Dale Earnhardt Jr

Off to best start of his career, Dale Earnhardt Jr. proving he’s for real in 2014

2 Comments

Second may be the first loser, but for Dale Earnhardt Jr., finishing second in Sunday’s The Profit on CNBC 500 at Phoenix International Raceway was a continuation of the best season start in his 15-year Sprint Cup career.

After winning his second Daytona 500 last Sunday, Earnhardt in the following days went on a monumental victory lap across the country to celebrate with media and fans across the country.

And while sleep was rare this past week as he jetted from town to town, Earnhardt was wide awake and on top of his game in Sunday’s race.

He could have potentially made it two wins in a row, but Kevin Harvick held him off on the final lap to relegate Junior to runner-up status.

Granted, there are still 34 races left, but a first and second place finish in the first two events, coupled with Earnhardt remaining atop the Sprint Cup standings, bodes well for NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver the last 11 years.

That he did well at Phoenix was not exactly a surprise, per se. Earnhardt used to do very well at the one-mile flat track.

In four straight races from 2002 through the spring race in 2005, Earnhardt drove his Dale Earnhardt Inc. No. 8 to two wins and two other top-five finishes.

Ironically, when he move to Hendrick Motorsports in 2008, Junior began a performance nosedive at PIR.

From his first race in 2008 under the Hendrick banner through the end of 2012 – 10 races in total – Earnhardt managed no wins and just three top-10s.

But things began to turn around last year in a big way. In the second race of 2013, he started 21st and finished fifth. In last year’s fall Chase race, the second-to-last race of the season, he started 11th and finished fourth.

And then came Sunday. He started fifth, ran in the top-five almost the entire race and came home with a solid second-place finish.

Is Junior really and truly for real in 2014?

So far, so good, it would appear.

“I hope everybody enjoyed the race,” Earnhardt said. “We were really working out butts of there and giving it everything we had.”

And they most certainly did a good job, indeed.

While some cynics looked at Phoenix as a better measuring stick if Earnhardt is for real after his win at Daytona, next Sunday’s race in Las Vegas may actually be the best measuring stick of all.

Earlier in his career, he excelled on 1.5-mile tracks. But much like the way his early good fortune at PIR morphed to misfortune for several years, such has been the case for Earnhardt over the last few years, as well.

He began to climb out of the void last season. Even though he didn’t win a race in 2013, he did very well on several 1.5-mile or larger tracks: including fifth at Las Vegas, second at Fontana (a 2.0-mile track), 12th at Kentucky and eighth at Atlanta.

But it was in the Chase for the Sprint Cup that Earnhardt took things to a whole other level, especially in the closing stages of the season.

In addition to a sixth-place finish at New Hampshire and runner-up at Dover, he was eighth at Kansas, 15th at Charlotte, second at Talladega, eighth at Martinsville, second at Texas, fourth at Phoenix and third in the season finale at Homestead.

That’s why what Junior has done thus far in the first two races in 2014 isn’t all that much of a surprise in many ways.

He was a win waiting to happen last season, which he finally got a little late last week at Daytona. And other than eventual champion Jimmie Johnson, Earnhardt was the most consistent driver during last year’s Chase.

“I think we just got a lot of momentum carried over from last year,” Earnhardt said. “We were running well in the Chase.  I think the Chase performance we had got us pretty excited, real happy to look forward to this season.”

And that’s why there was absolutely no reason why he couldn’t pick up in 2014 where he left off in 2013.

And that’s exactly what he has done. He has a great chance to win for the first time at Las Vegas and keep his outstanding start to this season going.

“(Crew chief Steve Letarte) and those guys just keep getting better and better,” Earnhardt said. “These cars I’m driving I think are the best in the garage.”

And it certainly helps when you have the best driver in the garage thus far this season behind the wheel.

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

Sage Karam reflects on road ahead with Indy 500 only on the horizon

Photo: IndyCar
Photo: IndyCar
Leave a comment

At 20 years old, Sage Karam is the latest – but not the first – American to stand at the crossroads of an open-wheel career without knowing what’s coming next.

A cursory glance of the Verizon IndyCar Series field reveals several of his countrymen – Ryan Hunter-Reay, Graham Rahal, Conor Daly, even Spencer Pigot – as those in the “we didn’t have a full-time ride opportunity at some point in our careers but we’re going to keep fighting for it as hard as we can” club.

