Dale Earnhardt Jr

Dale Earnhardt Jr. ‘uncomfortable’ with ‘being the face’ of NASCAR

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Ever since the economy started to go south in 2007, NASCAR chairman/CEO Brian France has said several times that the sport needs Dale Earnhardt Jr. to earn wins and be among the best drivers out there – which would, in turn, hopefully bring NASCAR back to prosperity and increased fan and media attention.

Junior is off to the best start of his career in 2014, with a win in the season-opening Daytona 500 and back-to-back runner-up finishes at Phoenix and Las Vegas.

He’s also one of only five drivers in Sprint Cup history to start off a season with three top-two finishes.

But as good as things are going for Earnhardt and the No. 88 team, at-track attendance is about the same as it has been in recent years, and Fox Sports’ NASCAR telecasts of the first three races have not shown significant gains as a result of Earnhardt’s performance thus far.

Is Earnhardt feeling a bit of pressure to essentially become the sport’s savior? He addressed that during his weekly session with the media Friday morning at Bristol Motor Speedway.

“That’s a very uncomfortable question and to get asked about it really makes me uncomfortable,” Earnhardt said when asked if he can be the one person who can elevate the sport to another level. “There are so many other drivers – there’s guys like Jimmie (Johnson) – who have done so much and accomplished much more than I have.

“They do a lot to elevate the sport. They do a lot of things that, you know, carry the sport as well or better than I do. It’s just very uncomfortable because I don’t have the accolades and the hardware that a lot of these guys have, like a championship and things like that.

“I’m comfortable with the popularity and things like that because I feel like that we do a lot and we have a great fan base and we do a lot to engage with them. But carrying the sport is a whole other conversation – or being the face of the sport is a whole other conversation. It’s a very uncomfortable position to be put in. I don’t think it’s realistic. All the drivers have a role in that and they are actively doing that.”

Earnhardt may have welcomed France’s hopes and expectations at a time when Junior admittedly wasn’t doing quite as well as he has last season and certainly since the start of this season.

But even with his massive Junior Nation of fans, Earnhardt admits he hasn’t seen much movement in NASCAR’s popularity, even with winning the sport’s biggest race for the second time in his career to start the new season.

“It’s hard for me to kind of have my finger on the pulse and know exactly how much the needle is moving,” Earnhardt said. “They say we can’t really look at the Daytona because of the rainout. The network broadcasts are about the same if not a little bit, a percentage point one way or the other.

“I guess my fans have been tuning in all along. We just enjoy what we do. I try not to really worry about – I can’t concern myself with how much I move the needle. I think that goes outside of my comfort zone and what I feel is and what I think you need to concern yourself with if you’re as an individual.

“I want the sport to be healthy and I want to do things that help the sport and make an impact on the sport. I try to do those things always taking opinions and advice on what I can do better and what I’m not doing that I could be doing to help the sport.

“You want to leave a mark of some kind. We all do. Everybody here wants to have some sort of mark left in their field and in the sport because we all care about it. There are so many personalities and other drivers and new guys coming in. It’s an ebb and flow of personalities. So, I try not to get too caught up in it. It ain’t always gonna be that way. Something could happen this weekend between two different drivers that reach far beyond what I could do, and that will be great. That’s how the sport survives. It definitely doesn’t live and breathe on everything that I’ve got going on. It would be perfectly fine without me, but I’m glad to be a part of it.”

If Earnhardt wins or finishes second on Sunday, he would tie the legendary Richard Petty for being the only drivers to start a season with four consecutive top-2 finishes.

“Anytime you do anything that Richard has done and you put yourself in the conversation with him to do with any statistic, it’s a pretty awesome accomplishment because of everything that he has ever done winning as many races as he has and running as many races as he has,” Earnhardt said. “He’s been such a fixture in the sport still today.

“Yeah, that would be awesome. Just something else we can hang our hat on and we’ve got a shot at it, man. We really run good here. I like coming here. … If we can be in a situation to do that and try to capitalize and get another win or another top three or top two or whatever we need to join Richard in that statistic, we’ll be going for it.”

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Pericak praises Ford fuel mileage as new GT wins in Monterey

67 Ford GT
Photo: Ford Performance
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The Ford EcoBoost V6 twin-turbo engine put in the back of the Ford Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GTs has been developed for years with Ganassi’s Ford-Riley DP program.

