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Out of the bubble, back on the grind

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This February was different for me.

At this time of the year, I’m usually contemplating over who wins the Daytona 500, which F1 teams get their ducks in a row during testing, and what benefits IndyCar sees exactly in having a five or six-month off-season (that one is a toughie).

But this February, I was more concerned with Adelina Sotnikova shocking the figure skating world, good guy David Wise making Olympic history in ski halfpipe, and the trials and tribulations of furry mascots.

I immersed myself inside the bubble that was the XXII Olympic Winter Games, with only a few reminders of my usual duties: Namely, my colleague Tony DiZinno fulfilling my requests for updates on any racing bits I’d missed, and NBC IndyCar/F1 voice Leigh Diffey calling all the sliding sports at Sochi.

But the bubble’s been popped. The Olympics are over. And now, I’m back on the grind here at MST.

So it goes for yours truly…And so it goes for NASCAR as well.

Their bubble, of course, was Daytona Speedweeks and its climax was the Daytona 500. It may not have had massive production numbers or crying bears, but it still produced a memorable result (not to mention one of the oddest social media episodes in NASCAR history).

In the end, it was Dale Earnhardt Jr., who went one step beyond his late, beloved father by claiming a second Daytona 500 – thrilling everyone from Junior Nation to the executives in Daytona Beach.

The win comes at a critical time for NASCAR, which has had to deal with attendance and ratings woes in recent years and, quite frankly, needs its biggest star to morph into a regular winner ahead of the new (and improved?) Chase for the Sprint Cup it concocted over the off-season.

But NASCAR’s biggest show of the year is over. And now, it’s time to see how Earnhardt fares on the grind that begins this weekend at Phoenix International Raceway.

One figures that with Earnhardt effectively in the new Chase thanks to the win, we’ll see a less burdened competitor that’s more willing to take a chance or two. That could lead to more success at Phoenix, a track that may not pop into your mind as one of “his places” but a track where he rattled off a fifth and a fourth in 2013.

Besides Earnhardt, you figure competitors such as Kevin Harvick (a winner at PIR in two of the last three races there), Carl Edwards (the PIR spring race winner from one year ago), and Jimmie Johnson (six Top-5s in his last eight races there) will have their say in the outcome.

But a shake-up could be in the cards in Phoenix as well with the introduction of NASCAR’s new knockout-style qualifying format. Since Phoenix is a one-mile track, competitors will have a two-round format this weekend: The Top 12 fastest speeds advance from the 30-minute opening round to battle for the pole position in the second round.

In summary, Phoenix is where we’ll start to see the true contenders emerge. The bubble of Daytona is gone.

Now, it gets real.

IMSA: Landy, Boehm score first career CTSC poles at VIR

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Landy/Ecklin. Photo courtesy of IMSA
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Sebastian Landy (GS) and Kevin Boehm (ST) won their first career poles for the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge Oak Tree Grand Prix at VIRginia International Raceway; the latest two-hour, 30-minute race takes place on Saturday.

Landy, a veteran of IMSA Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge USA by Yokohama and Battery Tender Mazda MX-5 Cup action, makes his GS class debut and promptly stuck the No. 99 Automatic Racing Aston Martin Vantage he’ll share with Rob Ecklin on the GS pole, with a best time of 1:56.929 on the 3.27-mile road course.

“[Track experience] helped a little bit but I have to thank everyone at Automatic Racing,” the local driver out of Great Falls, Va. told IMSA Radio’s Shea Adam. “I’ve always wanted to race in GS. It’s a great day to start on pole for your first race. If I wasn’t as sloppy as I was, there could have been more!”

Danny Burkett starts the No. 33 CJ Wilson Racing Porsche Cayman GT4 Clubsport he shares with Marc Miller in second, with the pair of Ford Shelby GT350R-Cs from Multimatic Motorsports and Compass360 Racing (the latter repaired after its Road America accident) on Row 2.

Honda has a 1-3 start in the ST class with Columbus, Ohio’s Boehm taking the No. 92 HART Honda Civic Si to the top spot at 2:04.660. He’ll share that car with Cameron Lawrence while the team’s No. 93 car, qualified by Chad Gilsinger who shares with Ryan Eversley, will start from third.

The No. 84 Bimmerworld BMW 328i (James Clay, Tyler Cooke) slots in-between the pair.

Qualifying results are linked here.

The second IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship practice of the day at a hot VIR was less eventful than the morning session when the roof popped off the No. 25 BMW Team RLL BMW M6 GTLM of Dirk Werner.

Corvette Racing came to the fore in second practice with the No. 3 Corvette C7.R of Antonio Garcia and Jan Magnussen top of the charts in GT Le Mans and overall. In GT Daytona, the No. 48 Paul Miller Racing Lamborghini Huracán GT3 (Madison Snow and Bryan Sellers) was quickest one.

Practice results from the day are linked below.

Practice 1
Practice 2

Stewards confirm Alonso, Ericsson grid drops for Belgian GP

SPA, BELGIUM - AUGUST 26: Fernando Alonso of Spain driving the (14) McLaren Honda Formula 1 Team McLaren MP4-31 Honda RA616H Hybrid turbo on track during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Belgium at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps on August 26, 2016 in Spa, Belgium.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
© Getty Images
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Formula 1 race stewards at Spa have confirmed that Fernando Alonso and Marcus Ericsson will join Lewis Hamilton in taking a grid drop for this weekend’s Belgian Grand Prix.

