almirola wins at daytona2

Aric Almirola earns first career Sprint Cup win in rain-shortened Coke Zero 400 at Daytona

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There’s no other way to explain it: Mother Nature is a Richard Petty fan.

With persistent rain falling for the third time in Sunday’s Coke Zero 400 — due to rain postponing the originally scheduled race on Saturday — NASCAR officials decided to call the race after 112 of the scheduled 160 at Daytona International Speedway laps and declared Aric Almirola and the legendary No. 43 Ford of Richard Petty Motorsports the winner.

The win comes 30 years almost to the day that Petty earned the 200th and final win of his legendary Hall of Fame career, coming at Daytona and in front of then-U.S. President, the late Ronald Reagan. Almirola was only 12 days old when Petty won that race.

It was Almirola’s first career Sprint Cup victory in 125 starts and also the first time that the No. 43 has reached victory lane since John Andretti in April 1999 in Martinsville.

“Man, this is so awesome,” Almirola told TNT. “The amount of effort that has gone into this race team this year, with everybody at Richard Petty Motorsports trying to get better and trying to build this race team back to a winning race team the way it deserves to be, it’s been so cool to watch it grow.

“To get this US Air Force Ford Fusion into victory lane, 30 years to the weekend that Ricahrd Petty won his 200th win, is really, really special. The Good Lord was really looking out for us today. We had a really fast car nonetheless, but I’ll take ’em any way we can get ’em.

“And we’re going to be in the Chase. This race team deserves to be in the Chase. I told everybody at the beginning of the year that I promised I’d get them to victory lane and, lo and behold, we’ve done it.”

By virtue of the victory, which came 48 laps shy of the scheduled 160 laps, Almirola all but punches his ticket to the Chase for the Sprint Cup, marking the second time RPM has made the 10-race playoff (Kasey Kahne did so in 2010, finishing 10th in the final season standings).

“I’ve said time and time again how much I wanted to win this race,” Almirola said. “This is my home race, two hours from Tampa, Florida (where he grew up). I grew up sitting in those grandstands watching the Daytona 500 and Firecracker 400 and dreamed about what it would be like to race here — and man, I just took the 43 car to victory lane today in Daytona.

“This is so cool to get all these guys, who’ve been working on this race team for a long team and haven’t had a chance to get to victory lane with this 43 car, this is so, so special.”

Brian Vickers finished second, followed by Kurt Busch, who led the most laps before the race was ruled official.

Casey Mears finished fourth, followed by Austin Dillon, Denny Hamlin, Michael McDowell, Danica Patrick in eighth, Clint Bowyer and Almiroloa’s RPM teammate Marcos Ambrose in 10th.

When the green flag dropped Sunday, drivers were fighting to get to the halfway point of the race due to more rain on the National Weather Service radar that appears to be closing in on the area.

The race got underway at about 11:22 am ET. Pole sitter David Gilliland gave up his lead on Lap 5 to Matt Kenseth. The race was placed under caution just one lap later due to, what else, rain.

After a few moments and five more laps under caution, NASCAR decided to red flag the event at Lap 11 when rain began to fall steadily, primarily in the backstretch area. Cars were brought to pit road, where they sat until the race resumed after an approximately 22-minute rain delay.

Kenseth assumed his spot at the front of the pack with Gilliland right behind, but Tony Stewart made fast work of getting to the front and led a number of laps until disaster struck for him and 14 other drivers.

On Lap 21, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. appeared to get loose. Jeff Gordon, who was behind Stenhouse, attempted to slow down but inadvertently got into the right rear of Stewart’s car, sending him spinning.

Like a pinball, Stewart triggered a wreck that collected several favorites to win the race, including himself, Stenhouse, Gordon, Kentucky winner Brad Keselowski, fellow Stewart Haas racing teammates Kevin Harvick and Danica PatrickDenny Hamlin, Kenseth, Marcos AmbroseTrevor BayneAJ Allmendinger,Kyle LarsonJimmie JohnsonMichael WaltripCarl Edwards and Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Although Stenhouse told TNT that he got loose after the car in front of him, driven by Bobby Labonte, suddenly slowed, Stewart was not a happy camper nonetheless.

