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

Australian Grand Prix puts ‘shoey’ can cooler up for sale to fans

KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA - OCTOBER 02:  Daniel Ricciardo of Australia and Red Bull Racing performs a shoey to celebrate his win on the podium during the Malaysia Formula One Grand Prix at Sepang Circuit on October 2, 2016 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Daniel Ricciardo brought “The Shoey” to Formula 1 last year on a few podiums, including his only win of the year at the Malaysian Grand Prix.

The concept is an interesting one – you’re drinking out of a sweaty race boot after a full day’s work.

Ricciardo did his first one himself at the German Grand Prix, his 100th Grand Prix, while he also got his Australian countryman Mark Webber (Spa) and English actor Gerard Butler (Austin) to get in on the act.

Luckily, good on Ricciardo’s home country as the Australian Grand Prix has actually created a ‘Shoey’ can cooler – available mid-March for 15 Australian dollars. The Australian Grand Prix is on NBCSN on March 26, to kick off the 2017 season.

Thanks to the Australian Grand Prix and freelance journalist Josh Kruse for the spot.

This is a brilliant piece of merchandise that cashes in on Ricciardo’s success and his celebration style, but allows for all the fun of a “Shoey” without the consequences of drinking out of a race boot.

Looks like shots in the grandstands of fans drinking from this type of boot may be something we need to look out for.

Juncos Racing enters IndyCar with a glittering MRTI resume

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Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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For years, the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires has long been considered a training ground for drivers, and some crew members, to prepare and develop before moving into the Verizon IndyCar Series.

It hasn’t, yet, seen a full team that began in the Road to Indy step up into IndyCar. But when Juncos Racing announced its intentions to build a new 40,000-square foot shop in Speedway, Ind., called the Juncos Technical Center, it was always part of the longer-term plan that an IndyCar team would eventually be part of the program. It has now arrived with an entry into the 101st Indianapolis 500 in 2017.

Ricardo Juncos’ team last major step from Pro Mazda into Indy Lights in 2015 produced better results than even he had imagined, as Spencer Pigot won the championship in the team’s first year.

“We got a good opportunity when we won the Pro Mazda championship with Spencer,” Juncos told reporters on a teleconference Wednesday.” The original idea before ’14 was try to fight for that championship. If we were able to win it, that we have a good chance to put together an Indy Lights team, which we did.

“But to be honest, we just showed up in 2015 taking a very difficult championship with a top-class worldwide teams with ex-Formula 1 drivers in the series (Max Chilton, and later Nelson Piquet Jr. at Carlin). It was very difficult. Our first initial thinking was, Let’s do our best, we were joking if we could win a race, that would be great. We ended up winning six races and a championship. Of course, that give us a lot of confidence.

“The continuation of the team was exactly what we was kind of did before in the Pro Mazda. Obviously that, like you said, one is coming from go-kart before then, then Pro Mazda, and Indy Lights was a lot of questions. Winning the championship give us a lot of confidence going forward.

“So I’m seeing this Indy car more as a same thing, as a continuation of what we done. We just going to keep doing what we normally do.”

Juncos will continue in Indy Lights this year with at least two cars (Kyle Kaiser, Nico Dapero), but has no immediate plans to return to Pro Mazda having sold off his equipment there. The USF2000 championship, meanwhile, introduces a new Tatuus USF-17 chassis this year which can be adapted for Pro Mazda use (Tatuus PM-18) starting in 2018, with a few part changeovers.

“To be honest, we actually are not going to run the Pro Mazda this year. Unfortunately after being eight years with four cars, we cannot do it. We going to focus obviously on Indy Lights, Indy car now, and some other stuff,” he said.

“Going into ’18, we’ll see. The problem is that as much as I want to have, is not that easy to just keep building teams. I want to do things right and control the things, which sometimes is difficult.”

So who is Juncos Racing and what have they accomplished in the Mazda Road to Indy? It’d be easier to work backwards and note the alumni of drivers who’ve delivered success for the team:

2016: Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires (Kyle Kaiser, Zachary Claman De Melo) and Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires (Garett Grist, Will Owen, Nico Dapero, Jake Parsons). Kaiser won twice and finished third in the Indy Lights standings, while Dapero scored his maiden win in Pro Mazda at the Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca season finale.

