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.

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Sprint car shocker: Steve ‘The King’ Kinser announces retirement

The legendary Steve "The King" Kinser announced his retirement from Sprint car racing Monday night.
(Official Twitter page of Knoxville Raceway)
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Sprint car fans knew it was eventually coming, but the timing of it still likely surprised many when legendary driver Steve “The King” Kinser announced Monday night that he was retiring.

What will likely be the last race of Kinser’s storied career came at Lebanon Valley Speedway in West Lebanon, New York, where he finished sixth in the main event.

In the following video, Kinser not only shocked the fans in attendance, but also clearly caught track public address announcer John Stanley completely off-guard with his revelation.

“We thought we’d make it one more time and I’m pretty sure this will be the last race I ever run right here tonight, the last race period,” Kinser said. “I hadn’t been running many (races) this year and was planning on quitting anyway.

“I’m never going to say never but I’m pretty positive I’m going to watch Kraig (his son, also a racer), go to races and have some fun.”

The 62-year-old resident of Bloomington, Indiana is a 20-time World of Outlaws champion (won a record 577 races in the series), as well as more recently a stalwart on the All Star Circuit of Champions sprint car series owned by NASCAR champion Tony Stewart.

It was a ASCoC event at Lebanon Valley where Kinser delivered his bombshell news, according to a report by National SpeedSport News.

The 12-time Knoxville Nationals champ, whose last full-time season in the WoO was in 2014, has been racing a limited schedule both last season and in 2016.

While his career has been primarily in Sprint cars, Kinser also raced in other series including five times in the NASCAR Sprint Cup series, raced in the 1997 Indianapolis 500 (finished 14th) and in the IROC and USAC series.

Naturally, the social media world was all atwitter – no pun intended – about Kinser’s bombshell announcement:

 

 

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Can Dixon, Kanaan, Castroneves still catch Pagenaud, Power for IndyCar crown?

Can Phoenix winner and defending IndyCar champ Scott Dixon, middle, catch Simon Pagenaud or Will Power for the IndyCar championship?
(Photos courtesy IndyCar)
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In Major League Baseball, the 4-5-6 batters are typically the meat of the batting order. It’s those three players that play one of the biggest parts in determining which team becomes the ultimate champion each season.

Now, 4-5-6 in the standings of the Verizon IndyCar Series is a bit of a different matter.

Sure, fourth-ranked Scott Dixon is a four-time IndyCar champ and Indianapolis 500 winner, fifth-ranked Helio Castroneves is a three-time Indy 500 winner, and sixth-ranked Tony Kanaan is both a series champion and Indy 500 winner.

That sounds like an IndyCar equivalent of baseball’s Murderer’s Row, right?

But following Monday’s weather-rescheduled ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway, the 4-5-6 drivers in the IndyCar Series rankings have three races left to hit nothing but home runs if they hope to throw a curveball into Simon Pagenaud’s and Will Power’s championship plans.

Six points separate the trio: Dixon has 386 points, 111 points short of Pagenaud (497 points, with Power a close second at 477 points). Castroneves has 384 (-113) and Kanaan has 380 (-117).

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Scott Dixon

And let’s not forget about Josef Newgarden, sitting third at 397 points, exactly 100 markers behind Pagenaud and 80 points in arrears to Power. But Newgarden will almost certainly drop out of realistic contention with a last-place finish looming at Texas Motor Speedway after he crashed out in June, and won’t be able to restart.

The respective finishes of Dixon (sixth), Kanaan (ninth) and Castroneves (19th) at Pocono also didn’t help their championship chances, because Power won. Pagenaud failed to finish but still looms far ahead.

Right now, a maximum of 211 points is up for grabs in the remaining three races. That breaks down to 50 points each to the winner at Texas and Watkins Glen, and double points (100) to the winner of the season finale at Sonoma.

There’s also one point for the pole winner in each of the final three races, although Carlos Munoz will get that point at Texas since he got the pole there back in June.

In addition, each of the three remaining races – as all others – awards one point if a driver leads at least one lap and two points to the driver who leads the most laps.

With his win Monday, Power earned almost the maximum amount of points at Pocono, capturing 51 of a possible 54. Pagenaud, who finished 18th, earned just 13 points, allowing Power to cut Pagenaud’s lead in the standings by 38 points, more than half of what it was coming into the race (58 points).

Dixon climbed one position, from fifth to fourth, with his Pocono finish. But he knows time is running to defend last year’s championship – particularly with this being the last year for him with Target sponsorship.

Here’s what Dixon had to say after Pocono:

“We started in the rear of the field and that didn’t help our cause with the Target team. We got held up in the second to last restart and some lapped cars didn’t go when they should have and that really cost us in terms of track position for sure. We clawed our way back into the mix but with so many good cars out there it was hard to get all the way to the front to contend.”

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Tony Kanaan

Kanaan slipped slightly in the standings from fifth to sixth after his Pocono finish.

Here’s what Kanaan had to say afterwards:

“We just couldn’t catch a break during the race. Every time we’d make a run toward the front, something would go wrong. We had a mechanical issue that was affecting the fuel system and that caused a lot of problems for us. Then we lost a piece of our rear bumper pod that caused that last yellow. It just wasn’t our day.”

Lastly, Castroneves had a performance Monday that he’d rather forget. While he started strong (fourth), he was involved in a scary pit road crash not of his doing when Alexander Rossi and Charlie Kimball made contact.

Rossi, this year’s Indianapolis 500 winner, bounced off Kimball’s car and ran over the top of Castroneves’ car as he was trying to leave his pit stall.

The tires on Rossi’s car made visible marks on the top of the cockpit of Castroneves’ car and then the car continued until it had climbed over and landed back on the pavement on all four wheels. Castroneves suffered a slight bruise to his right hand but was otherwise uninjured in the scary mishap.