“We’re a quarter of a lap away from getting a competition caution, and Stenhouse is going to be a hero,” Stewart told TNT. “I don’t know. I don’t know what happened to him there, but that took out a bunch of good cars for no reason.

“…No matter what I say right now, somebody’s going to be mad and somebody’s going to disagree with it. But I think it’s a pretty dumb excuse to have the caution come out 500 yards too early.”

Then came Lap 98.

Racing against the possibility of more rain on the horizon, the field was heading into Turn 1 on Lap 98 when it appeared on TV replay that Greg Biffle‘s Ford got into the rear of Kasey Kahne‘s Chevrolet, spinning him and then hooking the Ford of Joey Logano, starting sheer mayhem.

From that point on, drivers begun flying all over the race track, with Kyle Busch winding up upside down in his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota. Fortunately, the younger Busch brother was uninjured. His car was slowly righted onto its wheels and Busch climbed out, receiving a round of applause from the crowd.

According to NASCAR statisticians, the following cars were involved in the wreck:

Kasey Kahne, Clint BowyerAlex Bowman, Kyle Busch, Greg Biffle, David GillilandJustin AllgaierRyan NewmanPaul MenardJosh WiseMichael AnnettRyan TruexMatt KensethBobby LabonteJamie McMurrayLandon CassillMarcos Ambrose, Joey Logano, David RaganDenny HamlinDanica PatrickBrad KeselowskiTerry LabonteReed Sorenson and Michael McDowell.

“I’m just so unhappy,” Biffle told TNT. “It was just close-quarters racing. Kasey went into the middle and ran into the back of the 13 car and slowed way up and I hit the back of the 5. We weren’t lined up. He moved down for some reason when he hit the 13 (Casey Mears) or something, but just a chain reaction.

“You just never know cars are going to slow down that quick. I had a shove from the 34 (David Ragan) from behind and you just can’t react that fast, unfortunately.”

“I knew there was going to be trouble there,” David Gilliland said. “I probably should have given myself more room. Cars were just sliding around all over. … What a mess. Not the day we were looking forward.”

Kahne noted, “I was just getting hit from behind. I was in a tough spot. … I’m not exactly sure what happened. It’s too bad.”

Kyle Busch said, “It just felt like a slow carnival ride. I guess that’s fitting for the Fourth of July, but not here for Daytona. … I just got T-boned at the end there and toppled me over.”

Jamie McMurray added, “It was a helpless feeling.”

The race resumed on Lap 104 with Aric Almirola in the lead, only to have the race go back under caution due to rain five laps later. Three laps later, the race was redflagged and after a more than 30-minute wait, Almirola had earned his first career Sprint Cup victory.

We’ll be back with more shortly.

 

Franchitti: Ganassi to Honda ‘creates interest in manufacturer battle’

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MAY 27:  Dario Franchitti of Scotland, driver of the #50 Target Chip Ganassi Racing Honda holds up his fist in celebration of wining the IZOD IndyCar Series 96th running of the Indianpolis 500 mile race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 27, 2012 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)
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Dario Franchitti’s most successful years in his illustrious IndyCar career came with Target Chip Ganassi Racing and Honda.

The Scotsman never drove for any other engine manufacturer full-time in his run from 1998 to 2013, after Mercedes-Benz initially brought him to the United States in 1997, when he debuted with Hogan Racing.

Ganassi’s switch back to Honda power and aero kits this year after a three-year shift to Chevrolet is one of the key story lines going into the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season, and Franchitti seems bullish on the prospects.

“I think it’s good for the series to have the two top teams with different manufacturers,” Franchitti told my NBC Sports colleague Luke Smith at this weekend’s Autosport International show.

“I think it creates more interest in that battle. From that point of view I think it’s good. Obviously Penske were quite dominant last year. We need to redress that balance this year.”

Team Penske asserted itself a bit further ahead of Ganassi this past season when both teams had the Chevrolet engines and aero kits. Penske won 10 races among three of its four drivers to Ganassi’s two, achieved only by Scott Dixon.

Other gaps saw Penske saw 12 other podium finishes beyond the wins, for a total of 22, while Ganassi scored only six total podiums.

In qualifying, Penske made 28 combined appearances of a possible 60 in the Firestone Fast Six on road and street courses; Ganassi made 13. Last year Penske won 11 of 16 pole positions; in 2015, that number was 13 of 16.

