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

Leave a comment

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.”

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

Monaco apartment bet gives extra spice to race for P5 in Russia

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Remember that episode of Friends where Joey and Chandler go up against Rachel and Monica in a crazy quiz that ends in them swapping apartments for a while?

Well, Formula 1 might be doing its own version on Sunday in Russia.

With Ferrari and Mercedes over one second per lap clear of the rest of the pack, the top four positions seem settled, leaving Williams and Red Bull to battle for P5.

Red Bull has been the third-quickest team for much of the season so far, yet Williams looks more competitive in Russia, with Felipe Massa charging to sixth place in qualifying to split Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen.

“I predicted them to be quick here. It’s been one of their stronger circuits the last few years, and Massa’s always been pretty handy around here,” Ricciardo said of Williams.

“He got close, split Max and myself. I expect that battle to remain tomorrow. Not expecting to have the battle for the win, I think that’s between Ferrari and Mercedes, but we could have a nice little battle within ourselves for the top five.”

To add an extra twist to things, it turns out that Ricciardo, Massa and Verstappen all live inside the same apartment complex in Monaco – so why not add some extra incentive to the battle?

“I was saying whoever maybe wins our battle tomorrow can get the… Massa or Verstappen, they’ve both got pretty good-sized apartments, so maybe they can give the winner their apartment for the weekend as a bit of a token gesture!” Ricciardo joked to NBCSN after the session.

“Yeah I can give a good party and I will join,” Verstappen added.

Massa laughed before saying: “I hope I will win and I cannot give!’

The race between Red Bull and Williams may be tight, but somehow we doubt remembering that the TV guide goes to Miss Chanandeler Bong or that his job is a transpon… transponster (“that’s not even a word!”) will be much help to Ricciardo, Massa or Verstappen on Sunday.

The Russian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 7am ET on Sunday.

F1 Paddock Pass: Russian Grand Prix, Saturday edition (VIDEO)

Leave a comment

Life as a rookie in Formula 1 is always tough, but for Williams’ Lance Stroll, his arrival on the grid has been particularly challenging.

Entering F1 as its second-youngest debutant and after an extensive private testing program with Williams last year, big things were expected of Stroll when he made his debut in Australia.

However, his first three races in F1 have been far from ideal, all of them ending in retirement.

The DNF is Australia was the result of a brake issue, while incidents in China and Bahrain – both of which were hard to pin on Stroll – mean the Canadian is without a classified finish to his name.

So how has he dealt with the struggles? To find out, Will Buxton brings you a special edition of NBC Sports’ original digital series ‘Paddock Pass’ to lift the lid on Stroll’s start to life in F1.

You can watch the video in full above.

JR Hildebrand returns in career-best third on grid at Phoenix

Photo: IndyCar
Leave a comment

AVONDALE, Ariz. – The last first-time winner in the Verizon IndyCar Series came on an oval, when Alexander Rossi captured last year’s 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

The guy who could well have captured his first career victory five years earlier in 2011, JR Hildebrand, remains in search of ‘ol first win number one. But he’s got a good chance to do so tonight in his No. 21 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet, as he’ll roll off from a career-best third on the grid in the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix (9 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

The qualifying result for Hildebrand eclipses a previous best set twice: fourth at Iowa in 2011, and at Fontana in 2012, both with Panther Racing but in separate iterations of cars. This marks Hildebrand’s first top-five start since that Fontana race in September of that year, and easily eclipses his other 2017 starts of 19th and 15th on the two street course races to start the year.

In some respects Hildebrand’s pace this weekend is not a surprise; he was the pace-setter during the open test here in February. However, after missing Barber owing to his broken bone in his left hand, the more important aspect of his performance this weekend is that he’s back on song and comfortable – best as he can be – for today’s 250-lap race.

“I think with the kind of injury that I’m dealing with and the surgery that I had, an oval definitely is a little easier just literally turning left versus turning right even,” Hildebrand said after practice, when he was second to Josef Newgarden – who will start alongside him tonight on Row 2.

“So it felt better than honestly I thought it would in practice. I didn’t have any, like, major issues. I got a couple of different braces that I’m kind of playing around with and stuff like that. But felt like I got it pretty dialed in. Feel good about qualifying today and then the race tomorrow as well.”