But his hand isn’t the thing that really hurt. Castroneves’ resulting 19th place finish saw him drop from third to fifth in the standings. Given that he’s 117 points behind Pagenaud and 97 behind Power, his Team Penske teammate, Castroneves’ hopes for his elusive first career IndyCar championship are slim, indeed – unless perhaps he wins each of the next three races.

And that still may not be enough to win it all if Pagenaud and/or Power have strong finishes in at least two of those last three.

One thing’s for certain: neither Castroneves nor Dixon or Kanaan are giving up.

Here’s what Castroneves had to say about Monday’s race, the pit road incident, as well as moving on to Texas:

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Helio Castroneves

“Inside the car, I was actually more protected than what it looked like. Sometime people don’t realize the Verizon IndyCar Series are so much about safety and today is the proof of that.

“Very glad that nobody got hurt. It’s just a shame. The Hitachi Chevy was really having a good day and we just had another good pit stop when I was coming out of the pits.

“All of a sudden there was a car on top of me. It was a little strange to be honest. The Team Penske guys worked really hard to try and fix the car but there was a lot of damage.

“It’s certainly unfortunate because this will hurt us in the championship battle but our team will never give up. We’ll move on to Texas where, fortunately, we’ve had a lot of success.”

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Carpenter’s hope for oval resurgence once again goes round in circles

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(Photo courtesy of Chris Jones/IndyCar)
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Just when he was hoping for a dramatic improvement, Ed Carpenter’s season of discontent behind the wheel continues.

The owner of Ed Carpenter Racing had high hopes for a strong finish in Monday’s weather-rescheduled ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway.

Running his usual schedule of ovals only, Carpenter qualified a respectable 10th at Pocono and had a car that in practice looked like it could be a top-10 finisher in the actual race itself.

But for the third time in his four oval races this season (Phoenix, Indianapolis, Iowa and Pocono), Carpenter and his No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet came up short due to an unspecified mechanical issue that knocked him out of the race just 57 laps into the 200-lap event.

At Phoenix, Carpenter had his best qualifying effort of the season (fifth) and managed to complete 195 of 200 laps before crashing and finishing 21st.

In the Indianapolis 500, he started 20th and finished 31st in the 33-car field when an oxygen sensor went bad just two laps from the midpoint of the 200-lap race.

Carpenter had his best outing of the year at Iowa, finishing 18th. However, he finished just 284 of the race’s 300 laps with another mechanical issue occurring on a pit stop and a bunch of time lost. The gear cluster needed to be changed.

And then came Pocono on Monday, another outcome that left Carpenter disappointed.

“Ed Carpenter Racing has performed so awesome this year and the No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka car can’t catch a break,” Carpenter said after Monday’s race. “I haven’t finished a full race this season.

“I made one mistake at Phoenix, but other than that we’ve just had things happen. Some of it shouldn’t have happened and could have been avoided, so there’s just a lot of frustration.”

Carpenter has one more oval race left on his schedule: this Saturday’s resumption of the rain-delayed race at Texas Motor Speedway.

“This is one of my last two races this year and I felt really good coming into (Monday),” Carpenter said of Pocono. “I’m not going to comment on what happened specifically, it won’t do any good to talk about it out in the open. It’s just frustrating.”

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Pocono is best superspeedway finish for Bourdais since IndyCar return

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Since returning to the Verizon IndyCar Series part-time in 2011 and full-time in 2013, French driver Sebastien Bourdais has four wins in 87 starts and eight podium finishes.

But in all of those starts, Bourdais had never scored a top-five on a superspeedway.

His best finish at the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway was seventh in 2014. His best finish on Fontana’s 2-miler was 12th in 2013.

And prior to Monday, his best finish at Pocono Raceway’s 2.5-mile “tricky triangle” was 16th (2013 and 2014).

But in Monday’s weather-delayed ABC Supply 500, Bourdais achieved a career-best performance on a superspeedway, as his No. 11 Team Hydroxycut KVSH Racing Chevrolet finished fifth.

Bourdais qualified 18th but was fourth-quickest in race trim in the final practice before Monday’s rescheduled race. While he started slow, he methodically worked his way up through the field until he cracked the top-10 on Lap 91 of the 200-lap, 500-mile event.

On Lap 177, Bourdais and his team gambled on their final pit stop. Instead of a full service stop, the team went with only fuel and not tires.

That moved Bourdais up to second place from seventh and his second win of 2016 (first was Belle Isle 1) appeared a strong possibility.

While the gamble worked in theory, it was foiled by a glitch in the computer blend line software, which erroneously placed Bourdais in third on the ensuing restart.

When the green flag fell, Bourdais had a slow restart and fell back two more spots to fifth. He briefly climbed back to forth, but eventual third-place finisher Ryan Hunter-Reay passed him, relegating Bourdais to where he’d ultimately finish: in fifth.

“It was a pretty good day for the Hydroxycut – KVSH Racing Team,” Bourdais said after the race. “We took some penalties with long pit stops to set the car up early on, but even though we were marginal on front grip we were running a pretty solid race.

“We passed Dixie (Scott Dixon), passed Kanaan (Tony), passed some Penskes, not the top one, but when you do that, things are going pretty good. Then you end up finishing fifth after there was some computer confusion about our position on the restart.”

Bourdais remains 14th in the IndyCar point standings, but Monday’s finish was his eighth top-10 showing in the first 13 races of the season.

“Overall, you have to consider that it was a great day,” Bourdais said of Pocono. “It was definitely our strongest showing on a super speedway.

“We learned something this weekend, something we have been missing. The crew did a really good job and the Hydroxycut Chevy machine was really strong. So I am really happy with the result.”

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