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After safety concerns, NASCAR announces changes to qualifying

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After multiple drivers and teams expressed safety concerns in recent weeks, NASCAR has announced several changes effective immediately for all elements of its knockout qualifying format for the Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series.

Teams will now be allowed to cool down their cars’ engines on pit road with the use of one cooling unit through either the left or right-side hood/cowl flap. The hood of the car must remain closed and the generator must not be plugged in.

Additionally, two crew members will be allowed over the wall to support the car and driver. Finally, cool-down laps on the track will no longer be permitted.

“The qualifying is new to all of us and as we have said over the past several weeks, we are looking at it from all aspects,” NASCAR vice president of competition Robin Pemberton said in a statement. “Following discussions, both internally and with others in the garage area, we moved quickly to make a few revisions that will be effective starting with our two national series events at Bristol Motor Speedway this weekend.

“We believe this will only enhance and improve what has demonstrated to be an exciting form of qualifying for our fans, competitors and others involved with the sport. Moving forward, we will continue to look at it and address anything else that we may need to as the season unfolds.”

The new qualifying format has garnered positive reaction, but drivers immediately noted the safety issue of having to run slow cool-down laps on the track after the format’s debut at Phoenix International Raceway earlier this month.

NASCAR initially resisted the allowance of cooling units in the pits because it didn’t want teams to open the hoods of the cars – which, in their eyes, would allow crew members to make illegal adjustments if they were inclined to do so.

However, the issue took on a bigger presence last weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. After qualifying, Michael Waltrip Racing driver Brian Vickers said that having to run cool-down laps while other competitors were running at speed was “the most dangerous thing [he’s] ever done in racing.”

LVMS afforded Vickers and other drivers a proper apron to run the slow laps, but the room to do that at the half-mile Bristol Motor Speedway – site of this weekend’s Nationwide and Cup events – is basically next to none.

Paul Wolfe, crew chief for Brad Keselowski and the No. 2 Team Penske Ford Fusion, said earlier today that the lack of real estate at Bristol could pose as a “potential issue” during qualifying.

But in a conference call this afternoon with various crew chiefs, the sanctioning body finally allowed the teams to use the cooling units. However, that apparently wasn’t their first plan.

An Associated Press report from Jenna Fryer relays word from multiple participants on the call that NASCAR initially said teams could use external fans in the pits. However, the idea was met with almost across-the-board objection.

Another potentially iffy aspect of knockout qualifying was not addressed today by NASCAR: The cars having to back out of their spot on pit road at the start of each round. Fryer reports that rule will remain intact at Bristol, because of procedures already in place at the track.

Here’s 30 great James Hinchcliffe videos to celebrate him turning 30

AVONDALE, AZ - APRIL 02:  James Hinchcliffe of Canada, driver of the #5 Schmidt Peterson Motosports Honda IndyCar is introduced before the Phoenix Grand Prix at Phoenix International Raceway on April 2, 2016 in Avondale, Arizona.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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James Hinchcliffe turns 30 today, which seems hard to believe for the perpetually candid, humorous, self-deprecating and fast “Mayor of Hinchtown.”

Hinchcliffe’s junior open-wheel career from karting to the Formula BMW and Star Mazda days, before three years in Atlantic (when I met him in 2007) and onto Indy Lights, eventually led to his finally making it to the Verizon IndyCar Series in 2011, a year when he won rookie-of-the-year.

He took over in what had been Danica Patrick’s GoDaddy car in 2012, won his first three races in 2013, then moved on from Andretti Autosport to Schmidt Peterson Motorsports at the end of 2014.

Of course, you know the story of his accident in practice for the 2015 Indianapolis 500, his recovery, his comeback in late 2015 and then into 2016, then his star turn this year with pole for the 2016 Indianapolis 500 and his phenomenal run on “Dancing with the Stars” this fall.

Hinchcliffe is a driver, showman, comedian, philanthropist, business owner, podcast host, burgeoning dancer, and actually pretty damn smart.

But one of his hallmarks throughout his career has been his videos. Here’s 30 of them, throughout the years, to chronicle how funny and insightful he’s been for such a long time.

