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

WATCH LIVE: Australian GP on NBCSN, NBC Sports app from 12am ET

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The new Formula 1 season kicks off this Sunday with the Australian Grand Prix (live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 12am ET) as a new era for the sport gets underway.

New rules, new drivers and even a new owner of the series all adds up to make 2017 a season of change, with the established status quo in recent years set to be challenged.

Mercedes faced a stringent test from Ferrari in qualifying on Saturday, but it was Lewis Hamilton who once again took pole position after fending off Sebastian Vettel in the final Q3 shootout.

It may have been a familiar result, being Mercedes’ 16th-straight pole, yet the stage is set for a closer fight on Sunday, with a number of storylines due to play out up and down the grid.

You can watch the Australian Grand Prix live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 12am ET. CLICK HERE to watch via live stream.

You can also try out a new ‘Mosaic View’ for the race that includes the race simulcast, in-car cameras, driver tracker and pit lane cam. CLICK HERE to watch the Mosaic View live stream.

Leigh Diffey, David Hobbs and Steve Matchett will be on the call, with pit reporter Will Buxton on the ground at Albert Park providing updates and interviews throughout the race.

Also be sure to follow the @F1onNBCSports Twitter account for live updates throughout the race.

Ricciardo hit with five-spot grid penalty for gearbox change

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Daniel Ricciardo’s already tough Australian Grand Prix weekend has been dealt another blow, with the Red Bull Racing team confirming it would need to change the gearbox on his RB13 chassis.

As a result, Ricciardo’s 10th place grid position will now be 15th following the five-spot grid penalty that’s assessed for that change.

Coverage of the Australian Grand Prix begins at midnight ET on NBCSN with F1 Countdown. Lights out are at 1 a.m. ET.

Ricciardo was due to line up 10th anyway after his crash in qualifying yesterday, and repairs to the car have necessitated this gearbox change.

It makes the home race a little bit tougher for Ricciardo, but on the bright side, it should allow us to see what the “Honey Badger” is capable of passing or strategy-wise, and if overtaking will be possible given the new cars and from such a low grid position after a rare unforced error.

What to watch for: Australian Grand Prix (NBCSN, NBC Sports app from midnight ET)

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For all of changes that had taken place over the winter, qualifying for Formula 1’s season-opening Australian Grand Prix delivered a familiar result.

For the 16th race in a row, it was a Mercedes that captured pole position, with three-time champion Lewis Hamilton pulling clear in Q3. It marked his 62nd career pole and his sixth in Australia, where he made his F1 debut 10 years ago.

But the status quo from 2016 has been broken up, even if Mercedes took pole yet again. Ferrari put up a good fight courtesy of Sebastian Vettel, who split the Silver Arrows and scored his first front-row start since Singapore 2015.

Qualifying was filled with plenty of interesting storylines, leaving things finely poised for the opening round of the 2017 season.

It’s time to shake off the winter rust: Formula 1 is back.

You can watch the Australian Grand Prix live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from midnight ET on Sunday.

Here is what to watch for in tomorrow’s race.

2017 Australian Grand Prix – What to watch for

Hamilton, Vettel prepare for first act of title battle

Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel may have won six of the seven drivers’ titles since 2010, but we are yet to see the two go mano a mano for a championship. That may be all set to change this year.

Ferrari has made significant progress over the winter, proof of that being the disappointment felt by the team as Vettel was only second and not on pole. For a team that would have been happy with fifth at points last year, it marks a big, big step forward.

Hamilton certainly looks to be in the same kind of groove that delivered four straight race wins to close out 2016. He is upbeat, relaxed and looks very comfortable in himself – and when Hamilton is in this kind of shape, it adds another layer of strength to one of the finest grand prix racers in F1 history.

Having Hamilton and Vettel lock out the front row in Australia could be a nice bit of foreshadowing of the title race to come. Let’s hope we see them duke it out on Sunday, and finally make clear who holds the upper-hand in the Mercedes-Ferrari fight.

What can Bottas do on his Mercedes debut?

Valtteri Bottas was impressive in qualifying, finishing just three-tenths of a second shy of Hamilton on pole and securing third place on the grid for his Mercedes debut. For starters, it was really good going – yet the Finn was disappointed not to have made the front row or matched Hamilton.

For the race on Sunday, it is not out of the realm of possibility that Bottas could chalk up his maiden grand prix victory. His race pace in second practice on Friday was comparable to that of Hamilton, and easily clear of the Ferrari drivers. Naturally, fuel loads and engine modes need to be taken into account – but Bottas can certainly get in the mix.

