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Updated: Even out of gas, Earnhardt extends best season start with runner-up finish at Vegas

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With about 20 laps remaining, crew chief Steve Letarte warned race leader Dale Earnhardt Jr. that he would be about a half-lap shy of enough fuel to finish Sunday’s Kobalt 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

And even though his driver did everything he could in the closing laps to conserve fuel, Letarte couldn’t have been more precise.

Earnhardt was heading towards what would have been his second win in the first three races of the 2014 Sprint Cup season when his car began sputtering on the backstretch, coming out of turn two on the final lap.

Keselowski passed Earnhardt and went on to win the race. Junior, however, was able to restart his sputtering motor just enough to make it to the finish line in second place.

“I was lifting real early trying to save even more,” Earnhardt said about his fuel level in the post-race press conference. “We figured we were a lap short, and I was lifting early and let Brad get there.

“I felt like if we were good enough to hold him off, then we’d win the race.  If we weren’t, we would have saved enough fuel to have finished the race, at least get to the end. I can run out of gas on the back stretch and be okay, but if I run out off of 4 coming to the white it would’ve been big trouble, so I had to save a little bit. So I let him catch us and once he got there, I ran as hard as I could and could pull back away from him.”

When asked if he second-guessed the decision to stay out and not pit for a splash of fuel, Earnhardt said it was the right strategy to keep racing.

“You know, it did pay off.  Not the ultimate prize, but we did run second,” he said. “As much as you want to win, and believe me, we were out there trying to win, you do take pride in a good performance, a good finish, and we weren’t going to run in the top 5 if we hadn’t have used that particular strategy. If we’d have run the same strategy as our competitors we would have probably run just inside the top 10 where we were all day.

“At least it felt like I was around eighth all day.  I just couldn’t get any ground, and we fought the car all day. Just the air is so dirty behind everybody, the further back you get you’ve got less and less grip.  Once we got the lead, it was like driving a Cadillac.”

Even though Earnhardt didn’t win, he nonetheless continued his torrid hot streak – the best start of his 15-year Sprint Cup career, with a win in the season opening Daytona 500 and back–to-back runner-up finishes at Phoenix and Las Vegas.

And while he also has never won at LVMS, Sunday marked the third time Earnhardt has finished second in 15 career starts there.

“Yeah, this is a good start for sure,” Earnhardt said. “Yeah, the confidence is up there. When we first got together we’d run our guts out to run in the top 15.  Then the next year we’d run our guts out to run in the top 10, and you wondered when you’d get up to fifth and start running in the top 5 regularly.

“We started doing that finally last year, and so our team just keeps stepping up this ladder. It just makes total sense to me how that process has went, having lived it and having seen the progression. So the sky’s the limit for us, and if we are smart and keep our composure and don’t get foolish and don’t get too proud of ourselves, just keep it in perspective, we’ve got a great opportunity this year to be this competitive every week. … You definitely don’t want to take it for granted, get used to it, but this is what we envisioned, and starting to bear some fruit.”

With his win, Keselowski closed the points gap on Earnhardt in the Sprint Cup standings. Junior came into Las Vegas leading by six points; he now leads Keselowski by only one point after the first three races.

“It’s disappointing (to finish second), but at the same time the good Lord has blessed me with a good team and good fortune and great opportunity,” Earnhardt said. “So I don’t want to get too down and think (only) about the positives and be productive so we can go to Bristol (next Sunday) and try to win there.”

Keselowski and Earnhardt are both past winners at the half-mile track at Bristol Motor Speedway.

“It sucks to lose like that, but we can’t let it be a negative,” Earnhardt said. “We have to go to Bristol and try to win there. Only way to be productive is to be positive, so we’ve got to look at the positives today and keep working toward our goal of winning some more races.”

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

F1 Paddock Pass: Monaco Grand Prix post-race (VIDEO)

MONTE-CARLO, MONACO - MAY 29: The safety car leads Daniel Ricciardo of Australia driving the (3) Red Bull Racing Red Bull-TAG Heuer RB12 TAG Heuer, Nico Rosberg of Germany driving the (6) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo, Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo, and the rest of the field at the start during the Monaco Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit de Monaco on May 29, 2016 in Monte-Carlo, Monaco.  (Photo by Lars Baron/Getty Images)
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Sunday’s wet Monaco Grand Prix brought out the very best of Lewis Hamilton. After a tough start to his bid for a fourth Formula 1 championship, the Briton finally kick-started his season with an exquisite victory around the streets of the principality.

