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

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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

Formula 1 Roundtable: Monaco

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As part of the motorsport trifecta that makes this weekend arguably the biggest of the racing year, things will kick off on Sunday morning with Formula 1’s annual glamor event: the Monaco Grand Prix.

On the streets where high society meets high velocity, there is no better place to be seen than Monaco this weekend – even if Fernand Alonso may disagree following his decision to enter the 101st Indianapolis 500 – both on- and off-track.

Following our first roundtable pieces at the start of the year, MST writers Luke Smith, Tony DiZinno and Kyle Lavinge are back to share their thoughts after the opening five rounds of the 2017 season and preview this weekend’s Monaco Grand Prix.

The Monaco Grand Prix is live on NBC from 7:30am ET on Sunday, with F1 Countdown beginning at 7am ET on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app.

What have you made of the season so far?

Luke Smith: F1 2017 has lived up to all of the pre-season hype and then some. The new cars have been brilliant, delighting fans and spectators as well as posing a significant challenge to the drivers behind the wheel. Sure, overtaking hasn’t been coming as thick and fast, but as I wrote post-China, that’s no bad thing.

The rivalry hotting up between Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton has the makings of a classic. Ferrari and Mercedes are so evenly matched this year that I expect this title to be decided by fine margins – every race and point counts.

In short: F1 is awesome right now. Let’s relish the season that is unfolding.

Tony DiZinno: It’s been a needed start to the year in 2017. Even if the racing itself hasn’t been scintillating, the drama has – for the first time in five years there seems a proper question over who’s going to win at a given weekend. It’s not a slam dunk, and that’s brilliant.

We’re getting treated to the Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton bout the sport has so richly deserved, and the new cars are back to looking like badass F1 cars again. Add in the packed battle in the midfield and there’s been more variety than normal this year, which is a good thing.

Kyle Lavigne: The 2017 season has actually been better than I expected. Amongst all the talk about new cars and aerodynamic regulations, concern was high that the racing would suffer.

While overtaking is down a little, the races have all been very compelling and featured a fantastic balance of driver skill and strategy. And, overtaking hasn’t suffered as much as maybe we thought (e.g.: Lewis Hamilton’s outside pass of Sebastian Vettel during the Spanish Grand Prix).

And for Ferrari to be so even matched with Mercedes makes this season a proper fight amongst two giants of Formula 1. Quite simply: this is the best Formula 1 season we’ve had in years.

What is your favorite part of the Monaco Grand Prix?

LS: The pizzazz and show surrounding Monaco speaks for itself, but my favorite part of the weekend is the on-track challenge that is posed to drivers.

The close confines of the street course with the armco barrier waiting to punish any mistakes make this one of the biggest challenges in all of motorsport, just as rookie Lance Stroll found out on Thursday. And believe it or not, what you see on your TV screen makes the the track seem much wider than it actually is!

So that’s why I love Monaco. No, we’re not going to get hundreds (or maybe even tens) of overtakes. But you do get to see drivers pushing to the absolute limit on a track that has no right to host a grand prix. It’s magic.

TDZ: The contrast. The atmosphere between the streets, glitz and glamour of the backdrop of the race versus the intensity of the drivers wheeling between those armco barriers is great.

I’ve also been a big fan of this race’s unpredictability. Sometimes you get a genuine shocker of a result and the race sticks out in your memory afterwards.

KL: Formula 1 cars are pure thoroughbreds…fighter jets on wheels, if you will. Watching cars of that caliber speed through streets as narrow as the ones in Monaco is hair-raising, and those walls are always so close to grabbing you (as Luke mentioned: Lance Stroll learned that the hard way earlier in the weekend).

Overtaking is always a challenge, but that also means the ones we get will be breathtaking. I expect yet another intriguing race of driver skill and strategy.

Who is your pick to win the Monaco Grand Prix?

LS: I’ll go with Sebastian Vettel. Ferrari and Mercedes have been so evenly matched this year that picking between Vettel and Lewis Hamilton is tough. But with hot conditions expected all weekend and Mercedes having struggled to get to grips with the softer tire compounds, I think it will play into Ferrari’s hands.

