Voting opens for NASCAR’s most popular driver; will Dale Jr. make it 12 years in a row?

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Will Dale Earnhardt Jr. be the fan’s choice as NASCAR’s most popular driver for the 12th consecutive year?

Or might Danica Patrick, newcomer Kyle Larson, six-time (potentially soon-to-be seven time?) Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson or some other driver earn the honor of being the biggest fan favorite in racing in 2014?

We’ll find out in four months as voting began Saturday and will conclude Nov. 17 for the Sprint National Motorsports Press Association’s Most Popular Driver Award.

Now in its 62nd year of existence, the MPDA is one of the most noteworthy and popular awards because it allows racing fans a direct pipeline to show their support and loyalty to their favorite driver.

New for this season is sponsorship of the award by Sprint, which also is the sole sponsor of NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series.

For more information and to cast your vote, visit www.MostPopularDriver.com.

Here’s the fine print: Fans are allowed to cast one ballot per email address per day. Fans can also cast up to two additional votes per person per email address on social media sites Facebook or Twitter.

Eligibility is open to drivers who have declared for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship and have entered all points-paying NASCAR Sprint Cup Series events contested between Jan. 1, 2014 and July 5, 2014.

The MPDA winner will be announced during NASCAR’s Champion’s Week at the annual Myers Brothers Luncheon in Las Vegas.

“We sincerely appreciate the interest expressed by so many fans surrounding the Most Popular Driver program,” NMPA president Kenny Bruce said in a press release. “Their continued participation, passion and loyalty are the reason for the program’s amazing success and longevity.”

More than one million votes were cast in last year’s contest. Bill Elliott holds the record by being chosen MPD 16 times.

Remember, to vote, visit www.MostPopularDriver.com.

As they say in Chicago, vote early and vote often.

* Disclosure: Jerry Bonkowski is a member of the board of directors of the National Motorsports Press Association.

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

Button enjoys ‘natural’ F1 return in Monaco, but hasn’t missed driving

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Jenson Button felt his return to a Formula 1 car in practice for the Monaco Grand Prix was “natural”, but admitted he hasn’t missed driving since stepping away from the sport.

Button appeared to have made his final F1 start in Abu Dhabi last November after stepping back from his McLaren race seat for 2017, only to be drafted in for the Monaco Grand Prix following Fernando Alonso’s decision to enter the 101st Indianapolis 500.

Button passed on the opportunity to test the McLaren-Honda MCL32 car in Bahrain last month, making his run in FP1 on Thursday in Monaco his first taste of a new-style 2017 F1 car.

Nevertheless, the transition appeared seamless for Button, even though he has not driven an F1 car in seven months.

“As soon as I exited the pits, everything felt very natural,” Button said.

“The weirdest thing is when you’re behind a car or when you let a car past, because you look at it and it’s gigantic. Then you feel really uncomfortable because you think, maybe I am too close to the barriers.

“I’ve really enjoyed practice, both the long and short runs. FP2 was a bit of a struggle to really find my feet with the car. I’m braking so much later than what I’m used to here and carrying so much speed into the corners.

“Adjusting to that takes time, so with another day with the engineers and a look through the data, I’m confident that I can improve for Saturday.”

Button finished 14th in FP1 and 11th in FP2, lapping less than one-tenth of a second off the pace of teammate Stoffel Vandoorne in the afternoon, giving McLaren hope of its first points of the season.

Button remains coy about his chances, though, insisting there is still more pace to be found.

“I haven’t really thought about where I hope to finish. It’s a very mixed-up grid at the moment which I’m sure will all change again on Saturday,” Button said.

“The guys understand where I’m coming from. They know what they need to do to improve the car to suit me a little bit more and to give me a little bit more confidence. Hopefully we’ll see a step in performance on Saturday.”

Will this one-off return stir a desire to be back racing full-time for Button? Don’t count on it.

“It was funny when I did the install lap this morning, I had a little giggle to myself,” Button revealed.

“Have I missed it? No, but when you jump in the car, you definitely enjoy the moments that you have.”

Sainz refusing to get carried away with Toro Rosso’s Monaco pace

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Carlos Sainz Jr. is refusing to get carried away despite making a strong start to the Formula 1 weekend in Monaco as Toro Rosso got both of its cars inside the top five in second practice.

