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

Famous faces descend on Austin for USGP weekend

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 22:  Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP talks with actors Christoph Waltz and Rosa Salazar in the garage  during final practice for the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 22, 2016 in Austin, United States.  (Photo by Lars Baron/Getty Images)
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Formula 1 has a habit of attracting the rich and famous out to play for the weekend, and the United States Grand Prix in Austin, Texas has been no exception to the rule.

A number of celebrities have descended on the Circuit of The Americas this weekend to catch some on-track action.

Some of the names have appeared in the F1 paddock before, but others are first-timers at COTA, keen to get a glimpse of one of the most exciting sports in the world.

Here’s a quick social run-down of the famous faces that have been spotted this weekend.

Tennis star Venus Williams was a guest of Mercedes on Saturday, and even took time to congratulate Lewis Hamilton following his charge to pole position.

Noted actor and villain in the latest James Bond film, Spectre, Christoph Waltz made an appearance in the Mercedes garage, receiving a tour from Hamilton himself.

American actress Rosa Salazar joined Waltz in the Mercedes garage.

NASCAR legend Jeff Gordon took some time out of his busy schedule to pay a visit to COTA, spotted here chatting to Nico Rosberg before the race.

F1 aficionado and TV chef Gordon Ramsay chatted with McLaren chief Ron Dennis ahead of the race – given McLaren’s excellent catering, it was probably not about the food…

McLaren’s other guest is literally out of this world: British astronaut Tim Peake.

Skateboarding star Ryan Scheckler has been with Red Bull all weekend, seen here swapping gear with Daniel Ricciardo.

Skier Lindsey Vonn received a birthday surprise from the Red Bull drivers.

Gerard Butler is another big F1 fan, seen here chatting with Red Bull team boss Christian Horner.

2016 Olympic triathlon champion Gwen Jorgensen also came along (not many free seats in the Red Bull garage!).

Verstappen unlikely to change style despite F1 defense rule clarification

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 22:  Max Verstappen of Netherlands and Red Bull Racing in the garage during qualifying for the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 22, 2016 in Austin, United States.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Max Verstappen doubts he will change his on-track racing style despite the FIA’s clarification of permitted defensive moves in Formula 1 ahead of Sunday’s United States Grand Prix.

Verstappen came under fire from his rivals in Hungary and Belgium earlier this year after appearing to move under braking, and was subject to a brief protest from Mercedes in Japan for the same reason.

Verstappen’s on-track moves were brought up in Friday’s drivers’ briefing at the Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas, prompting FIA race director Charlie Whiting to clarify the rules regarding defensive moves.

Whiting confirmed that any move under braking that forces the car behind to take evasive action will be investigated by the stewards, appearing to clamp down on Verstappen’s moves.

However, the Dutchman told reporters on Saturday evening that he doubted it would have any effect on his approach or style on-track.

“I don’t think so. I think it’s good to make it more clear what’s allowed and what’s not,” Verstappen said, as quoted by Reuters.

“So far it said in the rules that you could go to the inside under braking. Now it’s not. So we’ll see how that’s going to affect the racing.”

Verstappen will start fourth on the grid in Sunday’s United States Grand Prix, live on NBC and the NBC Sports app from 2:30pm ET.

Hamilton: ‘Incredible’ to be closing in on Senna’s pole tally

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 22:  Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP waves to the crowd after qualifying in pole position during qualifying for the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 22, 2016 in Austin, United States.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Lewis Hamilton finds it “incredible” to be closing in on Formula 1 legend Ayrton Senna’s tally of pole positions after adding to his haul in Austin, Texas on Saturday.

Hamilton scored the 58th pole of his F1 career in qualifying for the United States Grand Prix after edging out Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg in Q3, recording the fastest ever lap around the Circuit of The Americas.

Hamilton trails only Michael Schumacher (68) and Senna (65) in the list for all-time poles in F1, the latter being an inspiration to the Briton throughout his junior racing days.

