(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.”

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

Two memories recalled today: Schumacher Spa debut, Tyrrell’s passing

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Schumacher in 2012, Tyrrell in 1989. Photos: Getty Images
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Today, August 25, marks two anniversaries of note in the F1 world – the beginning of one legendary on-track career, and the end of another F1 legend’s life.

A then unheralded 22-year-old German named Michael Schumacher made his race debut with Jordan Grand Prix, in the Jordan 191, taking over the seat after Bertrand Gachot was jailed following an altercation with a London taxi drivers. August 25 marks 25 years to the day that Schumacher made his race debut.

Schumacher qualified in seventh place and looked set to score points on debut – the top six paid points at that time – but the debut didn’t really get to happen owing to a clutch failure on the opening lap. A further reflection can be offered by Mark Gallagher, who’d worked with Team 7Up Jordan at the time, via his blog. Gallagher recently authored the well-received “The Business of Winning,” a deeper look into the business world of F1.

Of course, the rest was history from there. Schumacher went to Benetton from the next race in Monza, then went on to his run of a record 91 career Grand Prix wins and seven World Championships.

Official news has been limited on Schumacher’s condition since his December 2013 skiing accident and all we can continue to do is resume with the message of #KeepFightingMichael.

That 1991 Belgian Grand Prix day also dovetails slightly into the next anniversary, albeit a sadder one.

Another team on the grid was fielded by Ken Tyrrell; the legend was a World Championship-winning team owner in the 1970s with Sir Jackie Stewart and saw his drivers win 33 races from 1968 (Stewart won at Zandvoort for the team’s first win) to 1983 (Michele Alboreto the last win at Detroit).

Tyrrell’s last runner-up finish as a constructor came in 1991 when Stefano Modena came second in the Canadian Grand Prix; the team’s final podium occurred in 1994 at the Spanish Grand Prix when Mark Blundell finished third.

Tyrrell’s team ran through 1998 before it was bought out by British American Tobacco for 1999, and BAR was launched. The team eventually became Honda’s factory team, then Brawn GP, and now Mercedes AMG Petronas – the erstwhile dominant team on the grid – and the team Schumacher returned to drive for from 2010 to 2012.

Tyrrell died this day 15 years ago, on August 25, 2001, from cancer at the age of 77. But his impact on the sport cannot be forgotten.

Watkins Glen extends with IndyCar for two more years

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This year’s announcement of Watkins Glen International rejoining the Verizon IndyCar Series schedule was a bit of a shotgun marriage – the track and the sanctioning body got a deal done in a couple weeks, in what was akin to a minor miracle pulled off by both parties.

The next two years for IndyCar at Watkins Glen will come with quite a bit more time to prepare. The two parties have announced a two-year extension at the track through 2018, which syncs up nicely with the remainder of most IndyCar races currently under contract.

Here’s what Jay Frye, INDYCAR President of Competition and Operations, had to say about Watkins Glen joining this year, when it was announced back in May:

“Well, the process was pretty quick. We can’t thank Michael (Printup, track president) and his whole staff at Watkins Glen for their yeoman-like effort the last couple weeks. We got the news a couple weeks ago that something was going on, and that might have been around 5:00, and by 5:01 I was talking to this gentleman on the phone, and from that it kind of led a life of its own.

“It certainly was great interest on his behalf, great interest on our behalf. We were thinking more about 2017, but obviously we’re a year ahead. All the rumors, all the enthusiasm that we saw from the rumors was going on was very, very high, so we couldn’t be more pleased to go back to Watkins Glen. It’s a great facility, great history, and again, we can’t thank Michael and his staff enough for being willing to do this on such short notice. So far, so good.”

Printup added, “Friday night at 5:01, it was an awesome moment. I can tell you that. I was really excited to hear from Jay, and like he said, we had met earlier in Phoenix. I was out there on business, and Jay and I and Stephen (Starks, from INDYCAR) sat down, and I have to say the same thing about his team. Jay and I took one or two phone calls over the weekend, we had a follow-up even Friday night at like 9:00 that night, we exchanged a couple emails Saturday and Sunday, and we didn’t talk again for like another week because we handed it off, or week and a half. We handed it off to our teams, and the teams really put the deal together. Jay and I obviously were the cheerleaders and champions on both sides. I know that. But both our teams really are responsible for putting this together, so we couldn’t be more proud.

