(Photo by Alan Marler for Chevrolet)

Earnhardt finishes third, regains points lead at Martinsville, laments Letarte’s tenure drawing shorter

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With so much emphasis on Kurt Busch winning and Jimmie Johnson finishing second in Sunday’s STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway, Dale Earnhardt Jr. was practically a forgotten man.

As it turned out, though, Earnhardt had a strong day.

Not only did he finish third in the race, he regained the points lead in the Sprint Cup Series standings, knocking Carl Edwards off the top spot after just a one-week reign.

Since winning the season-opening Daytona 500, Earnhardt has now led the series after four of the first six races.

“We ran third today because we got great teammates that understand how to get around here and put good cars on the track, and we lean on that,” Earnhardt said. “It’s been a great experience seeing it happen, and I’m sure that one of us would have loved to have won that race for Rick.”

Earnhardt was like teammates Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne, wanting to win Sunday, which would have been the 220th Sprint Cup race win for Hendrick Motorsports, its 22nd at Martinsville and would have successfully marked the 30th anniversary of HMS’s first-ever NASCAR win on April 29, 1984 at Martinsville.

Likewise, Earnhardt continues to chase his first win at Martinsville, still not having reached victory lane in 29 career starts there – or earning Martinsville’s unique prize to race winners of a grandfather’s clock.

“We’ll get more opportunities to win more races and I’m just frustrated I’ve been chasing the clock here for so long,” Earnhardt said. “Hopefully one of these days it’ll work out.”

Like Johnson said after the race, Earnhardt also gave it all he had in the closing laps, but still came up short.

“I was losing my car pretty fast there the last five laps, so I didn’t have anything else to get there,” Earnhardt said. “I got a couple lapped guys gave me the outside instead of the inside. That cost me a little time and maybe some wear and tire on my tires. I thought when we passed the 22 (Joey Logano), we might be able to roll up there and get in the middle of the race for that win, but no, those guys’ cars, they were pretty good.”

Interestingly, crew chief Steve Letarte apologized to Earnhardt in the final 40 laps for constantly reminding him to be patient and take it easy as the race closed in on the finish.

While Earnhardt appreciated Letarte’s concern, it also seemed to hit him yet again that this will be Letarte’s last season as his crew chief. Letarte will leave Earnhardt and Hendrick Motorsports at the end of this season to become an analyst on NASCAR on NBC telecasts next season.

“Yeah, I mean, that’s exactly what ran through my mind when he said that, when he was saying I’m probably getting on your nerves,” Earnhardt said. “I’m thinking, man, I’m just going to bring it on because I’ll be missing this next year. There’s nobody like him. I don’t expect the next guy to come in there and mimic him or be like him. We’ll work that out and communicate like we need to communicate going forward.

“But yeah, he does a great job of keeping my mind focused on the tasks. There’s several different things you’re doing in the car during a run, and you can easily get yourself carried away and race a guy and forget taking care of your car and taking care of your left-rear tire. It’s easy to get swept up in the competition of things, and (Letarte’s) good at sort of cheerleading you along the way and running the show. He does a good job on top of the box.”

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McLaren confirms F1 testing running schedule for Barcelona

Yas Marina Circuit, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.
Friday 24 February 2017.
World Copyright: Steven Tee/LAT Photographic
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McLaren has become the latest team to confirm its running schedule for the upcoming Formula 1 pre-season test days in Barcelona, Spain.

McLaren launched its new car, the MCL32, at its base in Woking, England on Friday, with drivers Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne on-hand to unveil the team’s new orange look.

Alonso and Vandoorne will split testing duties next week with the start of pre-season testing at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya on Monday.

Alonso will enjoy the first public run behind the wheel of the MCL32 on Monday before handing over to Vandoorne on Tuesday. Alonso returns on Wednesday, with Vandoorne then closing out the first test on Thursday.

McLaren is also set to complete a filming day in Barcelona on Sunday, which will represent the first on-track running for the MCL32 after an extensive development phase.

Ed Carpenter Racing drivers face crucial 2017 season

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Photo: Mike Finnegan/Sonoma Raceway
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On paper, Ed Carpenter Racing could be in for a banner year in the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series.

The open test at Phoenix International Raceway served notice that their cars are quick, with JR Hildebrand turning the fastest lap across the two-day test. Throw in up-and-coming Spencer Pigot, the 2015 Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires champion who will again contest the road and street events in the No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet, and team owner Ed Carpenter, known for his oval prowess, and their driver lineup looks as stout as any among the 2017 entries.

