NASCAR: Farmers Insurance extends Hendrick deal through 2017

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A bit of important business news has emerged from the NASCAR garage with Farmers Insurance announcing a three-year extension of its current pact with juggernaut Hendrick Motorsports.

Farmers primarily backs the team’s No. 5 program for Kasey Kahne and as part of this new agreement, it will serve as that car’s primary sponsor for 12 Sprint Cup races (including the Daytona 500) during the 2015, 2016, and 2017 seasons. In all other races, it will be an associate sponsor.

The insurance company has been involved with sponsoring the No. 5 team since 2011.

“Our partnership with the team at Farmers has been unbelievable,” HMS owner Rick Hendrick said in a statement. “Everything that’s been accomplished in just three years is extremely impressive, and they continue to seek ways to engage our fans and use the sponsorship to improve the lives of others.

“It’s gratifying to see the impact of our two organizations working together, and we look forward to more successes in the coming years.”

For those curious, nothing is mentioned in the Hendrick/Farmers release about Kahne’s own driving contract with HMS beyond the 2015 season.

Kahne has earned back-to-back Chase berths, but he and the No. 5 team is currently lagging on performance compared to teammates Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Jimmie Johnson.

Last week at Pocono, Kahne was pegged as a dark horse to claim his first win of the year and make the Chase. But on Lap 143 of 160, he hit the wall in Turn 2 and was saddled with a 42nd-place finish; in the aftermath, Kahne put the blame on Kyle Busch for starting the accident.

Currently on the outside looking in with regard to the post-season and with his teammates doing well on the track, today’s Farmers announcement could give Kahne an even greater urgency to get better results.

Late-race attrition adds twist to Monaco GP, six cars out in 20 laps (VIDEOS)

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Sebastian Vettel may have looked calm on the podium after clinching victory in Sunday’s Monaco Grand Prix, but some late-race drama caused by cars further back had put him under far greater pressure in the closing stages.

Vettel leapfrogged Ferrari teammate Kimi Raikkonen through the pit stops to take the lead of the race at half distance before surging 10 seconds clear.

However, Vettel’s lead was wiped away when the safety car was deployed following a clash between Jenson Button and Pascal Wehrlein at Portier, one of the tightest parts of the circuit.

Battling for 18th place, Button tried diving down the inside of Wehrlein, only for the pair to knock wheels and the German’s Sauber to tip in the air, coming to rest at a 90-degree angle up against the wall.

The incident sparked concern among the passing drivers, but Wehrlein soon reported to his team that he was OK, and simply could not get out of his car due to the position of the wall.

The Monegasque marshals were quick to come to Wehrlein’s aid and right his car before sending him off to the medical center for a check-up.

The incident acted as the first in a string of late drama that saw six cars drop out in the close 21 laps, with the safety car bunching the field and resulting in some desperate moves.

The next retirement came courtesy of Marcus Ericsson in one of the more embarrassing mistakes you will see in F1 this year as he crashed behind the safety car.

As a lapped car, Ericsson was given the wave-by to pass the safety car and try to unlap himself, only to duff his Sauber into the wall at Turn 1 in the process.

Turn 1 would claim another victim on the restart when Stoffel Vandoorne threw away McLaren’s chance to score its first points of the year. As Sergio Perez made a divebomb move up the inside, Vandoorne was unable to slow on the marbles and careered straight into the barrier, bringing his race to an end.

Perez continued to charge after passing Vandoorne, making an opportunistic move on Daniil Kvyat through La Rascasse. The pair made contact, leaving a hole in Kvyat’s sidepod and forcing the Russian driver to park up at Casino Square.

The final casualty of the race was Lance Stroll, who after reporting concerns with his brakes was seen being parked up in his garage with seven laps to go, extending the Canadian’s point-less start to life in F1.

PREVIEW: Reliability, turning page of history set for 101st Indy 500

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INDIANAPOLIS – History is both the Indianapolis 500’s greatest asset, and perhaps, its greatest crutch.

Come today though, it’s the start of a new chapter that ends a near decade-long embrace of history and actually has the excitement of a forward-thinking future for both the Verizon IndyCar Series’ marquee race, and the series itself.

From the moment the “Centennial Era” was announced at the 2008 Indianapolis 500 – my first on-site and first covering – the allure of the buildup of history, it could be argued, hamstrung the event.

2009 marked 100 years since competition at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway opened, with, of all things, a balloon race.

Two years later was 100 years since the first running of the ‘500 miler itself. Ray Harroun is forever etched in the history books from 1911’s win, and in 2011, one of Indy’s most famous finishes occurred with JR Hildebrand’s fateful slide into the Turn 4 wall and Dan Wheldon’s run through the debris to steal his second ‘500 win.

