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

Five drivers avoid Hungary grid drops over 107% rule

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY - JULY 23:  Max Verstappen of the Netherlands drives the 6 Red Bull Racing Red Bull-TAG Heuer RB12 TAG Heuer during qualifying for the Formula One Grand Prix of Hungary at Hungaroring on July 23, 2016 in Budapest, Hungary.  (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)
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Daniel Ricciardo, Max Verstappen, Nico Hulkenberg, Valtteri Bottas and Sergio Perez have all avoided grid drops for Sunday’s Hungarian Grand Prix despite failing to lap within 107% of the fastest time in Q1.

During qualifying for the Hungarian Grand Prix on Saturday, 11 drivers fell outside of the 107% time requied to qualify for the race in a session affected by rain and red flags.

Many were unable to post a late lap time while others improved dramatically on intermediate tires, causing laps to reach as much as 118%.

All six drivers who were eliminated in Q1 were outside of the required time, as were Ricciardo, Verstappen, Hulkenberg, Bottas and Perez. The latter quintet took part in Q2 as they had got into the top 16, with all bar Perez making it through to Q3.

Ricciardo and Verstappen qualified third and fourth for Red Bull, while Hulkenberg and Bottas were P9 and P10 in Q3.

Teams are ordinarily required to submit a request to the FIA stewards to race if their drivers fall outside the qualifying time.

A request by Renault for Kevin Magnussen was accepted, with the final line of the document reading: “As there is more than one driver that failed to set a qualifying time within 107% of the fastest time in Q1, the cars will be arranged on the grid in the order they were classified in P3.”

However, it now transpires that this will only apply to those eliminated in Q1, with the FIA confirming that due to “exceptional circumstances” Ricciardo, Verstappen, Hulkenberg, Bottas and Perez will not drop back. All keep their qualifying positions.

The 107% rule was re-introduced in 2011 to prevent drivers from going too slowly in qualifying, requiring them to finish within 7% of the fastest time in Q1.

The rule was last enforced at the 2012 Australian Grand Prix when HRT drivers Pedro de la Rosa and Narain Karthikeyan were not allowed to take part in the race.

Since then, the 107% rule has been triggered but not enforced. For example, drivers who crash out in Q1 and do not set a time come into it, but are ordinarily given permission to race if they have set a competitive time in free practice.

Rosberg called before stewards over Hungary pole lap

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY - JULY 23: Nico Rosberg of Germany and Mercedes GP in the garage during final practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Hungary at Hungaroring on July 23, 2016 in Budapest, Hungary.  (Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images)
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Nico Rosberg has been called to see the FIA race stewards over his pole position lap during qualifying for the Hungarian Grand Prix on Saturday.

Rosberg’s final Q3 lap saw him edge out Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton for pole position by 0.143 seconds, but was partially completed under double-waved yellow flags shown following a spin for Fernando Alonso.

Rosberg was adamant after the session that he lifted enough, and the stewards did not initially investigate it.

However, over three-and-a-half hours after qualifying was completed, Rosberg has now been called in over a possible failure to slow for yellow flags during his Q3 lap.

Rosberg will meet with the stewards at 19:45 local time in Hungary (13:45 ET).

The majority of drivers completing their final laps at the end of Q3 were forced to abort their efforts in response to Alonso’s spin.

Double-waved yellows require drivers to “slow down and be prepared to stop”. Although Rosberg arrived at the scene later than most, he still only lifted, not appearing to slow enough so that he could stop, thus prompting the stewards to investigate.

UPDATE: No penalty for Rosberg after stewards’ meeting

The FIA stewards have confirmed that Rosberg has been cleared of failing to slow for yellow flags on his final Q3 lap, meaning he keeps pole position for Sunday’s Hungarian Grand Prix.

“The telemetry demonstrated that the driver reduced speed significantly into Turn 8,” a statement from the stewards read.

Rosberg confident he lifted enough during Hungary pole lap

Mercedes driver Nico Rosberg, of Germany, smiles as he celebrates after setting the pole position during the qualifying session for Sunday's Formula One Hungary Grand Prix, at the Hungaroring racetrack, in Budapest, Hungary, Saturday, July 23, 2016. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)
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Nico Rosberg is confident that he slowed down enough to respect the yellow flags during his pole position lap for the Hungarian Grand Prix in qualifying on Saturday.

Rosberg edged out Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton to score pole at the Hungaroring by 0.143 seconds, his final lap being completed partly under yellow flags following a spin for Fernando Alonso.

Drivers are required to slow under yellows, with those who first came across Alonso’s car being forced to abandon their final flying laps altogether as a result.

Alonso had cleared his car by the time Rosberg came to Turn 5, although yellow flags were still being shown, leading to questions about the validity of the German’s time.

“For sure there were double waved [yellows] yeah, but I had a very, very big lift and lost a lot of time as a result,” Rosberg explained.

“I was also slower than on my previous lap in that yellow sector, or in that yellow segment, or whatever it’s called, so I’m sure it will be OK.”

Speaking to NBCSN after qualifying, Rosberg re-affirmed his belief that he had slowed down enough.

“Yeah for sure,” Rosberg said when asked if he did enough.

“I know what I need to do. I did a big lift, so I handled it according to what needed to be done, so it will be OK.”

The Hungarian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports App from 7am ET on Sunday.

Steiner: Haas being 11th ‘starting to get old’

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY - JULY 23: Romain Grosjean of France driving the (8) Haas F1 Team Haas-Ferrari VF-16 Ferrari 059/5 turbo on track during qualifying for the Formula One Grand Prix of Hungary at Hungaroring on July 23, 2016 in Budapest, Hungary.  (Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images)
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Haas Formula 1 chief Guenther Steiner joked that being 11th is “starting to get old” after seeing Romain Grosjean narrowly miss out on the team’s first Q3 appearance in Hungary.

Grosjean and teammate Esteban Gutierrez were well inside the top 10 after completing their final lap times, only for a flurry of improvements on a rapidly-drying track to bump them down to 11th and 15th respectively.

Grosjean believed that Q3 was within Haas’ reach in Hungary, but instead suffered his ninth straight Q2 exit.

“It was close. We were only one-tenth off of Lewis [Hamilton’s] P10 time,” Grosjean said.

“All things considered, to be that close, it’s a good thing. We successfully made all the right decisions at the right time in qualifying, including tire choices.

“It was a very difficult qualifying session, but we showed how much we’ve improved as a team from day one through today. We were perfect today in our execution. We were fast on both the extreme wet and intermediate tires. We weren’t too bad on slicks.

“I know that tenth-of-a-second that denied us today is somewhere in there. I’m pretty happy with everything.

“If it doesn’t rain tomorrow it’s going to be boiling hot, and that always makes for a good race.”

Like Grosjean, Steiner looked on the bright side of the result, but joked he was tired of Haas narrowly missing out on the top 10.

“It was quite an exciting qualifying session with a lot of action out there,” Steiner said.

“To keep cool in this situation is very difficult, but I think the team did a good job. We managed everything very well, so we’ve no regrets.

“We ended up 11th and 15th. Being 11th is starting to get old, but at least by being there Romain can start on new tires, so that will be an advantage.

“Esteban can make his way up. He’s in good company, with Kimi [Raikkonen] just ahead. We’re almost there, but still not in Q3, which is where we want to be.

“But 11th is a good starting position. Tomorrow we’re confident we can move up. We’ll be trying hard to get points.”

The Hungarian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports App from 7am ET on Sunday.