Perseverance, 30 years of patience pays off for Richard Petty

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NASCAR has been accused at times over the years – unfairly, I might add – of scripting the outcome of races.

In other words, the finish of certain races was predetermined – that is, if you believe the fertile imaginations of critics, naysayers and conspiracy theorists.

But even if that illogical belief were indeed true though, NASCAR couldn’t come close to writing the kind of script that led to Aric Almirola’s win in Sunday’s rain-shortened Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway.

Without question, it was the greatest weekend in Richard Petty Motorsports (and before that, Petty Enterprises) history in three decades.

Consider:

1) Team owner Richard Petty turned 77 this past Wednesday.

2) Petty earned the 200th and final Cup race of his career during this same weekend at Daytona 30 years ago in 1984. And the congratulations line couldn’t have been much better: leading best wishes for Petty’s achievement that day in-person was then-President Ronald Reagan.

3) The No. 43 had not been in victory lane since John Andretti did so in April 1999 at Martinsville, and had not been in a Daytona victory lane since The King’s 200th win.

4) Almirola has all but qualified for the Chase for the Sprint Cup, marking only the second time a Petty driver has attained that lofty goal (Kasey Kahne did so in 2010, finishing 10th in the final standings).

5) And then there’s little gem of a fact: While Petty obviously drove the majority of races, Almirola is actually the 43rd driver to drive arguably NASCAR’s most famous car number, the 43.

When he learned that in Sunday’s post-race press conference, Almirola responded simply, “No way.”

Yes, way, Aric.

The significance of what he did Sunday, even though it was in a rain-shortened event, was not lost upon Almirola.

“I’ve (now gone) to victory lane, and all the history behind the car and the race car and stuff, you know, I’m very appreciative of that and very cool – I think it’s very cool that we won on this weekend,” Almirola said. “It’s 30 years to the weekend that The King won his 200th race with the President here.  That’s really special.

“But I’m a little bit selfish and I’m more worried about the fact that I’ve won my first Cup race. It’s just so cool, and I’m so grateful for the opportunity that Richard and our owners have given us at Richard Petty Motorsports to go out and to try and be successful.

“To now be able to get them to victory lane, to be in the Chase and to be able to go race for a championship, it is really special, and our race team deserves that.”

Almirola’s win was so unexpected that Petty left the racetrack early to begin his drive back to the Charlotte area. As it turned out, Petty missed all the celebration and the ability to be there in victory lane with his driver and winning team.

Still, Petty put things in perspective in a way that only he can, calling into the media center at Daytona International Speedway to offer his thoughts on Almirola’s feat.

“Well, 30 years ago is history, okay, and today is future, today is today,” Petty said. “So to be able to win the race down there, win it for the Air Force, 4th of July, you know, the whole thing is just great.

“I just feel so good for the crew. They’ve been working; they’re like everybody else, they work hard. They’ve done this deal. We’ve had so many disappointments, and finally it rained on us, but it rained on us at the right time, okay. Overall it was just a great day for us.

“And then Marcos (Ambrose) got in a wreck or two and still wound up 10th. Richard Petty Motorsports had a pretty good day.”

Boy, that’s an understatement if there ever was one.

“But he didn’t give it up,” Almirola said of Petty. “From 1992 until today, he still comes to the racetrack pretty much every weekend. He was here this weekend and decided to go home, so I hate it that you’re not here, Boss.

“But it’s really cool to know all that history and to realize that the 43 car is without a doubt the most famous car in our sport’s history. And to have that opportunity to drive that race car has been really special from the day that I stepped foot in it.

“All I wanted to do from the very first time I drove it was get it to victory lane.  It took two and a half years, I guess, but I finally did it.”

For the most part, Richard Petty Motorsports – and before that, Petty Enterprises – had struggled for the most of the last 30 years. But in perhaps one of the most extreme examples of the saying, “Good things come to those who wait,” Petty showed Job-like patience to keep coming back race after race, season after season and decade after decade, hoping for a day like he, his family and organization all experienced Sunday.