Sunday in the Continental Tire Monterey Grand Prix, the first of two two-hour races, the new Ford banked its first win courtesy of that engine making some incredible fuel mileage.

Richard Westbrook brought the No. 67 Ford GT home for his second straight win in Monterey, having also won overall here last year with Michael Valiante in a Corvette DP.

Westbrook took over the No. 67 car from Ryan Briscoe and proceeded to run 52 laps on a single fuel stint, for an hour and 17 minutes into the two-hour race.

“We’ve been waiting for this win for a long time,” Ford Performance director Dave Pericak said post-race.

“I think it’s great that it came as a fuel economy win. It’s great for Ford EcoBoost, because that’s what it’s all about, but this is really a boost for the team going into Le Mans. We’ve been working up to this point to showcase the car’s durability and I think this is what the team needed to go to Le Mans.”

“It hasn’t sunk in yet. The bad thing is we don’t have much time to celebrate. Le Mans is coming fast.”

“It’s a great win for our employees who have been watching us and turning us on and it’s a good way to keep up the momentum going into the big race.”

Here’s quick reactions from the @CGRSportsCar and @FordPerformance Twitter accounts in the immediate aftermath:

Mercedes feared power unit issue would end Rosberg’s Russian GP

SOCHI, RUSSIA - MAY 01:  Nico Rosberg of Germany and Mercedes GP celebrates his win on the podium during the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on May 1, 2016 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)
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Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff praised Nico Rosberg not only for his flawless display en route to winning Sunday’s Russian Grand Prix, but also for managing an issue on his power unit that could have ended his race.

Mercedes has struggled with the reliability of its power unit so far this season, with defending champion Lewis Hamilton suffering failures in qualifying for both of the last two races.

Rosberg suffered a dip in pace midway through the second stint of the race in Sochi that saw his lead over Hamilton dip from 12 seconds to just 7.5 seconds.

Hamilton ultimately had to back off due to a water pressure issue on his own power unit, but Wolff revealed after the race that Rosberg also had to manage a problem on his car.

“That race was anything but plain sailing today – it was a pretty stressful experience to get both cars home, and there was a point when we thought neither of them might make it to the flag,” Wolff said.

“First of all, congratulations to Nico, he did a perfect job all weekend and controlled the race from the front once again. He didn’t put a foot wrong.

“When we faced an issue on the MGU-K during the middle part of the race, he was able to do all the necessary steps to keep it under control and bring it home.

“As for Lewis, he drove brilliantly. Some really good, aggressive passing manoeuvres and clever racing brought him to P2 – and he was just getting his head down to charge when we saw a water leak and he was losing water pressure.

“The only thing to do was ask him to back off to bring the car home and fortunately that meant the situation stabilized but cost him the chance of racing Nico. No doubt he will be thinking about what could have been today – but it was a fantastic recovery after such a tough moment in qualifying yesterday.

“A one-two finish is always something special and to be savoured, especially with the performance advantage we enjoyed this weekend. We are pushing hard this year and finding the limits of our car – but we need to get on top of our issues so the drivers can battle it out on track themselves.

“That’s what we all want to see and what we will be working hard to achieve in the coming days before Barcelona.”

IMSA: Popular wins for Shank Ligier Honda, Ganassi Ford in Monterey

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Photo courtesy of IMSA
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Two first-time 2016 winners emerged in the first of two two-hour IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship races at the Continental Tire Monterey Grand Prix at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca.

Michael Shank Racing ended a four-year drought dating to 2012 in the GRAND-AM Rolex Series, when the team won the 50th Anniversary Rolex 24 at Daytona, to win overall and in Prototype with Ozz Negri and John Pew in the team’s No. 60 Ligier JS P2 Honda.

“It was a Honda day at Laguna Seca,” the eponymous team owner, Shank, told IMSA Radio’s Shea Adam in a not-so-subtle jab at their Japanese rivals, before confirming the team will miss the next round at Detroit owing to its 24 Hours of Le Mans preparation.

Meanwhile courtesy of a strategic gamble and an excellent amount of fuel saving, Richard Westbrook brought the No. 67 Ford Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GT home to its first win since the car’s debut earlier this year at the Rolex 24 at Daytona. Westbrook took over from Ryan Briscoe on the team’s first and only pit stop, then proceeded to run 52 laps on a stint to the finish, making it home on fumes.

Two quick passes by Negri following the second restart of the race on Lap 29 saw him emerge at the front of the field, having restarted in third.