In 2012, it began the countdown of five years until the 100th running of the race, culminating with last year’s hundredth-palooza ultimately won by Alexander Rossi in similar, “how the hell did he pull that off?” fashion. Strategist and team co-owner Bryan Herta and the No. 98 are the common denominators between those two fantastic finishes.

In-between, Dario Franchitti etched his name into lore with his second and third wins in 2010 and 2012. Tony Kanaan finally broke through in 2013. Ryan Hunter-Reay and Juan Pablo Montoya emerged from fantastic duels with Helio Castroneves and Will Power, respectively, to nab the 2014 and 2015 wins.

All of those winners were precursors to the 100th, but the 101st is a chance for both the race and the series to break free with the newness looming on the horizon.

To wit, there are these items to look forward to in the immediate future, starting with today’s race:

NEW COMMON AERO KIT IN 2018

This year will be the last for the manufacturer designed aero kits from Honda and Chevrolet, which have proven positive for both manufacturers and set a number of IndyCar race track records. They’ve also been expensive engineering exercises that team owners have publicly grumbled about, although less so in the last year and a half.

IndyCar, the series, produced even more parity with a common kit – renderings of both the speedway and road and street course package have now been revealed – from 2012 through 2014. The hope is those days can come back with next year’s new kit, the sleek look of which recalls IndyCar’s past while also being confident in crafting a new future.

NEW DRIVER CROP READY TO TAKE OVER

The balance between the 30-plus-year-old veterans and the emerging 20-something young guns is in a perpetual state of flux. For a second straight year though, a chance for a young driver to break through at Indy will give him or her a chance to star beyond the inner sphere of influence.

The veterans of note who do not have an Indy 500 on their resume include Team Penske’s trio of Will Power, Simon Pagenaud and Josef Newgarden; famous sons Graham Rahal and Marco Andretti have been around more than a decade in search of their first victories here; James Hinchcliffe has reached that 30-year-old threshold and having established his national presence last fall on Dancing with the Stars, has the cache to add this race to his record.

Then there are the under-30 drivers with lesser experience but enough to be considered stars of the future who could break through a la Rossi last year: a JR Hildebrand, Ed Jones or Sage Karam for instance. All three have looked excellent in race running in traffic and could well break through today. The Mazda Road to Indy has fed a large number of drivers into the field – 24 of 33 to be exact – and a win for one of them today would be the latest in its “proof of concept.”

NEW TEAMS MAKING THEIR DEBUTS

Beyond Penske, Ganassi and Andretti and the remaining five full-time teams, today marks the series debuts for new entrants Juncos Racing, Harding Racing and Michael Shank Racing (in partnership with Andretti Autosport), as well as the return of the iconic McLaren name to the Speedway in a potential preview of a fuller comeback itself.

You may not know these teams now, but how they expand for the rest of their IndyCar ownership careers may rest in large part on how well they do today. With a big race comes a big opportunity, and so too does the shot to grow their teams and their status beyond just one Sunday in May.

NEW WINNER?

The Indianapolis 500 has, in recent years, produced a number of first-time winners. Since 1996, the year Buddy Lazier won in the first IRL ‘500 (and 80th running), and as the last active link to that bygone era, there has been this balance of first-timers versus encore winners:

  • New winners (14): Rossi (2016), Hunter-Reay (2014), Kanaan (2013), Scott Dixon (2008), Franchitti (2007), Sam Hornish Jr. (2006), Wheldon (2005), Buddy Rice (2004), Gil de Ferran (2003), Castroneves (2001), Juan Pablo Montoya (2000), Kenny Brack (1999), Eddie Cheever Jr. (1998), Lazier (1996)
  • Repeat winners (5): Montoya (2015), Franchitti (2012, 2010), Wheldon (2011), Castroneves (2009, 2002), Arie Luyendyk (1997)

There’s only seven past winners in the field of 33, so the odds are better for a first-timer than a repeat one.

But importantly, there are two new – or refreshed – story lines that will define the day:

NEW STORY LINES: WEATHER RELIABILITY

Fernando Alonso has grabbed the headlines all month, but heading into race day it’s not Alonso that will dominate the discussion.

It’s likely to be these two words: weather and reliability.

Weather, first. Rain is the ultimate word no one likes writing about, but a distinct possibility today. Heavy rains hit Indianapolis both late Friday night and again Saturday night into Sunday, making a washout for today a topic of conversation.

INDYCAR has one benefit in that Indianapolis stays light until 8 p.m. or later, which could make a start time as late as 5 p.m. possible, but hopefully something that won’t be needed.