The balance was more even in 2015, when Dixon edged Juan Pablo Montoya for the title on a three-two win tiebreaker. Penske and Ganassi each won three races. Penske had 12 other podiums and Ganassi seven. The qualifying advantage maintained itself with Penske ahead 26-8 in Firestone Fast Six appearances.

With the manufacturer aero kits frozen for 2017 and Honda’s behind in the road and street course and short oval configurations, wizardry and engineering from the Ganassi staff will be needed to account for the performance deficits from an aero side, while Honda should be able to make strides from a power perspective.

It’s expected the Honda kit will remain ahead on the superspeedways, which gives Ganassi’s crew a better shout at Indianapolis, Texas and Pocono, places they struggled this past year.

The team’s initial test with all four cars at Sebring’s short course held earlier this month was a very productive one, according to Chip Ganassi Racing managing director Mike Hull.

“There’s a lot of enthusiasm for the program,” Franchitti explained. “In the team everyone is working. I mean you see it all the time, everyone works hard all the time, but you see a real confidence in the workshop.

“We tested at Sebring. I was talking to Mike Hull last night (Friday) and he said that everyone was feeling really good about things. Everyone is working on all aspects of our program and working really hard to improve it.”

Ganassi’s title success, bar Dixon’s 2015 triumph, have come exclusively with Honda. Last year marked the 20-year anniversary of the team’s first title with Jimmy Vasser, which set sail for the team’s first of two four-in-a-row title runs in a CART era of open chassis, manufacturer and tire competition from 1996 through 1999 with Vasser, Alex Zanardi and Montoya.

A further run of four followed once Franchitti rejoined IndyCar in 2009 after one year in NASCAR. Dixon scored his second of four titles (2008) to kick off that run in what became the all-spec Dallara-Honda period in IndyCar, and Franchitti followed with three storming runs in 2009, 2010 and 2011.

The 2011 title was Franchitti’s fourth and last of his career, with his final win coming a year later in dramatic fashion at the 2012 Indianapolis 500. The series introduced the new Dallara DW12 chassis and the new engine formula of 2.2L V6 turbocharged engines.

It’s been funny to see Franchitti as the lone individual wearing a Chevrolet shirt at Honda hospitality the last few years so with Ganassi back at Honda, the humorous moments are resigned just to the conversations now.

“Every race I won was with a Honda, so I still have a lot of friends there. It was always a bit awkward when I went for lunch at Honda with a Chevy shirt on! But the Chevy guys with Ilmor as well, they were great guys to work with.”

Kevin Magnussen arrives for first visit to Haas F1 headquarters

MONZA, ITALY - SEPTEMBER 01:  Kevin Magnussen of Denmark and Renault Sport F1 talks in the Drivers Press Conference during previews for the Formula One Grand Prix of Italy at Autodromo di Monza on September 1, 2016 in Monza, Italy.  (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)
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On Monday, it was a day of confirmations – Valtteri Bottas (Mercedes), Felipe Massa (Williams) and Pascal Wehrlein (Sauber) – all became official after weeks of speculation.

One driver confirmed much earlier, Kevin Magnussen to Haas F1 Team, has now made his first official visit to Haas F1 Team’s United Kingdom headquarters in Banbury. He’ll be there for a couple days to complete most of the preseason marketing and media-gathering tasks.

The Dane will enter his third full-time season in Formula 1 with his third different team, as he joins Haas for 2017 and beyond after a year apiece at Renault (2016) and McLaren (2014).

Magnussen has gone through HQ and the Haas F1 social team has taken us along for the ride. Here’s a few pics:

Magnussen’s former team, Renault, was up to the task of bantering as Haas welcomes Magnussen to HQ.

Foyt’s Chevrolet contract finally made official

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Photo: A.J. Foyt Enterprises
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Living legend A.J. Foyt turned 82 on Monday and now his team finally, officially, after months of it being expected but without a contract formally finalized, has an engine with which to power its two race cars.

After being with Honda since 2006, and having had Honda power in all five previous years of engine competition since Chevrolet re-entered the Verizon IndyCar Series in 2012, A.J. Foyt Enterprises will be back with the “bowtie” in 2017.

