UPDATED: Denny Hamlin explains what happened at Fontana

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UPDATE: Denny Hamlin met with members of the media after Friday’s Sprint Cup practice session at Martinsville Speedway. In that session, Hamlin set track records for speed and elapsed time, becoming the first driver in track history to eclipse 100 mph in a lap, as well as under 19 seconds.

Here’s excerpts of Hamlin’s explanation of what happened last Sunday at Fontana, followed by what he said earlier today in an interview with Fox Sports.

“Friday evening I definitely felt an agitation right in the corner to my upper eyelid so I thought I was getting a sty because it just felt like one. Then Saturday, I woke up and it was a little worse. I ran through practice and vision was fine, but just a lot of watering and I didn’t see any swelling of the eyelid so I knew it wasn’t a sty at that point.

“I didn’t go to the infield care center until late on Saturday. Me and my girlfriend went to the mall – we were shopping around and it was bothering me so much that I contacted one of the NASCAR liaisons and asked if anyone was still at the infield care center. They said they would wait on me so they waited on me. They looked at it, they dyed it, they put it under a black light, didn’t see any scratches, didn’t see anything in the eye.

“Immediately we started trying to figure out what would be causing it if there’s nothing in it. The only thing I could think of is I was starting to actually get a little stuffy on my left hand side of my face and my nose was running a little bit. I mentioned to them in trying to cover all the possibilities that I showed them a CT scan from January where I had a really, really bad sinus infection — it was the worst the doctor has ever seen.

“We took some antibiotics for a couple weeks, I started feeling better and so I never went back to him to get a scan, which I probably should have went back to Petty in January after I took all the antibiotics and felt better. I just assumed that if I feel better then more than likely it’s gone.

“So I went to bed Saturday night, woke up Sunday and felt twice as worse – pain was twice as worse and vision was slightly impaired over where it was Saturday. I stayed in the infield care center for a couple hours and we tried to go over all the possibilities of what it could be and really since they didn’t see anything in it, the only thing we could do was get an optometrist to come to the race track, which it was too late into the day for that, it was too late for me to go to one and come back in time (for the race).

“So everyone came to an agreement that the best thing for me was to go to the hospital and get scanned in case. There’s tons of different possibilities, whether it be a blood clot – anything that affects because there’s more to it, but any time wind would hit my eye it would shoot a pain right to my temple, so they thought that there was something really bad going on behind the eye that they didn’t have the equipment in the infield care center – you need to get a CT scan.

“The only way they’re ever going to know is to put me through another scan and see, but by the time I got to the hospital and the optometrist came in with her microscope, saw the metal, got it out – a portion of it, she couldn’t get the rust out she said – it would need a couple more days for that to harden to get out.

“Once the metal came out, I felt a lot better.  We went home, the CT scan showed that I was perfectly clear on the sinus part of it, which was very, very good news. I thought I was going to have to do something about that as well so I was perfectly good with the sinuses, it was just the metal that was overlooked.

“I wanted to race of course, no matter what.  I felt like if I was going to be a liability I would have pulled myself during the race, but there’s protocols that we have to go through and it’s not just my safety that has got to be taken into account. We’re racing around other guys and that’s one of the fastest tracks we go to.

“What if I caused a wreck early on? I don’t need to be a liability out there and obviously with this new format we hardly lost anything in points. We still have a great shot to win a lot of races from here until the Chase so take the safe approach.

“There were two separate, perfectly good doctors in the infield care center at California and both of them could not see it.  It took someone who was in the business of eyes to find it. It sucks because I wish I would have got it out on Saturday then I would have been fine for Sunday, but it’s part of it and it’s just bad luck. The track hates me.

“… Although at the hospital they found the metal and I felt better instantly, that doesn’t mean that was the whole problem. We had to go through two more days of testing in Charlotte to realize that the sinus part was okay. They got everything out on Monday.  Basically around the metal it built a rust ring so there was like a ring of rust around it. They needed time for that to harden for them to pick that out. Once he got that out I felt better yet.