PRE-INDYCAR (10: 2010 AND EARLIER)

A disclaimer first: there are more of these, which made condensing the list down to 10 a challenge.

Hinchcliffe’s Kimi Raikkonen imitation is legendary. See the roots of it from 2007, when Hinchcliffe was a sophomore in the Atlantic Championship, and Raikkonen was in his first season at Ferrari. Of course, little did we know then that Raikkonen would win that year’s World Championship, and Ferrari’s most recent.

Remember the old A1GP series? Where it was pitched as a country-versus-country winter series of open-wheel racing? Of course you don’t. And so this is why we show you Hinchcliffe, who raced for A1 Team Canada, going upside-down at a race at Eastern Creek Raceway in Sydney, Australia. He jokes he was “right-side up.” A then-unheralded German driver named Nico Hulkenberg won both races.

We all hate going to the dentist. By hate, I mean love, right? The simplicity of Hinchcliffe describing a trip to the dentist, in his office/studio/room is something we can all appreciate.

“I love fishes ’cause they’re so delicious.” Say no more.

Cooper Tires sponsored Atlantic’s pole award at this time for $1,000. Hinchcliffe then explains the travails and exploits of attempting to cash or deposit said “novelty size check.”

IndyCar merged in 2008, as Champ Car and the Indy Racing League came together. Here was Hinchcliffe’s take on it at the time.

In 2008, IndyCar merged, and Road America was not part of the merged schedule – until it returned this year in 2016. But the Atlantic Championship did race at the picturesque road course. And Hinchcliffe, then in his third season in Atlantic, went around the paddock to introduce them to the famous Road America Johnsonville brats (hat tip to my friend and colleague, IMSA PR ace Nate Siebens, who was the videographer on this one). During 2008, Hinchcliffe did a number of experiential videos in Atlantic paddocks; honorable mention goes to this luge one from Mont-Tremblant.

Hinchcliffe’s second season in Indy Lights, 2010, featured a number of funny videos. One of the more underrated ones was when Hinchcliffe, Logan Gomez and Gustavo Yacaman among others set out to paint doors for Habitat for Humanity. Hilarity ensued.

Here’s another one. Hinchcliffe and “Beaver” – who may or may not be Martin Plowman (it is) – tag up international flags in the paddock (honorable mention to the pair of them sitting through a rain delay at Kansas).

Additionally, in 2010, this one featured Hinchcliffe, Conor Daly, Sebastian Saavedra and a couple others in a famous – or infamous – road trip to Iowa.

HOW HINCH GOT GODADDY (1: 2012)

Hinchcliffe’s IndyCar career nearly stalled out after one year through no fault of his own, because the Newman/Haas Racing team he drove for ran out of sponsorship. Andretti Autosport had signed Dan Wheldon to replace Danica Patrick in 2012; however, tragically, Wheldon was killed in the 2011 season finale in Las Vegas. Hinchcliffe got the nod in the No. 27 GoDaddy Chevrolet, and naturally, the story of how he got the nod was done in classic Hinchcliffe form.

A further campaign followed of “Hinch for Homepage” to see him supplant Patrick on GoDaddy.com’s website. Hinchcliffe played tribute to Patrick when in his debut in St. Petersburg in the new car, he wore a Patrick-esque wig for driver introductions.

MORE EARLY INDYCAR (3: 2012) 

One of my all-time favorite IndyCar videos. Hinchcliffe, Charlie Kimball and JR Hildebrand were all part of IndyCar’s 2011 rookie class – arguably its strongest class in years. And, because they have similar sounding names and two of the three are from California, they attempt to explain who they are in this 2012 video.

In 2012, Hinchcliffe was a sophomore, and Josef Newgarden was a rookie. The immortal “we don’t speak of the gnomes” line from Newgarden, when Hinchcliffe toured Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing’s shop, was born here.

Hinchcliffe scored his first IndyCar podium at Long Beach 2012, benefiting from a late-race penalty assessed to Andretti Autosport teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay, which came with a sidebar. After losing a bet to Wade Cunningham because he made the podium, Hinchcliffe’s trademark beard was shaved off.

