Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Now what for Dale Jr., Rahal after National Guard withdrawal?

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It didn’t take a rocket scientist to know this was coming, but it still doesn’t soften the blow.

The loss of the National Guard sponsorship for both Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet in NASCAR, and Graham Rahal’s No. 15 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda in IndyCar is both troubling and a sign of the times in terms of how fragile racing sponsorships can be.

We’ll start with the 88 car. Consider you have NASCAR’s most popular driver, riding the wave of momentum this year with what’s been by far his best ever season at Hendrick Motorsports and best overall since 2004 – when he won six races and contended for the title down to the wire.

Hendrick now has to sell the 20 races the Guard sponsored, which sounds easy in theory but not necessarily execution. There have been a handful of unsold races along the way for the 88 this year and last; while they’ve eventually been filled, it is still an exercise in pounding the pavement and convincing companies the car needs to be sponsored.

For 2015, Junior has Nationwide Insurance (12 races), PepsiCo (5) and Kelley Blue Book (1) locked in. So as of August 2014 – the time when many Fortune 500 companies are beginning or finalizing their marketing and sponsorship budgets for the following season – it’s likely going to take finding several other companies to fill the remaining 19 points races.

The catch, of course, is that the Hendrick Motorsports statement said the Guard plans to continue in 2015 – so figuring out whether that holds true or the “Guard draws down after 2014” prospect becomes the reality is a question mark on that side.

While filling the void on the 88 might take time, Earnhardt Jr. is still a more sellable asset than Rahal, who at 25 should be one of IndyCar’s most popular drivers but hasn’t quite had it all click.

Rahal, the driver, has failed to recapture the heights he achieved as a then 20-year-old in 2009 with Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing, when he often troubled the Ganassi and Penske squads at the front of the field. A year of taking part-time opportunities, two midlevel years with Ganassi of his own and a homecoming to his dad’s team a year ago have yielded little – he’s only had six podium finishes in the last five seasons (three in 2011, one apiece in 2012, 2013 and 2014).

source: Getty Images
Second at Detroit only podium for GR this year. Photo: Getty Images

The National Guard sponsorship only got awarded to RLL after a legal battle with John Barnes of Panther Racing, who submitted a higher bid that was ultimately rejected. Panther, unfortunately for its crew, was unable to make the grid in 2014, and thus the series lost another car.

I can’t imagine when RLL worked tirelessly throughout the offseason to capture the Guard support that they thought it would have only been for one year. That’s a royal kick in the pants for a team that added a sponsor and added depth in engineering (Bill Pappas) to support Rahal’s 2014 season.

My hope for RLL is that they weren’t blindsided with this news, and that they have another backup plan ready to replace the $12 million in overall funding brought both to the team and to the at-track activation.

And if there is an upside for RLL, it’s that Bobby Rahal has been in this position before, of needing to find sponsors to replace ones that have left him and his team in the lurch.

Consider just in the last six years, Ethanol, Service Central/Midas/Big O Tires and Acorn Stairlifts have all adorned but now left RLL. Others such as Shell, Miller, Argent, Pioneer and Gigante/Office Depot have all passed through the RLL sponsor arena and have since left IndyCar entirely.

After 2008, RLL had to withdraw from IndyCar full-time once Ethanol pulled out, and Takuma Sato’s 2012 effort was run on a relative shoestring budget without a major sponsor. Still, Sato damn near won the Indianapolis 500 that year.

Perhaps there was a perception issue of the Guard’s presence in motorsports; perhaps the Guard did more than what was reported and that the government never really “got it.” Consider this insight from Kurt Busch’s girlfriend, Patricia Driscoll, founder of the Armed Forces Foundation:

Alas, what this withdrawal means is twofold: BIG money in American racing is an endangered species, and no sponsorship is safe.

When you combine the fact the Guard spent more than $40 million this year on its two racing sponsorships and activation/marketing, you have to realize that’s an unsustainable number for any company to support in modern day motorsports. The fact this is a government sponsorship only adds to the perception that it’s a wasted, sunk cost.

Second, when a driver as popular as Dale Jr. is set to lose one of his biggest sponsors, it’s a troublesome sign. The business model in NASCAR is at the point where it almost has to change to make sense. You can guarantee the Race Team Alliance is taking notice of this fact.

Where both the 88 and the 15 go from here is anyone’s guess, but they both have been put on notice by this drawdown.