“That’s why nothing was said for a few days is because I don’t want to be speaking out of line and not knowing exactly what I’m talking about until I know exactly what the problem was. We didn’t know that until Wednesday when we finally got cleared and they ran all the tests again to make sure that we were 100 percent. I don’t need to really justify a lot to a lot of people. I think the important people are NASCAR, my team guys and things like that. My health is my business and so I will give you all the facts and let you sift through them and do the best you can with them, but really I didn’t know everything that went on until Tuesday to Wednesday.”

When asked if he felt his reputation with fellow drivers, fans and the media may have been affected, Hamlin responded:

“I’m going to try not to get mad. My health is my business, but what if it was cancer or tumor? I don’t have to tell anyone that. It’s my business. People who thing negatively of me or think that we side-stepped some sort of drug test or something is ridiculous. I’m in one of the top-three cars in NASCAR, I would have to be an absolute moron to risk that. I have a daughter that I have to provide for a really long time. For people to question who I am inside and outside the race car, I’ve never done anything to even put that in question.

“I go to Bobcats games, I got out and hang out with friends out in public. I don’t stay tucked in my motorhome, I don’t stay tucked into my house, it’s not what I like to do. Because I’m out there a little bit more, people think I got out and I party. I got a wakeup call because I don’t drink at all hardly, ever. I’ve never done drugs, ever.

“I’m as clean as they come. I don’t know why people question who I am outside the race track. I worked too hard to get here to throw it all away. If anyone has any questions about that, they can ask me directly. People who assume, people like that … but it bothers me that my character is questioned.

“People think that there’s some kind of conspiracy. … I’m done justifying and defending myself on those things. I’m not going to let those people drag me down. … It just bothers me because there’s people that like to make rumors, and of course within our NASCAR community, rumors become truth when enough people say it.  I’m done.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

(Below is the original story from Friday morning before Hamlin spoke to the media:)

Denny Hamlin appeared in public and made his first comments since missing last Sunday’s race in California, showing up for practice and qualifying Friday at Martinsville Speedway, site of this Sunday’s STP 500.

A four-time winner at Martinsville, Hamlin was asked by Fox Sports’ Krista Voda how much pain he was in at Fontana.

“Enough,” Hamlin quipped before adding, “It was very agitated. The biggest problem was the metal had been in there for three days, so it began to rust.

“Once it started to rust, then it started to infect. That’s essentially what caused the major problem. But once we got it all out, it was good. It’s been a good week. Now we need to just come here to Martinsville and win this weekend.”

The agitation apparently didn’t impact Hamlin, as he broke both ends of the Martinsville track record with a lap of 18.932 seconds at 100.021 mph in the final two minutes of Friday afternoon’s pre-qualifying practice session.

Still, his interview with Voda failed to address several still lingering issues:

* How did doctors believe the metal sliver got into his eye in the first place?

* Where it’s believed the metal sliver originated from?

* Why did initial reports about his condition indicate he was suffering from a sinus infection that affected his vision, causing him to pull out of the race less than an hour before the green flag start?

Hamlin is due to meet with NASCAR media later Friday afternoon. (We will update this story if Hamlin makes additional revelations).

During the Fox interview, Hamlin wore large and dark sunglasses, most likely some form of protective measure, even though it was very cloudy and overcast.

Voda asked Hamlin about the sunglasses and “if there is any irritation or after-effects.”

“Yeah, it’ll probably be this way for a little while,” Hamlin said, “The doctor described it kind of like there’s a divot in the lens of my eyes, from where they had to dig it out.

“It’ll go away. It’s slightly agitated. Really, today is the only day it’s been agitated. It’s been fine the past three days. It’s just a small issue that grew into a big one and I hated that we had to miss last week.”

Even though he missed the race at Fontana, being treated at a nearby hospital while the event was being run (fill-in driver Sam Hornish Jr. finished 17th in Hamlin’s place), Hamlin still remains 11th in the Sprint Cup standings.

“With the new NASCAR format, this gives us an opportunity where all we have to do is work this weekend,” Hamlin said. “We have to win, I feel like we’re going to win, and it’ll all be in the past.”

