(Photo by Alan Marler for Chevrolet)

After derailing at Texas, Dale Earnhardt Jr. gets back on track with career-best finish at Darlington

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It wasn’t a win, but after last Monday’s embarrassing mistake and last-place finish at Texas, Dale Earnhardt Jr. will gladly take his second-place finish in Saturday night’s Bojangles’ Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.

While Earnhardt had the lead with two laps to go, Kevin Harvick pulled ahead just before the white flag flew and then held on for his second win of the season and first-ever win at Darlington.

But there was no shame in Earnhardt finishing second, which was a career-high for him at the so-called Track Too Tough to Tame.

In fact, Earnhardt was a little surprised that he wound up doing so well, earning his third runner-up finish this season to go along with his season-opening win in the Daytona 500.

“We really weren’t a top-two car, we were probably the third-best car, fourth-best car, depending on where Jimmie (Johnson) and Jeff Gordon were,” Earnhardt said. “They were pretty good, a little better than us most of the time.

“But the 4 (Harvick) was the best car, I thought. Jeff was pretty good (too).”

Earnhardt was pushed to the lead by Harvick on the final restart, getting by Johnson, and then Harvick worked his way around to the front and never looked back.

“We got some good restarts at the end,” Earnhardt said. “The outside line was real bad about spinning the tires, and Jimmie hadn’t been up there and didn’t really know that, so he chose the outside on them restarts and I knew I had a great shot at getting the lead from him.

“We got going, he spun his tires real bad, the 4 got to pushing me a little bit and we got the lead, and that felt pretty good leading the race. But the 4 just had new tires. We had 30-something laps on ours left, and it just wasn’t going to get the job done with him right there on us.

“I’m going to probably wish I would have run the top in 3 and 4 coming to the white and made him try to pass us on the bottom, but I’m pretty sure he was going to get around us somehow.”

Indeed, while most other drivers took just two tires (mostly right side) on the final caution, Harvick took four. It was a gutsy call, but also proved to be a race-winning call.

To come so close to winning, however, even though it was his best finish ever at Darlington, somewhat irked Earnhardt, too.

“It’s a little disappointing to come that close because I know I don’t really run that well here and the opportunities to win are going to be very few compared to other tracks,” he said. “It hurts a little bit to come that close because we worked so hard to try to win races.

“Running second is great but nobody is going to really remember that. But we’re proud of it, and Steve (crew chief Steve Letarte), I know he’s very proud. They did a great job giving me a really good car to be able to run that well here. The car was phenomenal. Really proud of those guys’ effort. Even though they know where my shortcomings are, they worked their guts out to try to get us the best.

“Sometimes if I admittedly say this isn’t my best track, it’s easy to sort of back off, but those guys really push the pedal and give me everything I can to give me the best chance to finish as best I can.  They did that tonight.  That was a great example of that.”

NASCAR now takes its annual break for next week’s Easter holiday, but there will be little downtime for Earnhardt and his crew. After dropping five places following last week’s last-place finish at Texas, Earnhardt regained two spots in the standings, leaving Darlington in fourth-place.

There’s still plenty of work to do to get back to where he was earlier in the season and again before the Texas debacle, leading the standings.

“I think we’re really got some great performance for our team,” Earnhardt said. “We just need to look at our competition, try to understand what we’re seeing and where are some areas where we can improve.

“There’s some spots where we can improve and get better, but we run second at one of our worst tracks tonight, so our performance is there. We’ve got the cars, we seem to be on the leading edge of trying to learn these new rules and trying to understand what’s going on. A lot of guys middle of the pack are scrambling with their setups. We seem to be on a path and setting a pattern with what we’re doing, and it seems to be working.”

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Vettel disappointed to finish behind Red Bulls in Malaysia F1 qualifying

KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA - SEPTEMBER 30: Sebastian Vettel of Germany driving the (5) Scuderia Ferrari SF16-H Ferrari 059/5 turbo (Shell GP) on track during practice for the Malaysia Formula One Grand Prix at Sepang Circuit on September 30, 2016 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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Sebastian Vettel was left disappointed following qualifying for the Malaysian Grand Prix on Saturday at Sepang after finishing behind both Red Bull drivers in Q3.

Vettel took his first Formula 1 victory for Ferrari in Malaysia last year, but has failed to reach the top step of the podium in 2016 as the team has slipped behind Red Bull in the pecking order.

With Mercedes dominating proceedings in Malaysia over one lap, Vettel had hoped to finish as the best of the rest in qualifying.

However, the German could only finish fifth in Q3, over seven-tenths of a second behind pole-sitter Lewis Hamilton and just two-tenths off P3 on the grid.

“We expected it to be tight, but we thought that we could have the upper hand in the end,” Vettel said.

“So I am disappointed to see both Red Bulls in front of us, but they were just a bit quicker. There was not a lot missing, but just enough, just over a tenth.

“We need to have a look into our data and see if we can pick it up later. In the end, we were hoping to be one row higher up, so in second, right behind the Mercedes.

“But for the race, nervertheless, we should have a good speed: the strategy will also be important tomorrow.