Toro Rosso currently sits fifth in the F1 constructors’ championship amid a close midfield battle, but appeared to pull clear of rivals Williams and Force India in Monaco on Thursday.

Sainz and teammate Daniil Kvyat both reached the top 10 in FP1 before sharing the lead for much of the early part of FP2 before the likes of Ferrari and Red Bull went quicker.

Kvyat ultimately finished the session fourth-fastest, 0.6 seconds off pace-setter Sebastian Vettel’s time, while Sainz followed in P5, but the Spaniard urged caution in the Toro Rosso ranks after the session.

“I think that we did what we needed to do on a Thursday in Monaco, building the speed up little by little and trying different configurations to give myself confidence with the car,” Sainz said.

“After today’s two practice sessions, it’s safe to say that we’re quite happy with everything. Obviously, from Thursday to Saturday a lot of things could change so we can’t let ourselves get carried away with today’s result.

“But it’s definitely a good starting point! I’m looking forward to the rest of the weekend.”

“Since our problems in Barcelona, where we had a number of updates, we’ve learned a little more on how to get a better balance with the car,” Toro Rosso technical chief James Key added.

“Both drivers seemed to be reasonably happy in FP1, so it was a case of fine-tuning the car a little bit for FP2. We ran a slightly different tire program to other teams, concentrating on our own work, car setup and understanding.

“During the afternoon session we made reasonable progress and, even if there are still some issues to resolve, the session went well.

“We will now be working hard overnight and tomorrow to look at the data and optimize the car as best we can.”

Stroll crashes out of Monaco FP2, seeking PlayStation gains

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Lance Stroll’s difficult start to life in Formula 1 continued on Thursday in Monaco when he crashed out of second practice following an error on entry to Casino Square.

Stroll, 18, is yet to score a point through his rookie F1 season, and suffered another setback in Monaco on Thursday when he shunted his Williams into the barrier with 35 minutes to go in FP2.

Stroll was unharmed, but the incident acted as the latest setback through what has been a baptism of fire for the young Canadian in F1 despite significant efforts to prepare for his rookie campaign through private testing.

“The track is great and I was really happy with the car, but then there was the crash at the end. I just basically centered in looking for the limit, got onto the dirt a little bit and lost the rear,” Stroll explained.

“It was a typical street circuit mistake. I got into learning the circuit pretty quickly and I was happy with the day until then. What is good here is the tire seems to be hanging on quite a bit, so we are able to do multiple push laps.

“In FP3 I am just going to build up my rhythm in that area, but I think I know pretty clearly in my head what I did wrong. I am going to look at the little areas I can improve on for Saturday, as I know we can do that and have a good day.”

Stroll’s pursuit of added lap time may be aided by an unusual influece: his experience of racing around Monaco on his PlayStation game.

“I think corner eight and the last corner are the two places I need to improve on,” Stroll said.

“But it really annoys me because every time I play the PlayStation game it has always been those two corners that I couldn’t get right, and in reality it is still those two corners!”

Hamilton puzzled by ‘night and day’ tire difference in Monaco practices

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Lewis Hamilton was left puzzled by his lack of pace in the second Formula 1 practice for the Monaco Grand Prix after feeling a “night and day” difference in his tires from morning to the afternoon on Thursday.

Hamilton posted the fastest time through FP1, but could not match F1 title rival Sebastian Vettel’s pace through second practice, finishing over 1.1 seconds off the pace in eighth place.

Hamilton felt a significant change in his tires between the sessions, and while he is unsure as to why, he is confident Mercedes can get to the bottom of the matter.

“We didn’t have the greatest day today. Practice one was actually really good and we were quickest, but then in second practice we just struggled to extract the grip from the tires and we were sliding around a lot,” Hamilton explained.

“I’m not sure why the tires weren’t working but the difference between the two sessions was night and day. We’ve got some work to do ahead of Saturday, that’s for sure, but I’m confident the team can work it out.

“Monaco is always amazing to drive, but this is definitely the best car I’ve driven around here. Ferrari are very quick again and Red Bull are also looking good this weekend.

“We’re looking forward to a real fight on Saturday.”