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

MRTI Barber Notebook: Saturday

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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Jamin Rolls to Indy Lights Win as Chaos Reigns on the Start

Nico Jamin added his name to the list of drivers who have won in all three of the Mazda Road to Indy championships by securing his first career Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires victory. The Frenchman dove inside polesitter Kyle Kaiser for the lead entering turn five on lap 4 and went unchallenged from there. Kaiser held on for second while Neil Alberico completed the podium. His Carlin teammates Matheus Leist and Zachary Claman De Melo completed the top five.

“It was just incredible – when I got to Victory Lane and everyone wanted to talk to me, I didn’t know what to say! I was so emotional,” said an elated Jamin, who joins Sage Karam, Spencer Pigot, Matthew Brabham, and Aaron Telitz as drivers who have won in all three of the MRTI series.

Jamin added that he needed to be on the attack immediately, since it can be difficult to pass at Barber Motorsports Park. “Here, you can start on pole and get away or you have to get it done early, so I was in attack mode right away. I went on push-to-pass, broke late and made the pass stick,” he said of his move on Kaiser.

The race was not without controversy. Kaiser jumped slightly early on the initial start, forcing officials to wave it off. When Kaiser subsequently slowed, outside pole sitter Colton Herta tried to dive inside of Kaiser to avoid him, but clipped the left-rear of Kaiser’s car. “I saw the start was waved off so I slowed up and I felt a little nudge from behind. I feel bad for Colton but these things happen,” Kaiser said of the incident.

Start of Indy Lights Race 1 at Barber Motorsports Park. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

The contact damaged Herta’s front wing and forced him to pit for repairs. He also received a penalty for not adhering to pace car speed and had to restart at the back of the pack. He eventually rebounded to finish tenth.

Further, the incident saw Pato O’Ward get hung up on the back of Santi Urrutia’s car while Aaron Telitz clipped the back of teammate Shelby Blackstock. O’Ward and Telitz suffered a damaged front wings, while Urrutia had a broken rear wing and damaged suspension. O’Ward and Telitz resumed after repairs, finishing eighth and 13th respectively, while Urrutia lost several laps in the pits before rejoining the fight. He eventually pulled off with more suspension problems.

Herta retains the points lead, but now leads Kaiser by 10 points and Aaron Telitz by 13. Race 2 rolls off at 12:45 p.m. ET (11:45 a.m. local time) on Sunday.

Results from Race 1 are below.

Askew Dominates USF2000 Race 2

While chaos hit Indy Lights, the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda saw continued domination from Oliver Askew, who again led every lap on his way to victory in Race 2 to record a weekend sweep of poles and victories in USF2000.

Oliver Askew had the broom out this weekend at Barber Motorsports Park. Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

He led second-place Kaylen Frederick, who also finished second to Askew on Friday, by nearly three seconds, while Parker Thompson was able to beat Rinus Van Kalmthout for the final spot on the podium.

“It’s a dream come true. We had a fantastic car so we had the chance to do well this weekend and I just took it,” Askew said of the weekend.

He also added that his winning streak (he has won three races in a row dating back to St. Petersburg) does not undermine the rest of the USF2000 field, and he pretends he is always qualifying in order to force himself to drive at his maximum. “The main goal is the championship but a win pays the most so this is fantastic. I’m probably the most anxious for qualifying because, as close as the field is, that can be the race right there. Again today, I pretended it was a qualifying session and just put in the laps,” he detailed.

Askew’s win puts him 36 points clear of Frederick and Van Kalmthout, who are currently tied for second in the championship standings. Results from Race 2 can be found below.

Andretti, Rahal at loss for words after tough Barber qualifying (VIDEO)

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Marco Andretti’s weekend speed went missing when it counted. Graham Rahal, meanwhile, has been unable to find it all weekend.

So are the woes of the two famous sons-of-legends after qualifying 13th and 21st for Sunday’s Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN), as they look to bank a result in the third round of the Verizon IndyCar Series season at Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Ala.

Starting with Andretti first, the driver of the No. 27 Andretti Autosport Honda had what on paper seemed to be his best chance to advance to his first Firestone Fast Six appearance since St. Petersburg 2014 after pacing Friday’s second practice and keeping up his recent trend of being fast on Friday.