The other option, of course, is that it’s a consistent drizzle all day – we lose the track – and we race on Monday.

A one day-delay hasn’t happened since 1997, 20 years ago, and that one wound up running on Tuesday in an anomaly. The 2004 and 2007 races were rain-shortened. Any delay this year would be most challenging for the crews, who already face a compressed window to convert and/or prep their street course cars before heading to Detroit mid-week for the doubleheader there next weekend.

On-track, the story of the race will revolve around reliability, in the Chevrolet vs. Honda battle. From most competitors we’ve talked to, the acknowledgement is Honda has the edge on power, while Chevrolet has the edge on both aero and most notably – reliability.

There’s the likelihood at least one and potentially more Hondas will blow, and while that sucks, it’s also sort of cool that Honda is pushing the envelope to where if they pop, they pop.

“It’s part of life. These things happen,” Graham Rahal said Saturday. “Honda is pushing these engines as hard as they possibly can. I’m not going to sit and worry about it. I hope it doesn’t happen right away; I think we’ll be OK. Is there a risk? Sure, we’ve lost an engine last week too.

“I believe in Honda. I know they’re trying hard. I know we’re pushing hard. That’s why you’re seeing what you’re seeing. They told us Friday in a meeting they’re not going to hold back, and they’re going to race it to win it. I like that mentality. If that means failures, it means some failures. But I like that mentality. Let’s see what happens. If it happens, we’re back in 2018.”

Chevrolet drivers aren’t saying much publicly but the Team Penske quintet, Ed Carpenter Racing’s pair and Sage Karam of Dreyer & Reinbold Racing stand as that manufacturer’s best bets on Sunday, all of whom having exuded a quiet confidence both about their reliability and their cars in race trim. There is something to be said for Penske drivers not feeling “off” despite four of them starting 18th or worse – and Roger Penske is renowned for noting the unpredictability of Indianapolis, even as he and his team have won here 16 times.

Who lasts longest will likely stand strongest today.

Overlooked by Alonso: Could Coyne’s Ed Jones steal Indy 500?

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INDIANAPOLIS – Fernando Alonso has hogged the headlines as the top rookie – albeit in name only – for this year’s 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

But the Verizon IndyCar Series’ lone full-season rookie, Ed Jones, has been the revelation of the month of May and a potential spoiler in the works in today’s race.

The first driver from the United Arab Emirates to compete in the Indy 500 will roll off from 11th place in the No. 19 Boy Scouts of America Honda for Dale Coyne Racing.

This is the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires champion’s first big oval race and the adjustment period to this full month has been something Jones has coped with well.

“It’s such a long month. It’s very tiring. And you try to rest as much as you can to be honest,” Jones told NBC Sports. “On those days off you rest, because it’s been so much driving – a week straight, and you have to be as efficient as you can on track. You have a lot of distractions.

“But it’s great the event is so big. There’s a lot I learned from Seb, which has been a massive help.”

Seb, of course, is Sebastien Bourdais – injured a little over a week ago but already having since been released from hospital and back at IMS today to have met his crew and met the media.

Jones’ steely resolve and determination shone through as he got back in the car after Bourdais’ crash with no visible signs of being affected by it.

“I think it was a massive crash. But he was so lucky. He’s in a lot of pain, but it could have been a lot worse,” Jones said.

“We all know it’s a part of racing. When you’re pushing the limits here, the margin for error is so small. Accidents are very costly. You hate to see it. But it’s part of racing. I felt confident going out, and going quick again.”

Jones was a hard luck second in the 2016 Freedom 100 to Dean Stoneman by just 0.0024 of a second. Racing in the ‘500 is something that he relishes for the challenge of it and for what he has had to learn and comprehend.

“It’s a lot more intense now. It’s very tough! There’s lot more attention on what you do,” he said.

“But it’s about getting through. I’m really looking forward to the race. There’s so many things to think about. It’s even things like coming into pits off Turn 4, you’re getting tired, that gets tricky.”

Team owner Coyne has hailed Jones’ performance all year, and particularly at Indianapolis this month.

“Ed’s had a very good month. He’s done a tremendous job,” Coyne told NBC Sports.

“To come in here and qualify 11th as a rookie, the job he’s done all year. He’s been a very pleasant surprise. We knew he was a good racer, but we did not know he was a good qualifier! He’s turned out to be both, and he raced harder than in Indy Lights. He’s doing a very good job.”

Jones is one of three traditional rookies who got their training in the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires. He starts 11th while Jack Harvey starts 27th and Zach Veach starts 32nd.

