(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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Is there a new adventure for Lowdon, Booth? @RealManor Twitter launches today

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A mere two days after the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, and John Booth and Graeme Lowdon’s sign-off to the Manor Marussia F1 Team occurred, Lowdon’s already dropped a hint of what his next move could be.

Lowdon and Booth sat front and center in a Twitter post released Tuesday, with Lowdon writing: “So maybe time for a new adventure? Why not come along too? For any news, just follow MM .”

Fittingly, the aforementioned new Twitter account – @realManor – has premiered today.

Two things to note here. One… the timing is very intriguing to say the least. Booth, then team principal, and Lowdon, then sporting director, tendered their resignations from a team that appeared to be moving forward for 2016, with confirmation of a new Mercedes power unit and technical support from Williams, in the form of gearbox and suspension components. But Booth and Lowdon resigned following apparent disagreements with the direction of the team under new owner Stephen Fitzpatrick.

Second, the naming of the new Twitter account as Real Manor implies, intentional or not, that Manor is more closely aligned to Booth and Lowdon, rather than with the Manor Marussia F1 Team. The Twitter bio page makes that fairly clear: “Official Twitter account of Manor Motorsport. Established in 1990. Over 180 race wins and 19 National and International Championships. We love racing.” Naturally though, the Manor Marussia F1 Team continues with @ManorF1Team as its Twitter account.

With Manor F1’s management structure now going through the change, with Booth and Lowdon now out and former McLaren F1 sporting director Dave Ryan joining the team as racing director, and now this new cat out of the bag, it will be very intriguing to see what develops from a name and/or new adventure standpoint that Lowdon is referring to.

Alfonso Celis Jr. makes solid F1 test debut with Force India

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Mexican driver Alfonso Celis Jr., who was confirmed as a development driver for Sahara Force India late last month, had his first running in the VJM08 chassis during today’s season-ending test at the Yas Marina Circuit.

The Pirelli test, which featured the debut of the new ultrasoft compound, hasn’t gotten much ink thus far – perhaps by design as you’ll see from Celis’ teammate Nico Hulkenberg’s quote below.

As for Celis, who ran 65 laps for his first outing, it was a chance to step up and acclimate to an Formula 1 car for the first time.

“My first day in a Formula One car certainly lived up to expectations,” Celis said. “The car had huge grip and excellent braking efficiency, but my experience in the Formula 3.5 car had prepared me quite well for this big challenge.

“I really enjoyed the experience and I’m pleased with how the day went. For the first few runs I took things steady while I got used to the car and all the systems. Then, with each run, I started to push more and more as I kept learning about the car.

“With the program for the day set by Pirelli, I could simply focus on my driving and getting to know everyone. 2016 is going to be an important year for me as I continue working with the team so I’m pleased to have some valuable miles under my belt already.”

Meanwhile, Hulkenberg’s quote was brief:

“A trouble-free and routine day of tire testing. Lots of laps, well over a race distance for me, and hopefully lots of useful information for Pirelli,” the German said after completing 71 laps.

Force India chief race engineer Tom McCullough said Celis did well enough as he prepares for some free practice outings in 2016.

“We are very pleased to have completed a successful day of Pirelli tire testing with Alfonso and Nico covering a combined total of 136 laps,” he said. “It was Alfonso’s first day in a Formula One car and it’s always fun to be part of that acclimatization process. He worked well with the engineers and improved throughout the morning as he completed numerous long runs on high fuel. The time spent in the car today has been good preparation for his involvement in free practice sessions next year.

“Nico took over the tire program for the afternoon, gathering plenty of useful data with no issues. All in all it’s been a trouble-free day and a nice way to wrap up the 2015 season.”

A handful of tweets from the day are below:

Report: Tony Kanaan undergoes surgery for hernia

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The best kind of love is Instagrammed, right?

NTT Data Chip Ganassi Racing driver Tony Kanaan and wife Lauren Kanaan (nee Bohlander) took to Instagram yesterday to post a couple videos of Kanaan’s surgery on Monday.

Kanaan posted an Instagram picture following the surgery, which is reportedly for a hernia per USA Today Sports‘ Brant James (see below).

What was a bit funnier, perhaps, was Lauren Kanaan posting a handful of Instagram videos of a woozy – but still fast and sharp – “TK” from her own account.

If you say so, @tkanaan. 😂

A video posted by Lauren Kanaan (@laurenbohlander) on

Serious #ultimatum. Love you, too @tkanaan 😈😂

A video posted by Lauren Kanaan (@laurenbohlander) on

And one minute ago he loved me. #gofigure #wecanhang @tkanaan

A video posted by Lauren Kanaan (@laurenbohlander) on

The offseason for Tony Kanaan, since the IndyCar season finale at Sonoma on August 30, has included tests at Road America and Phoenix, another triathlon and now this surgery.

Chip Ganassi Racing generally tends to put its IndyCar and NASCAR stars in cars for the Rolex 24 at Daytona, which is already next month.

With rumors swirling that Ganassi will run at least one and possibly two Daytona Prototypes at the Rolex 24 in addition to their new Ford GT program, and with Kanaan one of four drivers with a shot to defend his overall win, you’d think he will be good to go to be named to one of those seats.

MRTI: Team Pelfrey signs Jordan Cane as its second USF2000 driver

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Team Pelfrey has filled out two of its seats in the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda championship, with confirmation Tuesday that 14-year-old Jordan Cane will be one of the team’s drivers in 2016.

Cane joins Robert Megennis, 15, as the first two confirmed drivers for 2016, with Cane in the team’s No. 81 entry. Both tested at the Chris Griffis Memorial Test at Circuit of The Americas in late November.

Cane’s contract is for two years, with an option to extend beyond that. He graduates from F1600, where he won seven races and finished fourth in the championship despite missing several races.

“I am so pleased to continue my North American open-wheel racing career with Team Pelfrey,” Cane said.

“My time in America has been such a highlight to my resume especially breaking the all-time win record in my first season and coming away fourth in the F1600 Championship whilst missing six races –not bad for the youngest in the world this year in formula cars. I didn’t expect to have such a fantastic year and I have to thank everyone at Team Pelfrey who has made it possible.”

“We are delighted to have Jordan join us for another two years,” said Nigel Tuckey, team principal of Team Pelfrey. “His growth on and off the track has been extraordinary and his competitive nature is something every driver in the paddock wishes to inhabit. We’ve grown a custom to seeing him on the top step of the podium, and we hope to see more of that come 2016.”

Pelfrey’s four-car lineup in 2015 featured a quartet of rookies, Ayla Agren, Luke Gabin, Garth Rickards and Nikita Lastochkin. All would like to continue for a second season in USF2000, budgets pending, and Lastochkin dominated the Griffis Test while driving with Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing.