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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Montoya sympathizes with Verstappen over mixed response to driving style

MEXICO CITY, MEXICO - OCTOBER 30:  Max Verstappen of Netherlands and Red Bull Racing talks with ex racer Juan Pablo Montoya on the drivers parade before the Formula One Grand Prix of Mexico at Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez on October 30, 2016 in Mexico City, Mexico.  (Photo by Lars Baron/Getty Images)
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Juan Pablo Montoya believes that he faced a similar criticism during his time in Formula 1 to what Max Verstappen is currently receiving for his on-track driving style.

Montoya raced in F1 between 2001 and 2006, with his aggressive approach winning him both admirers and critics in the paddock.

Verstappen’s antics on-track have incurred the wrath of a number of drivers in 2016, and even resulted in the clarification of a rule regarding moving under braking.

However, his overtaking masterclass in Brazil has been talked up as one of the greatest drives in F1 history, with many praising the excitement that his approach brings to the grid.

Montoya sympathized with the Dutchman over such double standards when reflecting on his F1 career in a special feature for McLaren’s website.

“The way Verstappen’s been treated, I got treated like that a lot,” Montoya said.

“I would pass people. I left and then people realized two years later: ‘We’re missing that.’

“I got an award for overtaking move of the year, and I thought that’s my job, that’s what we’re all supposed to do!”

Montoya famously walked out of McLaren midway through the 2006 season before moving into NASCAR with Chip Ganassi Racing, and explained that the team’s reluctance to take up its option on him prompted the decision.

“The team had an option on me in December 2005, for 2007, and they didn’t take it. They said they wanted to wait a little bit more,” Montoya explained.

“We knew Fernando [Alonso] was coming, and we knew Kimi [Raikkonen] was going. You have an option on me, and you’re saying you want to take a little bit more time?

“I was more of the theory you either want me, or you don’t. If I’m not worth enough to be there, then I might as well do something else.

“In my mind from that point on it didn’t really matter. You’re already looking into the future, where are you going to go, what are you going to do?

“Ron [Dennis] still wanted to delay the decision about 2007, and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to stay there as well. A lot of things came together, and the opportunity to race with Chip Ganassi in America came on board.

“I wanted to be in F1 for winning, I didn’t want to just fill the grid. There were no really good opportunities.”

Rio Haryanto ‘working hard’ to make F1 comeback in 2017

HOCKENHEIM, GERMANY - JULY 29:  Rio Haryanto of Indonesia drives the 8 Manor Racing MRT-Mercedes MRT05 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Germany at Hockenheimring on July 29, 2016 in Hockenheim, Germany.  (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)
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Rio Haryanto says he is “working hard” to secure a seat on the Formula 1 grid for the 2017 season after losing his drive with Manor mid-way through 2016.

Haryanto made his F1 debut in Australia and enjoyed a solid half-season before being dropped after failing to secure enough financial backing to see out the campaign.

The Indonesian driver is thought to have secured more funding ahead of a possible return in 2017, potentially with Manor once again or with the Sauber team.

“Of course there is a chance to get back again,” Haryanto told Reuters.

“We are working hard to get the seat back. It has to be next year.”

Haryanto’s manager Piers Hunnisett added: “There are three places left now. Once one gets done, everything else can go very quickly. We are just watching everybody.

“I’m quite positive we can do something. But things change very quickly in Formula 1. I know we’ve still got huge support from Indonesia, the media and the fans. Sponsorship is ongoing.”

Haryanto was replaced by Esteban Ocon at Manor from the Belgian Grand Prix onwards, but the Frenchman will race for Force India next year, freeing up a seat.

Outgoing Haas driver Esteban Gutierrez is rumored to be in the mix for a seat at Manor should Mexican-American businessman Tavo Hellmund become an investor in the team, while Mercedes is in talks with both Manor and Sauber about a seat for junior driver Pascal Wehrlein.

Max Verstappen wins two awards at FIA Prize Giving in Vienna

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Max Verstappen capped off a remarkable 2016 Formula 1 season by winning two awards at the FIA Prize Giving in Vienna, Austria on Friday.

Verstappen, 19, became the youngest grand prix winner in F1 history at the Spanish Grand Prix in May, taking victory on his Red Bull debut after being promoted from Toro Rosso four races into the year.

The Dutchman ended the 2016 season fifth in the drivers’ championship, and also won the Driver of the Day award more times than anyone else.

Verstappen featured on the shortlist for both FIA Personality of the Year and FIA Action of the Year, having won both awards at the gala in 2015, and walked away with the silverware once again.

Verstappen was voted as the FIA Personality of the Year by permanent FIA-accredited journalists for the second year running, fending off competition from Mark Webber, Daniel Ricciardo and Lewis Hamilton.

His wet-weather overtaking masterclass in Brazil saw Verstappen win the FIA Action of the Year, with his stunning overtake on Nico Rosberg being the sole nomination from F1.

The gala saw the FIA champions for 2016 be officially crowned, including Rosberg, who was given the F1 World Championship trophy just hours after announcing his retirement from racing.

Jackie Stewart calls Rosberg’s F1 retirement ‘wonderful’

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Three-time Formula 1 World Champion Jackie Stewart has praised Nico Rosberg’s decision to retire from racing, calling the news “wonderful”.

Rosberg announced on Friday that he would be retiring from racing with immediate effect, just five days after winning his maiden F1 world title in Abu Dhabi.

The news has sent shockwaves through F1, with the general response being one of respect for the German’s decision.

Rosberg becomes just the fourth driver in F1 history to formally retire as champion, following in the footsteps of Mike Hawthorn, Alain Prost and Stewart.

Stewart won his third and final F1 title in 1973, but decided many months before his title success that he would call time on his career; Rosberg only made a final decision the day after his championship win.

“I was surprised when I heard the news, but I thought it was wonderful,” Stewart told Motor Sport Magazine.

“My first reaction was that it is not always possible to stop when at the top, but he has managed to do it.

“My decision was very different to Nico’s and came in very different circumstances. Motor racing is a lot less dangerous today than it was when I was making my decision.

“But I was burned out and exhausted with the travel and the racing.”

Stewart believes that the grind of the internal battles at Mercedes, particularly with teammate Lewis Hamilton, may have influenced Rosberg’s decision to call it quits.

“We don’t know what was going on this season but on the inside it could not have been enjoyable,” Stewart said.

“Now that he has won the World Championship he must have thought ‘do I need the aggro anymore?’; ‘Is it worthwhile going on?’

“He is good looking, well presented highly intelligent and a nice guy. There certainly won’t be a lack of commercial opportunities for him.”