Ricky Bobby said- oh that’s too much!” Ricciardo said, before returning to his usual speaking voice.

“Yeah the VSC was frustrating. I expressed some frustration. It’s a good rule in many respects, but it hurts when it has that on you.

“Nico gained about 10 seconds on us. That’s an eternity in racing terms. Especially as it’s a Mercedes.

“That made it a bit stationary at the end. Even if he caught me he would have made it interesting. Cool place, cool podium, cool anthem. I live for that stuff.

“We had Nico’s pace. That’s encouraging. We’ll do what we can in the next few. Another big bag of points. Just me and Seb [Vettel] out there but we gained a little on Ferrari.”

Ricciardo then offered yet more science on the shoey, believing that the Red Bull energy drink will have eased the taste of his sweaty race boot after a 56-lap run at COTA.

“I didn’t try it! I smelt it. It smelt pretty good. Red Bull has a strong flavor. It killed the bad stuff,” Ricciardo said.

“My foot wasn’t that sweaty. Gerard had a small coronary on the podium, but he recovered.”

Never change, Danny Ric.

Max Verstappen named F1 Driver of the Day for USGP despite DNF

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 23:  Max Verstappen of Netherlands and Red Bull Racing on the grid before the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 23, 2016 in Austin, United States.  (Photo by Lars Baron/Getty Images)
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Max Verstappen has been voted Driver of the Day for the United States Grand Prix despite retiring from the race due to a gearbox failure.

Verstappen qualified fourth in Austin before a poor start saw him slip behind Kimi Raikkonen during the opening stages at the Circuit of The Americas

The Red Bull driver took the position back before closing in on Nico Rosberg through the second stint of the race, but retired soon after due to a gearbox issue.

Nevertheless, Verstappen has won the online fan vote for Austin, the result being announced on F1’s official Twitter account on Sunday night.