“There is a bit of room for manoeuvre, as everybody has to use the harder tire, which might make it interesting. And then there is also the fact that we are in Malaysia, so there might be some rain, or just the heat as a factor.”

Teammate Kimi Raikkonen qualified sixth in the second SF16-H car, the Finn left frustrated by traffic during his final qualifying attempt.

“It was a pretty smooth running until the last try: then I had some traffic on the out lap and struggled with the tires to make them work in the first two corners, so I ran a bit wide,” Raikkonen explained.

“It was a decent qualifying session but it’s painful when you have such a bad last try. The handling of the car has been pretty ok and I was hoping for a bit more, but tomorrow we’ll try to do better.

“We don’t know what will happen and obviously we are not in the ideal starting position. The tarmac is new so it’s hard to say where it’s going to go and which tire will be the best, it will be a lot down to the conditions.

“We have to do our own best and see what that brings in the race.”

The Malaysian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 2am ET on Sunday.

Formula V8 3.5 to race at COTA next year, supporting WEC round

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The Formula V8 3.5 Series will race at the Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas the first time next year in support of the FIA World Endurance Championship weekend in September.

Formula V8 3.5 is currently embarking on its inaugural campaign, emerging from the ashes of the Formula Renault 3.5 series in 2015 after it lost manufacturer backing.

Earlier this year, it was announced that the single-seater series would be linking up with the WEC in 2017 as a support championship, appearing on the undercard at six rounds.

On Saturday, series officials confirmed that as well as racing at Silverstone, Spa and the Nürburgring alongside WEC, Formula V8 3.5 would also be visiting Austin, Mexico City and Bahrain in 2017.

Fuji Speedway in Japan had originally been slated to host a round of the 3.5-litre series, only for the race to be moved to Austin on grounds of costs.

During its Formula Renault 3.5 days, the championship produced a number of current Formula 1 drivers including Sebastian Vettel, Daniel Ricciardo, Kevin Magnussen and Carlos Sainz Jr. Its final champion was Oliver Rowland, who now races in GP2.

The addition of Formula V8 3.5 to the WEC weekend at COTA ensures that the endurance series will not race alone following the break-up of the Lone Star Le Mans double-header with IMSA for 2017.

Rosberg rues Q3 mistakes after missing out on Malaysia pole

KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA - SEPTEMBER 30: Nico Rosberg of Germany driving the (6) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo on track during practice for the Malaysia Formula One Grand Prix at Sepang Circuit on September 30, 2016 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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Nico Rosberg was left ruing two mistakes during the final part of Formula 1 qualifying for the Malaysian Grand Prix on Saturday after missing out on pole position at Sepang.

Rosberg arrived in Malaysia leading the F1 drivers’ championship for the first time since the middle of July following a string of victories in Belgium, Italy and Singapore.

Rosberg led the opening practice session on Friday, but struggled to match the pace of Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton through FP2 and FP3 before falling behind once again in qualifying.

An error on his first Q3 lap left Rosberg fifth on the provisional grid before rallying with his second effort to lift himself onto the front row, albeit with another mistake at the final corner to finish four-tenths of a second behind Hamilton.

“Lewis’ lap was very quick so it was always going to be difficult. I would have come close but unfortunately I had a mistake in the last corner,” Rosberg said.

“Something just wasn’t going right there in that last corner, I just couldn’t get the settings right, I was always getting an oversteer moment into there.

“But anyway, second place, we’ll live with that now. As we know from this year, second place does not mean that victory is not possible tomorrow. We’ve seen that so many times. Still very optimistic for tomorrow.”

The Malaysian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 2am ET on Sunday.

Hamilton: Emphatic Malaysia pole lap ‘could have been faster’

KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA - OCTOBER 01:  Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP celebrates qualifying on pole position in parc ferme during qualifying for the Malaysia Formula One Grand Prix at Sepang Circuit on October 1, 2016 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Lewis Hamilton believes that his emphatic Q3 lap that secured him pole position for Sunday’s Malaysian Grand Prix “could have been faster”.

Hamilton stormed to his fourth Formula 1 pole in Malaysia in the past five years on Saturday at the Sepang International Circuit, recording a fastest lap time of 1:32.850 to beat Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg by four-tenths of a second.

“Just a huge thank you to the team who continue through the whole year to improve,” Hamilton said after the session.

“To come here, this year it’s the best the car has been here, and of course this year the tires are obviously better.

“Great work done coming into this weekend and over the past few weeks with Nico’s wins, but today the car felt fantastic. I really enjoyed the lap.”

The lap was the fastest at Sepang since qualifying for the 2005 race, but when asked about it, Hamilton wryly said it “could have been faster.”

The Briton locked up on his second flying lap towards the end of Q3, forcing him to abort his run early and settle for his first effort in the session.

“Of course I’m very happy and grateful for my lap but you always want to finish the last lap. I think there’s more time there,” Hamilton said, before expressing his wariness over Red Bull and Ferrari’s race pace.

“I think tomorrow, provided the conditions are like this, the track is generally better. It’s a lot smoother and seems to work better with the tires than it has in recent years.

“It will be a close race for sure because I think they had very good long runs, but I think we were looking quite strong also.”

The Malaysian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 2am ET on Sunday.