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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Liberty Media offers $400m in F1 shares to teams

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 leads Nico Rosberg of Germany driving the (6) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo Daniel Ricciardo of Australia driving the (3) Red Bull Racing Red Bull-TAG Heuer RB12 TAG Heuer Sebastian Vettel of Germany driving the (5) Scuderia Ferrari SF16- Ferrari 059/5 turbo (Shell GP), Max Verstappen of the Netherlands driving the (33) Red Bull Racing Red Bull-TAG Heuer RB12 TAG Heuer and the rest of the field at the start 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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Liberty Media has announced that $400 million worth of shares in Formula 1 will be set aside for teams to purchase following its acquisition of the sport.

Liberty announced in September that it had agreed to purchase F1 in an $8 billion deal, with final approval being given by the series’ governing body, the FIA, earlier this week. The takeover is set to be completed by the end of January.

Liberty issued a statement on Thursday confirming that it has allocated $400 million worth of shares to be bought by the teams racing in F1, with the idea being part of its mission statement after its initial offer was accepted.

“Liberty Media Corporation announced today that it intends to issue cash convertible senior notes in a private offering,” the statement reads.

“The notes will be convertible into cash in an amount determined by reference to the trading price of shares of Series C Liberty Media common stock (“LMCK”).

“Liberty expects to use the net proceeds of the offering to fund an increase to the cash consideration payable to the selling shareholders (the “Selling Shareholders”) of Formula 1 (“F1″) by $400 million and retain in treasury the approximately 19 million shares that would otherwise have been issuable to the Selling Shareholders based on the per share purchase price of $21.26. These LMCK shares will be reserved by Liberty for issuance to the F1 teams at a per share purchase price of $21.26.”

“We think it’s important to offer the teams the chance to invest in F1 and further align our interests,” Liberty president and CEO Greg Maffei said.

“We look forward to working with the teams to increase the appeal of this iconic sport and enhance the F1 business.”

F1 chairman Chase Carey added: “Several of the teams have expressed interest in investing and we have already begun productive discussions to make the sport more competitive and even more exciting.”

After winning Indy 500, Alexander Rossi has even greater goal for 2017

100th Indianapolis 500 Winner Alexander Rossi Visits The Empire State Building
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Yesterday, the Indy 500. Tomorrow, the Verizon IndyCar Series championship.

That’s essentially Alexander Rossi’s mindset for 2017.

After being the surprise winner of the 100th running of the Greatest Spectacle In Racing, as well as earning both Indy 500 and IndyCar Rookie of the Year honors in 2016, Rossi is ready to make the next step — a very big step indeed.

Sure, he’d love to repeat as 500 winner, but the series championship is his No. 1 priority – and he’s ready to go for the jugular right from the opening race of the 2017 season in March in St. Petersburg, Florida.

When asked during Wednesday’s IndyCar Media Day just how important a strong start will be this season, the Andretti Herta Autosport (with Curb-Agajanian) driver quickly replied, “Very important.”

“Racing is momentum and confidence, and all of the adjectives that relate to those things,” Rossi continued. “If you are on the back foot from day one, you’re always playing catch-up.”

Rossi quickly points to Will Power as a perfect example of why a strong start is important. Power missed the 2016 season-opening race in St. Pete due to reported lingering effects of an inner ear infection following a crash the day before in practice, which was inadvertently misdiagnosed as a concussion.

Power did not earn any points after missing the race, which he feared would keep him behind the eight-ball the remainder of the season. But Power went on a strong run and was able to finish second.

Still, if Power had raced at St. Pete, he may have eventually overtaken teammate Simon Pagenaud for the championship.

“We saw it a little bit with Will last year,” Rossi said. “He obviously is more than capable of winning championships but was always playing catch-up from St. Pete.

“It’s very important to come out of the box strong. Do you have to win, no, but I mean, you need to be fighting for the win at least and show that you’re competitive.”

Now that he’s won the biggest race in the world, Rossi knows he can’t live on his laurels or what happened last year. While winning the 500 was life-changing, his performance in the other 15 races of the 2016 season was more mediocre than good.

He had just one other top-five finish (fifth in the season finale at Sonoma), a sixth-place finish at Iowa and a pair of 10th-place finishes (Indy Grand Prix, Belle Isle 1).

Then there was the bad part of the season: seven finishes of 14th or lower, one DNF (Pocono) and ended the season with an average starting position of 14.3 and an average finish of 11.8.

