(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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FIA clear Ferrari, Haas of wrongdoing on aero testing

Ferrari driver Sebastian Vettel of Germany  steers his car during the third free practice at the Yas Marina racetrack in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Saturday, Nov. 28, 2015. The Emirates Formula One Grand Prix will take place on Sunday. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)
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ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates (AP) Formula One stewards have cleared Ferrari and 2016 entrant Haas of any breach of rules limiting aerodynamic testing.

Stewards at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix had been asked by Mercedes to clarify the rules due to fears that teams were skirting regulations that limit time spent in wind-tunnel testing and other aerodynamic development.

Mercedes did not directly accuse any team, but the complaint related to the close ties between Ferrari and U.S. team Haas. Ferrari, as a current competitor, was subject to testing restrictions, but Haas was not, because it enters F1 next year.

Stewards ruled Sunday that there is “no evidence that competitors have not complied” with the rules, but did recommend to the sport’s governing body that future entrants be subject to the same restrictions as existing teams.

Hamilton: Mercedes surpassed all expectations in 2015

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 29:  Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP lifts his trophy on the podium after finishing second in the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 29, 2015 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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Lewis Hamilton believes that the Mercedes AMG Petronas Formula 1 team surpassed all expectations in 2015.

Mercedes entered the new season with a big task of emulating its feats from 2014 when it claimed 16 race wins and 18 pole positions as well as setting a new record for constructors’ championship points.

However, the W06 Hybrid car allowed Hamilton and teammate Nico Rosberg to reach such lofty heights once again, taking another 16 wins and 18 poles while beating last year’s constructors’ tally.

The team finished with 12 one-two finishes and scored 86% of all possible points, both new F1 records.

Speaking on the podium after finishing second in Abu Dhabi, Hamilton paid tribute to the Mercedes team following a season that also saw him claim a third drivers’ title.

“It’s been a good year. I’m happy,” Hamilton said. “I’m happy it’s over for sure, so now we can really enjoy it.

“Really have to take my hat off to the team who once again did an amazing job in building this car. The pit stop today, just the performance through the whole year, they’ve surpassed their own expectations and our expectations.

“We’ve truly shown that Mercedes-Benz is the best team in the world, so I’m proud to be a part of it.”

Hamilton spent much of Sunday’s race toiling behind Rosberg at the front of the field, and tried to get ahead of the German driver by running an alternative strategy in the closing stages of the race.

Mercedes warned Hamilton against trying a one-stop strategy as he requested, but the Briton thinks going as long as he did during his second stint without trying to go to the end was the wrong move.

“I think in hindsight once Nico had pitted I probably would have backed off a little bit and probably made those tires last a lot longer,” Hamilton said.

“The tires were still fine at the end, so I honestly felt I potentially could have taken them to the end.

“But if that didn’t work out, going too longer probably wasn’t the right thing to do, but we gave it a try and did the best job I could with it.”

Rosberg: New season can’t come soon enough

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Nico Rosberg says that the new Formula 1 season cannot come soon enough after capping off 2015 with a third consecutive victory in Abu Dhabi on Sunday.

Rosberg saw his hopes of winning a maiden world championship end in Austin, Texas last month as teammate Lewis Hamilton wrapped up his third title with three races to spare.

Since then, Rosberg has found a second wind to claim his first career hat-trick with victories in Mexico, Brazil and Abu Dhabi.

Speaking on the podium after his most recent success, Rosberg said that he was relishing the start of the new season and that it cannot come quickly enough given his momentum.

“Austin was a low point of the season, it was a tough weekend,” Rosberg said. “Since then I’ve just come back a lot stronger and I’m very happy about that.

“I’m excited about how the end of the season went, and next year can come any moment – it could start tomorrow for me, no problem, I don’t need any holidays!

“Anyway it’s great to end the season like this, go on holiday like this. Thank you so much, you’ve been awesome again this weekend for all your support and everything.

“Thanks to my team, absolutely stunning car you’ve all given me again today, unbelievable. I’m ecstatic.”

Rosberg struggled to compete with Hamilton for much of the year, but said that his recent successes were all the sweeter given the ability of his Mercedes stablemate.

“It’s always tough to race Lewis, he’s doing an awesome job and is one of the best out there,” Rosberg said.

“Even better feeling to win definitely against such opposition. It’s a great battle internally all of the time, and that’s what I race for, this battle. I look forward to more next year.”