However, it is also a year of vital importance, particularly for the aforementioned Hildebrand and Pigot.

INDIANAPOLIS, IN – MAY 19: JR Hildebrand, driver of the #21 Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet Dallara is seen on the track during practice for the Indy 500 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 19, 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

To say that JR Hildebrand has something to prove might be an understatement. Once a promising up-and-comer who won the Indy Lights title in 2009, Hildebrand’s career has been in limbo since he and Panther Racing parted ways after the 2013 Indianapolis 500. Though he showed promise and speed in his brief tenure with John Barnes’ old team, his time there was somewhat star-crossed.

He infamously crashed out of the lead on the final lap of the 2011 Indianapolis 500. He was dominating the 2012 MAVTV 500 at Auto Club Speedway before he brushed the wall and damaged the right-rear suspension. During a caution period at the 2013 Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, he ran up and over race leader Will Power after briefly looking down to make an adjustment on his steering wheel. And, in what proved to be his final outing as a full-time driver, he crashed on lap 4 of the 2013 Indianapolis 500.

Since then, Hildebrand has only been a part-time competitor, only running entries at the INDYCAR Grand Prix at Indianapolis and the Indy 500. In fact, as he explained at the Phoenix test, he didn’t even dip his feet into sports car racing, as many open wheel drivers do when they’re not driving IndyCars.

“No, I have not (pursued opportunities in sports cars). I’ve been hanging out with these guys (Ed Carpenter Racing) trying to get back to being full-time in IndyCar,” he explained during the Phoenix test.

He later explained that, while he was also busy promoting STEM and other education initiatives, limited opportunities in sports car racing made venturing into that discipline less than ideal. “Since GRAND-AM and IMSA have combined, there’s just kind of fewer of the prototype drives and the GTLM, which is an amazing category…there’s a lot of factory guys there. It’s a little bit of a tricky thing to work your way into, particularly if it’s a part-time thing, I’ve found.”

Perhaps the most important piece of driving he has ever done, though, came in relief of Josef Newgarden after he broke his hand and collarbone at Texas Motor Speedway last year. Hildebrand filled in for Newgarden at tests at Road America, Iowa Speedway, and the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, which he said helped keep the rust off and prove his value to the team.

“Those are all places where you’re doing something fairly different,” he said of time as a relief driver. “And so for me to have that added familiarity with the types of things, particularly that Josef was looking for in the race car, somebody who clearly had been finding what he was looking for, knew what he was looking for and was making good on that on the track, you know, that was really valuable for me.”

Expectations are high for Hildebrand on his return. It’s obvious that the 29-year-old still possesses all the talent he displayed in junior categories and in his brief time as an IndyCar driver. And Ed Carpenter Racing does not look like it’s missed a beat with Newgarden’s departure. Hildebrand echoed those expectations and firmly believes he should contend for victories.

“A successful season for us is me picking up my first race win, wherever that ends up being,” he asserted after a recent test at Sonoma Raceway. “That is absolutely a goal of ours to be in the Winner’s Circle. For me there is no doubt that my goal is to come into this season with a number of road and street courses on the schedule and be consistently in contention at those places.”

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While Hildebrand has garnered much of the hype, teammate Spencer Pigot is not to be forgotten. While he stepped up at least part-time last year before it grew into the rest of the season, it was still a challenge. He began with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing on a three-race deal before joining Ed Carpenter Racing to run the road and street courses after the Indy 500.

Pigot’s results were unspectacular, but he did improve as the year continued. The 23-year-old scored a pair of top tens at Road America and Mid-Ohio and showed an increase in raw speed in the second half of the season.

However, Pigot’s second season will be pivotal for his IndyCar future. Evidence of this can be found in three other recent Indy Lights champions: Tristan Vautier, Sage Karam, and Gabby Chaves. Each was relegated to part-time drives following their rookie campaigns and only Karam is currently slated to run any IndyCar races this year (he announced an Indy 500 entry with Dreyer and Reinbold Racing earlier in February).

In one way, Pigot already has an advantage over Vautier, Karam, and Chaves in that he will contest a second season, and for the same team as well. Consequently, his second season in the Verizon IndyCar Series provides a chance to firmly establish himself as a top-level driver after spending his rookie year learning the cars and series. Perhaps the most important aspect of his driving he’ll need to improve on is his qualifying pace. Only four times did he qualify better than 20th and he often struggled to get the most out of the softer, red-walled Firestones.

