Marcos Ambrose said Thursday that he regrets the punch he threw at Casey Mears, but won't apologize for the incident. (Photo: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Marcos Ambrose regrets Mears punch but won’t apologize

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In his first public comments since last Saturday’s punch of Casey Mears and subsequent fines and penalties issued by NASCAR, Marcos Ambrose said he regrets the incident but will not apologize for it either.

“As it goes down, if I had my chance to think back about it, a wiser man would have walked away a little bit earlier and not got himself in that situation,” Ambrose said during a media event Thursday at Charlotte Motor Speedway. “I don’t apologize for my actions. I was just standing up for myself and my team and my family and letting people know that you can’t get in my private space like that and expect not to have any consequences.”

Both drivers were penalized Tuesday by NASCAR, with Ambrose receiving a higher fine ($25,000) due to his actual punching Mears, who was fined $15,000 for pushing and shoving Ambrose. Each was also placed on probation through May 28, three days after the Coca-Cola 600 race in Charlotte.

Although he drew the harsher penalty, Ambrose understood NASCAR’s side.

“I got myself in a bad situation,” Ambrose said. “I caused an action that NASCAR needed to reprimand, so I’m happy to pay it and happy to move on.

“It’s a heavy fine. That’s the biggest fine I’ve ever received in racing and I think that NASCAR needed to do something and whatever they chose to do, I’ll pay it.”

Ambrose said he’s still somewhat baffled why Mears instigated the confrontation.

“The altercation I had with Casey was quite impromptu,” Ambrose said. “As I was walking past the 13 car, as he’d finished the race, I was actually heading over to have a chat with David Gilliland just to say we’re all good after we got into each other a couple of times.

“Some words were said and I was confused about why Casey was so annoyed at me, and I think you just see a lot of the passion that the drivers have and the commitment we have to try to win these races and try to run at the front. That passion kind of got out of hand and got out of control pretty quick.”

If he had to do it all over again, Ambrose might take a different tact. But in the heat of the moment, he reacted in the way he did because he feared what Mears might do next.

“I think I’ve learned my lesson on that one,” Ambrose said. “I think next time I might scamper into the race hauler or scamper back to the plane and have a sleep on things. There’s just so much emotion. This is the first time I’ve been involved in something like this.

“At the time, even after the incident went down, I didn’t think much of it.  I just thought, ‘Well, he started pushing me around and I just had to get him away from me,’ because I didn’t know what was going to happen next. If he starts pushing me in the toolbox what happens next? Is he going to try to throw one on me?”

Ambrose even joked a bit of the response he received when he got back home afterward.

“So I was trying to get out of there and it wasn’t until a few hours later that the adrenaline starts to whoa down and you start to realize what you had done,” he said. “And then the next day when you have to talk to your kids about it and your wife is mad at you, you realize that walking away would have been a much smarter option.”

Ambrose insists he did try to walk away, but when Mears began to shove him, it didn’t leave Ambrose much choice in how to react.

“There was plenty of stuff said, but before the pushing,” Ambrose said. “He was upset and he was letting me know how upset he was. And then when I went to walk away he just couldn’t handle it any longer. As soon as he grabbed hold of me there, I knew I was going to have to get a shot in and I was just waiting for the right moment.”

Ambrose said he’s never had a physical confrontation before in his career, not even in his pre-NASCAR days in his native Australia. But he’s also willing to let bygones be bygones with Mears.

“I’m happy to move on and put the week behind us,” Ambrose said, adding that he and Mears have talked more than once since Richmond. “It’s certainly not a proud moment of mine, but I certainly don’t take anything back that I did. Casey and I spoke about it and he said, if the shoe was on the other foot he probably would have done the same thing.”

Ambrose even extended a gesture of friendship to Mears.

“I honestly believe that we’ll enjoy having a beer with each other,” he said. “I think we have a mutual respect for each other. I like Casey a lot. I didn’t have any beef with him after the race, but emotions just got out of hand and we both recognized that if we had our time again it wouldn’t happen again, but now it has, you can’t take back what has happened.

