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No more Mr. Nice Guy: Dale Earnhardt Jr. gets aggressive and ends up with career-best finish at Sonoma

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You almost have to wonder if Dale Earnhardt Jr. listened to Alice Cooper’s “No More Mr. Nice Guy” prior to Sunday’s Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway — and took the lyrics to heart.

Earnhardt came into the race never having finished in the top-10 at Sonoma in 14 prior starts.

But Sunday was a completely different story.

Instead of the passive Junior we’ve seen in past races at Sonoma, he got up on the wheel, became aggressive – overly aggressive in some instances (just ask Matt Kenseth) – and wound up with a career-best third-place finish at the twisting and turning road course in California’s wine country.

“Aside from holding a trophy, this is like a win for us,” Earnhardt said in the post-race press conference. “We came in here and knew we had a good car throughout practice, and I’ve been in the top 10 in a lot of these races with two or three laps to go, but we’ve just never been able to finish.

“So to be clear of the mess and just have an advantage with the tires at the end, there was a lot of confidence, and knowing we were going to be able to wrap it up or feel like we were in good position to wrap it up and really good.  The car was fun to drive all weekend.”

Earnhardt’s aggressiveness and confidence extended to crew chief Steve Letarte.

“Just putting the tires on and getting the strategy right with Steve” was the key to the win, Earnhardt told TNT after the race. “I told him (Letarte) the secret to being a great crew chief is to call every year like it’s your last, because he’s had the best strategy every week.

“Our car was fast all weekend really. I tried to screw it up a couple of times there in the race, but calmed down and was able to get a good finish out of it.”

No more Mr. Nice Guy, indeed.

To that end, Earnhardt got into at least two significant incidents that, while they didn’t hurt him and his car too bad, they pretty much ended the day for two other drivers, including one of his closest friends, Matt Kenseth.

Earnhardt and Kenseth were fighting hard on Lap 75, driving side-by-side, when Kenseth pulled slightly ahead going into Turn 7.

Earnhardt hit a curb and his car bounced back to the left, right into the right rear quarter-panel of Kenseth’s car, spinning him out hard and almost head-on into a tire wall.

Kenseth’s car was all but obliterated by the crash, and while he fortunately was uninjured, he also wound up with one of his worst finishes of the season: 42nd out of the 43-car starting field.

Earnhardt took complete blame for the incident.

“I got into Matt,” Earnhardt said. “I jumped that curb and just ran into him. Totally my fault.

“It was just racing a little too hard with him there and I probably should have let him have that spot. Other than that, we had a pretty good day.”

Earnhardt also got into a scrum with AJ Allmendinger 11 laps later, but this time it wasn’t Junior’s fault.

Allmendinger was coming out of Turn 11 and got pinched towards the inside retaining wall. Allmendinger bounced off the rear of Junior’s car in the process, spun and then continued bouncing like a pinball off the trailing cars of Kasey Kahne and Brian Vickers.

As a result, Allmendinger, who dominated the first half of the 110-lap race by leading 35 laps, finished with a very disappointing 37th-place finish, two laps behind the leaders.

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Two memories recalled today: Schumacher Spa debut, Tyrrell’s passing

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Schumacher in 2012, Tyrrell in 1989. Photos: Getty Images
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Today, August 25, marks two anniversaries of note in the F1 world – the beginning of one legendary on-track career, and the end of another F1 legend’s life.

A then unheralded 22-year-old German named Michael Schumacher made his race debut with Jordan Grand Prix, in the Jordan 191, taking over the seat after Bertrand Gachot was jailed following an altercation with a London taxi drivers. August 25 marks 25 years to the day that Schumacher made his race debut.

Schumacher qualified in seventh place and looked set to score points on debut – the top six paid points at that time – but the debut didn’t really get to happen owing to a clutch failure on the opening lap. A further reflection can be offered by Mark Gallagher, who’d worked with Team 7Up Jordan at the time, via his blog. Gallagher recently authored the well-received “The Business of Winning,” a deeper look into the business world of F1.

Of course, the rest was history from there. Schumacher went to Benetton from the next race in Monza, then went on to his run of a record 91 career Grand Prix wins and seven World Championships.

Official news has been limited on Schumacher’s condition since his December 2013 skiing accident and all we can continue to do is resume with the message of #KeepFightingMichael.

That 1991 Belgian Grand Prix day also dovetails slightly into the next anniversary, albeit a sadder one.

Another team on the grid was fielded by Ken Tyrrell; the legend was a World Championship-winning team owner in the 1970s with Sir Jackie Stewart and saw his drivers win 33 races from 1968 (Stewart won at Zandvoort for the team’s first win) to 1983 (Michele Alboreto the last win at Detroit).

Tyrrell’s last runner-up finish as a constructor came in 1991 when Stefano Modena came second in the Canadian Grand Prix; the team’s final podium occurred in 1994 at the Spanish Grand Prix when Mark Blundell finished third.

Tyrrell’s team ran through 1998 before it was bought out by British American Tobacco for 1999, and BAR was launched. The team eventually became Honda’s factory team, then Brawn GP, and now Mercedes AMG Petronas – the erstwhile dominant team on the grid – and the team Schumacher returned to drive for from 2010 to 2012.

Tyrrell died this day 15 years ago, on August 25, 2001, from cancer at the age of 77. But his impact on the sport cannot be forgotten.

Watkins Glen extends with IndyCar for two more years

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This year’s announcement of Watkins Glen International rejoining the Verizon IndyCar Series schedule was a bit of a shotgun marriage – the track and the sanctioning body got a deal done in a couple weeks, in what was akin to a minor miracle pulled off by both parties.