“We just need to do it when it counts tomorrow. You know, it’s very important to qualify well here, so I’m pleased that we have the pace to hopefully be able to do that. But yeah, I mean, so far, so good. We just need to replicate it tomorrow,” Andretti said after Friday’s practice.

But by less than one hundredth of a second, Andretti missed out. With a best time of 1:07.5405 just adrift of Max Chilton in sixth in Group 1, Q1 at 1:07.5374, he was stuck in an unlucky 13th.

“It takes putting it together. A little too loose there but I should have got it in. With the margin this morning I should be in. This one hurts,” Andretti told NBCSN.

‪Went wicked loose on reds and missed it by 4 thousandths today. That's @IndyCar . Looking forward to tomorrow. ‬

A post shared by Marco Andretti (@marcoandretti) on

Rahal, meanwhile, has felt the pain of only being a single-car Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing team this year up against the mights of all the other multi-car teams in the field. Whereas in the past two years, Rahal and RLL have overachieved, this year he’s said they just haven’t been able to replicate that success with the No. 15 Honda.

He’ll start 21st in a race where he was looking to go one spot better after a pair of runner-up finishes the last two years here. Of course Sebastien Bourdais won from 21st at St. Petersburg, but that marked the first time a race winner started last since Scott Dixon won from 22nd at Mid-Ohio in 2014. Rahal had three starts of 20th or worse last season (20th at Watkins Glen, 24th at IndyCar Grand Prix after a penalty and 26th at Indianapolis 500) but hasn’t started last in a race since 2014 at Long Beach, when he rolled off 23rd.

“We’ve got everything (wrong) this weekend. I had nothing else. There was no more speed in my car,” Rahal lamented to NBCSN. “I put in one miracle lap this morning and couldn’t get within half a second again. We just haven’t been very good this year and haven’t performed at a very high level. We can’t seem to get the tire to bite the road at all.

“For us as a single-car team it’s impossible. We don’t have anyone else to try anything different. St. Pete we struggled. Long Beach we struggled. Here it’s been a struggle all weekend. Something fundamentally might have changed. Starting last on merit, I don’t think I’ve ever done in my career.”

Power, Penske, Chevrolet dominate IndyCar Barber qualifying (VIDEO)

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Will Power scored the pole position for Sunday’s Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama, as part of a Team Penske and Chevrolet dominated qualifying session for the third round of the Verizon IndyCar Series season at Barber Motorsports Park (Sunday, 3 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

But with polesitters having finished only 19th and ninth to start 2017 – Power at St. Petersburg and teammate Helio Castroneves at Long Beach – it remains to be seen whether this will translate on Sunday after a weekend where Penske and Chevrolet have struck back after Honda’s fast start. Meanwhile Sebastien Bourdais and James Hinchcliffe have won from 21st and fourth, respectively.

Power’s pole Saturday in the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet, at a lap of 1:06.9614 around the 2.3-mile road course is the 46th of his career and fourth at Barber (2010, 2011 and 2014) and he’s won twice here before, in 2011 from pole and in 2012 from ninth on the grid.

“We weren’t good on the used reds, but we worked at it and the car was really good. We did feel a bit heavy in that session but the car was really good. All the credit to the Verizon Team Penske guys. Starting on pole here is important. The weather looks a little bit iffy but it is what it is. That’s all you can do. We’ll try to go out and have fun,” Power told NBCSN’s Kevin Lee.

Penske teammates Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud completed the top three, as Penske and Chevrolet score their third pole in as many races to start the year.

“Man it was just one little blink and you miss it. Long Beach was precision… here was out of control!” Castroneves laughed after coming up just short in second, speaking to NBCSN’s Marty Snider.

Pagenaud told NBCSN’s Katie Hargitt, “We had a great car. The Menards car was fast but we went a little too aggressive for qualifying. We tried, and it was a good battle with Will and Helio.”

