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NASCAR still humming along after last fall’s Richmond scandal

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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.

Jules Bianchi’s family launches legal action against FIA, F1 Group, Marussia

MONTREAL, QC - JUNE 06:  Jules Bianchi of France and Marussia walks across the paddock uring practice ahead of the Canadian Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve on June 6, 2014 in Montreal, Canada.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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The family of Jules Bianchi has begun legal action against the FIA, the Formula 1 Group and Marussia F1 Team over the Frenchman’s death from injuries sustained during the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix.

Bianchi suffered a diffuse axonal injury after crashing into a recovery vehicle at high-speed during the race at Suzuka in wet conditions.

The Frenchman died last July at the age of 25, nine months after the accident.

An investigation into the accident deemed that Bianchi had been driving too quickly under yellow flags, and cleared the event organizers and race officials of any blame.

However, Bianchi’s family today announced via British law firm Stewarts Law that it would be challenging these claims by launching legal action against the FIA, Formula One Group and the Marussia team.

“The family of Formula One racing driver, Jules Bianchi, has today announced they plan to take legal action in England relating to the fatal head injuries Jules Bianchi sustained in a violent collision with a mobile crane at the Japanese Grand Prix in Suzuka, 2014,” a statement read.

“Stewarts Law, the country’s largest litigation-only law firm, have this week sent formal pre-action letters of claim to:

  • the World Governing Body of Formula One, the FIA;
  • Team Marussia, who Jules was driving for at the time; and
  • the Formula One Group of companies, who control the TV and media rights for the sport.

“The letters explain why the Bianchi family feel the actions of one or more of those parties, amongst others, may have contributed to Jules’ fatal accident and invite them to accept that errors were made in the planning, timing, organisation and conduct of the race which took place in dangerous conditions during the typhoon season in Japan.

“The recipients of the letters of claim will be expected to respond in due course, to explain their actions in connection with the race and to indicate if they dispute the claim.”

“Jules Bianchi’s death was avoidable,” Stewarts Law partner Julian Chamberlayne added. “The FIA Panel Inquiry Report into this accident made numerous recommendations to improve safety in Formula One but failed to identify where errors had been made which led to Jules’ death.

“It was surprising and distressing to the Bianchi family that the FIA panel in its conclusions, whilst noting a number of contributing factors, blamed Jules.

“The Bianchi family are determined that this legal process should require those involved to provide answers and to take responsibility for any failings. This is important if current and future drivers are to have confidence that safety in the sport will be put first.

“If this had been the case in Suzuka, Jules Bianchi would most likely still be alive and competing in the sport he loved today.”

Jules’ father, Philippe Bianchi, explained the decision to launch legal action.

“We seek justice for Jules, and want to establish the truth about the decisions that led to our son’s crash at the Japanese Grand Prix in 2014,” Bianchi Sr. said.

“As a family, we have so many unanswered questions and feel that Jules’ accident and death could have been avoided if a series of mistakes had not been made.”

Hamilton leads first Monaco practice as ultra-soft tire debuts

MONTE-CARLO, MONACO - MAY 26:  Sparks fly as Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo on track during practice for the Monaco Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit de Monaco on May 26, 2016 in Monte-Carlo, Monaco.  (Photo by Lars Baron/Getty Images)
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Lewis Hamilton edged out Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg at the top of the timesheets in first practice for the Monaco Grand Prix on Thursday as the new ultra-soft tire made its debut.

Pirelli announced over the winter that it had developed a fifth dry compound for 2016 that is bespoke for street circuits such as Monaco.

The purple-ringed tire has only featured in testing so far this year, but made its official grand prix weekend debut in a truncated first practice in Monaco.

Hamilton and Rosberg immediately put the ultra-soft tire to good use, heading out early for a flurry of quick laps that were already faster than the pole position time from 2015.

Hamilton ultimately won the battle, with his lap of 1:15.537 being enough for P1 by one-tenth of a second as Mercedes began its fightback from a double DNF in Spain.

The session was interrupted by four virtual safety car periods. Felipe Massa was responsible for the first after clouting the barrier at Ste Devote, before Esteban Gutierrez and Jolyon Palmer both stopped on track in the final 30 minutes of the running.

A final VSC was throw with five minutes remaining in the session after a drain cover broke free at Turn 1, causing Rosberg to suffer a left-rear puncture and then leaving Jenson Button’s McLaren with significant front wing damage. The session was then red flagged, bringing an early end to proceedings

Nevertheless, Mercedes eased clear at the top of the standings, with Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel finishing as the best of the rest in third place, four-tenths of a second down on Hamilton.

Daniel Ricciardo put his newly-updated Renault power unit to good use to finish the session fourth-fastest for Red Bull, beating teammate Max Verstappen who continued his good form after his victory in Spain to end the session fifth.

Daniil Kvyat impressed for Toro Rosso to finish FP1 in sixth place, narrowly behind the man who replaced him at Red Bull. Nico Hulkenberg and Sergio Perez ended the session seventh and eighth respectively for Force India, while Kimi Raikkonen and Carlos Sainz Jr. rounded out the top 10.

