Daytona was nice, but Pocono win even bigger for Dale Jr.

1 Comment

Dale Earnhardt Jr. admitted flat-out that he didn’t have the fastest car on Sunday at Pocono Raceway.

But in the end, the result is what matters – and he and the rest of Junior Nation were mighty pleased with the result they got.

Brad Keselowski had this race dead to rights, but when a piece of trash on his car’s grille caused it to start overheating, that ultimately opened the door for Earnhardt to steal his second Sprint Cup win of 2014 when Keselowski tried – and failed – to use the airflow around Danica Patrick to get the trash off.

A win’s a win. And in this current era of NASCAR, you take ’em any way you can. Waxing the field with the best car, taking advantage of someone else’s problem, it doesn’t matter.

With two victories in his pocket, Earnhardt has become a virtual lock for the Chase. He’s finished no better than fifth in NASCAR’s playoff system, and he’s done it three times (2004, 2006, 2013).

But after Sunday, it feels like Earnhardt is going to improve upon that mark when the Chase arrives. Winning a second Daytona 500 to begin the year was nice, but Sunday’s win at the Tricky Triangle has thoroughly established him as a title threat.

Sunday wasn’t about riding around for 90 percent of the race and hoping you’ll win out in a restrictor-plate crapshoot. Sunday was about making track position and strategy work, and then capitalizing on an opportunity.

Crew chief Steve Letarte and the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports crew were great on the first part. And Earnhardt took care of the second part. “Total team effort” may be a sports cliche, but it fits perfectly here.

The Pocono win is a just reward for Earnhardt and the 88 bunch, who have been one of the most competitive squads in Sprint Cup since last fall. After beginning the 2013 Chase with an engine failure at Chicagoland, Earnhardt rattled off three runner-ups and eight Top-10s in the final nine races.

He took that momentum over to this year, which began with a win in the Great American Race. And since then, he’s posted an additional six Top-5s and eight Top-10s.

“We’ve been fast every week,” Earnhardt said. “We kind of started that around the middle of last year, toward the end of last year. I think we have not peaked as a team performance-wise, but we’re certainly at our highest ceiling.

“We’re doing some of our best work certainly right now. We should – we have a lot of passion and there’s a lot of emotion, considering this is Steve’s last year [as a crew chief], and I think that also adds some drive and determination to the team to do as well as we can.”

And with the team giving their best for him, Earnhardt has been giving his best for them.

Even though he knew that Keselowski probably had him covered if he didn’t get past him on the final restart with 12 laps to go, Earnhardt said that he kept telling himself that he wasn’t defeated yet.

In his mind, he owes that bulldog mentality to his team.

“I just kept on trying to be positive and work hard on the restarts and be diligent and try to hope for the best instead of mentally forfeiting the race,” he said.

“I think the confidence that I have in the team and how hard they work and how well we’re doing gives me a bit of a more fighting spirit in that situation than I’ve had in the past.”

Keselowski held off his charge on the restart and that looked to be that. But Earnhardt did not drop back and settle for second. He stayed close to the “Redd’s Deuce,” ready to attack if Keselowski found trouble.

You know what happened next.

Now, instead of fretting over things like, say, road course testing in a bid to salvage points at those races (Sonoma and Watkins Glen usually haven’t been all that great to Junior), he can just have fun with the rest of the regular season.

“We don’t have to worry about that now,” he said. “We can go to Michigan confident, happy, and a track where we really run well at and we can have fun this summer knowing those two wins have got us good and locked in pretty good.

“It definitely made a difference in Daytona. Now having two wins is going to make it even easier, a lot less stress, a lot less stress on the team, and I think that could be a good thing going into the Chase.”

And less stress for him could mean more stress for his rivals when it’s time to race for a championship.

Steve Nielsen appointed new F1 sporting director

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Liberty Media has continued to bolster Formula 1’s management team by announcing that Steve Nielsen will take up the role of sporting director on August 1, reporting directly to Ross Brawn.

Nielsen has worked in F1 across four decades, most recently as Williams’ sporting manager, but was known to be leaving the team at the end of July, handing his duties over to inbound Dave Redding.

F1 confirmed in a statement on Wednesday that Nielsen would be joining the management team established by Liberty Media following its takeover of the sport in January, working with sporting managing director Brawn.

“I have known Steve for many years and have seen at first hand his skills and ability,” Brawn said.

“His appointment will strengthen the working group we are setting up to work with the FIA and the teams in defining a framework for the technical and sporting regulations for Formula 1’s next phase.

“Steve’s main responsibility will be related to sporting and organizational matters, for example by attending the meetings of the Sporting Working Group.”

F1 Strategy Group introduces Halo for 2018

Getty Images
2 Comments

The Halo is coming to Formula 1 in 2018, having been confirmed at Wednesday’s F1 Strategy Group meeting.

This brings the first level of additional frontal cockpit protection to being after several years of discussions and a couple years of testing itself. As of August last year, the idea to introduce the Halo was delayed until 2018 at the earliest for a full introduction.

Here was the statement from the FIA:

“Following the unanimous agreement of the Strategy Group, in July 2016, to introduce additional frontal protection for Formula One and the repeated support from the drivers, the FIA confirms the introduction of the Halo for 2018. With the support of the teams, certain features of its design will be further enhanced.

“Having developed and evaluated a large number of devices over the past five years, it had become clear that the Halo presents the best overall safety performance.”

Both the Halo and the Shield concepts have been tried, with an updated Shield tried most recently by Sebastian Vettel in Friday first practice at the British Grand Prix.

But Vettel spoke of a dizziness in comments after the test, and one could figure those comments were taken into consideration when it came to the decision to go with the halo.

The Halo drops over the cockpit and has three prongs with how it’s positioned. A center post has been right in front of the cockpit during the tests.