While he didn’t reveal many details after the ECR test outing at Sonoma, Pigot did express confidence that he and the team are going in the right direction.

“It’s been a while since we were (at Sonoma Raceway) and it’s been since September since I drove the car, so I’m excited to be back in an IndyCar and so far so good. We had a really productive morning, and we’ve been sticking to our test plan, which we spent a lot of time going over before we got here in order to maximize our day,” Pigot said after the February 14 test.

The performance of Ed Carpenter Racing has been one of most positive stories in the Verizon IndyCar Series since the team debuted in 2012. And for Hildebrand and Pigot, the organization gives them a chance to cement their IndyCar careers.

Sebastian Vettel: New Ferrari Formula 1 car ‘a step forward’

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Sebastian Vettel feels that Ferrari’s new Formula 1 car feels like “a step forward” after enjoying his first test with the SF70H at Fiorano on Friday.

Ferrari unveiled its new F1 car on Friday before sending it out on-track for the first time at its private test track, with Vettel and teammate Kimi Raikkonen both enjoying laps behind the wheel as part of a filming day.

Speaking after his first run in the car, Vettel said that he was immediately impressed by the SF70H.

“You can see it’s a step forward. You can feel it’s a step forward,” Vettel said.

“It’s fun to drive. The car is quite big. It looks quite strong from the outside, but also the first impression is the right one.

“The conditions are not how they’re gonna be in Australia but today we didn’t have any problems. So it was a good day and a good start.”

All 10 F1 teams have faced a big technical challenge in preparation for 2017 following an overhaul of the technical regulation that will make the cars significantly quicker, resulting in a more aggressive look.

“Clearly a new season is a new challenge, but especially this season with new aero and overall regulations, even more a challenge,” Ferrari technical chief Mattia Binotto said.

“The challenge in F1 is always the same. It’s not just being good, but being the first. Being the first means to develop faster than everyone else. Being faster means to increase the rate of development and really speed up.

“The challenge is now even more than in the past to speed up the development. Whoever has been fast and first in the development will be at the front of the grid at the start in Australia.”

Ferrari will next hit the track in Barcelona, Spain on Monday February 27 with the start of collective pre-season testing.

Williams releases official images of FW40 Formula 1 car

Williams Martini Racing FW40 Mercedes Launch.
Grove, Oxfordshire, United Kingdom.
February, 2017.
The Williams FW40 Mercedes pre-test photo shoot.
Photo: Drew Gibson/Williams
Ref: FW40 angle - 19
© Williams Martini Racing
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Williams has officially launched its new car for the 2017 Formula 1 season, the FW40, by releasing in-the-flesh images on Saturday.

Williams was the first team to present its new-look car for 2017, releasing a set of renders eight days ago ahead of today’s official launch.

The team issued the real-life images of its car on Saturday, two days before the start of pre-season testing in Barcelona, Spain.

Felipe Massa and Lance Stroll will pilot the FW40 through 2017 as the team celebrates 40 years of racing in F1.

Massa returns despite originally planning to retire from F1 at the end of last year, with his comeback being agreed following Valtteri Bottas’ move to Mercedes.

Stroll arrives in F1 as one of its youngest ever drivers, having won the FIA European Formula 3 title last season with Prema Powerteam.

Williams enters 2017 looking to bounce back from a disappointing campaign that saw it fall from third to fifth in the constructors’ championship, dropping behind Red Bull and Force India in the pecking order.

The FW40 follows the example set by the other teams with their 2017-spec cars, falling in line with the radical new technical regulations that have resulted in an aggressive look from teams.

The FW40 retains its thumb nose and also sports a large ‘shark fin’ engine cover that has also been implemented by a number of other teams.

Williams Martini Racing FW40 Mercedes Launch. Grove, Oxfordshire, United Kingdom. February, 2017. The Williams FW40 Mercedes pre-test photo shoot. Photo: Drew Gibson/Williams Ref: FW40 side - 18
Photo: Drew Gibson/Williams
Photo: Drew Gibson/Williams Ref: Heritage 001 - 18
Photo: Drew Gibson/Williams

Williams’ new car will hit the track for the first time in Barcelona on Monday with the start of pre-season testing.