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


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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Max Verstappen named F1 Driver of the Day for USGP despite DNF

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 23:  Max Verstappen of Netherlands and Red Bull Racing on the grid before the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 23, 2016 in Austin, United States.  (Photo by Lars Baron/Getty Images)
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Max Verstappen has been voted Driver of the Day for the United States Grand Prix despite retiring from the race due to a gearbox failure.

Verstappen qualified fourth in Austin before a poor start saw him slip behind Kimi Raikkonen during the opening stages at the Circuit of The Americas

The Red Bull driver took the position back before closing in on Nico Rosberg through the second stint of the race, but retired soon after due to a gearbox issue.

Nevertheless, Verstappen has won the online fan vote for Austin, the result being announced on F1’s official Twitter account on Sunday night.

Grosjean secures point in Haas F1 Team’s home Grand Prix

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 21: Romain Grosjean of France and Haas F1 walks in the Paddock after practice for the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 21, 2016 in Austin, United States.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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AUSTIN, Texas – After an eight-race scoring “drought” since the Austrian Grand Prix, the 10th race of the season, Haas F1 Team broke its longest pointless scoring streak to date with a welcome and perhaps surprising return to the points in today’s United States Grand Prix in Austin from Circuit of The Americas.

Although Romain Grosjean and Esteban Gutierrez started only 17th and 14th respectively in the pair of Haas VF-16 Ferraris, they both made it to the fringes of the top 10 early before resuming in their sometimes eternal position of 11th.

Gutierrez fell out after Lap 17 with an apparent brake failure, but Grosjean pressed on the rest of the race. Once Kimi Raikkonen retired in one of the factory Ferraris after one of his tires hadn’t been secured properly, that promoted Grosjean into 10th and a World Championship point, a welcome result in his 100th Grand Prix start.

Grosjean noted that after a tough weekend for the team, down on downforce and with some aero parts breaking off on Friday, the point was a welcome result.

“It didn’t go too bad. Bit of a messy first lap. We did an aggressive strategy. It worked pretty well,” Grosjean told NBCSN’s Will Buxton.

“I’m lucky a few cars retired in front of us. We needed to finish the race. Great to score points in front of the home crowd. It’s been a long time since we’ve scored points!”

After the run of 11th-place finishes, Grosjean said scoring points late was a huge confidence booster for the team.

“Yeah it’s a great thing to score points at the end of the season,” he said. “It means a lot for how we’ve worked. Yesterday he’s not so happy after the performance we had but today he is. Gene’s mother, his sister, and there are a lot of people here. Now I have to watch Talladega and see how our boys are doing in NASCAR!”

Gutierrez, who retired early, was still diplomatic and thankful for the weekend experience.

“Yes it was (brake failure). We think one of the discs broke,” Gutierrez told NBCSN’s Will Buxton. “It’s not what we wanted for a race weekend. Not easy to accept either. Difficult start of the weekend and it was not going to be easy. We went on.

“We did a great qualifying, optimizing what we had. We pushed to the maximum. We got into the top 10 the first few laps. Aggressive strategy. At some point I lost the brakes. Fortunately I didn’t run into the barrier (at Turn 11).

“It’s very disappointing but we have to continue focusing on the positives. I want to thank everyone for the enthusiasm and support all weekend. I’m sorry for all of you who were here to support us and ensure we are doing our best.”

Gutierrez now heads to his home of Mexico City next week, where he’ll race in his first Mexican Grand Prix.

Rosberg content with damage limitation in Austin, finishing second

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 23:  Nico Rosberg of Germany and Mercedes GP on the grid before the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 23, 2016 in Austin, United States.  (Photo by Lars Baron/Getty Images)
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Nico Rosberg was content with his drive to second place in Sunday’s United States Grand Prix, ensuring his Formula 1 drivers’ championship lead over Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton remains healthy.

Rosberg arrived in Austin leading the drivers’ championship by 33 points, enjoying the luxury of being able to finish second in the remaining four races of the season and still win the title.

The German qualified second behind Hamilton at the Circuit of The Americas on Saturday, and opted to slot in behind his teammate through the first corner.

This allowed Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo to dive up the inside, taking second place through the esses and leaving Rosberg with a mountain to climb.

Mercedes opted to put Rosberg on medium tires for his second stint, causing him to come under pressure from Max Verstappen behind, but then gained a place from Ricciardo after pitting under the Virtual Safety Car.

Taking what essentially was a free pit stop saw Rosberg file out five seconds clear of Ricciardo in second, where he remained to the end of the race, finishing four seconds down on Hamilton up front.

“Lost it at the start. In the end I came back,” Rosberg said of his race on the podium after the race.

“Second place is OK, damage limitation. I wanted to win in America, would have been awesome, but it wasn’t to be. I was going for it. Flat out. All the way to the end.”

The result marks Rosberg’s first defeat in a race to Hamilton since the German Grand Prix at the end of July, and leaves the points difference at 26 points with three races to go.

Rosberg can afford to finish second twice and third once and still win the title, but will undoubtedly be keen to boost his points advantage to prevent the title fight going down to the wire in Abu Dhabi on November 27.

Mathematically, Rosberg can wrap up the title in Mexico next weekend should he win the race and Hamilton retire or fail to score.

Fifth USGP win draws Hamilton level with Schumacher’s record

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 23:  Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP celebrates his win in parc ferme  during the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 23, 2016 in Austin, United States.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Lewis Hamilton drew level with Formula 1 legend Michael Schumacher for the most United States Grand Prix victories by taking his fifth win on Sunday in Austin, Texas.

He’s the third driver overall to do so, with Ayrton Senna having also won five times in the U.S. – albeit only two of them in the USGP title in Phoenix. He also won three Detroit Grands Prix from 1986 through 1988.

Hamilton won his first grand prix on American soil back in 2007 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and had won three of the four races held at the Circuit of The Americas since 2012 heading into the Austin weekend.

A perfect start saw Hamilton forge an early lead over Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo and Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg, the latter’s championship advantage looking precarious as he ran third on-track.

While Rosberg was able to fight back up to second place before the end of the race, Hamilton managed to dominate proceedings at the front of the field and cross the line for his fifth USGP win.

It was also the 50th win of Hamilton’s F1 career, leaving him just one shy of Alain Prost in second place on the all-time win list. Schumacher stands clear on 91 victories at the top.

The result was significant for Hamilton given his affinity with the United States, as well as being much-needed in terms of his championship aspirations.

“What an incredible crowd we have here. It’s you guys that make this race so special. Thank you so much for coming out!” Hamilton said on the podium after the race.

“This is always been a good hunting ground for me, and it very much feels like home. I’m so thankful to everyone. The team did a great job for the weekend. Very proud to be a part of it.”

Rosberg can still beat Hamilton to the title with second-place finishes in the remaining three races, but the Briton is refusing to back down.

“All I can do is my best like I did this weekend. Hope that will continue,” Hamilton said.

“Please keep your fingers crossed. I’ll be going for it!”