Rosberg ends 2015 with third straight F1 win in Abu Dhabi

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Nico Rosberg rounded out the 2015 Formula 1 season with a third consecutive victory after seeing off the challenge of Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton to win Sunday’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

Rosberg controlled proceedings from the front of the field, leading the majority of the race before coming under pressure in the closing stages after Mercedes switched Hamilton’s strategy so he could push hard on the final stint.

However, the three-time world champion was unable to bridge the gap, allowing Rosberg to claim a sixth win of the season and a third in a row to finish off a year that largely saw him struggle for form.

A poor start from Hamilton allowed Rosberg to retain his lead from pole position heading into the first corner, but the Briton managed to fend off Kimi Raikkonen and Sergio Perez to hold on to second place. Rosberg was able to build on his good start, opening up a two second lead over Hamilton in the opening stages of the race before the first round of pit stops.

Further back, Fernando Alonso’s miserable 2015 season showed few signs of mercy even at the final race as he clashed with Pastor Maldonado at the first corner. The stewards deemed Alonso to be at fault, handing the Spaniard a drive-through penalty. The damage to Maldonado’s suspension was enough to end his race early.

There was further drama at the first round of pit stops when Williams released Valtteri Bottas into the path of Jenson Button, causing damage to the front of the Finn’s car. Bottas pitted again one lap later for repairs, and was duly hit with a time penalty for the unsafe release.

Mercedes had no such problems with its pit stops, but Hamilton was left scrambling for pace. A late push from Rosberg at the end of the first stint allowed him to create a five-second gap over Hamilton into which Sebastian Vettel – still yet to pit after starting on primes – dropped in to. Hamilton made light work of the Ferrari driver just three laps later, but the gap to Rosberg had already swelled to over six seconds.

Hamilton managed to work the gap down with a series of quick laps throughout the second stint of the race, though, piling the pressure on Rosberg at the front. The German’s led was halved in the space of a few laps as he struggled with graining on his tires and by the time he came in for a second time, the gap to Hamilton lay at just 1.3 seconds.

Rosberg was the first to pit once again, taking on another fresh set of primes on lap 31, but Mercedes opted to extend Hamilton’s stint before bringing him in. Rosberg was told to pick up the pace in reaction to this, closing the gap at the front so that he would be ahead once Hamilton made his final stop.

Just as he did in Brazil two weeks ago, Hamilton argued with Mercedes over strategy as he tried to get ahead of Rosberg once again. The Briton wanted to try and make a one-stop strategy work by going to the end, only to be told that this would be “impossible”.

All the while, Rosberg continued to close, giving him a lead of 12.5 seconds once Hamilton had pitted. Instead of putting on a set of options to make up for the longer second stint, Mercedes fitted another set of primes to Hamilton’s car, leaving him with the task of making up one second per lap in the final stages of the race.

It was one that Hamilton took in his stride, immediately laying down a quick pace on his fresh tires. Despite running 1.7 seconds per lap quicker than Rosberg at one point, Hamilton was unable to sustain this pace until the end and struggled with traffic, ending his hopes of victory in Abu Dhabi.

Instead it was Rosberg who crossed the line to take his third consecutive win and finish the 2015 season in style, beating Hamilton to the flag by 8.2 seconds.

Raikkonen rounded out the podium for Ferrari after enduring a rather lonely race, having been waved past Vettel due to their differing tire calls. Vettel managed to make his prime-prime-option strategy work perfectly to finish fourth, passing Perez in the closing stages to demote the Mexican to fifth.

Perez held on to finish fifth, two places ahead of Force India teammate Nico Hulkenberg to cap off the team’s best-ever F1 season in style. Daniel Ricciardo split them in P6, while Felipe Massa followed eighth ahead of Daniil Kvyat.

Romain Grosjean’s last race for Lotus ended in style as he passed Carlos Sainz Jr. for the final points-paying position with just three laps to go. He was then able to pass Daniil Kvyat one lap later to secure ninth position, leaving the Russian to settle for P10 at the checkered flag.

Max Verstappen enjoyed an eventful race en route to P12, but was under investigation from the stewards when the flag fell after ignoring blue flags. They handed him a time penalty that ultimately dropped him to P16. Button and Bottas recovered from their earlier clash to finish 12th and 13th ahead of the Sauber duo of Marcus Ericsson and Felipe Nasr.

Despite threatening to retire the car at one point, Fernando Alonso finished his race in 17th place two laps down on Rosberg. Will Stevens and Roberto Merhi propped up the classification for Manor.