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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.


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.”

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

MotorSportsTalk’s Predictions: 2016 Mexican GP

MEXICO CITY, MEXICO - OCTOBER 27:  Daniel Ricciardo of Australia and Red Bull Racing and Max Verstappen of Netherlands and Red Bull Racing arrive at the circuit in full Dia de Muertos face paint during previews to the Formula One Grand Prix of Mexico at Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez on October 27, 2016 in Mexico City, Mexico.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Formula 1 returns to Mexico this weekend with memories of last year’s exuberant event still fresh and the championship battle finely poised.

Nico Rosberg may have lost out to Mercedes teammate and title rival Lewis Hamilton last weekend in Austin, Texas, but the German is still 26 points clear heading to Mexico City.

Rosberg can mathematically win the championship this Sunday, but needs Hamilton not to score and would have to win the race himself.

What can we expect in Mexico this weekend? MST F1 writers Luke Smith and Tony DiZinno make their picks.

Luke Smith (@LukeSmithF1)

Race Winner: Lewis Hamilton. Hamilton was effortless flawless in Austin. I’ll say he’ll carry that form through to Mexico on Sunday and tick another track off his win list.

Surprise Finish: Sergio Perez. While I doubt Perez can hit the podium, I reckon he could get among the Ferrari drivers and take home another top five finish for Force India on home soil.

Most to Prove: Esteban Gutierrez. At his first home grand prix weekend, Gutierrez needs to impress as he bids to remain with Haas for 2017.

Additional Storyline: Rosberg’s approach. Will Rosberg play things safe in Mexico? Or could he try and finish what he started with a 10th victory of the season? Keep an eye on his on-track attitude.

Predict the Podium

1. Lewis Hamilton Mercedes
2. Nico Rosberg Mercedes
3. Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull

Tony DiZinno (@tonydizinno)

Race Winner: Lewis Hamilton. It may not matter for the championship if Nico Rosberg finishes second but thanks to his on-form weekend in Austin, I think Hamilton can carry the momentum to Mexico and add this circuit to his tally of victories. A win here would tie him with Alain Prost for second all-time on 51.

Surprise Finish: Sergio Perez. Going to peg the Mexican for at least a top-five finish on home soil in Mexico City. A Mercedes-powered Williams got on the podium here last year, and I’m going to be so bold as to see Perez scores P3 here thanks to some abnormal circumstances taking the Red Bulls and Ferraris from podium contention.

Most to Prove: Renault’s current pair. I wrote the same last week, but after both Kevin Magnussen and Jolyon Palmer had a weekend to forget in Austin, either or both of them need to step up this weekend. Problem here is, it will be extra difficult considering neither raced here last year.

Additional Storyline: Mexico year two. Much as we always look at how COTA does year-on-year, will Mexico’s second outing of its return to the calendar feature the same festive crowd, atmosphere and presence or will there be a drop off?

Predict the Podium

1. Lewis Hamilton Mercedes
2. Nico Rosberg Mercedes
3. Sergio Perez Force India

Aoyama to replace injured Pedrosa for Malaysia MotoGP round

MOTEGI, JAPAN - OCTOBER 15:   Hiroshi Aoyama of Japan and Repsol Honda Team (rides in place of Dani pedrosa of Spain) heads down a straight during the practice during the MotoGP of Japan - Qualifying at Twin Ring Motegi on October 15, 2016 in Motegi, Japan.  (Photo by Mirco Lazzari gp/Getty Images)
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Honda test rider Hiroshi Aoyama will return to the MotoGP grid this weekend in Malaysia, deputizing for the injured Dani Pedrosa.

Pedrosa sustained a fractured collarbone after crashing during practice for the Japanese Grand Prix, with Aoyama stepping in for the remainder of the weekend at Motegi. The Japanese rider finished 15th, scoring one point.

American rider Nicky Hayden stood in last weekend in Australia, but is unable to race in Malaysia due to a clash with the World Superbike Championship. As a result, Aoyama will return for the race weekend at the Sepang International Circuit.

“I’m very glad to have the chance to ride for the Repsol Honda Team again, as in Japan it was a bit challenging to start Saturday morning from FP3, to adapt to the bike and to try and find my rhythm,” Aoyama said.

“I hope this time things will work out well and I can find a good feeling with the bike since the beginning. All of us wish for Dani coming back soon, but until he is recovered I’ll do my best for Honda and for the Repsol Honda Team.

“Tuesday was my 35th birthday and I’m simply happy to be here in Malaysia, which is a country I particularly like and I look forward to enjoy racing at the Sepang Circuit.”

Rosberg focused on winning the race, not the championship, in Mexico

MEXICO CITY, MEXICO - OCTOBER 27:  Nico Rosberg of Germany and Mercedes GP talks in the Drivers Press Conference during previews to the Formula One Grand Prix of Mexico at Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez on October 27, 2016 in Mexico City, Mexico.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Nico Rosberg insists that he is only focused on winning the race and not the championship this weekend when Formula 1 visits Mexico City.

Rosberg is able to clinch his maiden F1 drivers’ championship this Sunday in Mexico, but only if he wins the race and Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton fails to score any points.

