Dale Earnhardt Jr

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


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

Williams hopes to improve on 2014 performance in Russian GP

Leave a comment

At this weekend’s Russian GP, Williams Martini Racing is looking for more of the same from Valtteri Bottas and a little improvement from Felipe Massa.

Last year, Bottas started and finished third while Lewis Hamilton ran away with the win, finishing 13 seconds over Nico Rosberg and 17 over Bottas in the inaugural race at the Sochi Autodrom.

Meanwhile, Massa started 18th after a fuel flow issue knocked him out of the first round of qualifying and managed an 11th-place finish.

Bottas and Massa enter the Sochi race fifth and sixth in the driver standings.

“We had a good result last year in Russia so we’re expecting another strong weekend and a good collection of points,” said Bottas in a release. “We all know the track now and it has a really good flow, with the long straights a good fit for our car.”

Bottas has finished in the top five in each of the last three races, two of which were won by Hamilton.

“Pace-wise we were close to Mercedes in Japan and I think we can be close again in Sochi, just like we were in 2014,” Bottas said, who also noted after Japan the team is set to turn its focus to its 2016 car.

Massa, who has two podium finishes this year, will try to bounce back from a DNF at Marina Bay and a 17th-place finish in Japan.

“I hope to make amends for qualifying last year and I’m confident we can have a competitive race,” Massa said in a team release.

“Russia is a very nice track with a few long straights which makes it interesting for overtaking,” Massa said of the 18-turn track. “The circuit has almost everything, starting with a straight and then moving into high-speed corners and then very slow corners in the middle sector. This makes setting up the car really important and the importance of downforce evident.”

The Russian Grand Prix can been seen on NBCSN on Sunday at 7 am ET.

Rossi: Looking ahead to Russia and returning to GP2

Rossi (right) looks for more. Photo: GP2 Series Media Service.
Leave a comment

It’s been just over a week since I returned to Europe from Japan, and preparations now are all focused on Russia.

I landed back in the U.K. on Monday evening, with my body clock screaming at me about how I should be on Japanese time, but I had 36 hours to relax at home in the U.K. before I was back on a plane to Spain to prepare for the next race, this time returning to my GP2 car in Russia this weekend as we fight for more wins.

SEE ALSO: Rossi: Reflecting on my first two F1 races

I spent most of the week working out and preparing with my GP2 team, Racing Engineering, who are based down on Spain’s South West coast, about an hour’s drive from Seville. It’s a beautiful part of the world, especially in early Fall as the Summers are really hot! While there, I’m either in the team’s factory or sweating through a training session. That’s my job and I wouldn’t change it for the world.

The transition back to GP2 in Russia is something I’m really looking forward to. That might sound a bit strange to some, knowing I’m an F1 race driver, but I have unfinished business in GP2 and this is very important to me and my team, Racing Engineering.

I was asked how I will manage the switch from F1 to GP2, and back again when we go to Austin where I’ll be back in an F1 car, but for me it’s simple. GP2 is a very different mindset from F1. In F1 the main target is to finish ahead of my teammate, but in GP2 we have a very realistic chance of winning every race we take part in.

We’ve proved that all season, particularly in the last couple of rounds, in Spa and Italy where we won twice, keeping the Championship alive for this weekend in Russia and, hopefully, the last races in Bahrain and Abu Dhabi.

The battles with Stoffel have been awesome all year, and even though he has enough of a points gap to make the overall 2015 Championship a tough ask, we still want to delay whatever celebrations he has planned, and I think we have a good opportunity to do so in Sochi, and again in Bahrain and then Abu Dhabi at the end of the year.

I haven’t raced in Sochi, only simulations. I did go to Russia last year with Marussia, so I know what to expect off track, and since I’ve been in the sim I know the circuit layout well. We’ve been working on setup options and I’m with a team that has shown consistently they know how to approach every aspect of a race weekend. I’m feeling good, really good about what’s ahead.

Sochi, it’s long, particularly for a street circuit and quite a bit of it is on public roads so there’s a bit of Singapore in there, and maybe a bit of Melbourne too. It’s pretty quick, but there’s a few big braking zones and that gives us a chance to overtake, and obviously you need to be super accurate everywhere. The walls will bite, there’s very little margin for error, just like in Singapore, but I prefer street courses and normally I’m quite confident with my surroundings.

After Russia, I’m back to the UK for a week, and then it’s Austin, Texas and the U.S. Formula 1 Grand Prix. I have a very busy week already planned, but I have made sure I have time every day to train, to maintain focus and to prepare mentally and physically for what will take place in my home country.

The media interest is growing but over the years that I’ve been in and around F1, I’ve learned my priority is what happens in the car. Media work is not something you can be taught, it’s something you pick up and adapt to, being able to switch on and switch off from the demands of the media, the fans and the sponsors. I know exactly how important the media is to my career and it’s an important balance with my sporting duties driving a race car.

I’ve always been impressed by race drivers and athletes in all sports who can do that. Those who can clearly switch into race mode when they walk into the garage and get into the car, into analytical mode with the engineers, support and collaboration with the mechanics, and, I guess you’d say, promotional mode with the journalists, fans and team sponsors.

It might seem like a relatively simple task, but for a 21st century racing driver, it’s an important skill because there are many people vying for your attention. You never stop learning and improving at your craft and profession, and this aspect I keep right at the forefront of my mind, no matter what stage I’m at.

For now though, the focus is Sochi, Russia and keeping up the momentum we’ve had all year in GP2. We’ve prepared well and I can’t wait to get back into my car, push hard all weekend and fight for more race wins.

It’s all about focus.