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

Ricciardo: Red Bull ‘not really that close’ to Mercedes in Austin

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 22:  Daniel Ricciardo of Australia and Red Bull Racing waves to the crowd after qualifying in third position during qualifying 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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Daniel Ricciardo is doubtful that Red Bull can challenge Mercedes for victory in Sunday’s United States Grand Prix in Austin, Texas, believing Ferrari to be the team’s closest challenger.

Red Bull currently sits second in the Formula 1 constructors’ championship, having won two races this season – notably the only two not to have been won by Mercedes – with Ricciardo and Max Verstappen.

Both drivers enjoyed impressive outings in practice, with Ricciardo’s race pace on Friday and Verstappen’s one-lap run on Saturday in FP3 hinting that a close fight at the front of the pack may be on the cards.

However, Mercedes stretched its legs when it came to qualifying as Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg locked out the front row of the grid. Ricciardo was left to settle for third place, finishing half a second shy of Hamilton at the front of the pack.

Red Bull opted to split the strategy of its cars in Q2, meaning Ricciardo will start on the super-soft tire while Verstappen is set to take softs to the line, giving the latter more strategy options.

“I’m not concerned. We expected it to go like this,” Ricciardo said of Verstappen’s tire choice.

“Max wanted to try the soft, I was happy to go on super-softs. I was more comfortable on this tire so that was the reason. Hopefully it gives me a better launch off the line.

“Not really that close to the Mercedes, but we should have a good battle with Ferrari. The car works pretty well for us. We’ll see what happens. Hopefully a bit of friendly grip off the line.”

However, Ricciardo agreed that the long-run pace of the Red Bull during practice on Friday was strong, offering the team a boost heading into the race.

“It was pretty delicious, I would say,” the Australian told NBCSN.

“Track conditions changed a bit. Maybe it affects what happened on Friday, but we’ll be ready to go tomorrow.

“Let’s show y’all how it’s done.”

Verstappen was also surprised by the gap to Mercedes in qualifying, and was left disappointed to be only fourth on the grid.

“Not great to have three cars in front of you. Could have been better,” Verstappen told NBCSN.

“To be honest, I expected us to be closer in qualifying. We were not that close. They start on the softs. Hopefully a good start and we’ll see what happens in the race.”

The United States Grand Prix is live on NBC and the NBC Sports app from 2:30pm ET on Sunday.

Rosberg ‘annoyed’ to see Hamilton on USGP pole after ‘good lap’

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 22:  Nico Rosberg of Germany and Mercedes GP in the garage 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 Lars Baron/Getty Images)
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Nico Rosberg was left feeling “annoyed” after seeing Mercedes teammate and Formula 1 championship rival Lewis Hamilton beat him to pole position for the United States Grand Prix on Saturday afternoon.

Rosberg arrived in Austin, Texas leading the drivers’ standings by 33 points with four races remaining in the 2016 season.

The German scored pole position at the Circuit of The Americas in 2014 and 2015, but was denied a three-peat by Hamilton in the dying stages of qualifying on Saturday.

The two drivers matched each other for pace through all three legs of qualifying, with Rosberg’s final effort giving him provisional pole ahead of Hamilton.

However, Hamilton was able to hit back and ultimately go two-tenths of a second faster, handing him his ninth pole position of the year.

After the session, Rosberg was very matter-of-fact about his qualifying, saying that he was happy with his own lap.

“Nothing specific,” Rosberg said when asked where he had fallen short.

“Sector 1, Lewis was just quicker. Pretty simple.

“Good lap I did nonetheless. Annoyed when Lewis came over the line, but that’s the way it goes sometimes.

“Nevertheless, qualifying isn’t all-important. From P2, we still have a good chance tomorrow.”

Rosberg’s recent surge in points has been largely down to his strength off the line, with Hamilton dropping back in Italy and Japan, easing the pressure on his teammate in the battle for victory.

The United States Grand Prix is live on NBC and the NBC Sports app from 2:30pm ET on Sunday.

Hamilton left feeling ‘amazing’ after ending COTA pole drought

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 22: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP waves to the crowd after qualifying in pole position during qualifying 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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Lewis Hamilton was left feeling “amazing” after scoring his first pole position at the Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas on Saturday, giving his fading hopes of a fourth Formula 1 title a boost.

Hamilton is a three-time winner at COTA (2012, 2014, 2015), but has never started a race at the track from pole position.