“I feel at home when I’m working with them, working with John,” Negri told IMSA Radio. “I’ve been going at it and thinking about it since my first practice. It worked! We pushed hard on the out laps.”

Negri got around first Eric Curran for second in the No. 31 Action Express Racing Corvette DP, then race leader Sean Rayhall in the No. 0 DeltaWing DWC13 coupe shortly thereafter.

Negri’s closest challenger had been the polesitting No. 55 Mazda Prototype, started by Tristan Nunez and finished by Jonathan Bomarito.

But fuel issues on the first stop and then a spin by Bomarito when just behind Negri with just under 50 minutes remaining halted that car’s charge. The team opted not to take tires on the second stop and Bomarito fell back to fourth the remainder of the race.

Ryan Dalziel and Marc Goossens came from a pre-race penalty assessed for being late to the grid, starting from pit lane, to finish second after a great drive in their No. 90 Visit Florida Racing Corvette DP. Goossens held off Curran for second; Curran shared his car with Dane Cameron.

After the No. 55 Mazda and DeltaWing, contact between Joao Barbosa and Ricky Taylor took those two Corvette DPs out of contention and the No. 70 Mazda, then driven by Joel Miller, lost drive up the Corkscrew with a failed oil pump.

The GTLM race was a bit more straightforward; Westbrook got around teammate Joey Hand in the final 10 minutes to take the race lead.

Hand and Antonio Garcia, in the No. 3 Corvette C7.R, both pitted when trying to make the race on one stop. Westbrook made it home.

“They’ve had a helluva 3-4 months,” Westbrook told IMSA Radio. “When they tell you a number it’s like, ‘You’re killing me.’ But you adapt to it. Car was good. It was so tight at the end. So relieved to achieve something so quickly. The future looks bright.”

Scuderia Corsa, which grabbed the pole in class, scored a GTLM career best second place with Daniel Serra and Alessandro Pier Guidi in the No. 68 Ferrari 488 GTE.

Porsche fought through pace issues all weekend to survive any trouble with its No. 912 Porsche 911 RSR, driven by Earl Bamber and Fred Makowiecki, to finish third.

GTLM is off until after Detroit owing to the Le Mans break, with its next race early July at Watkins Glen.

Bottas happy but not overawed by P4 in Russia

SOCHI, RUSSIA - MAY 01: Valtteri Bottas of Finland driving the (77) Williams Martini Racing Williams FW38 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo on track ahead of Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo and Kimi Raikkonen of Finland driving the (7) Scuderia Ferrari SF16-H Ferrari 059/5 turbo (Shell GP) during the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on May 1, 2016 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Valtteri Bottas admitted that he had more than finishing fourth in mind during Sunday’s Russian Grand Prix, but took the positives from his best race of the 2016 Formula 1 season so far.

Bottas started second in Sochi thanks to Sebastian Vettel’s grid penalty, and managed to hold off Lewis Hamilton and Kimi Raikkonen through the opening stint of the race before making his first pit stop.

However, Hamilton was able to pass Bottas within two laps of emerging from the pits, while Raikkonen made a longer first stint work well to get ahead of the Williams driver.

Bottas was unable to keep up with Raikkonen for the rest of the race, eventually finishing 18 seconds behind his compatriot in fourth place.

“The beginning of the race was pretty good and we managed to defend against some of the quicker cars behind,” Bottas said.

“I think being aggressive with the early pitstop was good but unfortunately the cars with more pace managed to get through, and at the end of the race there wasn’t much happening for me.

“All-in-all the team has done a good job this weekend. It’s positive to get a lot of points for Williams. There’s definitely progress, this is a good track for us so that helped, but we just need to keep improving.

“I definitely had more in mind today than fourth so we need to keep pushing.”

Williams continued its run of getting both cars into the points at every race so far this season as Felipe Massa finished fifth, also enduring a rather lonely race.

“I think it was a very positive weekend for us and a very positive race,” Massa said. “I would have loved to finish fourth and not fifth, but that’s just part of the game so I’m happy with the result.

“We managed to score a lot more points than Red Bull, and that’s the target for us right now. They have a very good team and a very good car, but we need to keep believing. This weekend was a very good weekend so we need to keep fighting like that.

“I think for the team the best position was fourth and fifth. Valtteri was able to manage the tires better here, whilst I was able to manage them better in China. That’s the way it goes, but today’s result is very good for Williams.”