Hamilton picked up his first victory since last October’s United States Grand Prix in Austin, Texas, while also cutting the gap to Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg in the drivers’ championship.

While Hamilton basked in his second Monaco success, Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo was left to wonder what could have been after a pit error cost him a likely victory.

The Australian was left to settle for second place ahead of Sergio Perez, who claimed just the fourth podium finish in Force India’s history with a superb run to P4.

Debriefing with all of the post-race interviews and analysis, Will Buxton brings you the latest edition of Paddock Pass.

Karam: “I’m so bummed, because our car was so fast”

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Photo: DRR-Kingdom Racing
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Editor’s note: Sage Karam, a past champion in both the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires and Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda series who finished ninth in his first Indianapolis 500 with DRR in 2014 at age 19, will file a series of blogs for NBCSports.com this month. Here’s his fifth entry, after a tough race on Sunday with an accident just before halfway. You can read his firstsecondthird and fourth blogs here. He’ll run the No. 24 Gas Monkey Energy Chevrolet for Dreyer & Reinbold – Kingdom Racing. 

Well, this is my last blog for the 100th Indy 500 and I felt this would be a celebration of a great day.

Unfortunately, it ended way too soon.

After the Monday practice and the Carb Day one-hour session, I was so pumped up about our No. 24 Gas Monkey Energy Chevrolet. I could put the car pretty much anywhere I wanted and could pass our guys fairly easily.

In fact, the car felt so car on Carb Day that we parked it early in the practice. The Dreyer & Reinbold – Kingdom Racing crew, led by lead engineer Jeff Britton and chief mechanic Brian Goslee, had prepared a great car for the race. I was disappointed with my qualifying effort. That day we just had too much downforce in the car for qualifying. So, we had to start in the 23rd position, the middle of the eighth row.

It’s wasn’t great, but I know it was a long race too.

The morning of race day is always busy. You have media interviews, suite appearances, photos with sponsors and other activities. And this year, with Gas Monkey Energy as our primary sponsor, we had the “Fast N Loud” TV crew from the Discovery Channel following the team. Gas Monkey Garage co-principal Richard Rawlings was at the race and he is the star of the “Fast N Loud” show. It was fun to have Richard and his friends at the Indy 500. I think he really enjoyed it too.

The tradition of the Indy 500 is like no other auto race. It’s Memorial Day weekend and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway salutes our troops and veterans. It’s great tribute to them. Then you have songs like America the Beautiful, Taps, the National Anthem and, of course, “Back Home in Indiana.” My favorite song at Indy.

I knew at the start of the race that I didn’t want to be too aggressive. Just wanted to settle in and get a good rhythm early. And the car felt similar to last Monday and Carb Day.

I knew I could pick off cars one-by-one since our race setup felt so good. And that is what began to happen. The car had a little understeer or push in the early stages of the first stint. But I could manage it with my “in-cockpit” tools like the weight jacker. That shifts weight to one side to the other to help the handling of the race car.

I never really forced the issue in the turns of passes but I was 15th after 23 laps. It was a good start from 23rd. The team added a half-turn of front wheel on the first pit stop to help the understeer. In the second stint, the car felt great. I could run up on other cars and make the pass. By lap 45, I sat in 12th and was looking for just a bit better handling. On the third pit stop, we added another half-turn of front wing.

Now, the car was fast and I knew it. I wanted to pass people. On lap 75, I moved to 11th, then on lap 80 to 10th. The next lap I got to ninth past Scott Dixon, followed by eighth over Tony Kanaan at lap 84, and seventh over Mikhail Aleshin on lap 85. But lap 92, I went by Carlos Munoz for sixth.

Bell and Karam. Photo: IndyCar
Bell and Karam. Photo: IndyCar

Man, I knew I had a great car. Then next lap, I got around Townsend Bell for fifth. Josef (Newgarden) checked up out of turn four and Townsend and I tried to go wide. I think I had a little nose on Townsend. I’m sure he knew I was there and I thought Townsend would back out of the throttle and I could slide by on the high side. But Townsend’s car bumped mine and I slid into the gray area by the wall. I got sideways and thought I saved it. But it kept sliding and I clobbered the wall.