INDYCAR WIN RECAPS (4: 2013-2015) 

Hinchcliffe broke through as an IndyCar race winner in 2013, following a spirited defense against Helio Castroneves at the St. Petersburg season opener. Adding to the emotion of the moment was the fact Hinchcliffe won in the Wheldon’s adopted hometown, in what would have been Wheldon’s No. 27 GoDaddy car.

Also in 2013, Hinchcliffe delivered his most famous IndyCar win to date. His second win came at the Sao Paulo Indy 300, following a last-lap, last-turn pass of Takuma Sato to secure the victory.

Hinchcliffe’s most dominant win in his career to date came at Iowa in 2013, when he led 226 of 250 laps in a beatdown.

Rain and cautions peppered IndyCar’s lone trip to NOLA Motorsports Park in 2015. In an otherwise forgettable weekend, the strategy call from Robert Gue stood out to position Hinchcliffe for his fourth career win, first with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports and most recent of his career.

THE RECOVERY FROM INDY CRASH  (1: 2016)

A number of good videos were produced in the aftermath of Hinchcliffe’s accident in practice for the 2015 Indianapolis 500. Our NBCSN one from earlier this year is below; several other good ones are linked in this sentence (Indiana University Health Methodist Hospital; Arrow Electronics; INDYCAR with Spyder), among others.

THE INDY POLE RUN (1: 2016)

Hinchcliffe’s pole run for the 2016 Indianapolis 500 is featured in the highights from INDYCAR, linked above.

OFFSEASON VIDEOS, ALMOST ALWAYS STARRING HINCH (3: 2012-2016)

One of IndyCar’s hallmarks is utilizing Hinchcliffe in its offseason arsenal of videos. See a few of them, below:

Fall 2014: Hinchcliffe signs with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, and a beer ride down to the Indiana Pacers’ Bankers Life Fieldhouse happens (a certain MST writer makes a cameo here).

Early 2015: IndyCar vs. Mardi Gras

Fall 2016: IndyCar Test Drive (featuring multiple drivers)

DANCING MAN (6: 2016)

Here’s six of the best dances/moments between Hinchcliffe and professional partner Sharna Burgess on the 23rd season of “Dancing with the Stars,” where Hinchcliffe finished second to Olympic gold medal-winning gymnast Laurie Hernandez.

Rumba: After this performance, judge Julianne Hough called Hinchcliffe the “best male dancer” in the show’s history.

Halloween Viennese Waltz (with interim professional partner Jenna Johnson). This one went viral.

Paso Doble Team Up where Hinchcliffe and Calvin Johnson were in the same group.

Tango: When Sharna came back after a knee injury, and was promptly blindfolded.

Trio Jive, where James, Sharna and Jenna danced together and where the No. 5 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda made an appearance.

Finals: Freestyle, that is the dancing/artistic representation of closing that “blank space” to his accident in Indy.

THE MONTAGE THAT SAYS IT ALL (1: 2011-2016)

If the above clips didn’t capture everything we were trying to set out for here, we hope this one created by this YouTube user does. The respective INDYCAR 36 (2012) and IndyCar Chronicles (2015) episodes of Hinchcliffe, done by IMS Productions, are linked here.

As you can see, Hinchcliffe has been in a lot of videos over the last decade, and this post only scratches the surface of all he’s been in.

But it’s been a great 30 years – with the last 11 in particular since his debut in Atlantic in 2006 where he’s firmly been part of the open-wheel racing establishment, and the last six in IndyCar from 2011 to 2016 where he’s taken that next level.

Happy birthday, Hinch. May there be many more years to come with many more videos added along the way.

Wehrlein “feels ready” for job of replacing Rosberg, if he gets seat

MONTMELO, SPAIN - FEBRUARY 20:  (EDITORS NOTE: This image was processed using digital filters) Pascal Wehrlein of Germany and Mercedes GP poses for a portrait during day three of Formula One Winter Testing at Circuit de Catalunya on February 21, 2015 in Montmelo, Spain.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Pascal Wehrlein is the potential lynchpin in the race to replace Nico Rosberg, now fully underway after the shock news of the 2016 World Champion’s decision to retire has come down and now set in.