And that’s before you get into the international drivers in the same boat – the Simon Pagenauds, Will Powers, and Sebastien Bourdais’s of the world – who came back to IndyCar only on part-time programs before reaffirming their full-time status in better opportunities.

Point being, while it’s unfortunate that Karam’s IndyCar opportunity for 2016 is, at the moment, limited to the Indianapolis 500 with Dreyer & Reinbold Racing with Kingdom Racing, the Nazareth, Pa. native is at a more mature mindset than you might expect for someone his age, or someone stuck in his situation.

You see, Karam has been here before – in fact, his situation for February 2016 is no different than where it’s been each of the last three years, more or less.

Before he set out to win the 2013 Indy Lights title, Karam didn’t even have a confirmed ride less than a month out. He’d been with Andretti Autosport for the bulk of his rise through the Mazda Road to Indy but it was only thanks to an eleventh hour deal with longtime supporter Comfort Revolution he garnered a place with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. He then beat future IndyCar rookies Gabby Chaves, Carlos Munoz and Jack Hawksworth to the championship.

His reward for that title? Not knowing what his status would be for 2014.

It was only thanks to a “Christmas gift” that he entered the Chip Ganassi Racing fold as a development driver. He proceeded to drive the wheels off of everything he could that year, notably at Sebring in sports cars and then with DRR in his Indianapolis 500 debut.

His reward for that “making the best of all opportunities” run? Still uncertainty for 2015, and as it turned out, a race-to-race deal with Ganassi in a fourth IndyCar.

So suddenly the fact it’s early February 2016 and Karam has not just one, but two confirmed programs for this season – the Indianapolis 500 drive plus a full-season in the new F Performance Racing Lexus RC F GT3, whenever it debuts – actually puts him ahead of several others who you’d hope would have something, but don’t.

“To be back with Dreyer & Reinbold is a great thing. It’s the team I started with. It’s like a homecoming,” Karam told NBC Sports during IndyCar media day last week.

“They worked well with me, I worked well with them, and we had a really fast car the first year. I think with more experience I can grow the car even better and apply to it that month.”

Karam’s departure from the Ganassi fold was certainly fascinating to read about, but doesn’t seem acrimonious. He described what happened that led to him going back on the open market.

“Obviously a couple articles went out about me and Ganassi parting ways. I think Dennis was on vacation, and he didn’t see them.

“When he came back in the country he got on Twitter, read some of those, and called us up right away. He threw out the idea, ‘Hey we have a sponsor for the 500, and I’m just curious if you’d like to run for me.’ Not having anything, and knowing Dennis and he’s a great guy, a great team owner, I said ‘Of course. I’d love to.’

“We got the whole deal banged out about in two weeks. Before Christmas, it was signed. To be honest, it was good to actually have a Christmas knowing I’d be racing something.”

Karam noted he wasn’t likely to be back on the IndyCar grid months before the season ended.

“Coming off a year with Ganassi where I was starting to find my feet, I hoped to get a couple years put together. But I knew it would be tough to put the money together again,” he said.

“I knew about a week after Sonoma, unless a miracle happened, I wasn’t going to be able to be back on that grid.”

That led to the Lexus opportunity, where Paul Gentilozzi contacted him and provided him the opportunity to reconnect with Scott Pruett, who he co-drove with in the handful of sports car races.

It’s a stable opportunity there, whereas as Karam noted about 2015, the instability of wondering whether he or Sebastian Saavedra would be in the fourth Ganassi car didn’t allow chemistry to build.

“The hard thing for me last year is that I was in the car for a week or two, then I’d get pulled out and Saavedra would go in,” Karam said. “Then right when I was starting to get momentum, I’d get pulled out and Saavedra went in. It was hard to really keep a consistency underneath me. I think we did a good job given the circumstances.

“It was tough and a lot of pressure being at 20 years old with a team that won the championship. It’s a case where you’re driving alongside guys that have won Indy 500s and championships, and there’s a lot to ask.

“There were a lot of times where I did things in practice sessions for the team, that Scott (Dixon) or Tony (Kanaan) couldn’t do because they had to focus on qualifying setup. They had to nail it. I was worrying about what am I gonna do to help give them a better car for the race.

“Sometimes I’d sacrifice my time practicing for them, which I was totally fine with, because I knew it’s one team and I wasn’t in the championship. Scott was.