It would be a key victory for Ferrari as it looks to break a long-running hoodoo in Monaco. The Scuderia has not won in the principality since 2001 when Michael Schumacher stood on the top step of the podium.

As Vettel continues to trace his hero’s footsteps, victory in Monaco would be poignant.

TDZ: If not this year, then when for Sebastian Vettel for Ferrari at Monaco? In the fightback battle where no one has yet won two races in a row in the opening five races – it’s alternated between Vettel (Australia), Hamilton (China), Vettel (Bahrain), Valtteri Bottas (Russia) and Hamilton (Spain) – I’ve got my money on Vettel to bring it home.

KL: Sebastian Vettel was nearly half-a-second quicker than anyone else in FP2. He and Lewis Hamilton seem to be alternating wins this year. Hamilton won the last race, so Vettel is my pick to win this race.

However, this might also best chance for Red Bull Racing to make some noise. Max Verstappen was third in FP1, while Daniel Ricciardo was second in FP2. If not for a strategy blunder, Ricciardo was looking good to win this race last year. It’s difficult to imagine anyone beating Ferrari or Mercedes straight up right now, but this may represent Red Bull’s best shot.

Monaco offers incredible lifestyle, sporting experiences (VIDEO)

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Both on and off the track, there are very few places like Monaco.

A hub for the rich and famous, through the Formula 1 race weekend, the city becomes the most exclusive place in the world. If you want to be seen, you need to be in Monaco.

Away from the glitz and the glamor, it is an F1 weekend with an added twist: the challenge is unlike any other on the planet as drivers have to retain their focus to take one of motorsport’s toughest circuits.

In this video, we hear from Mika Hakkinen (two-time F1 world champion, 1998 Monaco GP winner), Jenson Button (2009 F1 champion and Monaco GP winner), Sergio Perez (2016 Monaco GP podium finisher) and Stoffel Vandoorne (Monaco GP2 winner) about what makes the race so special.

Karam: ‘I know I’ll be charging if things fall into place’

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Editor’s note: Sage Karam, 3GT Racing Lexus driver in IMSA, a past Indy Lights and USF2000 champion and Verizon IndyCar Series podium finisher, will file a series of blogs for NBCSports.com this month for a second straight year (2016 archive here).

Here’s his third entry, as he recaps qualifying and final practice, and is prepared for Sunday’s 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil where he will start 21st.

You can read his firstsecond and third blogs of 2017 here. He’ll run the No. 24 Mecum Auctions Chevrolet for Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, in partnership with Kingdom Racing. 

Hey there, Sage Karam back at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. We’re almost to race day, finally.

It’s been a hectic week since my last blog with you. We qualified two days last Saturday and Sunday. We trimmed out the downforce on the No. 24 Mecum Auctions DRR Chevrolet for Saturday and ran almost a 228-mile per hour average.

It wasn’t great but it wasn’t awful either. We worked in the garage on Saturday night and Sunday morning to improve the car for Sunday’s final day of qualifications. And, despite not running any laps in the practice, we came out strong.

I ran my first 230 mph lap on the first circuit of the four-lap average and I was super pumped up. The car felt good and I was thrilled with the 230. Now, I have to admit I was so excited with that lap that I messed up a bit on the next lap. I didn’t shift down to fifth gear for a few more RPMs on lap two. And I had to lift off the throttle just a bit in fighting some wind off of turn two.

After the four laps, we had a 229.380 mph average and I was excited. However, the other guys ran well too, and we’ll start 21st this Sunday. Last year, I started 23rd and moved up to fourth by lap 94. That’s before I got a little too aggressive and got caught outside with another car in turn one and hit the wall pretty hard.

I think I have learned a lot since that incident last year at Indy. This will be my fourth Indy 500 and I am still the youngest driver in the field at age 22. But I feel I have matured since last year. Heck, when I was 19 and in my first Indy 500, I didn’t know what I was doing. I was just driving hard and trying to get to the finish. We came from 31st to finish ninth and I received the “Hard Charger Award” in 2014 as a rookie.

