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NASCAR still humming along after last fall’s Richmond scandal


This weekend, NASCAR returns to the scene of the crime.

The Easter break is over, and the Sprint Cup Series will get back to racing this coming Saturday night at Richmond International Raceway – its first visit to “The Action Track” since America’s most popular form of motorsport was turned upside down.

Last fall at RIR, and with a Chase bid for then-driver Martin Truex Jr. on the line, Michael Waltrip Racing attempted to ensure that he would be involved in the post-season.

With just a handful of laps remaining, MWR driver Clint Bowyer spun out to put the race under caution with seven laps to go. Another MWR driver, Brian Vickers, was then told to pit just prior to the final restart.

For a moment, it looked like the tactics had worked as Truex was able to improve his position enough to make the Chase. But two days later, NASCAR lowered the boom.

Truex was out of the Chase after he (along with Bowyer and Vickers) lost 50 points, enabling Ryan Newman to move into the post-season.

Later, Jeff Gordon – one of those affected by MWR’s maneuver – was also added to the Chase as a 13th driver.

Then loyal sponsor NAPA decided to leave MWR behind after the scandal, later resurfacing as a backer for Nationwide Series young gun Chase Elliott and JR Motorsports.

And so, MWR was forced to downsize to its current two-car form, a third car only appearing on occasion. Truex is now at Furniture Row Racing and crew chief Chad Johnston is now at Stewart-Haas Racing.

The scandal broke at the worst possible time for the sport, as it prepared to enter the 10th year of the Chase format. It wanted to promote but instead had to defend its very credibility.

But as Richmond looms once again, it appears NASCAR has weathered the storm.

Some of the reason for that comes down to Brian France’s swift decision on how to punish MWR after Richmond.

The NASCAR CEO may have been, at his own admission, “pissed off,” at the time, but he was clear-headed enough to know that a reaction from the sanctioning body post-Richmond could not wait.

“It was going to be really tough, especially for the teams that got penalized, losing sponsors; that was no fun for anybody,” he said of the situation in December. “But I knew that our credibility would be preserved if we did the right thing and we acted swiftly.”

NASCAR also caught a break in how the 2013 Chase ultimately played out. Two of the more non-controversial Cup drivers, Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth wound up dueling for the title while Bowyer – who kept his Chase spot despite his points penalty – was never really a factor.

Bullet…Make that big bullet…dodged.

With that, NASCAR took the off-season opportunity to unveil yet another revision to the Chase format, which virtually ensures drivers a place in the post-season if they can win in the regular season.

So far, it’s worked out pretty well. It took eight races before the first repeat winner of the 2014 season finally emerged with Kevin Harvick at Darlington.

The focus has been on the racing, just as France and his team in Daytona Beach had surely hoped for.

Even if the Richmond visit is sure to conjure memories of last fall’s incident for everyone, that focus likely won’t be supplanted.

Sprint Cup points leader Jeff Gordon hasn’t won yet. Ditto for Johnson and Kenseth, the two main title rivals of one year ago.

Throw in the potential fireworks that always come with close-quarter short track racing, and we should have a good show on tap for Saturday night under the lights.

Life may have gotten a bit hairy for NASCAR, but things are humming along now.

Hulkenberg signing buys Renault time to decide on second seat

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 22: Kevin Magnussen of Denmark driving the (20) Renault Sport Formula One Team Renault RS16 Renault RE16 turbo on track during final practice for the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 22, 2016 in Austin, United States.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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Renault Formula 1 chief Frederic Vasseur is in no rush to complete the team’s driver line-up for 2017, saying that the recent arrival of Nico Hulkenberg has given him more time to make a decision on the German’s teammate.

Hulkenberg was lured away from Force India for the 2017 season, announcing last week that he had signed to join Renault and aid its revival after its return to F1 as a constructor this year.

Renault is thought to have been chasing a number of drivers under contract elsewhere for 2017, including Williams’ Valtteri Bottas and Toro Rosso’s Carlos Sainz Jr.

However, Renault is still exploring a number of options for its second seat, with Vasseur seeing no reason to rush any decision.

“We are in talks with many drivers,” Vasseur told the official F1 website.

“For sure, that we have secured the situation with Nico buys us time. Now we can postpone the decision for the second cockpit.

“Yes, we do have some young drivers and rookies in the loop, so it is important to see how they are improving.”

Bottas was strongly linked with a move away from Williams for 2017, but reports over the United States Grand Prix weekend suggest that he will now stay on with the British team.

“I also have a good relationship with Valtteri. He drove for me for three or four years in the past,” Vassuer said.

“We won the GP3 championship together. But Valtteri is under contract with Williams.

“That is not the same story as [Hulkenberg] with Force India.”

Magnussen recently admitted that he was getting impatient about his future with Renault, as well as adding that he was “millimeters” away from signing a new contract with the French team.

