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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Despite late start, CGR Rallycross started first Red Bull GRC season strong

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MotorSportsTalk takes a look back at Chip Ganassi Racing Rallycross’ first season in the Red Bull Global Rallycross. First up is a look at how the season started, and how late things came together for the two-car effort, with a further look at the season after the first couple races coming in part two.

At the start of the season, Chip Ganassi said of his latest new racing project, a two-car Ford Fiesta effort in Red Bull Global Rallycross, “I’m the person that likes to come in and under promise and over deliver.”

Mission almost accomplished.

About the only thing the new CGR Rallycross program didn’t achieve in 2015 was a final round victory in its first year.

It sounds bad on the surface, but consider the competition level and the fact Ganassi didn’t win its first IndyCar race until its fifth season in 1994, and you get the sense CGR Rallycross is closer to a breakthrough than its IndyCar program was at the same time in its lifespan.

The fact the team even ran two cars this season was testament to an incredible last-minute effort of preparation, as the cars were received mere weeks before the season-opening round at Fort Lauderdale, May 31.

Team manager Carl Goodman explained how close it came to missing the planned debut.

“We only just got the first one just a couple weeks before,” Goodman told MotorSportsTalk. “We had three days of testing this year; a three-day test in Florida before season started. And the drivers had to share that car… it was only one car!

“We didn’t even know if we’d have a second car in moving from Ft. Lauderdale to Texas (for X Games). So every race weekend has been a test for us.”

The team’s lineup of Steve Arpin and Brian Deegan didn’t actually debut in full until X Games, and Jeff Ward filled in for Deegan at Daytona and Washington D.C. due to conflicts.

Arpin, who was the team’s only entry at Ft. Lauderdale, added more to how tight the timeline was.

“Honestly if stuff got pushed back one week, it would have been trouble,” said Arpin, driver of the team’s No. 00 Loenbro entry. “Once we got the cars, we were lucky because they were good off the boat.

“We just dove in. All these guys, except for Carl, it was their first time seeing and working on a rallycross car. We did some simulation stuff here at the stop. So we got acclimated, quickly.”

Speaking even more to the newness of the program, Goodman, Arpin and Deegan were the only team members who had any sort of past rally experience.

Goodman, an M-Sport veteran, was re-entering the rally world after eight years in NASCAR with Michael Waltrip Racing. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect, given the Charlotte CGR team base and MWR’s own dwindling efforts in NASCAR.

“I was with M-Sport for about a month or two short of 10 years. But I left them at the end of 2006, just as they won a rally World Championship, the manufacturer’s championship,” he said.

“I moved to the U.S. and had my time with was MWR until about a year ago. So eight years of Cup years. When this opportunity came up, and with an M-Sport car, it just made it easier. I knew the car, how it’s built, all the parts fell together. It was a big professional team in CGR. All the parts came together at the right time. I’d had quite a break between M-Sport and rallycross.”

Goodman noted there were four full-time crewmembers, three with NASCAR experience, one with road racing and one with a dirt track background, with four others drawn from the workshop for race weekends.

“I think some of the guys were a bit daunted at first, but they’re all professional racers,” Goodman explained. “They all have that solid background of being at a track, so they’re not overwhelmed or awed by being there.

“They expected to know what to do, maybe not on this type of car, but they’re all very well versed in racing. It sounds on the face of it to be a completely different things, these cars blasting and jumping on the dirt, but they’re professionals and they adapted.”

Red Bull GRC courses, by their nature, are very different than any normal type of circuit racing. Some are more dirt-heavy, some more pavement-heavy but all have a dirt component, a jump and the Kobalt Tools Joker Lap.

Preparing the cars for these circuits helped take the crew out of their comfort zone, Goodman said.

“The main tools are there, with the springs, dampers and just your normal suspension tuning… the added tool is the differentials,” he said.

“In general the cars are quite soft. Everything is a compromise about them. Even if you have fast sections, you have tight and dirt sections. That can stop you from going too extreme, either direction.

“Barbados or even Daytona, they’re race tracks. You could turn up with a classic touring car. But with dirt and a jump, you can’t do that. You’re always governed by the fact that they have to get through the dirt. That’s the level of all the tracks.”

Things started well enough. Arpin was seventh at Ft. Lauderdale but a charge to second, a Silver medal, in only the team’s second ever start at the X Games at Austin’s Circuit of The Americas, was one of the season highlights.

“X Games… Steve just raced great and drove through the field. That certainly showed the potential of the car,” Goodman said.

Arpin added, “For the rewards, the X Games was the standout, but the final race in Vegas was the best for us.”

In part two of our look at CGR Rallycross, we’ll look at the remainder of their season after those opening two rounds that laid the groundwork for a successful first campaign in the championship.

Mercedes AMG Petronas tops its 2014 point total, despite fewer points available

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The end of the Formula 1 season just completed means a chance to compare stats and points standings year-on-year. So forgive the dive into nerddom, but it’s the most wonderful time of year to bust out the calculators.

We’ll start first with the double World Champions, Mercedes AMG Petronas, who have managed to top their tally in the Constructor’s Championship from 2014.

For the second consecutive year, Mercedes has won 16 of 19 races and gone 1-2 in the driver’s championship.

Where they’ve improved: they set the record for 15 front row lockouts, they took 12 1-2 race finishes after taking “only” 11 in 2014, and, perhaps most impressively, topped its overall points total despite having fewer points on offer.

The double points finale last year meant a maximum of 86 points was possible (50 and 36 for first and second rather than the 25 and 18).

Yes, Mercedes scored fewer points this year at Abu Dhabi than last… but still scored the maximum achievable (43 of 43 versus 50 of 86).

It meant Mercedes ended 2015 with two more points than it did in 2014 – 703 to 701. Lewis Hamilton’s own tally went down by three, from 384 to 381, but teammate Nico Rosberg made up the difference with a five-point gain from 317 to 322.

Percentage-wise, Mercedes scored 703 of a maximum possible 817 points – or 86.07 percent of the potential maximum number (43 points, times 19 races).

It’s an uptick from the still remarkable 81.51 percent of the potential maximum last year (701 of 860).

To put in perspective how dominant that number is by contrast to the rest of the field, Mercedes scored 703 of 1,919 total points (101 total points per race, times 19 races) on offer in 2015.

That meant as one team, Mercedes brought home 36.63 percent of all points available in 2015, which is up from 34.7 percent last year (701 of 2,020 points).

The remaining eight teams that scored were left to divide up the remaining 63 and change percent… or an average of 7.92 percent, per team, or so.

So for 2016, on top of wishing Ferrari and the rest of the field can up their game to match, one of the early story lines to watch will be whether Mercedes can sustain this incredible amount of statistical dominance from its on-track success.

Audi to test six young guns in its DTM car

Photo: Audi
Photo: Audi
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It’s not just Mercedes (and Kevin Magnussen) that’s testing young guns in one of its DTM cars this week at Jerez.

Audi announced that it would give a six-pack of youngsters a shot to test as well, from Tuesday to Thursday, at the same place in the Audi RS 5 DTM.

Those six include:

  • Matthew Brabham (21/USA)
  • Mitch Evans (21/New Zealand)
  • Antonio Giovinazzi (21/Italy)
  • Ben Hanley (30/Great Britain)
  • Alex Palou (18/Spain)
  • Arthur Pic (24/France)

Note most of these six have or had some level of open-wheel experience, with Evans having tried his hand successfully in a couple different sports cars this year. The young Kiwi finished second in his debut at the 24 Hours of Le Mans after winning at Spa in his sports car debut, driving Jota Sport’s Gibson 015S Nissan.

Brabham comes over to test the DTM car after racing primarily in the Mazda Road to Indy the last four years. He won the 2012 USF2000 and 2013 Pro Mazda titles, then raced the full 2014 and partial 2015 seasons in Indy Lights; he’s also driven in Formula E for Andretti Autosport and in the Stadium Super Trucks.

Kevin Hart, Ludacris, Marco Andretti head to Abu Dhabi for F1 finale

Marco Andretti
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Marco Andretti has had a good run of attending season finale events.

Obviously, the 28-year-old grandson of Mario Andretti rounded out his 10th season in the Verizon IndyCar Series at its own season finale at Sonoma, finishing 11th and then ending the year ninth in points.

But Andretti told NASCAR Talk’s Nate Ryan, among other reporters, at Phoenix International Raceway where he’d tested his IndyCar and then made the promotional rounds that he’d have a busy next couple weeks ahead.

“I’m watching too many races. I need to be in them!” Andretti said. “(Homestead), I’m going as Jeff Gordon’s guest. Then going to Abu Dhabi Formula 1. (Our season) needs to be longer.”

Last week, he and fellow IndyCar stars Josef Newgarden and James Hinchcliffe made the trip to Homestead-Miami Speedway – incidentally, as did Mario Andretti and Lewis Hamilton – to witness Jeff Gordon’s final drive before hanging up his helmet after 23 incredible years at NASCAR’s top level.

This week, it was Marco’s turn to hit Hamilton’s usual turf, as he and his friends Ludacris and Kevin Hart made the trip to Abu Dhabi to witness the F1 finale.

Marco, who had a Honda Racing F1 test in the late 2000s but never was able to make the move to emulate both Mario and Michael, each of whom raced in F1, appeared wowed by the Yas Marina Circuit once he arrived from Chicago.

Abu Dhabi F1 quals!! @kevinhart4real @ludacris

A photo posted by Marco Andretti (@marcoandretti) on

Yas is hands down the most insane facility ! #AbuDhabi. Wish I was driving !!

A photo posted by Marco Andretti (@marcoandretti) on

Andretti, Luda, Hart and crew met up with Infiniti Red Bull Racing’s Daniel Ricciardo at the weekend.

Andretti is continuing the trip into this week, with further posts via his Instagram page.

Hart – one of this country’s most talented and recognizable comedians at the moment – also appeared to enjoy the atmosphere.

As did Ludacris, who posted this view from a yacht.

The only way to watch the F1 Race in Abu Dhabi. #yachtlife

A photo posted by @ludacris on

The vacation crew found Hamilton after the race on Sunday night.

Hamilton’s friend, another artist in Big Sean, who’d performed the halftime show at the Philadelphia Eagles-Detroit Lions Thanksgiving Day game in Detroit, also made the flight out to Abu Dhabi.

Complete with other more obscure, random celebrities like Rick Astley – who apparently “Rick-rolled” free practice two coverage on the world feed – Edgar Davids and Dwight Yorke, it was a weekend of interesting folks hitting Abu Dhabi. My MotorSportsTalk colleague Luke Smith noted those three, below, in various tweets over the weekend.