“You’ve been around me long enough to know that I don’t never give up on anything, and like I said, might have been 30 years,” Petty said. “(The 43’s last win) was what, ’99?

“If you look back at the history and Petty Enterprises, all the turmoil we’ve been through in the last seven, eight years and all that stuff, I never give up on the thing. So it was one of those deals that I said, okay, if I keep working at it long enough, we’re going to be able to overcome all this.”

But, Petty is also a pragmatist to go along with being a realist. He knows that another 30 years of drought could start next Sunday at New Hampshire (although he’s hoping it won’t, and that Ambrose’s success continues).

“Just winning one race doesn’t overcome it,” Petty said. “Don’t get me wrong. But it puts you in a higher speed track, and you know you can do it. It proves that we can do it, the drivers know we can do it, and I think it’s just going to make it that much easier to go from here.

“Everybody has got to have a start, and I think this will get us started pretty good.”

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Vandoorne re-upped with McLaren for 2018

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Heading into his first home Grand Prix, Belgian driver Stoffel Vandoorne will continue with McLaren Honda into 2018. Perhaps more notable was the continued inclusion of Honda as well within the confirmation.

Vandoorne made his Grand Prix debut at Bahrain 2016 and scored a point filling in for Fernando Alonso. He now scored his first 2017 point last race in Hungary, ending 10th as he did in Bahrain.

The Belgian was always expected to continue and it’s been confirmed the team won’t waffle on that.

“I’m delighted that the team has now formally announced that I will continue to race for them next year, because I’ll be able to approach the second half of my rookie season with total focus on the job in hand: namely getting the very most I can out of my car, my engineers, and everything and everyone around me,” Vandoorne said.

“I’ve already learned such a huge amount in the first half of my first season in Formula 1 – from my engineers, from my mechanics, from Eric [Boullier], from Zak [Brown] and from Jonathan [Neale], and also from Fernando [Alonso], who is a brilliant driver and also an excellent team-mate.

“Last but not least, I want to say thank you to McLaren’s partners and fans for their loyalty and enthusiasm – they are the best in the business – and also to McLaren’s Executive Committee Principals, [Shaikh] Mohammed and Mansour [Ojjeh], who continue to put their faith in me.”

Boullier added, “When we announced at the end of 2016 that Stoffel would be a McLaren Honda race driver for 2017, we indicated that our plan was that he’d race for us for a number of years.

“That plan hasn’t changed, and I’m very happy therefore to be able to confirm that he’ll continue to race for us next season.

“Like all rookies, he’s had to learn a lot in the first half of his first Formula 1 season, but we have great confidence in him, and he’s getting better and better all the time. His team-mate is a tough opponent – that’s an understatement in fact, because he’s arguably the best driver in the sport today – but Stoffel’s robust talent and fierce ambition make us sure that he’ll achieve great successes with us in the future.”

Brown confirmed the multi-year number without putting a specific number down on it.

“Echoing Eric’s words, I’d like to add only that I regard Stoffel as a super talent – a future Formula 1 world champion in fact – and that’s why I’ve always been adamant that he should race for us on a multi-year basis,” he said.

“Before anyone asks me any questions about duration, we don’t want to go into that kind of confidential contractual detail, but let me put it this way: when we signed Stoffel, we intended that he would race for us for a significant number of years, and that remains our firm intention.

“We all know Stoffel’s potential, and when we have a package fast enough to win grands prix again – and we will – Stoffel will be in the right place to score his first Formula 1 victory.”

Alonso’s future, of course, remains a hot button topic set to be decided in September at the earliest.

Toro Rosso extends contract for technical director James Key

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Scuderia Toro Rosso technical director James Key will continue with the team for the foreseeable future, following a contract extension announced on Tuesday.

Key joined the team in 2012 and has seen the Faenza-based squad solidify its role in the upper midfield, with occasional surprise finishes that have pushed the team near the top three or four teams on the grid.