“His situation has not changed. Millimeters. But if you have the pen millimeters off the paper, what then?”

Famous faces descend on Austin for USGP weekend

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 22:  Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP talks with actors Christoph Waltz and Rosa Salazar in the garage  during final practice for the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 22, 2016 in Austin, United States.  (Photo by Lars Baron/Getty Images)
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Formula 1 has a habit of attracting the rich and famous out to play for the weekend, and the United States Grand Prix in Austin, Texas has been no exception to the rule.

A number of celebrities have descended on the Circuit of The Americas this weekend to catch some on-track action.

Some of the names have appeared in the F1 paddock before, but others are first-timers at COTA, keen to get a glimpse of one of the most exciting sports in the world.

Here’s a quick social run-down of the famous faces that have been spotted this weekend.

Tennis star Venus Williams was a guest of Mercedes on Saturday, and even took time to congratulate Lewis Hamilton following his charge to pole position.

Noted actor and villain in the latest James Bond film, Spectre, Christoph Waltz made an appearance in the Mercedes garage, receiving a tour from Hamilton himself.

American actress Rosa Salazar joined Waltz in the Mercedes garage.

NASCAR legend Jeff Gordon took some time out of his busy schedule to pay a visit to COTA, spotted here chatting to Nico Rosberg before the race.

F1 aficionado and TV chef Gordon Ramsay chatted with McLaren chief Ron Dennis ahead of the race – given McLaren’s excellent catering, it was probably not about the food…

McLaren’s other guest is literally out of this world: British astronaut Tim Peake.

Skateboarding star Ryan Scheckler has been with Red Bull all weekend, seen here swapping gear with Daniel Ricciardo.

Skier Lindsey Vonn received a birthday surprise from the Red Bull drivers.

Gerard Butler is another big F1 fan, seen here chatting with Red Bull team boss Christian Horner.

2016 Olympic triathlon champion Gwen Jorgensen also came along (not many free seats in the Red Bull garage!).

Verstappen unlikely to change style despite F1 defense rule clarification

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 22:  Max Verstappen of Netherlands and Red Bull Racing in the garage during qualifying for the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 22, 2016 in Austin, United States.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Max Verstappen doubts he will change his on-track racing style despite the FIA’s clarification of permitted defensive moves in Formula 1 ahead of Sunday’s United States Grand Prix.

Verstappen came under fire from his rivals in Hungary and Belgium earlier this year after appearing to move under braking, and was subject to a brief protest from Mercedes in Japan for the same reason.

Verstappen’s on-track moves were brought up in Friday’s drivers’ briefing at the Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas, prompting FIA race director Charlie Whiting to clarify the rules regarding defensive moves.

Whiting confirmed that any move under braking that forces the car behind to take evasive action will be investigated by the stewards, appearing to clamp down on Verstappen’s moves.

However, the Dutchman told reporters on Saturday evening that he doubted it would have any effect on his approach or style on-track.

“I don’t think so. I think it’s good to make it more clear what’s allowed and what’s not,” Verstappen said, as quoted by Reuters.

“So far it said in the rules that you could go to the inside under braking. Now it’s not. So we’ll see how that’s going to affect the racing.”

Verstappen will start fourth on the grid in Sunday’s United States Grand Prix, live on NBC and the NBC Sports app from 2:30pm ET.

Hamilton: ‘Incredible’ to be closing in on Senna’s pole tally

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 22:  Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP waves to the crowd after qualifying in pole position during qualifying for the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 22, 2016 in Austin, United States.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Lewis Hamilton finds it “incredible” to be closing in on Formula 1 legend Ayrton Senna’s tally of pole positions after adding to his haul in Austin, Texas on Saturday.

Hamilton scored the 58th pole of his F1 career in qualifying for the United States Grand Prix after edging out Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg in Q3, recording the fastest ever lap around the Circuit of The Americas.

Hamilton trails only Michael Schumacher (68) and Senna (65) in the list for all-time poles in F1, the latter being an inspiration to the Briton throughout his junior racing days.

“Seven is still a long way to go but to think that I’m within shooting distance is incredible,” Hamilton said after qualifying at COTA.

“But it also just goes to show just how amazing a driver he was. To get as many poles as that in the amount of time that he had, it’s taken me a lot longer to get where I am so it was clearly phenomenal.”

At just 31 years old, Hamilton stands a good chance of becoming F1’s all-time pole position leader, particularly if Mercedes can continue its current domination of the sport over into the 2017 season.

In the running for the FIA Pole Trophy in 2016, Hamilton pulled clear of Rosberg in Austin, the pair previously tied for eight poles heading into the weekend. Daniel Ricciardo is the only other driver to have started a race from pole this year, leading the field away in Monaco.

Hamilton is bidding for his fourth victory at COTA in Sunday’s United States Grand Prix, live on NBC and the NBC Sports app from 2:30pm ET.