Scott Dixon will start fourth, top Honda on the grid, as he goes for his first Barber win and first win of 2017. He’s started between third and fifth in all eight Barber races in his career and has six podiums, all either second or third place.

Long Beach sparring partners Ryan Hunter-Reay and James Hinchcliffe round out the Firestone Fast Six, as Hinchcliffe looks for his second straight win after winning last time out while Hunter-Reay seeks to end a year-and-a-half winless drought and secure his third win at Barber (2013, 2014).

The big surprise from the preliminary rounds of qualifying was second free practice pacesetter Marco Andretti getting bounced out in Q1, as part of an overall struggle for the Andretti Autosport team where he, Takuma Sato and Alexander Rossi all failed to advance. Hunter-Reay was the only driver of that team’s quartet who did.

Hinchcliffe led the opening round of qualifying in his Group 1, ahead of Tony Kanaan, Josef Newgarden, Mikhail Aleshin, Ed Jones and Max Chilton. Newgarden had an off-and-on moment at Turns 2 and 3 but glided out of the grass without damage to his No. 2 Fitzgerald Glider Kits Chevrolet.

The big surprise from Q1, Group 1 was the failure of Andretti to advance in the No. 27 Andretti Autosport Honda, after another weekend of good practice pace. Andretti missed advancing by just 0.031 of a second (1:07.5405 versus Chilton’s 1:07.5374) and will start 13th on Sunday.

“It takes putting it together. A little too loose there but I should have got it in. With the margin this morning I should be in. This one hurts,” Andretti told NBCSN.

Charlie Kimball and the Ed Carpenter Racing teammates, Spencer Pigot and Zach Veach, also failed to advance from that group.

In Group 2, Q1, a stacked session saw the usual suspects advance – Power, Dixon, Castroneves, Pagenaud, Hunter-Reay and Sebastien Bourdais made it through. Power clocked the only 1:06 lap of Q1 at 1:06.9311.

Left on the outside were Takuma Sato, Carlos Munoz, Alexander Rossi, Conor Daly and Graham Rahal. Rahal will now start 21st and last, and likely will need a strategy gamble to leapfrog his way up the order in his pursuit of a third straight runner-up finish at Barber, or to try to go one spot better and duplicate Bourdais’ last-to-first victory at St. Petersburg.

“We’ve got everything (wrong) this weekend. I had nothing else. There was no more speed in my car,” Rahal lamented to NBCSN. “I put in one miracle lap this morning and couldn’t get within half a second again. We just haven’t been very good this year and haven’t performed at a very high level. We can’t seem to get the tire to bite the road at all.

“For us as a single-car team it’s impossible. We don’t have anyone else to try anything different. St. Pete we struggled. Long Beach we struggled. Here it’s been a struggle all weekend. Something fundamentally might have changed. Starting last on merit, I don’t think I’ve ever done in my career.”

Q2 saw all four past Barber pole winners, Power, Castroneves, Hunter-Reay and Pagenaud advance through along with Dixon and Hinchcliffe, the latter two continuing their streaks as the only two drivers to make it to every Firestone Fast Six session this season.

Left on the outside looking in were Newgarden, Aleshin, Chilton, Kanaan, Jones and Bourdais. Newgarden missed out by less than a tenth of a second.

Newgarden told NBCSN after his near miss, “We tried to go on the used reds from the first round of qualifying. It was a great call. But today all the Penske cars had great pace and we just missed out. I just couldn’t get quite the speed that I had before.”

Meanwhile points leader Bourdais told NBCSN, “I still don’t know how we even made the Fast 12. We’ve been struggling fighting the understeer and we haven’t made big gains all weekend. We took a big swing at it in qualifying. We tried something different – it didn’t work. But sometimes it’s good to find out when nothing works. It’s been a tough weekend. We have a really good, small group of guys. We just haven’t had it this weekend though.”

Power got back into the 1:06 bracket on his final lap in the Fast Six, with a time of 1:06.9614 around the 2.3-mile circuit. That supplanted Castroneves’ best time of 1:07.1429, with Pagenaud third in his quest to defend this race win of a year ago at 1:07.3817.

