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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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Marco Andretti, Scott Dixon fastest in two Firestone 600 practice sessions

FORT WORTH, TX - JUNE 10:  Scott Dixon of New Zealand, driver of the #9 Target Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet, practices for the Verizon IndyCar Series Firestone 600 at Texas Motor Speedway on June 10, 2016 in Fort Worth, Texas.  (Photo by Matt Hazlett/Getty Images for Texas Motor Speedway)
Photo by Matt Hazlett/Getty Images for Texas Motor Speedway)
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Fort Worth – After a 77 day wait, the Verizon IndyCar Series was back on track at Texas Motor Speedway to get ready for tonight’s Firestone 600.

The series took part in two, 10-minute practice sessions ahead of the race’s resumption.

Marco Andretti was the fastest in the first session with a speed of 213.095 mph over teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay (210.859 mph).

The second session was was led by defending Firestone 600 winner Scott Dixon at 214.937 mph. His Ganassi Racing teammate Tony Kanaan was second quickest at 214.476 mph. Andretti had the third best speed overall.

James Hinchcliffe, who will be the race leader when it resumes, was seventh fastest overall.

The first 10-minute session had just began when the No. 14 of Takuma Sato broke loose in Turn 4 and hit the wall. Sato was able to leave the car under his own power and was later cleared to participate in the race.

Sato told the Indianapolis Star a right-front rocker broke on the car.

The No. 14 had to be towed back to the garage despite there not being any significant damage to the body of the car.

James Hinchcliffe, who will be the race leader when it resumes, was seventh fastest overall.

Speed chart

TXtimes

Manor enjoys strong Spa qualifying as Wehrlein reaches Q2

SPA, BELGIUM - AUGUST 26: Pascal Wehrlein of Germany driving the (94) Manor Racing MRT-Mercedes MRT05 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo on track during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Belgium at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps on August 26, 2016 in Spa, Belgium.  (Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images)
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Manor Racing enjoyed one of its strongest Formula 1 qualifying displays to date on Saturday ahead of the Belgian Grand Prix as Pascal Wehrlein and Esteban Ocon finished 16th and 18th respectively.

Wehrlein produced a particularly impressive lap in Q1 to make it through to the second stage of qualifying for the third time this season, finishing the session ninth.

After using two sets of new super-soft tires in the first stage, Wehrlein was forced to complete Q2 on a used set, meaning he lapped eight-tenths of a second slower than his original effort.

The German driver was resigned to P16 in Q2, which while bearing a tinge of disappointment was nevertheless an excellent result for the team.

“I’m very happy that we made it through to Q2, of course. Q1 was incredible for us with P9,” Wehrlein said.

“But unfortunately we had no new super-soft tyres for Q2, so it’s a bit of shame, and I had to do my lap on used tires.

“Q1 felt so good with new tires, so you can see what was possible today; that last run was not our true pace. So it was a bit of a shame, but that decision has to be made much earlier in the year.”

Teammate Ocon enjoyed his first F1 qualifying outing with Manor after replacing Rio Haryanto over the summer, and narrowly missed out on a place in Q2 after an impressive run to P18. However, he too was disappointed.

“I’ve been pretty happy with my pace generally but it’s not easy to start your F1 career more than halfway through the season,” Ocon said.

“I need more time in the car and with the super-soft tire and even managing the traffic; that’s quite a challenge too with all the cars slowing down after their laps.

“It takes more experience than I have in three practice sessions to really extract the maximum out of everything. That’s something to look forward to with each new race though, improving step by step.

“I was very quick on the soft tire, so although I’m a little disappointed today, I’m also excited about what is yet to come.”

Both Wehrlein and Ocon gain a place on the grid for Sunday’s race by virtue of Esteban Gutierrez’s grid penalty, dropping the Mexican to 18th.

The Belgian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 7am ET on Sunday.

IMSA: CJ Wilson Racing, HART Honda win crazy, wet CTSC race at VIR

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Strategic timing and masterstrokes of driving in treacherous, rainy conditions helped drive the first victories of the season for CJ Wilson Racing and HART (Honda of America Racing Team), respectively, in the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge GS and ST classes at VIRginia International Raceway.

The No. 33 ONE Capital/Motor Oil Matters Porsche GT4 Cayman Clubsport pair of Danny Burkett and Marc Miller finally broke through for an elusive first victory, after coming up close on so many other occasions this year – notably at Watkins Glen.

Burkett, the young Canadian, made an early smart call to be first into the pits for rain tires – a key decision when a few minutes later, the skies opened and VIR turned from sunny and clear to swampy, wet and miserable, with flooding occurring a bit later.

