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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Hamilton exceeds Mercedes’ expectations with fightback to P7 in Monaco

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Lewis Hamilton was left pleased with his fightback from 13th on the grid to finish Sunday’s Monaco Grand Prix in seventh place, going some way to limit the damage of Formula 1 title rival Sebastian Vettel’s victory for Ferrari.

Hamilton qualified a lowly 14th on Saturday in Monaco after struggling with setup and tire management, but gained one place on the grid following Jenson Button’s penalty.

Hamilton passed just one car in the opening stint of the race and struggled to keep up with the cars ahead, prompting Mercedes to extend the Briton’s ultra-soft run for as long as possible.

Hamilton was able to find some clear air when the cars ahead made their pit stops, giving him the chance to lay down some rapid laps that vaulted him up to seventh thanks to the overcut, where he would finish the race.

“I’m really, really happy that I was able to fight back to seventh. The strategists said P10 was probably the maximum today, so it feels great to have beaten that target,” Hamilton said.

“To score six points, considering where I was on the grid after a disastrous day on Saturday is a good recovery. Today it was impossible to overtake and I tried everything to get past Carlos [Sainz] at the end!

“I’m just grateful to have ended up in P7. I went on the radio at the end there to make sure the team know that this battle isn’t over.

“We’ll be sure to push those red cars hard next time out in Canada. We’ve got a real fight on our hands, but there are still 14 races to go.”

With Vettel’s victory, Hamilton now sits 25 points behind in the F1 drivers’ championship with 14 races remaining this season.

Raikkonen disappointed as strategy calls costs him shot at Monaco win

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Kimi Raikkonen was left disappointed following Sunday’s Monaco Grand Prix after Ferrari’s strategy call cost him a shot at his first victory for the Scuderia since 2009.

Raikkonen took his first pole for almost nine years on Saturday in Monaco and led the early part of the race from teammate Sebastian Vettel.

Ferrari pitted Raikkonen just before half distance, but opted to keep Vettel out as the German put in a series of quick laps to get the overcut on his teammate.

Vettel emerged from his stop ahead of Raikkonen on-track and retained his advantage to the checkered flag, clinching Ferrari’s first win in Monaco since 2001.

While P2 marked Raikkonen’s best result of the season so far, the Finn was careful with his words in the post-race podium interviews, his disappointment clear to see.

“Hard to say really,” Raikkonen said when asked how he was feeling.

“Obviously… you know it’s still second place, but it doesn’t feel awful good. This is how it goes sometimes.

“We go for the next race and try to do better. One of those days that you wish you had a bit more.”

Vettel calls Monaco win ‘very intense’, surprised by mid-race pace

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Sebastian Vettel admitted that he surprised himself with his mid-race pace during Sunday’s Monaco Grand Prix that proved instrumental in securing his third win of the 2017 Formula 1 season.

Vettel started second in Monaco and spent the first stint of the race trailing Ferrari teammate Kimi Raikkonen, with the gap hovering at around one second before the pit stop phase.

Raikkonen was brought in earlier than Vettel by Ferrari, freeing the German to put in a sequence of quick laps in clean air while his teammate toiled with traffic.

Vettel was able to pit a few laps later and emerge ahead of Raikkonen, having overturned the deficit before pushing on to create a gap of almost 10 seconds.

“I think it was a very, very intense race. I was hoping at the start to have a bit of a better launch, but Kimi had a good start, I had nowhere to go,” Vettel said.

“I had to be patient. There was a phase in the first stint where it was really tricky, the tires started to slide, I think you remember how it feels. It was quite uncomfortable. I think Valtteri [Bottas] and the pack was catching up a bit, we were facing some traffic.

“But then I had I don’t know, like a second attempt, a second set of tires. I had some laps where the car was really, really good. I pushed everything I had because I knew if there is a chance to win, then that’s it. So I was able to use that window and came out ahead.”

Vettel’s lead was wiped away by a late safety car, but the four-time world champion kept cool at the front on the restart to record his second Monaco victory, following his maiden success in 2011.

“After the restart it was really tricky with the cold tires, I think every one of us was struggling. Daniel [Ricciardo] said he brushed the wall on Turn 1 on the first lap,” Vettel said.

“So it was really, really difficult, but after a couple of laps I was able to get into control the gap behind.

“Fantastic job, the team has done really well. Great thanks to them and a fantastic weekend for Ferrari.”

Bourdais upbeat about recovery from Indy 500 qualifying injuries

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Sebastien Bourdais returned to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Sunday, just over one week following a savage crash in qualifying that saw him suffer multiple fractures to his pelvis and a fracture to his right hip.

In a press conference with members of the media, Bourdais expressed confidence about his recovery. “I’m doing good enough to be here. So that’s great!” he quipped. “It’s great to be out of the hospital environment. I’ve never really faced that before. It’s great to feel normal right now and to be able to walk around and see some familiar faces and see a lot of friends.”

Bourdais explained that his rehab process is still in its early stages, and that a lot of it is down to pain management. But, he does hope to be racing again before the season ends.

“It’s just going to be a long process. I can’t put any weight on my right leg for another five weeks. So it’s just going to be a game of patience and trying to make sure I’m ready when it matters. I’m shooting for the end of the season in Sonoma,” he explained.

Returning to the race track, particularly for Sunday’s 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil, was also a critical aspect of rehabilitation, especially when it comes to overcoming mental and emotional hurdles. “For me, it’s just important to make sure that I stay in good spirits. Physically I’m doing well, and I have no intention to let this incident stop my career or anything,” he asserted.

The crash itself was one of the most frightening anyone has seen in quite some time, as he impacted the wall at a 45 degree angle while still traveling at well over 200 mph. And while safety is a constantly moving target, Bourdais was very complimentary of the current Dallara DW12 chassis, which prevented the injuries from being much more serious.

“The car did a really good job head-on,” he explained. “I don’t have any injuries on my feet or anything like that. But if we could avoid pelvis and hip fractures like that, that would be great. But I don’t think there are a lot of people who can say they have survived a head-on crash at 227. I don’t know that everybody knows, but I was still full throttle when I hit the wall. It’s a pretty good testament.”

In terms of the team’s future, owner Dale Coyne detailed that he has been in contact with several drivers about next week’s Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix doubleheader, but no decision has been made. “We’ve probably had 25 drivers contact (us) for Detroit and on. Some usual names, and ones you may be surprised at. We’ll make that decision Monday or Tuesday,” Coyne said of the team’s future.

Bourdais, meanwhile, is anxious to get back as soon as he can, as he believes Dale Coyne Racing is building something special. “We’re building something at Dale Coyne Racing thanks to Dale and Gail and all the engineers and everybody who is hard at work, the mechanics and all. I think we have a great launching pad for the future, and I want to be part of that. That’s why I want to come back as soon as possible.”

 

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