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

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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.

Bottas takes podium on Mercedes debut, eyes room for improvement

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Valtteri Bottas claimed a comfortable podium finish in his first Formula 1 appearance for Mercedes on Sunday in Australia, but has already identified areas for improvement in his display.

Bottas joined Mercedes for 2017 following world champion Nico Rosberg’s shock decision to retire at the end of last season, making his first race appearance this weekend in Australia from third place on the grid.

Bottas ran a trouble-free race en route to third, catching Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton towards the end but falling 1.2 seconds shy of the Briton. Race winner Sebastian Vettel was a further 10 seconds up the road for Ferrari.

“I think it is a start and there’s always things that could’ve gone better, but you know I think it is a good starting point for the jorney for me driving for Mercedes,” Bottas said.

“I think the main things were obviously yesterday in qualifying I didn’t get everything perfect, but it was the first qualifying with the team and this track hasn’t really been fantastic for me ever in qualifying.

“There’s a long season ahead and today I think the race was good I think we as a team we did a good job with the car we had. I think Ferrari was quicker today, there’s no doubt about that. So they’ve obviously done a great great job as well and a better job for this race.”

Like Hamilton, Bottas struggled in the early part of the race on the ultra-soft tire, but hopes to learn from the difficulties ahead of the next race in China on April 9.

“I struggled a lot with the ultra-soft tires, and it felt like I was sliding around and always missing front grip and rear grip especially after ten laps of the first stint.

“So that wasn’t easy but once we’ve put the soft tires on it was actually quite a good feeling with the car, the car was behaving really nicely. It was really nice to drive. Just a bit too late and still missing a little bit of pace.

“But overall I think not a disaster for a first race weekend with the team, but I do have my points I will take and I will be better next time. Looking forward to that.”

Lewis Hamilton: My decision to make early pit stop in Australian GP

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Lewis Hamilton has revealed it was his call to stop early during Sunday’s Formula 1 season-opener in Australia, having struggled to hold on to the lead of the race due to his fading tires.

Despite tipping Ferrari to be the team to beat in Australia, Hamilton took the 62nd pole position of his career on Saturday, beating Sebastian Vettel.

Hamilton retained his lead in the early part of the race from Ferrari driver Vettel, only for the German to turn in a sequence of quick laps ahead of the first round of pit stops.

Fearful of losing the lead on-track to Vettel, Hamilton opted to pit early at the end of Lap 16 so that he could put his fresh tires to good use and try to get the undercut on his rival.

Ferrari did not react immediately, keeping Vettel out until Hamilton hit traffic, with Red Bull’s Max Verstappen holding the Mercedes driver back and creating a bigger gap between the two victory contenders.

Vettel was able to pit and come back out ahead of Verstappen and Hamilton, immediately forging a buffer that would sustain until the end of the race.

Hamilton explained after the race that he decided to come in early due to his tire concerns, believing that Vettel would have overtaken him anyway.

“We had a really good start, which is fantastic, it’s great to have a good getaway – but then we were struggling with the grip from the get-go,” Hamilton said.

“Sebastian was able to always answer in terms of lap time and the majority of the time do faster lap times. Towards the end I got a bit in traffic and overheated the tires and was struggling with grip, so it was to the point that I needed to come in.

“The gap was closing up and I was sliding around so it was my call, because otherwise he probably would have come by anyways. I came in and then I obviously got stuck in some traffic, which was unfortunate but that’s motor racing.”

Hamilton congratulated Vettel on his success, and said the result boded well for a close championship fight between Mercedes and Ferrari.

“A big congratulations to Sebastian and Ferrari, I know it’s been a long time coming to get a result like this,” Hamilton said.

“It shows we’re going to have a race on our hands, which we’re happy to have. I think it’s great for the fans.

“Unfortunately it’s harder than ever to get closer to cars, which is a shame because we can’t have an even closer battle. Who knows, maybe in the future we will.”

Vettel: Australia F1 win ‘a big relief’ to Ferrari after barren 2016

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Sebastian Vettel said his victory in Sunday’s Formula 1 season-opening Australian Grand Prix came as “a big relief” to the Ferrari team following a winless year in 2016.

Vettel qualified second in Melbourne before jumping Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton through the pit stops when Ferrari opted to keep him out longer on the ultra-soft tires.

Vettel opened up a sizeable lead over Hamilton soon after his pit stop, eventually crossing the line 9.9 seconds clear of the Briton to win the opening race of the year.

The result marked both Ferrari and Vettel’s first win since the 2015 Singapore Grand Prix, showing the work that the team has done over the winter to turn things around after struggling last year.

“If you’re not part of the team it’s difficult to realize, but what this team has done in the last six months has been really tough, rough as well, not easy to manage,” Vettel said.

“Today is fantastic, a big reward and big relief for everyone. It’s just the tip of the iceberg though, the foundation has been laid a long time ago.

“I’m sure we’ll have a great night, create some great memories tonight and take it from there. We enjoy what we do, the spirit is great in the team and it’s up to us to keep it up.”

The result marked Vettel’s first win in Australia since 2011 and Ferrari’s first at Albert Park since 2007. In both years, they went on to win the drivers’ title, Ferrari taking the 2007 crown with Kimi Raikkonen.

History may be on Vettel’s side, but the German is not turning his attention to a fifth world title yet.

“No, I’m not interested in that point to be honest,” Vettel said when reminded of Raikkonen’s Australia win and title success in 2007.

“Obviously I was very fortunate so far in my racing career that I had some very good races and good years, but definitely after the first race is not the time to look at the table. We really have to go step-by-step.

“It’s good to know we have a great car but it’s just the beginning. New regulations, new generation of cars so there will be a lot of progress.

“These guys [Mercedes] have proven to be the ones to beat in the last couple of years more and more. We know they have a great engine but they’ve had a great car the last couple of years and they made good steps forward so we’re the ones who need to catch up.

“For today I’m just very happy and for sure whatever happens this year, the race today doesn’t hurt.”

Ricciardo downbeat after disaster Australian GP ends in retirement

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Daniel Ricciardo was left downbeat after a disastrous end to a difficult Australian Grand Prix weekend that saw the home Formula 1 favorite almost miss the race entirely.

Ricciardo was due to start the race 10th after crashing out of qualifying on Saturday, and was then handed a five-place grid penalty following a gearbox change overnight.

Ricciardo then suffered another setback when an electrical issue emerged during his reconnaissance lap to the grid, causing his car to get stuck in sixth gear.

After coming back to the pit lane in a truck, the RB13 car was revived by the Red Bull crew to allow Ricciardo to enter the race, albeit two laps down, making the event a glorified test session.

Ricciardo showed good pace, but was eventually forced to retire when an engine issue emerged on his car just after half distance, marking a sour end to his home race weekend.

“I’m just over it at the moment. It’s one of those days, tomorrow I’ll be fine,” Ricciardo told NBCSN after the session.

“It snowballed from yesterday. The out lap had problems, then I thought the race was done. We got out a few laps down. Good to get out and learn more. Then I had another issue, fuel pressure or something. Let’s go to China and have a better one there.”

Red Bull teammate Max Verstappen ended up fifth, with Ricciardo taking some heart from the result despite his own setbacks.

“I learned quite a bit with the car,” Ricciardo said. “I was behind a few slower cars. There’s other strengths and weaknesses. Max’s pace looked good at the moment.

“I’ll be alright when I wake up tomorrow. It’s been a long week.

“I feel like crap, it’s not how we’d like the opener to go at home.”