My Mecum DRR crew worked on getting back the race setup with my car for Monday’s final practice session and the car was good. Just like the final practice last year. I feel confident we can pass other cars. We did that in Monday’s runs.

Race week is always busy because you don’t spend much time on track. You do a lot of media and promotion for the race.

After Monday, it was off to Philadelphia with my neighbor, Marco Andretti. I grew up across the street from the Andrettis in Nazareth, Pa. So, we have been friends a long time. In Philly, we did the annual Indy 500 media day with a variety of interviews and appearances at Independence Hall, the Art Museum with the famous “Rocky Balboa” steps and posed with the “Rocky” statue.

Then we headed to Citizens Bank Field for the Phillies and Rockies game. Marco and I threw out the first pitches at the game. We saw the Phillies’ manager, Pete Mackanin, and former player Mickey Morandini, who knew a lot about the Indy 500 since he played at Indiana University. We also talked with Bud Black, the Rockies manager, who is a racing fan. His team has a driver pool in the clubhouse the morning of the race. Black has never seen the 500, but it is on his bucket list.

On Wednesday, we went to a local Indianapolis school with Scott Dixon and Ed Jones to have activities and some competition with the kids. It was fun. I was doing a little jump rope with them (below) as well as building an IndyCar out of Legos with a group of children. Dixon’s group beat us in that one. RATS!

It’s funny how all of the drivers can be so competitive off the track too.

Thursday was a little more relaxing for the drivers with media interviews and some sponsor appearances.

Friday was a busy Carb Day for us. The rain during the week made the IMS track surface a little different from Monday’s last practice session.

For some reason, the track had less grip than usual. I’m not sure if it’s because of the rain or the tire wear from the Indy Lights cars. A lot of people seemed to struggle with that today. But, I think we have a good race car like we did last year.

It was a good practice week and a good month overall. I’m feeling good about the car. It feels the same as it did when we unloaded, so that’s excellent.

We were in the Pit Stop Challenge, we placed second in that one in 2014. I thought we had a good chance again. However, Helio’s crew beat us in the first round. It was a disappointment but I am still excited about Sunday’s race.

We’ll see how the weather holds up for Sunday. We might have a few showers in the morning, but I’m hoping the race can get started at 12:15 p.m.

We are looking for a good showing and race to the checkered flag. I believe if we can get to the last 25 laps in a solid position that we can pass cars. I know I’ll be charging if things fall into place.

So, watch for the No. 24 Mecum Auctions DRR Chevy on Sunday. I’ll be fighting to drive to the front.

Photo: IndyCar



Vettel puts Monaco GP pole near-miss down to greed

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Sebastian Vettel was left to settle for second place on the grid for Sunday’s Formula 1 race in Monaco after falling short in the final Q3 shoot-out for pole, with the Ferrari driver blaming greed for his loss of lap time.

Vettel was the favorite to take pole after dominating practice on Thursday and Saturday morning, only to fall 0.043 seconds short of Ferrari teammate Kimi Raikkonen’s time in the final stage of qualifying.

Vettel’s primary F1 drivers’ title rival, Lewis Hamilton, finished a lowly 14th in qualifying, giving the German a golden opportunity to extend his points lead on Sunday.

However, Vettel was more interested in Ferrari’s team result as it secured its second front-row lock-out in the space of three races, even if his own push for more lap time ended up backfiring.

“I don’t really care about [Hamilton’s result]. I think we are both fighting for the best spot for tomorrow,” Vettel said.

“Well done to Kimi, I think he had a better end obviously. I think the car was fine. It was really nice to drive.

“I think I probably pushed a little bit too hard on the first lap in Q3. Went wide in Turn 5. Second attempt again, went a little bit deep, so the second sector, I was probably a bit too greedy, wanted a bit too much and lost a little bit the car.

“I’m sure if you ask anyone after qualy, we all have the feeling that there’s always more. Bottom line: it’s a great result for the team.

“Not as happy as I could have been but, as I said, well done to Kimi.”

The Monaco Grand Prix is live on NBC from 7:30am ET on Sunday, with F1 Countdown starting on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 7am ET.