The unofficial grid is below:

Montoya relishing part-time role; looks forward to Alonso reunion

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Juan Montoya was at Bristol Motor Speedway this weekend to announce a new Team Penske partner in Fitzgerald Glider Kits, which will also serve as his sponsor during the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil next month.

Montoya was relegated to a part-time driver in 2017, with the INDYCAR Grand Prix and the Indy 500 currently his only scheduled races. Yet, while some drivers may become impatient and frustrated with the circumstances, Montoya is relishing the chance.

“The opportunity with Penske came to do this and I thought it would be… for long-term, would be the best thing for me and it’s good. I’m really happy,” he said in a press conference at Bristol. “If you are going to go race you might as well come do it with best people you can, and to be able to get a relationship with the guys at Fitzgerald: it’s amazing.”

The 41-year-old referenced that he and Penske had been working on an effort for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway events over the last year, but the hunt for sponsorship was something Montoya was not involved in.

“They just tell me ‘Come, we are announcing your sponsor,'” he joked. “Penske is very quiet. I have been here three and a half years and you learn not to ask too many questions.”

Juan Montoya’s No. 22 entry for the Indy 500. Photo: Team Penske

Of course, Montoya is not exactly sitting idle. He admitted to keeping busy with karting efforts, and is constantly in contact with engineer Raul Prados, who will lead the engineering effort on Montoya’s No. 22 Fitzgerald Glider Kits Chevrolet.

“This morning: his morning text to me is ’21 days.’  Yesterday it was ’22 days to go.’  Every day, he is more intense,” he said of his new engineer.

“He sees this as such a huge opportunity to win Indy. For me, it’s exciting. I’m not thinking about points. I’m not thinking about anything. I know I have a good shot of winning. I feel really good. It should be fun.”

Consequently, Montoya does not feel like he is behind as the month of May looms. This was evidenced at a test at Barber Motorsports Park in March. “I went to Barber to test and actually most of the morning I was quicker than all my teammates,” he quipped. “I was like ‘I don’t know.’ It was good. Honestly, (during) that Barber test is the best I’ve run ever at Barber.”

There is also the added storyline of a reunion with the incoming Fernando Alonso, against whom Montoya raced in Formula 1 from 2001 to 2006 (except 2002, when Alonso was a test driver for Renault’s Formula 1 effort and did not race).

Juan Montoya announces his Indy 500 sponsor. Photo: Team Penske

Like everyone else, Montoya was caught off guard by the announcement.

“If you would have told me I was going to run a race ever against Alonso, (I thought it) would be an endurance race or something not in Indy to be honest,” he said of Alonso’s entry. “I think it’s great. I think having Fernando is going to be a really good day for motorsports, not only for IndyCar, but I think the attention overall for seeing Fernando and myself and everybody running Indy is going to be really big.”

When asked about the biggest challenge Alonso may face, Montoya zeroed in on two things. The first: the crowd.

“It is so many people around you. I think that’s a little bit hard for him from what he is used to,” he said of the atmosphere.

“In Formula One, and he has been doing that for a lot of years, we started the same year together when I was there in F1, so he’s been doing it for a long time: It’s just you have your own space and people really respect your space and here, no. The fans, the sponsors, everybody are there and everybody wants a picture and you’ve got to please them.”

The other challenging aspect he mentioned was the characteristics of the car and the track. But, he detailed that the May 3 test should help Alonso get up to speed.

“I think the good thing with a full day of testing: he will get a bit of an idea of what he needs,” Montoya added. “Just good to have a day with no pressure where you can build up and you understand what it takes. I think it will be fine. He is with a good team and they always run well there as well. It will be interesting.”

In terms of his own effort, Montoya is hoping his status as a part-time driver means Penske will experiment a little, especially when it comes to engine tuning. “I’m hoping they do. I don’t know how it works, but I know they have the knock levels and things they have to look after (in) the engine. But, if you are honestly in my position, the engine isn’t going anywhere afterwards, so might as well go for broke. I’m in. That’s what you are there for.”

As noted above, Montoya makes his return to the Verizon IndyCar Series at next month’s INDYCAR Grand Prix at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.