“I’ve spoken to him and I’m not carrying anything forward. He has to decide what he wants to do moving forward, but if we get ourselves in a pub somewhere I’d buy him a beer, no problem.”

Also offering his first comments on the incident, team owner Richard Petty defended his driver for essentially protecting himself.

Petty also questioned why NASCAR penalized his driver more severely than Mears, who instigated the incident by pushing and shoving Ambrose before the latter reacted in self-defense mode.

“I always look at it as you have to defend yourself no matter what the circumstances are, and that’s what I saw in the Marcos situation,” Petty said. “What provoked it? I have no idea.

“I don’t even think Marcos knows really what provoked the whole thing. But in the scheme of things, if you can’t protect yourself, then NASCAR is not going to come and protect you, so he had to do what he had to do.

“… As you can see in the tape, (Ambrose) did not initiate any of that. He was trying to get away. So I think from that standpoint, I don’t know what (NASCAR’s) rationale is. I’ll just have to talk to them and see what they come up with.”

Petty even laughed at times about the incident. When asked if he ever had any confrontations of note with other drivers during his racing career, Petty demurred.

“No comment,” he said with a laugh. “(Physical confrontations between drivers) used to go on a little bit all the time, but they didn’t have all of the TV cameras and all that stuff, so you could go around behind a truck and do what you needed to do and there wasn’t very many people who knew about it.”

When asked if he wishes Ambrose would have done things differently, Petty again replied with a laugh.

“You’ve got to defend yourself no matter what, but if he knew he was going to be fined $25,000, (Ambrose) might have let the guy (Mears) take another swing at him,” Petty said.

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Longtime Knoxville Raceway promoter, Ralph Capitani, dies

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Photo via @KnoxvilleRaces Twitter
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Knoxville Raceway likely wouldn’t be what it is as one of the country’s most renowned short tracks without the work of Ralph Capitani.

Capitani has died following a battle of cancer (according to Speed Sport), news of which was announced Monday by the track. The longtime promoter at the track was born in 1932.

Capitani, better known as “Cappy,” oversaw a huge rise in the stature and popularity of the track’s premier event – the Knoxville Nationals – after taking the reins as the track’s new race director and promoter in 1978.

Some of the elements Capitani worked to implement were improved facilities, purses, safety standards, car counts and audience, the latter of which saw the Knoxville Nationals eventually make it to TV. He also established the Knoxville Raceway Hall of Fame.

In his 40th year at Knoxville in 2007, Capitani said the prestige of the Knoxville Nationals remained incredible.

“I think the Knoxville Nationals is the best sprint car race of the year, bar none,” he said in 2007, via InLappedTraffic. “It is the only time you see ALL of the best sprint car drivers competing on the same playing field. It is a United States and Internationally wide event.”

He retired from the track at the end of 2011.

Knoxville Raceway released a statement confirming Capitani’s passing, and thanking him for all he did to put the track and race on the map.

A portion of the statement reads: “A visionary in the sport, Cappy aimed to make sprint car racing at Knoxville Raceway grander, the purses bigger and the grandstands fuller. He achieved them all with a smile on his face and a hearty handshake for every team owner, driver, crew member and fan that ever crossed his path.”

IndyCar’s last big pre-season test occurs this week at Sebring

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Conor Daly. Photo: IndyCar
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Pre-season testing for the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season will conclude this week with all eight full-season teams having two days at Sebring International Raceway’s short course on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Sebring marks the closest venue to simulate street course conditions; four of the first eight races are street races while only one street race, Toronto, occurs in the second half of the season.

Although this is private testing, this will be a de facto “spring training” on the 1.5-mile road course for teams to see what the others are running all at once. IndyCar’s official spring training, the Prix View test at Phoenix International Raceway’s 1-mile oval, occurred on February 10-11.

The bulk of the field runs tomorrow, with seven of the eight teams set to test – the only exception is Andretti Autosport. Andretti is listed to test on Wednesday.

All but one of the 21 full-season drivers expected for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg season opener on March 12 will test this week. The one not listed is Sebastien Bourdais of Dale Coyne Racing; Bourdais and Ed Jones tested at Sebring in January prior to the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

They’ll be joined by the three drivers making their test debuts, all for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports: Robert Wickens, Luis Felipe “Pipo” Derani and Luis Michael Dorrbecker.