“This belongs at Watkins Glen International. Scott and I had a moment just prior to walking in here, it’s so nice to see. It’s so great to walk around here and feel the electricity here. Can’t wait to do it again up in Watkins Glen, and like he said, it was just an awesome time working with Jay and the team, and we couldn’t be happier. In less than two weeks putting together a major motorsports deal? I’d like anybody to beat that. I wouldn’t want anybody to beat it, because Jay and I own it.”

More to follow… 

Da Costa excited by opportunities with Andretti, ‘jealous’ of Frijns’ IndyCar test

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CASTLE DONINGTON, UK – Antonio Felix da Costa is excited by the opportunities available with Andretti Autosport after joining its Formula E team for the third season of the all-electric series.

Red Bull-affiliated driver da Costa raced for Team Aguri in season one and two, scoring a victory in Buenos Aires in 2015 and putting forward a good case for being the best pound-for-pound driver on the grid given the team’s tight budget.

Andretti confirmed earlier this month that da Costa would be joining its Formula E operation for season three, replacing Simona de Silvestro in a move that is also understood to incorporate a partnership with BMW – da Costa’s team in DTM.

“It was probably one of the worst-kept secrets in Formula E,” da Costa told NBC Sports.

“But we really had to do it this way because there were a few other things in play and we could not jeopardise or compromise other things. Shortly after London, we were able to agree on everything and went straight to work.

“Very happy to be joining a racing family like the Andrettis. They need no introduction to the motorsport world. To be joining this team is a very good thing for me.

“I love America. I’d love to race there. I love the way Americans do sports in general, so it’s all very good.”

Da Costa will partner Robin Frijns, whose efforts in Formula E led to an IndyCar test with Andretti last month at Mid-Ohio where he put in an impressive display.

“Yeah I’m a little bit jealous of him, I have to say!” da Costa joked, before saying his focus remains on Formula E for the time being.

“One thing at a time. We’re here now, just got started with the team so first of all we need to do a good job here and then we’ll see what the future brings.

“If I have a winning car, we need to win races. If not, then just bring home maximum points possible. I think me and Robin together, we can do a good job.

“We’re both very competitive and I know him well, I know what he’s like, I’ve raced against him. To have him on my side now and push the team in the same direction is very, very good.”

Lewis Hamilton to take F1 power unit penalty in Belgium

SPA, BELGIUM - AUGUST 25: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP walks in the Paddock during previews ahead of the Formula One Grand Prix of Belgium at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps on August 25, 2016 in Spa, Belgium.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Lewis Hamilton has confirmed that he will take a sixth power unit component ahead of this weekend’s Belgian Grand Prix, resulting in a grid penalty.

Hamilton arrived in Belgium leading Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg in the drivers’ championship by 19 points after winning the last four races.

Power unit issues at the start of the season forced Hamilton to use more of his allocated components early, making a penalty in the second half of the season inevitable.

Drivers are permitted to use five of each power unit component across the course of the season, with penalties being handed out for exceeding this limit.

Hamilton confirmed in Thursday’s FIA press conference at Spa that he would be taking new components in Belgium, meaning he will take start towards the back of the grid.

“As far as I’m aware, we will take the penalty this weekend,” Hamilton said, before Mercedes gave official confirmation.

“As Lewis just confirmed in the press conference, we will take an engine penalty this weekend,” a team spokesperson said.

“It is safe to assume he will start from the back of the field or very close but we cannot be more precise at this stage.”

Hamilton has previously charged from the back of the grid to finish on the podium in Germany and Hungary two years ago, with both drives being decisive in winning him the title.

However, the Briton is skeptical that he can challenge for victory, given the reduction in Mercedes’ advantage over the field compared to two years ago.

“In terms of winning, that is going to be very, very hard. Obviously the gap has closed between other cars,” Hamilton said.

“We’re in the third year of the evolution of these cars, Red Bull have been very quick in some of the races and the same with Ferrari and down the whole grid, so it’s going to be harder than it was last year and the year before to climb through the field.

“But I’ll do everything I can and it’s just about minimizing the damage of taking the penalty.”