“I did whatever I could. I learned so much, and if I was to go back and do the season over, with everything I now know, I think I could be consistently in the top 10.”

Karam also dispelled notions he can’t be a good road and street course racer. However, in such a deep field and with slim margin for error, any small mistakes were magnified.

“I’ve won races (on those) in the past,” he explained. “Honestly, when you make a mistake on an oval, it’s big. When you make a mistake on a road or street course, you take your wing off. You do this or that. When you do that you fall back, and it’s hard to regain your spot.

“For me, it’s one of those things where I have to drive as hard as I can out there. And you guys saw, I pushed the issue, pushed the aggression too much. Mistakes are going to happen.

“I sat on pole at Detroit, but it got taken away. NOLA I was P2 going into qualifying… then qualifying gets canceled. Barber, I had a broken wrist. St. Pete, broken wrist. I had four days of testing. I think even at Mid-Ohio… I’m running to get to next round and I make a mistake in qualifying and lose my head. So it’s all those things like that.

“If you take those experiences into another year, you grow and get better. Look at how Josef (Newgarden) grew. Josef’s the prime example of a team sticking with a young driver, helping him develop, and now he’s a championship-winning capable driver.”

While Karam’s hopes are limited to Indy – again – he should be a strong dark horse candidate from the off. A similar crew, with only a crew chief change, led by lead engineer Jeff Britton is set to field the No. 24 Gas Monkey Garage entry. Karam called it a “straight up DRR” effort without any technical alliance.

The story of how he and Gas Monkey Garage came together is equally fascinating, as is his relationship with Buddy Rice, who will play a role in the month of May for DRR.

“He’ll be spotting. He’s the guy within the camp that got this whole Gas Monkey Garage sponsorship together. It’s such a cool sponsor, by the way,” Karam said.

“It’s insane. When (Richard Rawlings) comes here for this race, it’s gonna be huge. But the attention it will bring is mega.

“I went to Dallas for the announcement. Met the guys. They’re really cool guys.

“I watched their show, honestly, way before I knew I’d get them on the side of the car. They sponsored a Pro Stock car. And I thought, ‘Man these guys need to get into IndyCar. Come on over!’ Sure enough two weeks later I get a call, and I couldn’t believe it.

“Buddy knows his way around here. I guess he’ll be my Dario (Franchitti) for the whole month.

“If you talk to Dario about tips on coaching me he’d give you some pretty funny stories. I think those two would laugh. I think (Buddy) will be in the sky in 1 or 3. He’s on board fully to lend a helping hand and help however he can.”

And for 2016, it’s a case where Sage Karam will attempt to impress again – however and wherever he can – in now two completely different disciplines.

Here’s what the best-dressed IndyCar drivers are wearing this year

new indycar series logo for 2016
(Photos by Chris Owens/IndyCar)
3 Comments

It’s always a fun day when drivers in the Verizon IndyCar Series gather to get their official portraits for the upcoming season.

That took place once again last week during the annual preseason Media Day at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

While several drivers didn’t have their uniforms, likely for various reasons (Team Penske didn’t as they’ll roll liveries out throughout the month), we’ve collected shots of every driver expected to race full-time — and others who may only be part-time — on the circuit in 2016.

Here’s how the field will look this season (missing: Juan Pablo Montoya):

Spencer Pigot
Spencer Pigot
Gabby Chaves
Gabby Chaves
Mikhail Aleshin
Mikhail Aleshin
Graham Rahal
Graham Rahal
Jack Hawksworth
Jack Hawksworth
Carlos Munoz
Carlos Munoz
Takuma Sato
Takuma Sato
Will Power
Will Power
Ed Carpenter
Ed Carpenter
Conor Daly
Conor Daly
Helio Castroneves
Helio Castroneves
Sage Karam
Sage Karam
Sebastien Bourdais
Sebastien Bourdais
Marco Andretti
Marco Andretti
Matthew Brabham
Matthew Brabham
Ryan Hunter-Reay
Ryan Hunter-Reay
Scott Dixon
Scott Dixon
Josef Newgarden
Josef Newgarden
James Hinchcliffe
James Hinchcliffe
Tony Kanaan
Tony Kanaan
Charlie Kimball
Charlie Kimball
Simon Pagenaud
Simon Pagenaud
Max Chilton
Max Chilton

NHRA: Brittany Force (Top Fuel), Tommy Johnson Jr. (Funny Car) star in 4-day test in Phoenix

3 Comments

If this past weekend’s Nitro Fuel test in suburban Phoenix is any indication, we’re likely to see a number of speed and elapsed time records set in Top Fuel and Funny Car in the 2016 season.