Following the conclusion of the summer break, teams are now beginning to get tight on their power unit component allocations for the remainder of the season.

Each car is limited to just five of each power unit component for the season, with penalties being awarded for exceeding this limit.

After being forced to make unplanned changes earlier in the season, Hamilton took two complete new power units on Friday at Spa, meaning he will almost certainly start the Belgian Grand Prix from the back of the grid with a 30-place drop.

Hamilton won’t be the only driver to drop back, though. The FIA stewards confirmed on Friday that both Alonso and Ericsson had also been forced to make changes, resulting in penalties for both drivers.

Alonso has a 35-place grid penalty looming over him after taking a whole new power unit. The Spaniard was already on the limit of five of each component heading to Spa, making the penalty more severe than Hamilton’s.

Ericsson has taken a new turbocharger, his sixth, meaning he receives a 10-place grid penalty. For each of the remaining ‘sixth’ elements the Sauber driver takes over the rest of the season, he will drop a further five places.

Qualifying for the Belgian Grand Prix will settle matters at the front of the grid, but at the rear, it will very much be a case of ‘wait and see’ once all of the penalties are confirmed on Sunday morning.

You can watch qualifying from Spa live on the NBC Sports app from 8am ET on Saturday.

Button ‘almost there’ on deciding Formula 1 future

SPA, BELGIUM - AUGUST 26: Jenson Button of Great Britain and McLaren Honda sits in his car in the garage during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Belgium at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps on August 26, 2016 in Spa, Belgium.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
© Getty Images
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Jenson Button says he is “almost there” on deciding his future in Formula 1 as McLaren continues to deliberate its driver line-up for 2017.

Button is the most experienced driver currently racing in F1, and has been with McLaren since 2010.

Fernando Alonso is set to remain with McLaren for next season, but the team is yet to decide whether it will retain Button or promote junior driver Stoffel Vandoorne into a full-time seat.

Button has been linked with a return to Williams – the team he made his F1 debut with in 2000 – should McLaren drop him.

The 2009 F1 world champion is yet to decide whether or not he will continue in F1 next year, but feels he is close to a decision.

“I am almost there with my thought process and you will hear about it soon. I can’t put a timescale on it, but it will be soon enough,” Button told Press Association.

“I did think about it lot [over the summer]. I didn’t have a lot of time to lie on a sun-lounger and think about it to be fair.

“I was busy, but yes, of course, I thought about it.”

Button’s last race win came at the end of 2012 with McLaren, and has not finished on the podium since the start of 2014 thanks to difficulties with the team’s Honda engine last year.

Although McLaren is on the rise, Button stressed that he wants to be in a car that is capable of battling at the front of the pack in 2017.

“I have always said that if I feel like I can be in a car that is fighting for wins I will definitely stay. I think any racing driver would,” Button said.

“But if I am not and I feel like I am not, there is nothing else for me to achieve. I will go and play darts instead.

“I can’t just sit on the beach. I will do all sorts of racing after F1 whether it is in racing cars, push bikes, or triathlons because I am a competitive person and I always want to win.

“So, that is what I want to do. Something I can fight for wins in.”

Button has been linked with a move into the FIA World Endurance Championship should he decide to call time on his F1 career, and is also likely to take up rallycross in some form, following in the footsteps of his father, John.

A roof popped off a BMW M6 GTLM in IMSA’s VIR first practice

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Photo courtesy of IMSA
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First practice for this weekend’s Michelin GT Challenge, a GT Le Mans and GT Daytona-only round of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship at VIRginia International Raceway is in the books.

Fastest times were set by Earl Bamber in the No. 912 Porsche North America Porsche 911 RSR (1:43.232, GTLM and overall) and Madison Snow in the No. 48 Paul Miller Racing Lamborghini Huracán GT3 (1:45.722, GTD).

Bamber told IMSA Radio’s Shea Adam, “It’s a good way to start the weekend. It’s a new surface; it already seems quicker than last year. The guys at VIR have done a great job to repave it. It’s been pretty difficult the last couple races for us.”

But the session was more notable because it featured a weird interruption, when the roof off the No. 25 BMW Team RLL BMW M6 GTLM popped off on course.

It left Dirk Werner needing to bring the car, sans the roof and rear window, into the pit lane but luckily without further damage following the inadvertent convertible debut of the car.

Werner’s befuddled co-driver, Bill Auberlen, attempted to explain the situation to Adam.

“I’m telling you… I’m dying to ask if it was cooler inside the cockpit!” Auberlen told IMSA Radio, noting how hot it is on track, as well (ambient temperatures are expected in the mid-90s with track temperatures in the 110-115 range).

“So no, we did not plan on this. This is very odd. It’s bizarre how the roof would blow off the thing.

“I went in the grass once. Couldn’t get the downshfits accomplished. Now this. Maybe we get all the troubles out now.

“But now the roof blew off? No idea how, it’s just bad luck.”

Here’s pics and a few tweets about the abnormal incident: