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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Pagenaud takes pivotal fourth place finish in Texas

during practice for the Verizon IndyCar Series Firestone 600 at Texas Motor Speedway on June 10, 2016 in Fort Worth, Texas.
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The resumption of the Firestone 600 at Texas Motor Speedway offered Simon Pagenaud a challenge: recover from his first and thus far only mistake of the year on Monday in Pocono and put forth a championship-caliber performance, or incur a second straight dud result that could put pause to those hopes.

But despite the “weird” nature of the day that faced him going into it, Pagenaud delivered a key drive aided by a good strategic call from his No. 22 Hewlett Packard Enterprise Team Penske Chevrolet team to secure a potentially pivotal fourth place finish for the rest of the Verizon IndyCar Series season.

After a spate of late-race accidents, Pagenaud was one of two drivers along with Tony Kanaan who opted to pit for fresh Firestone tires.

The gamble paid dividends because inevitably, those cars with the fresher tires would move towards the front in the later stages.

Pagenaud, who’s certainly been better on ovals this season in his second year with Team Penske but hasn’t yet had that incredible “tip of your tongue” memory oval drive, had to balance fighting for the win with three hungry drivers who hadn’t yet won this year – Kanaan, James Hinchcliffe and eventual winner Graham Rahal.

But he did just that, fighting hard yet clean in an intense four-way battle on a night he needed a big result to restart his title momentum, in a race that was looming large on the calendar.

Yeah, he ended fourth – but with Will Power in eighth, he gained eight points to stretch his lead to 28 points – and that provides the latest pendulum swing between the two in a year full of them.

“My spotter said, ‘four-wide’, and I’m like uh, oh, that’s no good,” Pagenaud said post-race. “And then Rahal touched me and I touched Hinchcliffe, so I was actually loose going into the corner and had to back out of it.

“It’s unfortunate. I really wanted to get that first oval win. But, I think no matter what, that was a great performance. The HP car was amazing all night. Thanks to Chevy, obviously; this aero kit is really amazing. It really shows what the IndyCars can do. I think tonight we had a great show. Did you guys enjoy it? I did. I didn’t have any breath left, you know?

“Wow. That was exciting! I don’t think I have any breath left. I thought we were going to get it, but when it went four wide I got touched and pushed me into (James Hinchcliffe) and I had to back out of it or there was going to be a big wreck. The Hewlett Packard Enterprise Chevy just got better and better all night. I really thought it was going to come together right at the end when we got back on the lead lap. We were able to come in for tires. Everything nearly came together.”

Dixon, Carpenter disagree over contact at Texas (VIDEO)

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Scott Dixon and Ed Carpenter are both good dudes, dads, husbands, and fathers to multiple children. They’re both good friends who embrace Indianapolis. And they both happen to wheel an IndyCar pretty well.

Yet rarely do their paths cross on the racetrack – primarily because Carpenter only races in the Verizon IndyCar Series on ovals – but tonight they did at Texas Motor Speedway in the resumption of the rain-delayed Firestone 600.

And it got interesting when the two collided in the final 40 laps of the race.

Carpenter, who was wearing a throwback helmet, restarted in the No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet from fifth place and Dixon from 14th in the No. 9 Target Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet when the race resumed.

For a while, Carpenter had about the only car capable of challenging the pretty much dominant driver and car of the night, James Hinchcliffe in the No. 5 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda.

For a moment, it appeared as though Carpenter would seek to match Hinchcliffe’s strategy to get to the finish on potentially one less stop than their competitors.

Any strategy hopes went out the window though when Dixon, who was lapped at the time, and Carpenter made contact on Lap 213. The first replay made it appear as though Carpenter chopped Dixon, but that was misleading; upon a second replay, appeared actually more of a racing incident.

As Carpenter took the second apex in the tri-oval, Dixon also moved up, and it sent Dixon spinning out of control into Turn 1 – and then back across the track where fortunately all other cars (except the seemingly luckless Helio Castroneves, who’s been a magnet for other car contacts this year) managed to avoid hitting him.

A less than pleased Dixon channeled his inner Will Power at Loudon in 2011 responded by giving Carpenter an infamous “double bird” salute. Carpenter continued, and Dixon was done on the spot.

But Carpenter’s race didn’t last much longer, as he got loose exiting Turn 4 and crashed out, again collecting Castroneves. Max Chilton spun in avoidance to the infield grass on the tri-oval.

With both drivers out, it marked a frustrating end to their nights.

Dixon’s continually frustrating 2016 season sees his championship hopes all but mathematically end tonight. After finishing 19th and with a maximum of 158 points left on the table, Dixon sits 132 back with just two races to go. His perhaps greater streak, finishing in the top three in points every year since 2006, is also in jeopardy; he sits sixth.

“I like Ed [Carpenter] and he’s a good friend, but I don’t know what the hell he was doing out there,” Dixon said, via post-race quotes distributed by Chevrolet.

“Three laps before that he nearly crashed me doing the same thing going into Turn 3. And then going into Turn 1 he just turned left into me. I don’t know if his radio wasn’t working or he didn’t have a spotter, but how you don’t get a penalty for that I have no idea.”

Carpenter ends his 2016 season behind the wheel with only one race finish – a lapped 18th in Iowa – in five starts. What he thought was his best chance to bank some sort of result tonight went awry after the contact, and later, his own car getting loose out of Turn 4. He ended 18th tonight.

“The car was awesome. On long runs, I think we were for sure the best car out there. I’d cut into James’s lead every stint. He was a little quicker. We didn’t have the fastest car, but it was good on the long runs,” Carpenter said.

“I’m just bummed. It’s been such a rough year. We’ve had such better cars that what we had last year and really just can’t catch a break.

“Whatever happened with Scott and I there, when my left rear touched his front wing, it must have cut a tire and that led to the accident.

“I’m just really bummed. I thought tonight was a night that we could have gotten a good result. It’s going to be a long off-season before I can get back in the car, but we’ll come back strong next year.”

Spencer Pigot returns to Carpenter’s No. 20 Chevrolet for the final two races at Watkins Glen International and Sonoma Raceway. The latter site is where Pigot made his IndyCar test debut a year ago driving for Team Penske last year, and captured the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires title in 2014.

Kanaan praises “old school Texas” as he delivers another star drive (VIDEO)

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The haters can say Tony Kanaan should retire. The haters are incorrect.

Kanaan’s incredible 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series season in the No. 10 NTT Data Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet rolled on Saturday night in the resumption of the rain-delayed Firestone 600 at Texas Motor Speedway, when he finished a perhaps hard-luck third after another stout drive.

Kanaan’s been among the best – if not the best – drivers in the field to have not won this year. He came close to ending a near two-year winless drought Saturday night in Texas after fighting with James Hinchcliffe for the lead of the race in the waning stages, with team owner Chip Ganassi and strategist Barry Wanser opting to pit him for fresh Firestone tires in the waning stages.

Graham Rahal got them both by the checkered flag, but Kanaan, 41, still proved there’s plenty of life left in the “old dog.”

“Oh, that was so much fun. I’ve got to thank the fans that came back. I didn’t think there was going to be a lot of people but whoever didn’t come missed a hell of a race,” Kanaan told NBCSN’s Robin Miller post-race.

“That was some old school Texas right there.

“It was a good night. We started way in the back, but we made up positions right away. I think with INDYCAR not changing the rules and the earlier race being a day race, we had a ton of downforce that we had to run during tonight’s race, so the cars felt a lot closer as you could see. I had to dig into my hard drive and remember pack racing again. It worked out pretty well.

“Big props to the guys in front who gave each other room, that’s why we finished the way we did. It’s always a pleasure to race like that. I feel bad for the people that didn’t come back tonight from the first race to watch because it really was a hell of a show.”

Kanaan described the finish: “On the inside. But if Graham (Rahal) wasn’t pushing Hinch (James Hinchcliffe), I was going to have it. So, I was hoping for Graham to get greedy and go three wide. That was going to slow everybody down, but that didn’t happen. He was smart enough.”

With this result, Kanaan is now third in the points, only behind Simon Pagenaud and Will Power. Although he hasn’t won yet in 2016, he has five top-five finishes and only one finish (25th at the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis) outside the top-12 all season.

Rahal denies Hinchcliffe at Texas by just 0.008 of a second

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In a photo finish, Graham Rahal has denied James Hinchcliffe a near certain victory by just 0.0080 of a second at Texas Motor Speedway in the Verizon IndyCar Series’ resumption of the rain-delayed Firestone 600.

Hinchcliffe, who was the restart leader on Lap 71, led most of the night, except when it counted. Rahal surged to the lead on the final lap and edging past on the inside into Turns 3 and 4, and the held him off through the tri-oval even though he put his arm up early to celebrate.

The margin of victory is the fifth closest in IndyCar history but supplants a 0.0096 margin of victory by Sam Hornish Jr. over Helio Castroneves, September 15, 2002, as the closest in Texas Motor Speedway history.

Tony Kanaan and Simon Pagenaud were third and fourth after also being a huge part of the win battle. At one point, the quartet went four-wide, with Pagenaud careful to as not affect his championship hopes while also understanding the desires of the other three drivers to win their first race of the year.

Ultimately there could only be one winner and it was Rahal, who restarted the race only in 12th but stayed out of trouble, and stayed on the lead lap, to get into contention in the No. 15 Mi-Jack/RLL Honda.

Hinchcliffe led the majority of the race after the restart, with the No. 5 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda the dominant car on both speed and strategy in the race.

Following a Lap 164 pit stop, Hinchcliffe and strategist Robert Gue figured that with only 86 laps to go, they could make it home on one more pit stop, owing to the fact the tire degradation was not as significant as others. Additionally, with the Canadian having lapped most of the field up to the top five, there would be fewer cars to contend with as the race went on.

But a spate of accidents followed after Hinchcliffe pitted for what you figured would have been the final time on Lap 206.

The first contact came between Scott Dixon and Ed Carpenter, in what initially looked like Carpenter moving down on Dixon but upon a second replay, appeared actually more of a racing incident. As Carpenter took the second apex in the tri-oval, Dixon also moved up, and it sent Dixon spinning out of control into Turn 1 – and then back across the track where fortunately all other cars (except the seemingly luckless Helio Castroneves, who’s been a magnet for other car contacts this year) managed to avoid hitting him.

A less than pleased Dixon channeled his inner Will Power at Loudon in 2011 by giving Carpenter an infamous “double bird” salute. Carpenter continued and Dixon was done on the spot.

But Carpenter’s race didn’t last much longer, as he got loose exiting Turn 4 and crashed out, again collecting Castroneves. Max Chilton spun in avoidance to the infield grass on the tri-oval.

A third accident followed not long after when Mikhail Aleshin, who had only recently got back on the lead lap, also spun in Turn 4. Aleshin collected Jack Hawksworth, who had nowhere to go, and Chilton again managed to avoid it although he took to the pit lane.

The question throughout all of these yellows was whether any of the leaders would pit for fresh Firestone tires and Kanaan and Pagenaud were the ones who opted to do so.

The difference in tire strategies set up a thrilling – if perhaps tense – run to the finish and when the four race protagonists opted to go four-wide, it was a bit of throat in your mouth moment.

But Rahal cannily played his moves later. He’d tried going below the white line into Turn 3 a couple laps before the finish, to at least give himself an idea of how he could get by Hinchcliffe for the lead.

Once he did so, into Turn 3 on the inside on the final lap, he had just enough momentum to make it through ahead of Hinchcliffe, who fought back valiantly but just short of what would have been a thoroughly deserved win on the outside.

Kanaan was third, after another strong performance.

With Pagenaud fourth and Will Power picking the worst race to end his six-race first or second-place run of results – he ended eighth – Pagenaud bounced back in a big way from his Pocono crash on Monday.

Unofficially the Frenchman now carries a 28-point lead with just two road course races remaining, including at Watkins Glen next week.

Results are below, as are the unofficial points standings.

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