Shirley Muldowney surgery update: ‘Couldn’t have gone much better’

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Even though she hasn’t raced since 2003, Shirley Muldowney still has scores of fans.

And many of them, when they heard the news that she would undergo surgery today to remove her right lung due to Stage 2 lung cancer, offered prayers and well wishes on this site, as well as on social media.

Well, even though details are slim, it appears that a five-hour surgery Wednesday morning was a success for the 75-year-old, three-time NHRA Top Fuel champion and one-time AHRA champ.

Muldowney’s agent, Rob Geiger tweeted updates earlier this evening that is great news:

We plan on keeping Muldowney fans updated with more information in the coming days as she begins her recovery.

As Geiger said, “#ShirleyStrong.”

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MRTI: Freedom 100, new USF-17 launch highlight Indy oval weekend

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Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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INDIANAPOLIS – The Mazda Road to Indy has a double dip of content this weekend with the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval and the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires and Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda at the Lucas Oil Raceway short oval in Clermont, Ind., outside Indianapolis.

Both events are on Friday; the Freedom 100 airs at noon ET and local time as part of NBCSN’s Carb Day coverage. Kevin Lee, Anders Krohn and Katie Hargitt will have the call for the Freedom.

The Freedom 100 is arguably the marquee race of the year for Indy Lights, and a good springboard to the Verizon IndyCar Series – no less than 24 of the 33 starters in this year’s Indianapolis 500 field have some degree of Mazda Road to Indy experience.

That being said, the randomness of the Freedom 100 has produced a variety of winners who haven’t exactly gone on to huge things in IndyCar.

Here’s the past winners list:

  • 2015: Jack Harvey
  • 2014: Gabby Chaves
  • 2013: Peter Dempsey
  • 2012: Esteban Guerrieri
  • 2011: Josef Newgarden
  • 2010: Wade Cunningham
  • 2009: Wade Cunningham
  • 2008: Dillon Battistini
  • 2007: Alex Lloyd
  • 2006: Wade Cunningham
  • 2005: Jaime Camara
  • 2004: Thiago Medeiros
  • 2003: Ed Carpenter

That’s three past winners in Carpenter, Newgarden and Chaves who are racing on Sunday. Harvey, Dempsey and Guerrieri have a combined zero starts; meanwhile all of Cunningham, Battistini, Camara and Medeiros had less than a season of in IndyCar.

Polesitters have been random too, with some surprises including Ethan Ringel (last year) and Ken Losch (2007) of note.

Traditionally Schmidt Peterson Motorsports has fielded strong entries at the Speedway, and that puts any of its four cars – talented sophomore RC Enerson, Pro Mazda champion Santiago Urrutia and fellow rookies Andre Negrao and Heamin Choi into contention almost from the off. Enerson, in particular, is due his first win of the year after niggling turbo issues have hampered most of his season.

Belardi Auto Racing, given its engineering strength in depth, is also a strong contender and a winner here twice previously in dramatic fashion with Chaves and Dempsey. This year they have Zach Veach, who topped the 200-mph mark during testing on Monday, and Felix Rosenqvist, who will look for a significantly better second oval start than his first at Phoenix.

Either of Enerson and Veach would make it seven winners in eight races this year. The other six thus far are, in order, Felix Serralles, Rosenqvist, Kyle Kaiser, Ed Jones, Urrutia and Dean Stoneman.

Kaiser expects to be better than both he and the Juncos Racing team were here last year. Another potential surprise is Neil Alberico, who was strong in testing despite a slight incident in the first session.

Choi, replacing Scott Anderson, is the only driver change among the 16 entered for the Freedom 100. It’s the biggest field for this race since 2012, when 18 cars started – only 11 have started each of the last three years.

USF17-1
Rendering: Andersen Promotions

Arguably the more intriguing part of the weekend from the Pro Mazda or USF2000 perspective is the launch of the new Tatuus USF-17 car, which gets unveiled Friday morning, 9 a.m., at IMS.

It’s the second new car to be unveiled at IMS in recent years, with the Dallara IL-15 Mazda having been unveiled in May 2014 ahead of its race debut for 20115.

The Pro Mazda and USF2000 races occur later in the day on Friday at IMS.

In Pro Mazda, the question is whether anyone can stop the Pato O’Ward roll of awesomeness for Team Pelfrey. The young Mexican has won five of six races to date, although teammate Aaron Telitz is a past winner at Lucas Oil Raceway in USF2000. The remaining six drivers in the field will look to end O’Ward’s run of form.

USF2000 sees its field temporarily cut in half for its lone oval race of the season, down from 27 cars entered at the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis weekend to a mere 14 cars on the 0.686-mile oval.

While Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing and Pabst Racing have three cars entered apiece – Parker Thompson and Anthony Martin have propelled Cape to four straight wins this year -known oval setup ace John Walko will likely have Victor Franzoni’s car ready to go to contend.