The four-day preseason test at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park saw a number of drivers show invigorated performance in both elapsed time and speed.

The most notable performances in Top Fuel came from 8-time champ Tony Schumacher, Dave Connolly and Doug Kalitta.

But it was Brittany Force, daughter of 16-time Funny Car champ John Force, who may have stolen the show in its entirety.

Brittany Force had the first (3.721 seconds at 319.07 mph), fourth (3.747/322.81) and sixth (3.758/317.64) quickest runs in Saturday’s final day of testing. In addition, Force had the fifth and sixth quickest runs (both at 3.721 seconds) of the entire four days.

In a sense, Brittany Force’s performance wasn’t a complete surprise. She has 11-time Top Fuel champion owner or crew chief Alan Johnson – and most importantly, Johnson’s celebrated equipment and motors – now behind her.

And how that improvement showed during the test.

Johnson and driver Shawn Langdon won last year’s season-opening race. And if her overall performance at Phoenix is any indication, Brittany Force could potentially follow in Langdon’s shoes and earn her first career Top Fuel win in the 2016 season-opening Circle K NHRA Winternationals, Feb. 11-14 at Auto Club Raceway in Pomona, California.

“I am definitely glad we are here in Phoenix testing,” Force said in a media release. “We were here for four days and I needed every single run that we made to make me feel more comfortable.

“Teaming up with Alan Johnson and Brian Husen as my crew chief has been great. They have made a lot of changes to this Monster Energy dragster. They run a whole different system that what we used to run. It takes some time to adjust to that and I am learning the car. It is starting to feel like home. … I am ready to get to Pomona.”

Schumacher had the quickest run of the four-day test (3.683 seconds/325.37 mph), followed by Connolly (3.714/330.15 mph) and Kalitta (3.716/327.35 mph). Schumacher also had the fourth-best run of the test (3.718/320.58 mph).

In Funny Car, Tommy Johnson Jr. saved the best for last, recording the quickest speed of the overall test on Saturday (3.874 seconds at 318.47 mph).

Had the test been a national event, Johnson would have set a record for quickest run ever in Funny Car. Matt Hagan holds the official record of 3.879 seconds, set at Brainerd, Minnesota last season.

“We had our entire team stay intact after last year and we have sort of picked up where we left off last year,” Johnson said. “The crew worked really hard during the offseason and I am just happy for the guys to make a run like that to close out testing. It’s a good reward for them for all their hard work.”

Other Funny Car drivers that shined on Saturday included Robert Hight (a career-best 3.885 seconds at an overall test-best speed of 329.34 mph and another run of 3.931/323.43 mph), Courtney Force (3.890/323.89 mph and 3.915/323.74 mph), John Force (3.914/327.35 mph, 3.927/323.66 mph and 3.930/328.14 mph) and Ron Capps (3.919/320.66 mph).

“I believe with how we finished the end of the year at Pomona what we learned here is going to make us so much better when we get back to Pomona,” Hight said.” I am so excited to get to the Winternationals. “We made career best runs here and we are in the ballgame.”

Added team owner John Force, “We have had a lot of change over the past couple of years but now I am focused on winning and getting the most out of all these race teams.”

* * *

Below are the quickest performances in both Top Fuel and Funny Car from Saturday at NHRA Nitro Spring Training:

TOP FUEL
3.721, 319.07 – Brittany Force
3.739, 288.87 – Clay Millican
3.745, 325.53 – Doug Kalitta
3.747, 322.81 – Brittany Force
3.748, 319.22 – Richie Crampton
3.758, 317.64 – Brittany Force
3.768, 297.88 – Antron Brown
3.770, 316.08 – Shawn Langdon
3.791, 320.13 – Antron Brown
3.802, 325.69 – J.R. Todd
3.839, 272.72 – Leah Pritchett
3.882, 251.67 – J.R. Todd
3.916, 256.75 – Terry McMillen
3.929, 255.00 – Troy Buff
3.935, 306.05 – Terry McMillen
4.123, 242.19 – Troy Buff