The biggest thing for Bottas will be getting to grips with life at the sharp-end of the grid. Sure, he’s flirted with the front before during his time at Williams, but this is different. A podium finish is no longer the target; it’s the expectation. How he soaks up the pressure on debut tomorrow will be fascinating to see.

New start procedure set to spice things up

As part of F1’s push to increase the challenge posed to drivers, a revision of the start procedure and available aids will get its first official run-through tomorrow.

Stricter rules regarding clutch bite points and paddle placement are set to make the perfect start very, very hard to find, most likely creating greater position change off the line. The way Kevin Magnussen put it during testing was that before, so long as the drivers hit somewhere between 10 and 90 percent of their clutch bite point, they’d get a good getaway. Now the odds are much, much slimmer, making a good start down to luck as well as judgement.

Starts were a particular weakness of Lewis Hamilton through 2016, costing him the chance to fight for victory on numerous occasions, so it will be interesting to see how he reacts to the new rule. All of the drivers have been focusing on practice starts through testing and practice, yet none seem totally comfortable just yet…

Home hero Ricciardo looks for response after qualifying shunt

The home-race hoodoo for Australians in F1 continued on Saturday as Daniel Ricciardo crashed out of qualifying, resigning himself to 10th place on the grid and in need of quite the fightback on Sunday.

Ricciardo entered the weekend aiming to be the first Australian to finish on the podium at his home race in F1, with none making the top three since the event became a world championship round in 1985.

Red Bull has struggled for pace for much of the weekend, with setup issues leaving Ricciardo adrift in Friday practice. Teammate Max Verstappen also failed to impress in qualifying, finishing well off the Mercedes and Ferrari drivers at the front in P5.

For Ricciardo, starting P10 is hardly the end of the world. With the start offering a good opportunity to get ahead and the pace of the Red Bull RB13 clearly superior to that of many cars around him, he can certainly battle back into the top five – but that home podium may need to wait for another year…

Overtaking questions set to be answered

As exciting as the new regulations for 2017 have been, and as quick as the cars are for both the drivers to drive and the fans to watch, there is still a big question mark of whether or not the racing itself will improve.

The addition of downforce to the cars has allowed lap times to be slashed, yet it is also set to make following other drivers all the more difficult. If you can’t get close to the car ahead, you’ll struggle to overtake. That’s the thinking.

Sunday will be the first true test of that. The race will be much quicker than last year’s and certainly look more spectacular, yet with a fine line between one and two stops, and the possibility of a lack of movement once the start is done with, F1’s ‘brave new world’ could get a rude awakening.

2017 Australian Grand Prix – Starting Grid

1. Lewis Hamilton Mercedes
2. Sebastian Vettel Ferrari
3. Valtteri Bottas Mercedes
4. Kimi Raikkonen Ferrari
5. Max Verstappen Red Bull
6. Romain Grosjean Haas
7. Felipe Massa Williams
8. Carlos Sainz Jr. Toro Rosso
9. Daniil Kvyat Toro Rosso
10. Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull
11. Sergio Perez Force India
12. Nico Hulkenberg Renault
13. Fernando Alonso McLaren
14. Esteban Ocon Force India
15. Marcus Ericsson Sauber
16. Antonio Giovinazzi Sauber
17. Kevin Magnussen Haas
18. Stoffel Vandoorne McLaren
19. Jolyon Palmer Renault
20. Lance Stroll Williams*

* Lance Stroll received a five-place grid penalty for a gearbox change following FP3.

You can watch the Australian Grand Prix live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from midnight ET on Sunday.

Maverick Vinales takes Qatar MotoGP pole as qualifying is rained off

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Maverick Viñales will make his Yamaha MotoGP debut from pole position after qualifying at Qatar’s Losail International Circuit was rained off on Saturday evening.

Viñales claimed his maiden MotoGP race win last year with Suzuki, prompting a move to Yamaha in place of three-time champion Jorge Lorenzo, who made a switch to Ducati.

After impressing throughout pre-season testing, Viñales laid down an early marker in Qatar by setting the pace in practice.

His performances would prove key as rain on Saturday in Qatar forced officials to cancel qualifying, leading them to combine the times from practice to form the grid.

Viñales’ time of 1:54.316 from FP1 handed him his first MotoGP pole by half a second from Suzuki replacement Andrea Iannone, while defending world champion Marc Marquez will start third for Honda.

2015 and 2016 Moto2 champion Johann Zarco will make his MotoGP debut from fourth on the grid, with Ducati’s Andrea Dovizioso fifth ahead of Scott Redding.

Nine-time world champion Valentino Rossi will begin his search for a 10th title from P10 on the grid, two places ahead of perennial rival Lorenzo, whose Ducati debut will come from P12.