Hungarian GP tire picks reveals big supersoft preference

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Teams have selected their sets of tires for the Hungarian Grand Prix, the next round of the Formula 1 season.

Pirelli’s supersoft tire, the softest compound on offer, is the popular choice with all 20 drivers selecting between eight and 10 sets of supersofts for the weekend.

The only real variance comes within the soft sets, some opting for two sets and others as many as four.

No one has selected more than one set of the hardest compound on offer for the weekend, the medium.

The full selections are below.

RLL working towards BMW renewal, IndyCar second car

Getty Images
Leave a comment

One of Bobby Rahal and the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s strengths for the better part of the last decade has been the ability to run two parallel programs – one in IndyCar and one in sports cars – that contend for wins and championships on an annual basis.

And the goal is to continue that into 2018 as one of its programs comes up for renewal.

BMW Motorsport has partnered with RLL, under the BMW Team RLL banner, for nearly a decade since 2009. In that time frame, BMW and RLL have combined to launch the M3, Z4 and M6 GTE spec models, winning races seven of the nine years.

There have been 13 combined wins – seven with the M3 from 2009 to 2012, four with the Z4 from 2013 to 2015 and now two with the new M6 this year – along with the 2011 ALMS GT title for Joey Hand and Dirk Mueller and a pair of back-to-back Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring wins in 2011 and 2012.

While the contract is up for bid and as rumors swirl of a possible change by BMW to another outfit, Rahal is optimistic the years of success achieved by the combined unit will be able to continue together for 2018 and beyond as the new M8 GTE makes its debut.

“BMW is our priority – we’ve been with them nearly 10 years,” Rahal told NBC Sports. “Of course it’s a contract year. I would presume given our success that should mean something to them, and that the relationship would continue.”

BMW finally has come to the fore in GTLM. Photo courtesy of IMSA

The pair of back-to-back wins this IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season at Watkins Glen International and Canadian Tire Motorsport Park could not have come at a better time.

Balance of Performance adjustments seem to have adversely affected BMW Team RLL and the M6 GTLM more than other cars within the stacked GT Le Mans class, and through a combination of bad luck, pace restrictions and the heavier car, the M6 was stuck in a near two-year rut from when it got introduced prior to 2016 through mid-year this year.

That was a challenge to team morale, but it was something Rahal was keen and focused to lead the team through.

“It’s been a long time coming as you say. Let’s face it; there were mechanical issues we started out with when the car first showed up, and then BoP came in and knocked the wind out of our sails for most of the rest of 2016,” he reflected.

“Even Sebring this year, we were so far off. I thought it was a hell of a job to finish on the same lap as the leaders almost at Daytona and Sebring, as we didn’t have anywhere near the pace (timing data backs that up; best race lap at Daytona was a 1:44.247, one of only three cars in 11 in the 1:44s while rest in 1:43s and at Sebring, best race lap 1:58.376 more than a second off leaders). That was just good consistent running and pit stops.

“As I told people recently, I think Sebring was the longest 12 hours of my life – it was painful. We didn’t stand a chance. To sit there and pound around there knowing that, the crew pushing on anyway, depressing was a good word.

“We finally got the BoP back starting at Austin as we were on equal ground, and now we actually had a shot. At least you’re in the race with a chance. We saw that in Austin and then it kept going at Watkins Glen and Mosport.”

Both lineups have changed this year with Alexander Sims and Martin Tomczyk joining BMW American veterans Bill Auberlen and John Edwards, respectively, in the Nos. 25 and 24 BMW M6 GTLMs. These two are largely new to the American scene but have adapted rather well.

Rahal also harbors Le Mans ambitions for his team, and while that is highly unlikely to be with BMW given it will have the M-TEK team running the M8 GTE in Europe, he’d one day like to run an LMP2 entry there and have a heavy American presence in the driver lineup.

AVONDALE, AZ – APRIL 28: Graham Rahal, driver of the #15 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda drives during practice for the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix at Phoenix International Raceway on April 28, 2017 in Avondale, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

As for on the other domestic front, one of the annual questions that arises with RLL – which consistently overachieves as a one-car team in the Verizon IndyCar Series – is whether it will expand back to a two-car program full-time for the first time since 2013. A second car has run part-time each of the last four years, including this one.

The possibility is greater of that happening with again, rumors of teams switching manufacturers. If Honda has available units in the bank, that enhances the chances that a second RLL car will appear on the grid. Rahal remains adamant though that such a driver would need to enhance the overall competitiveness of the program.

“Having a good two-car team is better than a good one-car team, but the second car has to be a contributor, not just a second car,” Rahal said.

“But I feel pretty good about our opportunities in that respect. We’re talking to several people – and the thing is we’re looking for our own money so we don’t need a driver with money. We’re not there yet, but odds are good we’ll have a two-car team.”

Past RLL veterans Takuma Sato and Oriol Servia would make sense there; Sato if Andretti Autosport shifts from Honda to Chevrolet as is possible and Servia, who’s been off-and-on with RLL since 2009 on several occasions but never enjoyed a full-time season with the team. Servia is undertaking the Honda development on the 2018 universal Dallara aero kit and his setup presence would be invaluable.

“There’s some good teams that could look to improve their lineups, or teams that aren’t doing so well to improve their driver lineup. Then teams will add, like presumably us. It’s interesting to watch.

“As I’ve said all along, whoever is in the second car, it’s gotta be a competitive race car. A guy like Taku, we have a lot of warm feelings having worked with him a number of years ago. Hinchcliffe is on the market. If I look at the driver, you look at what combination works, and there’s other guys out there. Those two would get along. There’s even Oriol, who works very well with the team.

“There’s a number of options, so the goal is to get the most competitive guy you can get.”