Then when the race resumed after nearly an hour of red flag conditions, the No. 33 Porsche pitted along with fellow GS class contenders the Nos. 15 and 76 Ford Shelby GT350R-C from Multimatic Motorsports and Compass360 Racing, respectively. CJWR’s pit stops have been under the microscope this year but a flawless stop occurred there to switch from Burkett to Miller.

Miller then seized the momentum on the final restart, passing Billy Johnson (co-drove with Scott Maxwell) in the No. 15 Ford for the lead after Turns 1 and 2.

Miller held on to the finish and won by 4.509 seconds over Johnson, who did well to hold off a hard-charging Trent Hindman (Cameron Cassels co-driver) in the No. 12 Bodymotion Racing Porsche for second.

While Miller and CJWR have won in Continental Tire action before – CJWR was ST class champions a year ago – this marked both their first wins in GS, and Burkett’s first win in the series.

“Pure elation! This is awesome! It’s been such a long time coming. To finally do it… it’s almost surreal at this point. We had to come out here and do this. We had a fantastic race,” Burkett told IMSA Radio’s Shea Adam.

Miller, who had a birthday on August 24, added, to IMSA Radio’s Jim Roller, “Man I just didn’t want to slide off the track. Car placement was so important. This feels so good!”

In ST, Ryan Eversley and co-driver Chad Gilsinger put on a wet-weather driving clinic in the No. 93 HART Honda Civic Si for their first win since Road America last year.

Gilsinger got out to the lead early in the race and led the majority of his stint, Eversley doing the rest once he took over in the afternoon after pit stops and driver changes were completed. Eversley, ultimately, won by 10.417 seconds over good friend Eric Foss (co-drove with Jeff Mosing) in the No. 56 Murillo Racing Porsche Cayman.

“I did it because my team is awesome,” Eversley told Adam. “I didn’t lose any spots in the pits. When I got in the car everything was perfect. Chad Gilsinger, you should talk to more. He made the right choice to go to rains. If he would have been finishing, he would have done the same thing. HART, Honda Racing HPD. I’m blown away.”

Said the aforementioned Gilsinger to Roller, “Usually we don’t do well here. We were hoping it would rain. The first rain isn’t what we wanted. Nobody wanted that, especially on slicks. But we fought through and got to the pits in time, and the conditions suited our car quite well.”

Despite the heavy rain, lightning in the area and wet conditions in the pits (see below), there were no major accidents of note in the two-hour, 30-minute race.

The Wilson pair’s win closes them, unofficially, to 20 points of Maxwell and Johnson for the GS points lead, while Porsche and Ford are tied for the Manufacturer’s Lead.

In ST, Spencer Pumpelly and Nick Galante still lead the points by seven in their No. 17 Rennsport One Porsche Cayman, after a 14th place finish. Defending class champions Chad McCumbee and Stevan McAleer finished seventh in the No. 25 Freedom Autosport Mazda MX-5 and closed that gap.

The series resumes Friday, Sept. 16, at Circuit of The Americas for the second-to-last race of the year.

Gutierrez takes grid penalty after Wehrlein incident in Spa FP3

SPA, BELGIUM - AUGUST 26: Esteban Gutierrez of Mexico driving the (21) Haas F1 Team Haas-Ferrari VF-16 Ferrari 059/5 turbo on track during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Belgium at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps on August 26, 2016 in Spa, Belgium.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Haas driver Esteban Gutierrez has been hit with a five-place grid penalty after forcing Pascal Wehrlein onto the grass during the final Formula 1 practice for the Belgian Grand Prix on Saturday at Spa.

Coming through the kink on the Kemmel Straight following Eau Rouge and Raidillion, Wehrlein came across a slow-moving Gutierrez while on a hot lap.

Gutierrez appeared to move right to let Wehrlein through before crossing back across the track, forcing Wehrlein to dive onto the grass at one of the fastest points on the circuit to avoid a collision.

Wehrlein managed to get back on to the track without crashing, but was less than impressed, asking his Manor team: “F*****g idiot, what is he doing?”

The stewards looked dimly on the incident, handing Gutierrez a five-place grid drop and three penalty points on his FIA super licence.

Gutierrez qualified 13th on Saturday afternoon, meaning he will drop to P18 on the grid for the start of Sunday’s race.

“It was a really good effort from the team. We’ve been struggling with the car setup, but managed to find the best balance,” Gutierrez said after qualifying.

“In qualifying, it felt like a step forward considering the high track temperatures, which is making things a little complicated with the tires.

“In FP3 there was a miscommunication that cost us a five-place grid penalty, which is obviously very painful, but we will try to put that aside.

“I’ll start the race and give everything I’ve got to recover the lost positions and I’ll be fighting all the way to get into the top 10.”

The Belgian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 7am ET on Sunday.