FUNNY CAR
3.874, 318.47 – Tommy Johnson Jr.
3.885, 329.34 – Robert Hight
3.890, 323.89 – Courtney Force
3.914, 327.35 – John Force
3.915, 323.74 – Courtney Force
3.919, 320.66 – Ron Capps
3.927, 323.66 – John Force
3.930, 328.14 – John Force
3.931, 323.43 – Robert Hight
3.962, 326.79 – Matt Hagan
3.972, 320.51 – Alexis DeJoria
3.982, 289.57 – Jack Beckman
3.983, 320.81 – Del Worsham
3.987, 319.29 – Ron Capps
3.993, 322.58 – Alexis DeJoria
3.999, 320.97 – Del Worsham
4.008, 273.94 – Cruz Pedregon
4.015, 316.01 – Brian Hough
4.070, 273.39 – Del Worsham
4.153, 252.24 – Jim Campbell
4.211, 225.60 – Matt Hagan

* * *

Below are the top 10 quickest runs overall in each category from the four-day test session:

TOP FUEL
3.721, 319.07 – Brittany Force
3.739, 288.87 – Clay Millican
3.745, 325.53 – Doug Kalitta
3.747, 322.81 – Brittany Force
3.748, 319.22 – Richie Crampton
3.758, 317.64 – Brittany Force
3.768, 297.88 – Antron Brown
3.770, 316.08 – Shawn Langdon
3.791, 320.13 – Antron Brown
3.802, 325.69 – J.R. Todd
3.839, 272.72 – Leah Pritchett
3.882, 251.67 – J.R. Todd
3.916, 256.75 – Terry McMillen
3.929, 255.00 – Troy Buff
3.935, 306.05 – Terry McMillen
4.123, 242.19 – Troy Buff

FUNNY CAR
1.  3.874, 318.47 – Tommy Johnson Jr.
2. 3.880, 325.77 – Jack Beckman
3. 3.885, 329.34 – Robert Hight
4. 3.890, 323.89 – Courtney Force
5. 3.894, 327.03 – Jack Beckman
6. 3.895, 325.06 – Jack Beckman
7. 3.904, 318.54 – Courtney Force
8. 3.912, 324.20 – John Force
9. 3.913, 326.16 – Robert Hight
10. 3.914, 327.35 – John Force

Follow @JerryBonkowski

McLaren GT captures major endurance win at Bathurst 12 Hour

BATHURST, AUSTRALIA - FEBRUARY 07: Race winner Shane van Gisbergen driver of the #59 Tekno Autosport McLaren 650S crosses the finish line to win the Bathurst 12 Hour Race at Mount Panorama on February 7, 2016 in Bathurst, Australia.  (Photo by Daniel Kalisz/Getty Images)
Getty Images
Leave a comment

There’s nothing to prove that Shane van Gisbergen isn’t actually a freak of nature with a big beard and a bigger right foot.

The man known as “The Giz” – the Australian V8 Supercars ace and McLaren GT factory driver – played an integral role in McLaren GT capturing a major endurance victory for the first time in more than 20 years, as he co-drove with Alvaro Parente and Jonathan Webb to secure the win in the Liqui-Moly Bathurst 12 Hour race in the No. 59 Tekno Autosports McLaren 650S GT3.

Van Gisbergen stole the headlines and the track record with a best time of 2:01.286 around Mount Panorama on Friday to capture the Allan Simonsen Pole Trophy.

“SVG” then walked the field in the early hours of Saturday’s (Sunday in Australia) race before electrical gremlins ground Parente to a halt after he got in, and cost them about 45 seconds.

Nevertheless, a near faultless drive from there – plus an abnormal strategy the rest of the way that eventually led to needing less time in the pits for the final stop – helped deliver the victory. For good measure, van Gisbergen added a 2:01.567 lap in the race itself.

Nissan, which won the race last year, finished second with a lineup of Katsumasa Chiyo, Florian Strauss and Rick Kelly in their Nissan GT-R NISMO GT3. The “Bentley Boys” made it on the podium with Guy Smith, Steven Kane and (British) Matt Bell in their Bentley Continental GT3.

The win is the first marquee endurance race victory for McLaren since its 1995 overall triumph at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, with the McLaren F1 GTR.