I’m more upset than hurt. I banged up my right knee a little. But we had a terrific car today. It was so fast. I could drive past everyone I came up to. The Gas Monkey Energy DRR-Kingdom Racing crew worked their tails off. I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. I don’t put blame on anyone. Just a racing thing.

This is a hard one for myself and the whole team. We had a fast car and maybe a chance to win the race. I just wish I hadn’t run into turn one side by side. Again, it was another great experience with this team. They gave me a super car for the race. But I’ll be back here again next year. There’s nothing like the Indy 500.



Charlie Kimball overcame drama and debris to finish 100th Indy 500 in fifth

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It was not the way anyone would have planned, but a roller coaster Indianapolis 500 ended with Charlie Kimball near the front of the field and scoring major points.

Kimball started the 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil in 16th, never led a lap, and was forced to overcome a season’s worth of drama in 200 laps, but when the checkered flag waved he finished fifth.

To score that result, Kimball had to stretch his fuel 36 laps, the same number as eventual race winner Alexander Rossi.

Kimball’s result was not nearly as emotional as it was for Rossi. But it might have been more dramatic.

Rossi had to fight back from a drop to the low 20s early in the race but Kimball also had a crazy day in the temporarily renumbered No. 42 Tresiba Chevrolet, which is usually No. 83 for Chip Ganassi Racing.

“The 42 crew worked so hard all month long and then during the race, nothing went right, it seemed like, until close to the end,” Kimball told NBC Sports following the race. “We hit a huge piece of debris about lap 100 that changed the front wing.”

One obstacle would have been enough of a challenge for most drivers, but Kimball’s misfortunes were stacked one upon another. His car was struck by debris, he believed from Mikhail Aleshin’s car after his accident.

“There was a bumper pod that I thought was going to hit right on the cockpit. It took the right front wing, broke the mount, and then got lodged in the suspension. Debris just filled the side pod so we had to come down pit lane four or five times just to clean it all out.”

“Third set from the end we had a problem with the right rear tire. I just about crashed three or four times. And then with 15 laps to go—trying to save fuel to the end—I tapped the wall in turn one as well. It was an eventful day.”

“It’s tough to swallow this because the team worked so hard,” Kimball added. “Coming away with a top-five; it helps in points, but that is about the only salve for the disappointment.”

Kimball is ninth in the Verizon IndyCar Series standings.

“We’ll take it. We’ll learn from it. We’ll move on. We’ll be better next week.”

Follow: @FantasyRace

Smith: Monaco brought out the best in Hamilton, but where was Rosberg?

MONTE-CARLO, MONACO - MAY 29:  Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP celebrates his win in parc ferme during the Monaco Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit de Monaco on May 29, 2016 in Monte-Carlo, Monaco.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Sunday’s Monaco Grand Prix always had the makings of a classic. As I wrote in my pre-race preview, wet races around the streets of the principality have seen the greats in Formula 1 history flourish.

And yesterday’s race was no exception.

Lewis Hamilton’s status as a legend of the sport has been debated for some time. When he crossed the line to win his third world championship in Austin last October, the enormity of the achievement surely made such a moniker fitting.

Yet in the months that followed, questions began to be asked about Hamilton’s focus. A run of eight races without a win – seven of which were won by Mercedes teammate and perennial rival Nico Rosberg – plus a crash in Spain that had hints of desperation could have made us think twice about Hamilton.

It was perhaps fitting that the emphatic answer came at the track where Hamilton stunned F1 in 2007 and 2008, winning the latter – not to mention it being where his hero, Ayrton Senna, made his name.

Lining up third on the grid, Hamilton knew that another defeat to Rosberg would deal another significant blow to his title hopes. 43 points down heading into the weekend, he cut his usual lonely figure on the drivers’ parade, sitting alone at the other end of the truck as he focused on the race ahead.

Johnny Herbert asked Hamilton on the parade why he was so grumpy.

“I’m not grumpy, who said that?” Lewis replied.

“Don’t listen to the noise. That’s the problem with people, they listen to what other people say.”

Hamilton has always preferred to do his talking on-track, but starting third under the safety car behind Rosberg and pole-man Daniel Ricciardo – who appeared to have the fastest car in Monaco – the challenge ahead was huge.

Once the track had dried enough to allow the safety car to peel in and the race turned green, it became clear that Hamilton had the edge over Rosberg.