Wickens tests tomorrow as part of his planned ride swap with James Hinchcliffe, with Derani and Dorrbecker set to test on Wednesday.

Sebring is usually a hotbed for tests over the IndyCar offseason. This year saw A.J. Foyt Enterprises (in late January with Chevrolet) and Chip Ganassi Racing (in early January with Honda) premiere their new manufacturers and aero kits at Sebring, among other teams that have tested here.

Although the test season has seen an increase in interest this year, the regular season starts in St. Petersburg and returns to NBCSN with Long Beach on April 9.

F1 Paddock Pass: 2017 launch roundup (VIDEO)

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The NBC Sports Group original digital series Paddock Pass returns today with a recap of the remaining launches of the 2017 Formula 1 cars that occurred over the weekend.

Williams was first to reveal a rendering of its 2017 car, but it wasn’t a formal launch. Sauber’s online launch properly kicked off proceedings last Monday, before Renault, Force India and Mercedes did actual launches, and then Ferrari (online) and McLaren (in Woking) both launched on Friday.

Official launches then followed for Williams, Red Bull, Haas and Toro Rosso over the weekend. Haas had pictures of its car leak the day before its planned launch as it was a filming day on track.

In this edition of Paddock Pass, NBCSN pit reporter and insider Will Buxton and producer Jason Swales recap the remaining cars revealed over the weekend.

Previous Paddock Pass editions from this week are below:

Testing continues this week with days two through four of the first test at Barcelona.

Alonso’s McLaren struggles on first day of F1 tests

MONTMELO, SPAIN - FEBRUARY 27: Fernando Alonso of Spain driving the (14) McLaren Honda Formula 1 Team McLaren MCL32 on track  during day one of Formula One winter testing at Circuit de Catalunya on February 27, 2017 in Montmelo, Spain.  (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)
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MONTMELO, Spain (AP) Troubled Formula One team McLaren has gotten off to a wretched start in preseason testing.

Fernando Alonso spent most of the first day waiting to get back out of the garage after his car broke down following just one lap at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya on Monday.

What the team identified as an “oil system” malfunction to its Honda-made engine kept the two-time world champion out of action until after the lunch break. Back behind the wheel, his 29 total laps was the lowest amount of the 11 drivers who participated.

Alonso also posted the second-slowest time, more than three seconds off the leading pace set by Lewis Hamilton in his Mercedes. Only Sauber’s Marcus Ericsson was slower.

“It’s disappointing,” Alonso said. “You work for three months and at the track on the installation lap something breaks down and you lose the day.”

This misstep is the latest technical hiccup to plague McLaren since it paired up with Honda.

One of F1’s most successful teams with eight constructor titles and 12 driver titles, the British outfit has struggled since it switched from Mercedes to the Japanese automaker before the 2015 season.

After earning just a combined 27 points from Alonso and Jenson Button in the first year with Honda, the team showed some growth last season with 76 points and two fifth-place finishes. But that is still a far cry from the glory days of the Woking-based team whose last race win was in Brazil in 2012.

For his part, Alonso hasn’t won a race since he claimed his 32nd victory back in 2013 at the Spanish Grand Prix while with Ferrari.

“It is fair to say that after the difficulties we had the last three seasons, it’s a nice temptation for the media,” Alonso said.

“From the point of view of the team, we are disappointed and sad to arrive to the first day of testing and not run.

“We are focused on what we have to do to make up the lost time. We know that we have four days for each driver and now one day is gone to prepare for the world championship.”

Stoffel Vandoorne, who has replaced Button, will get his turn for McLaren on Tuesday.

McLaren team chief Eric Boullier acknowledged that the relationship with Honda is far from perfect.

“It is like any marriage, you can have some ups and downs,” Boullier said. “We went through a lot of stress through the last couple of years, but we have a positive and constructive relationship and I don’t expect this to change in the future.”

The opening test will run through Thursday.

The track near Barcelona will host a second round of testing from March 7-10 before the season starts at the Australian GP on March 26.