The German has long insisted that he is approaching the championship on a race by race basis, and won’t change that stance in Mexico.

“I’m well aware of that,” Rosberg said when reminded he could win the title on Sunday.

“It’s been a great season so far which has put me in this position. It’s exciting to be in this championship battle with Lewis towards the end of the season.

“For me, my way of achieving the best possible result is to focus on the things that are in my control. In Mexico, that’s winning the race.

“For the championship, it’s not really in my control if I get it this weekend. It’s about winning the race and then see what happens.”

Rosberg maintained the approach when asked what winning the world championship would mean to him.

“It’s a childhood dream. But that’s where it ends for me,” Rosberg said.

“For me important this weekend is winning the Mexican GP.”

Rosberg was also asked about F1 CEO Bernie Ecclestone’s suggestion over the United States Grand Prix weekend that the German winning the title would not be as good for F1 as if Hamilton won it.

“I spoke to him personally and he said that’s not exactly the way he said it,” Rosberg said.

“But for me it’s not something that’s important to me. I focus on my thing. That’s it.”

Rosberg won last year’s grand prix in Mexico when F1 returned after 23-year hiatus, and is relishing the opportunity to race in front of a passionate home crowd.

“I have great memories from here last year, winning here was awesome,” Rosberg said.

“The podium is one of the best in the year in the baseball stadium, it was absolutely phenomenal.”

Red Bull’s ‘Mad Max’ Verstappen adds flair and drama to F1

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 23: Max Verstappen of Netherlands and Red Bull Racing sits in his car in the garage before 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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It’s been a wild season for young Max Verstappen.

The talented Dutch teenager has been promoted to Red Bull, become the youngest winner in Formula One history and bickered with some of the top teams and drivers in the sport. His aggressive tactics have even prompted a rules clarification for safety.

“Mad Max” is brash, won’t be intimidated and to many, he’s a much-needed dose of excitement for Formula One and a future champion. The kid seized on his chance to be fast and famous and won’t let go.

“Why wait?” Verstappen said. “I have a great car, a great team, and I want it all as quickly as possible.”

Verstappen is squeezing everything he can into this season as Formula One races this week in Mexico City. At the U.S. Grand Prix in Texas last week, Verstappen provided days of drama worthy of a 19-year-old still learning how to navigate a grown-up sport.

The teams had barely left Japan two weeks earlier when Mercedes considered, then opted not to file a complaint over his defensive moves against Lewis Hamilton in a braking zone. Verstappen finished second and Hamilton’s third-place finish pushed him further back in the 2016 title chase against teammate Nico Rosberg.

By the time drivers got to Austin, several used their Friday meeting to complain about their precocious rival. Having heard similar comments several times this season, Formula One officials issued a rule clarification: blocking during braking would be deemed illegal and punished. It took about 10 minutes for the media to call it the “Verstappen Rule.”

He shrugged.

“Maybe they can get past (me), now,” Verstappen said.

Conflicts have also flared in the Red Bull garage.

After getting an early warning during the race to save his tires, Verstappen barked over his car radio that he’s “not here to finish fourth!” A few laps later, he mistakenly went into a pit stop without a team order. He was out of the race a few laps later with a gearbox problem.

Even that disrupted teammate Daniel Ricciardo. Unable to race but still mobile, Verstappen tried to nurse his car around the track before he eventually pulled over and stopped. That brought out a yellow flag, which meant Ricciardo lost valuable time in his battle for second with Rosberg. Ricciardo finished third.

“When I saw Max out there, I thought, ‘Ah hell, my boy’s done it again.’ That was a devastating moment, but we’ll keep soldiering on,” Ricciardo said.

Team leadership was not amused.

“We have 80 engineers and strategists, but it’s all useless if a driver decides alone to come into the pits,” Red Bull racing consultant Helmut Marko told Autoweek.

Verstappen is the son of race driver Jos Verstappen, who made 106 career Formula One starts, and his talent caught a lot of attention from teams growing up. Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff tried to sign Verstappen when he was 14 before Red Bull snagged him.

Wolff, whose drivers are chasing each other for the team’s third consecutive championship, has alternately called Verstappen “refreshing” and “dangerous” and has even compared him to Formula One’s revered Ayrton Senna.

“He comes in here with no fear, no respect, puts the elbows out,” Wolff said earlier this season.

That approach has worn thin on some teams, most notably Ferrari and its two former world champion drivers Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen. Raikkonen has warned Verstappen could cause a “massive accident” with his driving.

But Verstappen’s critics have done most of their shouting at him from the rear. Before his car failed him in Texas, Verstappen finished second in Malaysia and Japan. His five podium finishes in the last 10 races are three more than Vettel and Raikkonen combined.

And back in Spain, when the Mercedes cars knocked each other out in a first-lap crash, Verstappen leaped to the front and doggedly held off Raikkonen for his first career victory in his first race for Red Bull.

Verstappen drives with swagger and a win Sunday in Mexico would come on his 20th birthday. His critics have done little damage to his confidence or skills behind the wheel.

“No,” Verstappen said. “I am a grown-up boy.”