Hamilton last scored pole position on American soil back in 2007 during his rookie F1 season, in what proved to be the final United States Grand Prix to be held at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

The Briton put an end to his barren run of poles in the U.S. on Saturday, finishing two-tenths of a second clear of drivers’ championship leader and Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg.

“I feel amazing. My first pole here. It’s been many years of trying and a lot of people who’ve helped me get that,” Hamilton said after the session.

“For us I want to say a big thanks to the crowd. I could hear them cheering. The energy on the slow down lap was much appreciated.”

Hamilton enters Sunday’s race trailing Rosberg by 33 points in the drivers’ championship and without a win since the end of July, with a number of poor starts proving costly in the meantime.

“We’ve worked hard the last couple weeks. It’s a great feeling to be back up here,” Hamilton said.

“I’ll do the best I can tomorrow. Have had some incredible support from friends, family and the crowd. Been practicing the starts all weekend.”

The United States Grand Prix is live on NBC and the NBC Sports app from 2:30pm ET on Sunday.

Hamilton captures first COTA pole in USGP qualifying

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 22: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid 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 Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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Lewis Hamilton stormed to his first pole position at the Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas in qualifying for the United States Grand Prix on Saturday, edging out Mercedes teammate and title rival Nico Rosberg by two-tenths of a second.

Hamilton entered the USGP weekend trailing Rosberg by 33 points in the drivers’ championship, but remained the favorite for victory after his three previous wins at COTA.

However, Hamilton had never started on pole in Austin, offering a statistical anomaly that the Briton sought to rectify on Saturday afternoon.

Rosberg and Hamilton were neck-and-neck throughout qualifying, only for the latter to pull ahead with their first runs in Q3, going 0.072 seconds clear.

Rosberg rallied with his final Q3 lap to take provisional pole, but Hamilton managed to dig deep and produce a lap of 1:34.999 to wrestle P1 away at the checkered flag.

Rosberg was left to settle for second place, while Daniel Ricciardo finished as the best of the rest for Red Bull in third, half a second off Hamilton’s P1 time. Red Bull teammate Max Verstappen qualified fourth.

Both Mercedes drivers were able to make it through to Q3 on the soft compound tire, as was Verstappen, opening up the possibility of a one-stop race for the trio on Sunday.

Ferrari had a difficult session as Kimi Raikkonen and Sebastian Vettel finished over a second off the pace, leaving them fifth and sixth respectively on the grid.

Nico Hulkenberg continued his run of top-10 finishes at COTA over the race weekend, qualifying seventh, while Force India teammate Sergio Perez ailed to P11 after being knocked out in Q2.

Valttei Bottas and Felipe Massa were eighth and ninth for Williams after electing to run just once in Q3, while Carlos Sainz Jr. rounded out the top 10.

Fernando Alonso was McLaren’s sole representative in Q2 after seeing Jenson Button fall early in Q1. Alonso could not make it through to Q3, though, with late laps from the Williams pair leaving him 12th on the grid.

Like Perez, Daniil Kvyat was unable to match the pace of his teammate, finishing three-tenths of a second shy of Toro Rosso teammate Sainz in Q2 to finish 13th.

Haas F1 Team’s first qualifying session on American soil failed to live up to expectations of the home crowd as it failed to get both cars through to Q2 for the first time since the Chinese Grand Prix. Romain Grosjean was knocked out in Q1, qualifying 17th, leaving Esteban Gutierrez to fly the star-spangled banner alone in Q2, where he finished 14th.

Jolyon Palmer made it through to Q2 for Renault after an impressive first run in Q1, failing to improve on his second lap that he called a “f***ing disaster” over the radio. A sole attempt in Q2 left him 15th on the grid ahead of Sauber’s Marcus Ericsson, who opted against a proper qualifying run after making it into the second session.

Kevin Magnussen qualified 18th for Renault ahead of a disgruntled Button, who risked an early run on soft tires at first in Q1 before McLaren mistimed his last flying lap that left him with traffic at the final corner in the form of Palmer.

Pascal Wehrlein and Esteban Ocon endured a fairly routine qualifying for Manor, finishing P20 and P22 respectively as Felipe Nasr slotted into 21st for Sauber, failing to match the pace of Ericsson ahead.

The United States Grand Prix is live on NBC from 2:30pm ET on Sunday.