The Mercedes AMG Petronas reserve driver and Manor race driver from this season did a thoroughly good – if not outstanding – job in his first full season in Formula 1 and could well be the pick to replace Rosberg alongside Lewis Hamilton next season.

Wehrlein is confident in his ability and expressed his candidacy for the job while accepting rookie-of-the-year honors at last night’s Autosport Awards.

“One season in Formula 1 of course is not a lot, but I feel ready for the job,” Wehrlein said. “I feel confident enough.

“Now the decision is on the bosses. I guess Toto’s (Wolff) phone is overheating since Friday! I respect that process and that they want to go to the best option.”

Pushed a bit further, Wehrlein also offered a sneaky sense of humor in noting how much testing he’s already done on a modified chassis with Pirelli’s new-for-2017 tires.

“I’ve done the most days with 2017 tires. It’s very important to have that experience,” he laughed.

Wehrlein could well get the nod by way of his availability. However if Mercedes opts to buy out another tied-down driver’s contract, it could well end up that Wehrlein might be placed elsewhere on the grid.

Despite losing out on the Force India seat to fellow Mercedes junior Esteban Ocon, Wehrlein’s stock has never been higher.

Ryan Norman confirmed for Andretti Indy Lights program

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As NBC Sports reported over the weekend, Ryan Norman has been confirmed as third driver for Andretti Autosport’s Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires program in 2017.

Norman joins the previously announced Dalton Kellett (No. 28 K-LINE Insulators, USA Mazda) and Nico Jamin (No. 27 Synova Mazda). Norman, out of Cleveland, won this year’s Atlantic Championship and will drive the No. 48 Flip Side Mazda. He’s tested for the team this winter.

“I’m very excited to join Andretti Autosport for the 2017 Indy Lights Season,” said Norman. “With their great success in IndyCar and Indy Lights, it is the perfect environment for me to learn and grow as a driver. I want to thank Michael Andretti and the rest of the team for this wonderful opportunity and I hope to bring great results to the team this coming year.”

“We have been following Ryan’s achievements in Formula Atlantic and feel he will do equally well, if not better, in Indy Lights,” J-F Thormann, President of Andretti Autosport, added. “Ryan has tested for the team several times this offseason and has impressed us with how quickly he has adapted to the car. We are looking forward to seeing what the 2017 season has in store for us and are thrilled to have three of our four Indy Lights entries announced.”

As noted by Thormann above, the team has confirmed four Indy Lights entries for 2017. From what we’ve heard, the fourth driver could well be an intriguing young American.

Rainguard Water Sealers signs on as Texas IndyCar title sponsor

FORT WORTH, TX - AUGUST 27: Alexander Rossi driver of the #98 Castrol Edge/Curb Honda leads Helio Castroneves driver of the #3 AAA Insurance Team Penske Chevrolet during the Verizon IndyCar Series Firestone 600 at Texas Motor Speedway on August 27, 2016 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Mike Stone/Getty Images for Texas Motor Speedway)
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Cue the jokes about how Texas Motor Speedway’s new Verizon IndyCar Series race title sponsor, Rainguard Water Sealers, was a year late, as track drying delays from rain helped postpone this year’s race from June to August.

But the new title sponsor is on board for the next three years, through whatever weather exists at TMS. Which is a good thing, because it confirms both the race and the sponsor through 2019.

“We extremely pleased to have Texas Motor Speedway and ‘America’s Original Nighttime IndyCar Race’ serve as the initial sponsorship venture into motorsports and sports in general for Rainguard Water Sealers,” Eddie Gossage, Texas Motor Speedway president, said in a release. “We look forward to providing Rainguard with an exceptional first experience as an entitlement sponsor and help the company attain their goals through this sponsorship agreement.”

Firestone has been the race’s title sponsor of what is now the Rainguard Water Sealers 600 since 2010. Prior to that, Bombardier Learjet sponsored the race from 2005 to 2009, when Texas dropped from having two races on the annual IndyCar calendar down to one.

Rainguard was founded in 1969 as a manufacturer of architectural grade coatings used in the construction industry, and developed speciality sealer products starting in 2010.