“I am delighted to continue with Toro Rosso and remain part of the Red Bull family,” he said. “This is a team which I have great respect for and have thoroughly enjoyed working with for the past 5 years; now I look forwards to continuing our project into the future.

“STR is unique, facing the challenges of being spread over two countries and fulfilling the roles of both a team in its own right and an important part of the Red Bull driver program: they are challenges that the team takes in its stride and, whilst doing so, continues to grow and improve year on year.

“Most importantly, the people I have had the pleasure to work with at STR are second to none: professional, ambitious and focussed, they have all worked incredibly hard to improve the team’s performance and will continue that hard work with the same dedication and optimism in the coming years too. I would like to thank Franz Tost and Red Bull for their continued support and confidence. We have more work to do, and I look forwards to taking the next steps with Toro Rosso towards our goals.”

Team principal Franz Tost added, Formula 1 is a team sport, but one in which an individual can still make a difference. So far, in his time with us, James has proved that he can indeed make that difference, leading the technical side of the operation.

“Not only has he been adept at producing chassis-aero packages that are well regarded throughout the paddock, he has also shown the management skills necessary to get the most out of all the various departments that work together both here in Faenza and in Bicester. I am therefore delighted that James will be with us for the foreseeable future to continue this fruitful process.”

Teams load up on supersoft tires for Italian GP

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There’s almost no variety in team Pirelli tire selections for the Italian Grand Prix, with nearly all teams going with two sets of softs and 10 sets of supersofts for next week’s race. All teams have selected just one set of mediums.

The only variance comes with Mercedes, Force India and Haas going with three sets of softs and nine supersofts. The rest are all the same choice, two softs and 10 supersofts.

Monza comes a week after Spa this week.

Pirelli’s tire breakdown is below.

Jackie Joyner-Kersee to serve as Gateway grand marshal

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The Verizon IndyCar Series’ return to Gateway Motorsports Park for the Bommarito Automotive Group 500 presented by Valvoline will feature quite an excellent grand marshal, in the form of three-time Olympic gold medalist Jackie Joyner-Kersee.

The full release from the track is below.

An Olympic champion has been selected to give the command to start engines for the Bommarito Automotive Group 500 presented by Valvoline comes to Gateway Motorsports Park in Madison, Illinois on August 26. Jackie Joyner-Kersee, considered to be one of the greatest athletes of all time, will serve as the grand marshal for the Verizon IndyCar Series event.

“I am humble,” said Joyner-Kersee, who is a native of East St. Louis, Illinois. “I do not take this honor for granted to be the INDYCAR race’s grand marshal at Gateway Motorsports Park. Very few people are asked to give the command and I am grateful to be one of the few. Thank you!”

Track-and-field star Joyner-Kersee has won three Olympic gold medals, as well as one silver and two bronze. She was the first American to win gold for the long jump and the first woman to earn more than 7,000 points in the seven-event heptathlon, making her the most decorated female athlete in Olympic track and field history.

As a teen, she won the National Junior Pentathlon championships for consecutive years and received widespread honors in high school in various sports, including track, basketball and volleyball. During her junior year, she set the Illinois high school long jump record for women, with a 6.68-meter jump. Joyner-Kersee attended the University of California, Los Angeles on a full scholarship and continued to gain fame on both the court and field. In 1981, at the age of 19, she began to focus on training for the Olympics, specifically for the heptathlon — an Olympic track-and-field competition comprised of seven separate events, including the 200-meter run, 800-meter run and 100-meter hurdles. She graduated from UCLA in 1985.

Joyner-Kersee won a silver medal in the heptathlon at the 1984 Summer Olympics, as well as gold and bronze medals in the long jump in 1988 and 1992, respectively, and is currently the heptathlon world record-holder.
Following her retirement from competition, she founded the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Youth Center Foundation. The mission of the foundation is to instill youth in the a Greater East St. Louis area with the dream, drive and determination necessary to succeed in academics, athletics and leadership. “Winners In Life.”

Chuck Wallis, Vice President of the Bommarito Automotive Group, will serve as honorary starter and will wave the opening green flag.