Oh, and about that “other” rookie who rolls off fifth? Jones, like the Honey Badger, doesn’t give a you-know-what about Alonso. He just wants to beat him, same as another competitor on track. After all, Alexander Rossi won as a rookie from 11th on the grid last year.

“It can be annoying. But at the end of the day, I can’t do anything about that.

“If I beat the other rookies – and that includes him – people will notice me more.”

Vettel leads Raikkonen home for Monaco GP win, ends Ferrari’s drought

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Sebastian Vettel extended his lead at the top of the Formula 1 drivers’ championship by taking his third win of the 2017 season in Sunday’s Monaco Grand Prix, heading up a one-two finish for Ferrari ahead of teammate Kimi Raikkonen.

After trailing Raikkonen throughout the first stint of the race, Vettel managed to extend his first stint out longer than his Finnish counterpart and produce a series of quick laps to get the jump through the pit stop cycle.

Vettel emerged from the pits in the lead and never looked back, storming clear to clinch his second Monaco Grand Prix victory and end Ferrari’s victory drought in the principality that dated back to 2001.

Raikkonen controlled the early part of the race for Ferrari, running two seconds clear of Vettel at one stage before the German was able to reel his teammate in ahead of the pit stop cycle.

Raikkonen pitted first, with Vettel opting to push on for another three laps, pumping in a series of quick times that ultimately decided the race.

After coming to switch to super-soft tires, Vettel emerged from the pits ahead of Raikkonen before quickly creating a gap that proved too great for the Finn to bridge, even with the assistance of a late safety car.

The race to complete the podium saw Red Bull and Mercedes enter a strategic battle, with Valtteri Bottas running P3 through the first stint. Red Bull pitted fourth-placed Max Verstappen early, forcing Mercedes to bring Bottas in one lap later to cover.

Bottas stayed ahead of Verstappen, but with the pair losing time behind Carlos Sainz Jr., Daniel Ricciardo was able to leapfrog both when, like Vettel, he pitted later, allowing him to vault ahead into third place.

With Vettel streaming clear at the front, Raikkonen soon found himself coming under pressure from Ricciardo for second, setting the stage for a tense battle through the closing stages.

Vettel’s lead was wiped away with 17 laps to go, though, when the safety car was deployed following a strange incident involving Pascal Wehrlein and Jenson Button at Portier.

Button tried overtaking at one of the tightest points of the circuit, resulting in contact that sent Wehrlein’s car into the air. The Sauber C36 came to rest on its side up against the wall, sparking concern for Wehrlein’s condition. The German quickly reported he was OK, just unable to get out of the car due to where his car came to rest. He was quickly taken away to the medical centre for further checks.

The safety car period was extended when Wehrlein’s teammate, Marcus Ericsson, crashed his car after being given the wave-by to unlap himself.

The race returned to green with 12 laps to go with Vettel still leading, but it was Max Verstappen who was the man to watch. Having taken a free pit stop under the safety car and switched to ultra-soft tires, the Dutchman began to pile pressure on Ricciardo and Bottas ahead, keen to complete the podium.

Ricciardo gave his teammate a look-in when he ran wide at Turn 1 on the restart, clipping the wall in the process, but the Australian soon recovered and kept calm to clinch third place. Bottas did well to keep Verstappen at bay for fourth, with the flying Dutchman taking P5 for his first points and, indeed, finish in Monaco.

Carlos Sainz Jr. made good on a strong weekend for Toro Rosso by crossing the line sixth ahead of Lewis Hamilton, who could not rise any higher than seventh after his qualifying disaster. A long first stint allowed the Briton to jump from 13th on the grid to inside the top 10, but he was powerless to stop Vettel extending his title lead to 25 points.

Haas enjoyed its best weekend in F1 to date as it notched its first double-points finish. Romain Grosjean finished eighth, while Kevin Magnussen recovered from an extra pit stop to finish 10th. The pair were split by Williams’ Felipe Massa, who was ninth at the line.

Jolyon Palmer was the sole finisher for Renault in P11 after seeing teammate Nico Hulkenberg retire early on due to a gearbox failure.

Force India had a weekend to forget as Esteban Ocon and Sergio Perez both hit trouble during the race, leaving them 12th and 13th respectively. The result marked an end to Perez’s 15-race streak of points, which had been the longest active run on the grid, with a late tangle with Daniil Kvyat forcing the Russian to retire.

Jenson Button’s comeback weekend ended just as his original goodbye race in Abu Dhabi did last November as he was forced to retire following the clash with Wehrlein. Teammate Stoffel Vandoorne had been on for points, only to crash at Turn 1 after a mistake on the restart after the safety car.

Formula 1 returns in two weeks’ time with its first visit of the year to North America, venturing to Montreal for the Canadian Grand Prix.