“Seven is still a long way to go but to think that I’m within shooting distance is incredible,” Hamilton said after qualifying at COTA.

“But it also just goes to show just how amazing a driver he was. To get as many poles as that in the amount of time that he had, it’s taken me a lot longer to get where I am so it was clearly phenomenal.”

At just 31 years old, Hamilton stands a good chance of becoming F1’s all-time pole position leader, particularly if Mercedes can continue its current domination of the sport over into the 2017 season.

In the running for the FIA Pole Trophy in 2016, Hamilton pulled clear of Rosberg in Austin, the pair previously tied for eight poles heading into the weekend. Daniel Ricciardo is the only other driver to have started a race from pole this year, leading the field away in Monaco.

Hamilton is bidding for his fourth victory at COTA in Sunday’s United States Grand Prix, live on NBC and the NBC Sports app from 2:30pm ET.

WATCH LIVE: USGP on NBC, NBC Sports app from 2:30 p.m. ET

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 22:  Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP and Daniel Ricciardo of Australia and Red Bull Racing shake hands in parc ferme  during qualifying for the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 22, 2016 in Austin, United States.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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AUSTIN, Texas – After the three practice sessions were split three ways between Lewis Hamilton, Nico Rosberg and Max Verstappen, Hamilton snatched the pole position for today’s United States Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas with a magical lap, at a circuit and in a country he pretty much loves.

The stage is then set for yet another battle between the Mercedes AMG Petronas teammates as they continue to fight for this year’s Formula 1 World Championship.

Hamilton, down 33 points to Rosberg heading into the 18th of 21 Grands Prix this season, realistically needs to make up a big chunk of points today if he is to secure a third consecutive title.

Rosberg can win the title with second-place finishes in each of the final four races, but he has said repeatedly he is going for race wins only and is not thinking about the championship. And at the moment, that strategy seems to be working for him.

But with Red Bull Racing on row two starting with a split strategy – Daniel Ricciardo on Pirelli’s supersoft tires and Max Verstappen on the slightly harder soft compounds – those two could throw a spanner in the works. Ricciardo loves the U.S. near as much as Hamilton, if not more so, and would be keen for another podium or perhaps his second win of the year.

And how will Haas F1 Team, America’s first F1 team in 30 years, fare in its first United States Grand Prix? It’s been a challenging weekend for Gene Haas’ team, but Esteban Gutierrez (14th) and Romain Grosjean (17th) will give it their all despite something of a downforce deficit.


You can watch the United States Grand Prix live on NBC and the NBC Sports App from 2:30 p.m. ET on Sunday, which is 1:30 p.m. CT and local time in Austin. CLICK HERE to watch via live stream.

Leigh Diffey, David Hobbs and Steve Matchett will be on the call, and along with pit reporter Will Buxton, all are on the ground in Austin providing updates and interviews throughout the race.

Also be sure to follow the @F1onNBCSports Twitter account for live updates throughout the race.

2016 United States Grand Prix – Starting Grid

1. Lewis Hamilton Mercedes
2. Nico Rosberg Mercedes
3. Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull
4. Max Verstappen Red Bull
5. Kimi Raikkonen Ferrari
6. Sebastian Vettel Ferrari
7. Nico Hulkenberg Force India
8. Valtteri Bottas Williams
9. Felipe Massa Williams
10. Carlos Sainz Jr. Toro Rosso
11. Sergio Perez Force India
12. Fernando Alonso McLaren
13. Daniil Kvyat Toro Rosso
14. Esteban Gutierrez Haas
15. Jolyon Palmer Renault
16. Marcus Ericsson Sauber
17. Romain Grosjean Haas
18. Kevin Magnussen Renault
19. Jenson Button McLaren
20. Pascal Wehrlein Manor
21. Felipe Nasr Sauber
22. Esteban Ocon Manor