“So ’16 was a lot of things,” Rossi said. “Most of it was a learning experience, from not only learning a new team, new car, new tracks, but a completely new organization in the Verizon IndyCar Series, and it was a very positive experience for most of that.

“With that being said, the year aside from the month of May was pretty difficult, and we weren’t very happy with how it went in any way as a four-car effort.

“Going into 2017 we have a lot higher expectations, and we’ve made a big push this off-season to rectify a lot of the things that didn’t go well. Obviously I’m looking forward to going back to Indianapolis in May, but by the same token, I’m just as excited about all the other races because I feel like we have a pretty big point to prove, and road and street courses, which were supposed to be my strong suit coming into IndyCar, they were not, and ovals were.”

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Williams felt bad asking Felipe Massa to come out of F1 retirement

SAO PAULO, BRAZIL - NOVEMBER 13:  Felipe Massa of Brazil and Williams waves farewell to the Brazilian crowd during 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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Williams Formula 1 deputy team boss Claire Williams says she felt bad asking Felipe Massa to backtrack on his decision to retire from racing and return for the 2017 season.

Massa announced in September that he would be calling time on his 14-year F1 career at the end of 2016, making what was expected to be his final start in Abu Dhabi.

Massa’s departure freed up a seat at the team for 18-year-old rookie Lance Stroll, who was due to partner Valtteri Bottas through 2017.

Bottas was released from his Williams contract after being approached by Mercedes to replace Nico Rosberg following the world champion’s shock decision to retire, announced in December.

With Williams keen to hire an experienced driver to partner Stroll in his rookie year, the team turned to Massa and asked him to come out of retirement.

“We are never going to put a driver in the car who we don’t believe can deliver,” Claire Williams told Sky Sports.

“As everyone saw even in his last race last year, he delivered for this team. He has lost none of his motivation.

“I know there’s a lot of talk out there ‘let the guy retire, leave him alone’ – he wants to come back.

“Little-known to me, I didn’t actually realize that he didn’t really want to retire and so I think Felipe is going to do a good job this year.”

Williams said she felt bad asking Massa to go back on his decision following the fanfare and tributes surrounding his final few races, but her fears were allayed when the Brazilian was receptive to the offer.

“Bless him, Felipe had announced his retirement, we had a whole fanfare around it, and then to have to phone your ex-driver up and say ‘would you mind coming out of retirement?’ you feel quite bad about it,” Williams said.

“But I’ve never heard anyone so happy and excited, so it was a big relief for us.”

Massa will return to on-track duties with Williams next month, taking part in the first pre-season test in Barcelona on February 27 alongside Stroll in the FW40 car.

Spectator dies after accident on opening stage of Monte Carlo rally

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Officials have confirmed that a spectator has died following an accident on the first stage of the Monte Carlo Rally on Thursday night, the opening round of the FIA World Rally Championship.

Hyundai driver Hayden Paddon slid off the route towards the end of the 21.25 km stage between Entrevaux and Ubraye, with his car blocking the course.

Emergency services were quickly called when it emerged that a spectator had been hurt in the accident, with rally officials confirming later in the evening that the fan had died as a result of injuries sustained.

“The Automobile Club de Monaco regrets to advise further details following incident of the car #4 (Paddon/Kennard) in SS 1,” a statement from the rally organizers read.

“The spectator was transported by helicopter from the stage to hospital in Nice. Despite the best efforts of the medical staff, the spectator has sadly died.

“An investigation has commenced into the incident and all involved parties will provide assistance to the authorities.

“Everyone associated with the event extends their deepest sympathies and condolences to the families, friends and individuals affected.”

Hyundai issued its own statement soon after: “Hyundai Motorsport is deeply saddened to learn of the tragic passing of a spectator during the opening stage of Rallye Monte-Carlo on Thursday evening.

“The incident occurred at the same time as the #4 Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC of Hayden Paddon and John Kennard crashed into the mountainside, after the car hit a patch of black ice at the entry to a left-hand turn.

“The team and crew have pledged their full support to the event organisers and authorities to understand the full details.

“Hyundai Motorsport extends its condolences to the family, friends and individuals affected.”

The stage was cancelled following the incident, with the rally resuming on stage two later in the evening. Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville currently leads by 7.8 seconds from defending world champion Sebastien Ogier.

Paddon’s car has been withdrawn from the remainder of the rally as a result of the incident on Friday.