2015: Indy Lights (Spencer Pigot, Kaiser) and Pro Mazda (Owen, Grist, Timothe Buret, Jose Gutierrez). Pigot won the championship in the team’s step back up to Indy Lights with six race wins, in three weekend sweeps. Grist (twice) and Buret (once) won in Pro Mazda and Grist finished third in points.

2014: Pro Mazda (Gutierrez, Kaiser, Pigot, Julia Ballario). Pigot won the title with six wins, having survived an insane weekend battling Scott Hargrove for the title at Sonoma. Kaiser and Gutierrez won the two races that weekend and finished sixth and seventh in points.

2013: Pro Mazda (Gutierrez, Ballario, Scott Anderson, Diego Ferreira). Ferreira won the season opener and finished second in points, with Anderson fifth. Andretti’s Matt Brabham dominated the season.

2012: Star Mazda (Ferreira, Connor De Phillippi, Bruno Palli, Martin Scuncio). De Phillippi won twice, Scuncio once as De Phillippi came fourth in points in a deep field. He’s now gone onto success in sports car racing with Porsche and more recently Audi. The team also made its Indy Lights debut with Chase Austin, JV Horto and Bruno Palli in selected races.

2011: Star Mazda (Horto, Scuncio, Tatiana Calderon, Gustavo Menezes, Richard Heistand). Horto led the way there with a win at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park and fourth in points. Calderon and Menezes have eventually gone onto success in Europe, Menezes in particular given his run in LMP2 with the Signatech Alpine team last year where he won the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the class championship.

2010: Star Mazda (Scuncio, Calderon, Conor Daly, Sean Bursytn, Rusty Mitchell, Hayden Duerson). Juncos’ most successful year prior to 2014 saw Daly win seven of 13 races, en route to the championship by 79 points over Anders Krohn, who’s since developed his own post-driving career in both broadcasting and driver and business development at CoForce.

2009: Star Mazda (Daly, Peter Dempsey). In Juncos’ first year in Star Mazda, Dempsey won five races and Daly one, but Dempsey endured a tough loss for the championship in the final race after being taken out by competitor Joel Miller. This opened the door for Adam Christodoulou to snatch that year’s Star Mazda title.

Haas F1 Team gives us the sound of 2017 Ferrari (VIDEO)

MONTMELO, SPAIN - MAY 17:  Romain Grosjean of France drives the  Haas F1 Team Haas-Ferrari VF-16 Ferrari 059/5 turbo as he exits the pit lane during day one of Formula One testing at Circuit de Catalunya on May 17, 2016 in Montmelo, Spain.  (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)
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You’ve heard from the other power units competing in 2017 – Renault and Honda both revealed their sounds earlier this month, and Mercedes did too prior to that.

But the 2017 Ferrari hasn’t been heard yet. Until today, in two guises.

Earlier this afternoon, Sauber ran its C36 chassis with a Ferrari power unit on track at the Circuit de Catalunya-Barcelona as part of a filming day.

Meanwhile Haas F1 Team, the other privateer team using a Ferrari power unit, released a teaser video as it fired up the engine to its VF17 chassis for the first time. Haas launches its 2017 car on Sunday.

Follow @TonyDiZinno

F1 Paddock Pass: Force India VJM10 Launch (VIDEO)

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In the second edition of this week’s F1 on NBC Sports original digital series Paddock Pass, the Sahara Force India team reveals the VJM10 at the Silverstone Circuit in England, not far from the team’s headquarters.

Force India’s steady climb up the ladder has seen them rise to fourth place in the Constructor’s Championship, achieved last year.

NBCSN F1 pit reporter and insider Will Buxton checks in with drivers Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon, the latter of whom shifts to Force India after an impressive half season with Manor last year.

“It just looks amazing. It’s the first time I’ve been so excited looking at the car,” Perez told Buxton. “We have to adapt to a new driving style and see how physically demanding it is. It will be a big challenge for us.”

Otmar Szafnauer, COO of Sahara Force India, also offered his thoughts and expectations:

“The only way to hope to keep (the momentum) was to develop the 2017 car early. We don’t have the resources for parallel development,” Szafnauer told Buxton.

Stay tuned to the end of the video for a potential nugget about the testing lineup.

A link to Renault’s Paddock Pass from yesterday is here.

Further preseason content will come this week and into next on NBCSports.com.