Dale Jr. eyes Daytona sweep in Saturday’s Coke Zero 400

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Dale Earnhardt Jr. says he saw no need to revisit his second Daytona 500 win in February or his subpar 26th-place performance in May at Talladega to prepare for Saturday’s Coke Zero 400.

In his mind, he knows what he has to do in order to claim a win that would make him the sixth Sprint Cup driver in history to sweep both Daytona races in the same year.

“I have a pretty good understanding of what I was going through and what I was thinking through the last 100 miles of the 500,” Earnhardt said Thursday at Daytona.

“I understand what was working for me and what mentality I need to have. You just really have to crack the whip and push yourself mentally as hard as you can for every position.”

Earnhardt recalled the importance of not giving up the lead during February’s Great American Race in order to control the field on restarts and have lane choice.

“You had to keep reinforcing to yourself as you were running, that if someone would get up beside you for the lead, how important it was not to let that person have the position,” he said.

“You had to run extremely aggressive side drafting and try to box them in on the fence. You wanted to make it really hard on them to take a position away.”

He also hopes that this aggressiveness will help him erase his surprisingly poor result at ‘Dega in May, which is still a source of embarrassment for NASCAR’s most popular driver.

As that race went into its latter stages, Earnhardt opted to fall toward the back in order to avoid potential crashes. However, he was unable to make up ground in the end and later received a lot of criticism from the NASCAR fan base.

It wasn’t the first time an athlete has had an educated decision backfire in the middle of a contest, and it won’t be the last. But Earnhardt still appears to be stung a bit by the backlash he took.

“I think when I was out there running this year, I got real selfish at Talladega, and how the result affected anyone – I never took into account,” said Earnhardt, who said he learned some lessons from that ill-fated day.

“I was just out there really thinking about me, and what I thought, and what I wanted to do, and how frustrated I was. I forgot that there was a team behind me, and depending on me. Lot of fans there to see us race showed up to spend hard-earned money, so it was a difficult thing to go through.”

But that’s in the past now and Earnhardt is focusing on attaining the aforementioned Daytona sweep, which will no doubt be a tough task. Before Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson pulled off that feat last year, it hadn’t been done for 31 years (Bobby Allison, 1982).

However, Earnhardt is up for the challenge.

“I would love to sweep the races at Daytona because that is a cool thing, but I just love winning here,” Earnhardt said. “So to go to Victory Lane here regardless of what we did in February, would mean a lot to me.”

IndyCar’s 2018 full-field grid nearing completion

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Following Wednesday’s confirmation of the all-Canadian tandem at Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, each of the eight full-time teams in the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season have announced at least one driver for 2018, leaving very few remaining question marks.

What stands confirmed is below:

CONFIRMED

  • Team Penske (3, Chevrolet): Josef Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power
  • Chip Ganassi Racing (1, Honda): Scott Dixon
  • Andretti Autosport (4, Honda): Ryan Hunter-Reay, Alexander Rossi, Marco Andretti, Zach Veach
  • Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (2, Honda): Graham Rahal, Takuma Sato
  • Schmidt Peterson Motorsports (2, Honda): James Hinchcliffe, Robert Wickens
  • Ed Carpenter Racing (2, Chevrolet): Spencer Pigot, Ed Carpenter (ovals)
  • A.J. Foyt Enterprises (1, Chevrolet): Tony Kanaan
  • Dale Coyne Racing (1, Honda): Sebastien Bourdais
  • Harding Racing (1, Chevrolet): Gabby Chaves

There are four additional drivers confirmed for selected races or an month of May program:

  • Team Penske (1, Chevrolet): Helio Castroneves
  • Andretti Autosport (1, Honda): Stefan Wilson
  • Calmels Sport with SPM (1, Honda): Tristan Gommendy
  • Team TBD (1, TBD): Kyle Kaiser

All told that’s 17 full-season driver and team combinations confirmed and four additional part-time programs, at least, that are set. Several of those driver/team combinations will have engineering and strategist changes, as well.

In a minor note since our last update at Sonoma, Marco Andretti confirmed he won’t run No. 27 next year. Of note, Bryan Herta served as Andretti’s race strategist this year, although the car he was an entrant on was Alexander Rossi’s No. 98 car. Herta will continue his relationship with Andretti Autosport again next season.

WHAT’S LEFT TO SORT? NOT MUCH

Elsewhere, there’s only a handful of remaining question marks as the series hits mid-October, a rarity from past years and an illustration of the urgency to fill seats to get as much preparation time in testing with the new 2018 Dallara universal aero kit as possible.

NBC Sports expects 2016 Indy Lights champion and 2017 IndyCar rookie-of-the-year Ed Jones to be confirmed soon as second driver in Dale Coyne Racing’s No. 19 Honda alongside Sebastien Bourdais, with team personnel and Bourdais both having indicated a preference in keeping the Dubai-based Brit for a second year.

NBC Sports also expects Jones’ successor as Indy Lights champion, Kyle Kaiser, to have his future announced shortly in terms of which team he’ll step up to IndyCar with. It would not be a surprise if Kaiser does graduate along with Juncos Racing, although Kaiser is known to have talked to multiple teams. The Mazda Motorsports scholarship nets him $1 million for a three-race program, including the 102nd Indianapolis 500, with the driver then needing to secure additional funding for further races, as Jones and Pigot both have each of the last two years.

The status of Brendon Hartley has now been thrown up as a slight question mark dependent on how his Formula 1 debut with Scuderia Toro Rosso goes at this weekend’s United States Grand Prix, and if Toro Rosso provides him a further race opportunity in one of the remaining three Grands Prix thereafter. Having been all-but-earmarked for Chip Ganassi Racing’s second seat in 2018, if an F1 offer comes, Hartley’s potential IndyCar bow could get delayed.

A McLaren-named entry competing either in the Indianapolis 500 or full-time seems further off than realistic for next year, McLaren’s Zak Brown told reporters on a teleconference this week. McLaren maintains an IndyCar technical presence though, via its McLaren Applied Technologies outfit.

What’s left then are the dominoes of whether Carlin’s IndyCar plans officially come to fruition as the team has gotten closer than it ever has to doing so, and who emerges in the second seats at A.J. Foyt Enterprises and Ed Carpenter Racing (road and street courses), respectively.

A number of young IndyCar veterans – Max Chilton, Charlie Kimball, Carlos Munoz and Conor Daly namely – are yet to land for 2018 and there’s no guarantee all four of them will be back in IndyCar next season.

There’s also a handful of young drivers, namely RC Enerson, Jack Harvey, Esteban Gutierrez, Santiago Urrutia, Zachary Claman DeMelo, Sage Karam and Matthew Brabham among others, who could well emerge in the frame for seats.

Gutierrez’s status seemed dependent on Mexico City being added to the 2018 calendar, and although the race still could be added, the fact neither is in place at this point doesn’t inspire as much confidence about his presence as a regular on the grid as it did earlier this summer.

All told, there’s not nearly that much to sort out as IndyCar’s grid for 2018 is looking very much close to set at this early stage of a long offseason.