Hendrick doing well to prepare for possibility of National Guard leaving the 88


Rick Hendrick didn’t get to be one of NASCAR’s most successful owners by not seeing the trends and directions the business is going.

Hendrick, and his entire Hendrick Motorsports organization, have done an excellent job of putting together partnerships to keep his empire at the top of the NASCAR heap.

He’s done it for more than 25 years, despite partners that have come and gone.

He’s doing it again, now, in preparing for the possible departure of the National Guard from Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s No. 88 car.

The increase in sponsor announcements with new partners Nationwide Insurance and DC Entertainment being announced within the last few weeks, and also with Mtn Dew stepping up its activation with a series of videos, are clear signs that Hendrick’s team is working ‘round the clock to get more companies on board the 88 in case the Guard departs.

It’s not inconceivable that they will – witness two reports of note from the past couple weeks.

A USA Today report indicated that despite the more than $26+ million spent on activation and sponsorships in 2012, there was not a single recruit signup at a NASCAR event.

While that doesn’t factor into account local branches where the Guard could attract –and sign – new recruits, it’s still a worrying report.

Then there’s this from Sporting News’ Bob Pockrass, veteran NASCAR reporter who is among the best at deciphering the business side of the sport:

The Army National Guard has a new leader in Judd Lyons, who took over in January. At a U.S. Senate subcommittee hearing last week, Lyons vowed to re-examine the effectiveness of the National Guard sponsorship. He said the Guard is conducting more in-depth surveys of those enlisting to determine what led them to enlist, which in turn should help them understand the value.

Political pressure of military sponsorships in NASCAR is nothing new. It’s been going on for several years. And that’s the way it should be — those in charge of spending taxpayer dollars have an interest in how those dollars are spent.

When a change at the top happens to any company – especially one whose motorsports’ spending have been as closely scrutinized as the Guard’s has been – you have to begin preparing for the eventuality that the deal is closer to the end of its life span than the beginning.

The Guard has backed Dale Jr. and the 88 since his move to Hendrick Motorsports in 2008.

If you’re the Guard, you’ve supported NASCAR’s most popular driver through thick-and-thin, and through what have been more trying years than actual delivery on track.

Junior’s made the Chase each of the last three years, but prior to his much appreciated Daytona 500 victory this year, he’s won only two other races in his stint at Hendrick. He’s still never won a championship, even though he has a good shot to this year in his last season with crew chief Steve Letarte (another area Hendrick will need to address for 2015).

Sponsors demand ROI, even if they happen to have one of the sport’s most marketable drivers, and even if they have the most popular driver.

But they don’t stay on forever. And at only seven years together, the Guard-Dale Jr. relationship isn’t at the length of a Jeff Gordon-DuPont or John Force-Castrol type relationship of 20 or more years.

Hendrick prepared for the eventuality of DuPont’s departure as Gordon’s primary backer by having other associates ready to step up, and ultimately putting together a deal with the AARP’s Drive to End Hunger that has now been the primary backer on the 24 car for several seasons.

You can tell he’s doing the same now on the 88 to keep Dale Jr., in the face of what appears to be a slowly phased down withdrawal by the Guard.

Mercedes’ Suzuka protest over Verstappen down to ‘miscommunication’

SUZUKA, JAPAN - OCTOBER 09: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo locks a wheel under braking as he tries to overtake Max Verstappen of the Netherlands driving the (33) Red Bull Racing Red Bull-TAG Heuer RB12 TAG Heuer on track during the Formula One Grand Prix of Japan at Suzuka Circuit on October 9, 2016 in Suzuka.  (Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images)
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Mercedes Formula 1 chief Toto Wolff has revealed that the team’s brief protest over Max Verstappen’s second-place finish in the Japanese Grand Prix was the result of a “miscommunication”.

Mercedes contacted the FIA following the race at Suzuka on October 9 to lodge a protest against Verstappen, believing his on-track defence from Lewis Hamilton in the closing laps to have breached the sporting regulations.

Verstappen finished less than a second clear at the checkered flag, meaning a time penalty would gain Hamilton a position and three extra points in his bid for the drivers’ championship.

The FIA stewards informed Mercedes that a decision could not be made at Suzuka as both Hamilton and Verstappen had already left the track, postponing a hearing to the United States Grand Prix weekend in Austin.

Mercedes withdrew its protest not long after, making the result of the race official and leaving Verstappen in second place with Hamilton third.

Ahead of this weekend’s race in Austin, Wolff explained what caused the mix-up over the protest, saying that Mercedes had to make a split decision before leaving Japan.

“It was a miscommunication,” Wolff said.

“When we left the circuit, I said that the Verstappen manoeuvre was a hard manoeuvre but probably what we want to see in Formula 1. He’s refreshing and I think that the drivers need to sort that out among themselves on track.

“And we decided not to step in and then it was an unfortunate coincidence that we took off, we left. The team had a minute to decide whether to protest or not and that’s what they did.

“Once we were able to communicate again, which was 30 minutes after take-off, we decided to withdraw the protest.”

WATCH LIVE: FP3 into USGP qualifying, 12:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 21: Nico Hulkenberg of Germany driving the (27) Sahara Force India F1 Team VJM09 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo on track during practice for the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 21, 2016 in Austin, United States.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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AUSTIN, Texas – The third and final free practice session and qualifying for Sunday’s United States Grand Prix are on tap from Circuit of The Americas in Austin, and you can watch coverage of both on NBCSN and streaming via NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports App.