Ricciardo eased away in the opening laps, running almost three seconds per lap quicker than Rosberg at points. By the time Mercedes made the call for Rosberg to let Hamilton by – which he did obediently, recognizing himself that the race was slipping away – the gap was 13 seconds.

As the track dried and intermediate tires became the order of the day for most of the field, Mercedes rolled the dice and kept Hamilton out on his worn wets, hoping that conditions would quickly become good enough for slicks. It was a gamble that paid off handsomely.

What we saw in Monaco was the Hamilton/Mercedes partnership working at its very best. Seeing a driver and team work in harmony to dig themselves out of a hole together is quite rare in modern motorsport – and given the struggles both parties have faced in recent weeks, it was all the more impressive.

Yet we cannot ignore the fact Red Bull threw the race away. The early lead that Ricciardo forged should have been enough for him to win it, only for the dud pit stop on lap 32 to undo all of the hard work.

Ricciardo came in one lap after Hamilton for slick tires, the initial call being for softs. However, after seeing Hamilton bolt on a set of ultra-softs, Red Bull made a late switch to super-softs – so late that the crew did not have time to ready the tires in time. Ricciardo was sat in his pit box for 10 seconds, waiting for the wheels to be attached. The margin to Hamilton at pit exit was minuscule – but enough to decide the race.

Nevertheless, Hamilton still had to hold the faster Ricciardo back and manage his ultra-soft tires. Pirelli’s pre-race prediction was that the new compound – making its race debut in Monaco – could last a maximum of 25 laps. Hamilton made his last 47.

“I’m telling you that was the longest run, particularly after I stopped for those tires,” Hamilton said.

“It was crazy how long that was and to understand how much you can use the tires, because you don’t know what end they’re going to go. I think the last lap was the time they were literally about to drop off, but thank God they stayed on.”

The sight of Hamilton and Ricciardo running nose-to-tail for much of the second half of the race was reminiscent of some of the classic battles in Monaco. Senna/Mansell? Not quite. But it was nevertheless a brutal fight, slugging blows back and forth. And somehow Hamilton stayed ahead.

It may have been lucky, but this will nevertheless go down as a career-defining victory for Hamilton. It is the win that ended his drought and banished the demons of the early season.

And, most importantly, it has brought him back to within striking distance of Rosberg in the title fight.

What happened to Nico in Monaco?

For a man who had won every race he had finished in 2016 and the last three in Monaco, Rosberg’s display on Sunday was massively underwhelming.

It was a race where drivers such as Hamilton, Ricciardo, Sergio Perez (P3) and Fernando Alonso (P5) stood out. Rosberg looked totally out of his depth.

After tip-toeing his way through the damp conditions, Rosberg fell behind Perez, Sebastian Vettel and Alonso when making the switch to slicks. A busy pit lane meant Mercedes had to hold him for a couple of seconds, costing him positions.

Even armed with his Mercedes though, Rosberg couldn’t fight back. The one time he did get past Alonso at the Nouvelle Chicane, he ran wide and was forced to hand the position back. On the final lap, his ultra-soft tires – the same compound Hamilton had made last – lost all grip, causing him to lose another position to Nico Hulkenberg. P7 and a measly haul of six points was his lot for Monaco.

“I don’t know what the reason was. It was just very difficult out there on the intermediates,” Rosberg told NBCSN after the race.

“I just had no confidence out there, so I had to stay quite far away from the limit. Then after that, I had to let Lewis past to give him the chance to win, because with my pace I wouldn’t have had the possibility.

“So gave that a go, and then of course he did win, so good for the team. For me, I lost out a lot in the pit stops and everything, so that was disappointing.”

For Rosberg, such a disappointing display could not have come at a worse time. The German is currently in crunch-talks with Mercedes regarding a new contract, with the sticking point at the moment being the length. This performance will have done little to strengthen his case.

Rosberg has certainly been impressive this year. His four straight wins may have been comfortable, but they were perfectly executed. It is when Rosberg is thrown in at the deep end and comes under pressure – think Hungary 2014, Belgium 2014 and the 2015 US GP – that the cracks begin to show.

In 2008 we saw Felipe Massa be made to look rather average by Hamilton in a damp Monaco. Fast forward seven years, and once again the Briton has turned the tide in the title race.

What was 43 points is now 24 points. Lewis Hamilton is well and truly back in the championship race.

Well, that’s if you ever seriously thought he was out of it to begin with…