The next two years for IndyCar at Watkins Glen will come with quite a bit more time to prepare. The two parties have announced a two-year extension at the track through 2018, which syncs up nicely with the remainder of most IndyCar races currently under contract.

Here’s what Jay Frye, INDYCAR President of Competition and Operations, had to say about Watkins Glen joining this year, when it was announced back in May:

“Well, the process was pretty quick. We can’t thank Michael (Printup, track president) and his whole staff at Watkins Glen for their yeoman-like effort the last couple weeks. We got the news a couple weeks ago that something was going on, and that might have been around 5:00, and by 5:01 I was talking to this gentleman on the phone, and from that it kind of led a life of its own.

“It certainly was great interest on his behalf, great interest on our behalf. We were thinking more about 2017, but obviously we’re a year ahead. All the rumors, all the enthusiasm that we saw from the rumors was going on was very, very high, so we couldn’t be more pleased to go back to Watkins Glen. It’s a great facility, great history, and again, we can’t thank Michael and his staff enough for being willing to do this on such short notice. So far, so good.”

Printup added, “Friday night at 5:01, it was an awesome moment. I can tell you that. I was really excited to hear from Jay, and like he said, we had met earlier in Phoenix. I was out there on business, and Jay and I and Stephen (Starks, from INDYCAR) sat down, and I have to say the same thing about his team. Jay and I took one or two phone calls over the weekend, we had a follow-up even Friday night at like 9:00 that night, we exchanged a couple emails Saturday and Sunday, and we didn’t talk again for like another week because we handed it off, or week and a half. We handed it off to our teams, and the teams really put the deal together. Jay and I obviously were the cheerleaders and champions on both sides. I know that. But both our teams really are responsible for putting this together, so we couldn’t be more proud.

“This belongs at Watkins Glen International. Scott and I had a moment just prior to walking in here, it’s so nice to see. It’s so great to walk around here and feel the electricity here. Can’t wait to do it again up in Watkins Glen, and like he said, it was just an awesome time working with Jay and the team, and we couldn’t be happier. In less than two weeks putting together a major motorsports deal? I’d like anybody to beat that. I wouldn’t want anybody to beat it, because Jay and I own it.”

More to follow… 

Da Costa excited by opportunities with Andretti, ‘jealous’ of Frijns’ IndyCar test

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CASTLE DONINGTON, UK – Antonio Felix da Costa is excited by the opportunities available with Andretti Autosport after joining its Formula E team for the third season of the all-electric series.

Red Bull-affiliated driver da Costa raced for Team Aguri in season one and two, scoring a victory in Buenos Aires in 2015 and putting forward a good case for being the best pound-for-pound driver on the grid given the team’s tight budget.

Andretti confirmed earlier this month that da Costa would be joining its Formula E operation for season three, replacing Simona de Silvestro in a move that is also understood to incorporate a partnership with BMW – da Costa’s team in DTM.

“It was probably one of the worst-kept secrets in Formula E,” da Costa told NBC Sports.

“But we really had to do it this way because there were a few other things in play and we could not jeopardise or compromise other things. Shortly after London, we were able to agree on everything and went straight to work.

“Very happy to be joining a racing family like the Andrettis. They need no introduction to the motorsport world. To be joining this team is a very good thing for me.

“I love America. I’d love to race there. I love the way Americans do sports in general, so it’s all very good.”

Da Costa will partner Robin Frijns, whose efforts in Formula E led to an IndyCar test with Andretti last month at Mid-Ohio where he put in an impressive display.

“Yeah I’m a little bit jealous of him, I have to say!” da Costa joked, before saying his focus remains on Formula E for the time being.

“One thing at a time. We’re here now, just got started with the team so first of all we need to do a good job here and then we’ll see what the future brings.

“If I have a winning car, we need to win races. If not, then just bring home maximum points possible. I think me and Robin together, we can do a good job.

“We’re both very competitive and I know him well, I know what he’s like, I’ve raced against him. To have him on my side now and push the team in the same direction is very, very good.”

Lewis Hamilton to take F1 power unit penalty in Belgium

SPA, BELGIUM - AUGUST 25: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP walks in the Paddock during previews ahead of the Formula One Grand Prix of Belgium at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps on August 25, 2016 in Spa, Belgium.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Lewis Hamilton has confirmed that he will take a sixth power unit component ahead of this weekend’s Belgian Grand Prix, resulting in a grid penalty.

Hamilton arrived in Belgium leading Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg in the drivers’ championship by 19 points after winning the last four races.

Power unit issues at the start of the season forced Hamilton to use more of his allocated components early, making a penalty in the second half of the season inevitable.

Drivers are permitted to use five of each power unit component across the course of the season, with penalties being handed out for exceeding this limit.

Hamilton confirmed in Thursday’s FIA press conference at Spa that he would be taking new components in Belgium, meaning he will take start towards the back of the grid.

“As far as I’m aware, we will take the penalty this weekend,” Hamilton said, before Mercedes gave official confirmation.

“As Lewis just confirmed in the press conference, we will take an engine penalty this weekend,” a team spokesperson said.

“It is safe to assume he will start from the back of the field or very close but we cannot be more precise at this stage.”

Hamilton has previously charged from the back of the grid to finish on the podium in Germany and Hungary two years ago, with both drives being decisive in winning him the title.

However, the Briton is skeptical that he can challenge for victory, given the reduction in Mercedes’ advantage over the field compared to two years ago.

“In terms of winning, that is going to be very, very hard. Obviously the gap has closed between other cars,” Hamilton said.

“We’re in the third year of the evolution of these cars, Red Bull have been very quick in some of the races and the same with Ferrari and down the whole grid, so it’s going to be harder than it was last year and the year before to climb through the field.

“But I’ll do everything I can and it’s just about minimizing the damage of taking the penalty.”