(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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Tony Kanaan woos IMS after positng fastest Carb Day lap

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MAY 27:  Tony Kanaan of Brazil, driver of the #10 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet Dallara, practices during Carb Day ahead of the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motorspeedway on May 27, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
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“I think this track will pick the winner,” Tony Kanaan told reporters Friday after Carb Day practice was completed for the 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

“So I’m trying to massage the track a little bit, talk to her nicely, and then see if she will pick me on Sunday.”

Kanaan certainly impressed the 2.5-mile ‘lady’ in practice, by posting a fastest lap of 226.280 mph that would seem to have her shunning all other suitors. Carlos Munoz set the second-fastest speed, but he was nearly a quarter of a second per lap slower with a speed of 224.772 mph.

Speeds were largely dependent on tows in the final tune-up for Sunday’s race.

All 33 drivers who qualified for the 100th running of the Indy 500 tried their dead-level best to impress the track. They raced side-by-side through the corners and filled the course with cars. For most of the session, a majority of the drivers were on course at the same time, and that surprised many.

“You should have asked me, I would have told you different,” Kanaan said.

“This is the closest we get to the race, two days, and after being here for almost a month, the engineers come up with different plans every day,” Kanaan added. “The more time you give them, the more they come up with stuff. And we had almost five days without being on track, so they go back to the shop and do simulations. So we had to test.”

Race conditions will be markedly different than what everyone faced in qualification and that is another reason so many cars were on track. It is also one reason Kanaan was so pleased with his time.

If a full field had not practiced, no one would truly know what they would face on Sunday. “Everybody is eager to feel how the car behaves in traffic. So it was a race out there today.”

Kanaan was pleased with the response he got from Indy.

“I’m happy with my car,” Kanaan said. “Obviously I have to pass 17 people before I get really happy with my car. But, you know, after the struggle in qualifying, we really focused on the race.”

Kanaan will start 18th, alongside Juan Pablo Montoya and close behind some other top-ranked drivers.

“One thing that eases my mind a little bit being back there, there are a lot of good guys back there with me,” Kanaan added. “You know, if you look around Montoya, Charlie Kimball, Scott Dixon, they’re very experienced guys back there, which sometimes it’s not the case.”

“So I really don’t have a plan. My plan is to start the race. If there is a gap, I’m going to go for it.”

Indy occasionally rewards spontaneity, so Kanaan’s fastest speed in final practice may be a strong indication of his odds of winning his second Indy 500. His first victory came in 2013.

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When Townsend Bell and Mario Andretti made pizza (VIDEO)

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Before the 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil kicks off on Sunday, Townsend Bell and Mario Andretti tossed around a couple pizzas.

Bell, the NBCSN IndyCar analyst who starts fourth in the No. 29 California Pizza Kitchen/Robert Graham Honda, has easily his best shot to win the Indy 500 in his 10th attempt.

He’s part of the five-car Andretti Autosport armada along with Carlos Munoz, Marco Andretti, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Alexander Rossi.

Stoneman edges Jones in closest finish ever at IMS in Freedom 100 (VIDEO)

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INDIANAPOLIS – No words other than “wow” to summarize the immediate aftermath of the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires’ Freedom 100 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

At a race that had two incredible photo finishes in 2013 and 2014, another one occurred Friday with Dean Stoneman edging Ed Jones by just 0.0024 of a second.

“As you can see on the screen now it was bloody close,” Stoneman said from Victory Lane after driving the No. 27 Stellrecht Dallara IL-15 Mazda for Andretti Autosport.

It’s the closest finish in Indianapolis Motor Speedway history with Stoneman having led the field to the green on the last lap, but lost the lead at Turn 1 when Jones around the outside, before Stoneman got past him through Turn 3 and stayed ahead.

The Andretti Autosport driver then edged the Carlin driver at the line, fist in the air for his second win at IMS in three weeks, after also winning on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course.

“It’s great. I was in a hospital bed five years ago dreaming to be racing here and winning now,” Stoneman added.

“First [win] ever here for this race,” said Michael Andretti, car owner. “We’re so excited. We’ve been trying so many years to win this and Dean finally brought it to us.”

“It’s so frustrating to lose the race like that,” said second-place finisher Jones. “We were back and forth throughout the race and all the time I was waiting behind Dean for those last few laps. He held up everyone really slowly on that restart and caught quite a few incidents.”

“I got the lead in turn one and I thought I had the good run and I was pulling away but he had the draft down the back straight and I made the decision to stay on the inside,” Jones added, “He got the momentum on the outside and he just beat me to the line. It was so close and the team did a fantastic job of giving me the car to win the race.”

“That minor mistake just cost me everything.”

Previous closest finishes were 0.0026 of 2013 when Peter Dempsey won, and 0.005 of a second when Gabby Chaves won.

In third place, Dalton Kellett scored a career-best result in the No. 28 K-LINE car for Andretti Autosport, with Shelby Blackstock and Scott Hargrove completing the top five finishers.

F1 still Maldonado’s ‘Plan A’ as he chases race comeback

SINGAPORE - SEPTEMBER 18:  Pastor Maldonado of Venezuela and Lotus drives during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Singapore at Marina Bay Street Circuit on September 18, 2015 in Singapore.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
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Pastor Maldonado remains hopeful of returning to a Formula 1 race seat in the future, but is open to other series if his “Plan A” fails to come to fruition.

Maldonado lost his drive with Renault over the winter when his backing from Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA fell through.

Since then, the one-time grand prix winner has completed some private testing for tire supplier Pirelli, but is keen to make a racing return next season if possible.

“We will try again and try to be back in a good team, to give me the chance to be competitive,” Maldonado told Reuters in Monaco.

“Plan A is Formula 1. Then of course if it doesn’t come, we need to look around.”

Despite the financial and social problems facing Venezuela right now, Maldonado hopes that PDVSA can find the funding to resume his F1 career.

“PDVSA is a big company, supporting a lot of sport programmes in Venezuela,” Maldonado said.

“They still seem to maintain all the programmes. Hopefully it will be no problem to have them back.

“I am the only Venezuelan who is racing at this level. I have been supported since many, many years. The relationships are very good. Hopefully we can be together for more years.

“Of course the oil price is still a bit low, and when the oil is down, the country is down. For sure it’s painful at the moment.”