Hildebrand was in a unique situation at Barber where he watched someone else in his car – a situation he hadn’t been afforded since Panther showed him the door after the 2013 Indianapolis 500. His starts since, it’s been Hildebrand in either a fill-in or extra entry, usually at Ed Carpenter Racing.

“It was definitely different to be watching in that situation than it was last year, you know, or in years past when I’ve been stepping in for testing or whatever and doing that on behalf of other guys,” he said. “It was painful to sit there and watch, but I think was in the end the only, you know, feasible kind of way to get through that weekend.”

That being said, Hildebrand wound up playing the mentor role well to Zach Veach, who methodically and consistently improved over the weekend on debut. It flashed back nicely to Hildebrand’s own debut at Mid-Ohio 2010 under nearly identical circumstances.

“I filled in for Mike Conway at Mid-Ohio back in 2010 in sort of similar conditions,” Hildebrand explained.

“Yeah, I mean, knowing this was going to be sort of a short-term thing, in particular, I wanted for the team’s sake to be able to get as much as they could out of having Zach in the car in my absence. That in some ways sort of requires that Zach is up to speed.

“But being a driver myself, being in that situation before, I know that it helps a lot to have somebody that, you know, is kind of just there to help you through whatever those difficulties and challenges are.

“Barber is a really tough place. He had some testing time at Sonoma, which is not really super relevant going into Barber. And on top of that, like, we were not great there when we tested there previously.

“You know, he was in for an uphill battle going in. He had a great attitude about the whole thing. I thought he made evident progression through the weekend. You know, was definitely helpful for the team and did a good job for himself.”

Hildebrand also noted that he wouldn’t have been in this position in the first place had he not had the contact with Mikhail Aleshin at Long Beach that put him into the wall and caused the hand injury.

“Yeah, he came over and told me he didn’t block me while I was still sitting in the car. Then he got a penalty 30 seconds later for doing that. Whatever,” Hildebrand deadpanned.

“I don’t have hard feelings about it, for sure. But, you know, I think that there’s definitely a track record that, you know, he’s begun to build up.”

Hildebrand will look for his second career podium at least if he can finish where he starts – in a weird quirk, his only career IndyCar top-three finish has come at a race where there is not the traditional podium ceremony for top-three finishers, that aforementioned 2011 Indianapolis 500.

Tonight gives him a great opportunity to break that run of tough luck and get a result to match his determination and will to return.

Alonso counting on incidents, torpedo repeat for Russia F1 points

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Fernando Alonso is skeptical of McLaren’s top-10 chances in Sunday’s Russian Grand Prix, believing it will take an incident or two for the team to score its first Formula 1 points of the season in Sochi.

Alonso and McLaren teammate Stoffel Vandoorne have endured a miserable start to the 2017 season due to a number of issues with the Honda power unit, which lacks both performance and reliability.

Alonso had another difficult qualifying in Russia on Saturday, finishing 15th as he dropped out in Q2 for the fourth race in a row, but the Spaniard was pleased with his own performance.

“I felt a good qualifying, I felt a good balance on the car,” Alonso told NBCSN. “I was able to push on the corners. The car was grippy and I think we performed a good laps, especially the Q1 lap, it was quite a good one.

“I was seven-tenths in front of Stoffel. He won all the categories to Formula 1, so I think my performance right now is quite OK and I feel very competitive.

“But yeah, we were losing 1.3 seconds on the first straight this morning, around 2.5 seconds on the straights in the whole lap. But that’s what it is at the moment.”

When asked about his points chances, Alonso admitted that a top-10 finish was unlikely barring some kind of incident such as the one caused by Daniil Kvyat in last year’s race, with the Russian driver earning the nickname ‘torpedo’.

“I think the deficit is too much. Also the fuel consumption will be huge for us due to the lack of power,” Alonso said.

“So I think it’s going to be difficult. To be in the points is going to be hard, so we need some help from the guys in front. Sometimes it happens like last year. The torpedo went into Turn 3 and we gained a lot of positions.

“We will do a good start and we will do a good strategy, and we will see what we can do at the end of the race. Hopefully a top 10.”

When jokingly told he should have a word with Kvyat, Alonso said: “I will!”

The Russian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 7am ET on Sunday.