“I am looking forward to what will be a new chapter for us that involves returning to an old friend in Chevrolet,” said Team President Larry Foyt in a release. “There are a lot of changes happening within our team this off season and I won’t minimize the challenges, but I see a lot of potential with our plan.”

“We are pleased to welcome AJ Foyt Racing to the Chevrolet IndyCar program,” stated Mark Kent, Director Chevrolet Motorsports Competition.  “Chevrolet and Foyt both have long histories in IndyCar racing, including prior opportunities to work together.  We look forward to renewing the partnership and a strong start to the 2017 season.”

The team has a new driver lineup this year with Carlos Munoz and Conor Daly switching from Andretti Autosport and Dale Coyne Racing, respectively, in the pair of ABC Supply Co.-sponsored entries.

A.J. Foyt IV, below, ran the ABC colors and a Chevrolet in 2005.

PIKES PEAK, CO- AUGUST 21:  A.J.Foyt IV, driver of the #14 ABC Supply Co. Dallara Chevrolet, competes during the Indy Racing League IndyCar Series Honda Indy 225 on  August 21, 2005 at the Pikes Peak International Speedway in Pikes Peak, Colorado.  (Photo by Darrell Ingham/Getty Images)
PIKES PEAK, CO- AUGUST 21: A.J.Foyt IV, driver of the #14 ABC Supply Co. Dallara Chevrolet, competes during the Indy Racing League IndyCar Series Honda Indy 225 on August 21, 2005 at the Pikes Peak International Speedway in Pikes Peak, Colorado. (Photo by Darrell Ingham/Getty Images)

Pigot confirmed for encore with Ed Carpenter Racing

SONOMA, CA - SEPTEMBER 17: Spencer Pigot, driver of the #20 Samsung/Fuzzyâs Vodka/ECR Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet, drives during practice for the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma at Sonoma Raceway on September 17, 2016 in Sonoma, California.  (Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images)
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Spencer Pigot will begin his 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season with the same team he ended his 2016 year with, Ed Carpenter Racing.

The 23-year-old Floridian and past Indy Lights and Pro Mazda champion will have his second season with ECR, driving the team’s No. 20 Chevrolet in the 11 road and street course races while team owner Ed Carpenter will race it on ovals.

“I’m very excited to be staying with Ed Carpenter Racing for the 2017 season,” Pigot stated. “It’s a great feeling to know that I have a secure ride for all of the road and street course races so we can start preparing for the season now. I can’t thank everyone at ECR, P1 Management and Rising Star Racing enough for their help getting this deal done.”

Although this was not confirmed within the release, Pigot would make sense to drive a third car for the Indianapolis 500 at the team. ECR has fielded a third in recent years for now full-time driver JR Hildebrand, who replaces Josef Newgarden in the No. 21 Chevrolet.

Pigot made his first three starts with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing at St. Petersburg and the two Indianapolis races last year, before principal backers Rising Star Racing helped Pigot land at ECR for the seven remaining road and street races the rest of 2016.

His best finishes of seventh at Mid-Ohio and ninth at Road America came after successful tests at both venues. Pigot struggled in qualifying – his best start was only 17th – but his undoubted potential and talent shown throughout all three levels of the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires is still there as he’ll prepare for a second go-’round in IndyCar.

“We are happy to have Spencer back.  It was a challenging situation for him to step into the team last year mid-season as a rookie. We believe that Spencer has the potential to be a contender in this sport and we will continue to focus on maximizing that potential,” remarked Carpenter.  “It is great to have some offseason left to allow us to continue that development before the season kicks off.  We are anticipating a strong sophomore campaign from Spencer.”

Pigot’s first IndyCar test this year will be alongside Hildebrand for a test at Sonoma Raceway on February 7.

Pigot’s official confirmation all but closes the books on the 2017 IndyCar silly season, with KVSH Racing’s future uncertain if not at an end prior to the March 12 season opener at St. Petersburg. There may be an opening in the second Schmidt Peterson Motorsports seat with Mikhail Aleshin not confirmed yet, and Mexican driver Luis Michael Dorrbecker set to test for the team in March.

NBCSN’s coverage of IndyCar will kick off on April 9 with Round 2 at Long Beach.