A mega-show will run on NBCSN covering both sessions, from 12:30 to 4 p.m. ET.

Coverage of FP3 can be seen live online at NBCSports.com (f1stream.nbcsports.com) and the NBC Sports App for participating cable providers at 11 a.m. ET, and will run until 12 p.m. ET.

That FP3 coverage will then lead off the NBCSN show at 12:30 p.m. ET, and run for an hour. A half-hour pre-qualifying show then runs from 1:30 p.m. ET into the start of LIVE qualifying at 2 p.m. ET. Qualifying runs for an hour until 3 p.m. ET.

From 3 to 4 p.m. ET, there will be a post-qualifying show from Austin.

Leigh Diffey, David Hobbs and Steve Matchett are in the commentary booth with Will Buxton patrolling the pits and paddock for today’s coverage.

Again, that’s 11 a.m. ET for the live stream of FP3, then 12:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN for TV coverage of FP3, and LIVE qualifying from Austin.

Full times and details for the weekend are linked here.

Ecclestone: ‘Difficult’ to get more F1 races in the United States

HOCKENHEIM, GERMANY - JULY 29: F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone walks in the Paddock  during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Germany at Hockenheimring on July 29, 2016 in Hockenheim, Germany.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Formula 1 CEO Bernie Ecclestone believes it will be “difficult” to get more races in the United States despite a renewed drive to grow the sport in the American market.

The Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas plays host to the United States Grand Prix for the fifth time this weekend, with track chairman Bobby Epstein predicting its second-highest attendance.

Following a recent takeover of F1 by American company Liberty Media, a renewed drive on developing the sport’s presence in the USA is expected.

New F1 chairman Chase Carey has expressed a desire to grow the American fanbase, leading to questions about holding multiple races in the United States.

However, Ecclestone is unsure that getting another race in the USA would be possible, having tried to get the Grand Prix of the America in New Jersey off the ground in recent years.

“I think it will be difficult to get more races [in the U.S.]” Ecclestone told Reuters.

“I tried in New York. The trouble with the Americans is you want to do a deal with them and they want guaranteed profit before they start.

“I said if I knew that was going to happen, I wouldn’t need you.”

Mercedes F1 chief Toto Wolff would like to see more American races added to the calendar, believing it to be an important market for the German manufacturer.

“It’s great to be in such a great place like Austin. Every year we are coming here, it’s really a fantastic venue,” Wolff said.

“Having more grands prix in such an important market for Mercedes, it would be good and wherever we can help, we will do that.”

However, Epstein expressed caution when talking to NBC Sports earlier this month about adding more U.S. races to the calendar, with the cost of hosting a grand prix being a huge stumbling block.

“The ability to support a number of multiple races in the U.S. is going to depend largely on the size of the fanbase,” Epstein said.

“It’s kind of a chicken and the egg equation. If you put on more races, it will create more fans, not just in the first year but over time hopefully it does.

“As much as anything, promoting the sport on TV and having races on our timezone over five to 10 years will build more fans.”

Kvyat retained alongside Sainz at Toro Rosso in 2017

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AUSTIN, Texas – Scuderia Toro Rosso have confirmed on Saturday Russian Daniil Kvyat will continue with the team into 2017, alongside Carlos Sainz Jr.

This gives the team the same pairing as they’ve had since this year’s Spanish Grand Prix. Sainz will be into his third season with the team, having been confirmed earlier this year.

Meanwhile, Kvyat, who premiered with Toro Rosso in 2014 before moving up to Red Bull Racing in 2015 and then switched back to Toro Rosso this year, will now be set for his fourth overall season, third with Toro Rosso.

“It makes a change to announce our driver lineup relatively early,” said Toro Rosso team principal Franz Tost in the team release. “There are so many new elements coming to Formula 1 in general and to our team specifically, in terms of the change of power unit supplier, that having the same two drivers gives us stability and a benchmark to work from.

“For Carlos, it will be his third year with us, which speaks volumes when it comes to how highly we rate him. In recent races, it has been clear that Daniil is back on top form. I always told him that his future with us was in his hands and he has stepped up to the mark and delivered the sort of performances that have ensured his 2017 seat in the STR 12. We now have a very talented and strong driver pairing to tackle a season in which we expect to be very competitive.”

“Great news! I’d like to thank Red Bull, Dr. Marko and all the team for their support and the faith they have shown in me since I returned to the team earlier this year,” Kvyat said in the release.

“I’m very happy to stay with a team that feels like home to me. I’m really looking forward to continuing the hard work together in 2017 and I’m really aiming high. I will always be fully dedicated, giving my 200%, and I will be pushing as hard as I usually do, that’s for sure. I’m delighted!”

Sainz hailed the continuity the team will have going into 2017, citing the upcoming regulation changes to come.

“Considering how many changes there are in the Formula 1 pipeline for 2017, it’s good to know that Daniil and I will continue to be teammates here in Toro Rosso next year,” he said. “We know each other very well, as we’ve been racing together since 2010, and we work well together. I know that this season isn’t over yet, but I’m already looking forward to next year!”

This comes as a perhaps surprising move with Red Bull junior Pierre Gasly waiting in the wings and looking a good candidate for Kvyat’s spot, and being present here this weekend following his recent Pirelli 2017 tire test at Abu Dhabi for Red Bull Racing.

Kvyat had said earlier this weekend he was keen on continuing within the Red Bull framework, despite rumors of a move to Force India.