Hamilton takes initial 15-place grid drop at Spa

SPA, BELGIUM - AUGUST 26: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo on track during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Belgium at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps on August 26, 2016 in Spa, Belgium.  (Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images)
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Lewis Hamilton has taken an initial 15-place grid penalty for this weekend’s Formula 1 race in Belgium after exceeding the number of permitted power unit components for the season.

Issues in the early races of 2016 meant a grid drop was inevitable for Hamilton later in the year, given that drivers are limited to using five of each power unit component across the course of the season.

Hamilton confirmed on Thursday that he would be taking his grid drop in Spa in the hope that further penalties could be avoided later in the season.

Mercedes announced during first practice on Friday that both Hamilton and teammate Nico Rosberg had taken fresh power units for the race weekend.

“Fresh power units this morning for both Lewis and Nico,” a team spokesperson confirmed. “For Lewis this comprises ICE 4, MGU-K 4, MGU-H 6 and TC 6. This incurs a 15-place grid penalty.

“For Nico, it is his fourth of all those items.”

It is feasible that Mercedes will take additional new components for Hamilton before the race on Sunday, meaning his 15-place grid drop may grow.

However, both Marcus Ericsson (10 places) and Fernando Alonso (35) are also set to take grid drops after also exceeding the five component limit, meaning Hamilton may not start last.

Nevertheless, the advantage does lie firmly with title rival Rosberg heading into the race weekend as the German looks to cut the 19-point gap to his teammate.

Rosberg quickest in Belgium FP1 as Halo gets further tests

SPA, BELGIUM - AUGUST 26: Nico Rosberg of Germany driving the (6) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo fitted with the halo on track during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Belgium at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps on August 26, 2016 in Spa, Belgium.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Nico Rosberg marked Formula 1’s return from its summer break by topping the opening practice session for the Belgian Grand Prix on Friday morning.

Rosberg spent the first part of the session testing the ‘Halo’ cockpit protection device, which is going through further evaluation ahead of a possible introduction for 2018.

The Halo has previously been used only on one-lap runs, but Rosberg completed an extended stretch to aid in giving feedback. Nico Hulkenberg, Carlos Sainz Jr. and Daniel Ricciardo also lapped using the Halo in the early part of the session.

With the Halo fitted and super-soft tires on the car, Rosberg recorded a fastest lap time of 1:48.348 during the 90-minute session to finish three-quarters of a second clear at the top of the timesheets, heading up a Mercedes one-two.

Lewis Hamilton finished second in the sister W07 Hybrid, but is already on the back foot after Mercedes confirmed that he will take a 15-place grid penalty for Sunday’s race.

Kimi Raikkonen was the best of the rest for Ferrari, finishing third ahead of Force India’s Sergio Perez. Sebastian Vettel was fifth in the second Ferrari ahead of the Red Bull duo of Ricciardo and Max Verstappen, who is set to enjoy a sizeable amount of support this weekend thanks to the large number of fans making the trip from his native Netherlands to Belgium.

Nico Hulkenberg finished eighth in the second Force India ahead of Williams’ Valtteri Bottas, while Esteban Gutierrez made a strong start to the weekend to finish P10.

Ocon hopes to emulate Verstappen as he prepares for F1 debut

SPA, BELGIUM - AUGUST 25: Esteban Ocon of France and Manor Racing talks to the media during previews ahead of the Formula One Grand Prix of Belgium at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps on August 25, 2016 in Spa, Belgium.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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SPA-FRANCORCHAMPS, Belgium (AP) A month before his 20th birthday, Frenchman Esteban Ocon will make his Formula One debut for the Manor team at this weekend’s Belgian Grand Prix.

The 18-year-old Dutch driver Max Verstappen – his former rival – will be competing in his 32nd GP, already has four podiums to his name and is the youngest driver to win an F1 race.

That makes him an easy person for Ocon to look up to as he looks to make his own mark in F1.

“Age is just a number at the end. You have to show you are capable of driving in F1 and show it to the right people,” Ocon said Thursday. “I think that’s the most important thing. You have to deliver like Max did and that’s the target for me as well.”

When Ocon won the European Formula 3 championship in 2014, Verstappen finished behind him in third place.

Their paths then split.

Verstappen was fast-tracked to F1 last year with Toro Rosso before replacing Russian Daniil Kvyat at Red Bull after four races this season.

Verstappen paid back that faith with a brilliant drive to win the Spanish GP in May in his first race for Red Bull, and then finished second in Austria and Britain before taking third place at the German GP in the last race before the summer break.

His advice for Ocon is pretty simple.

“Just jump in the car and go out and drive as fast as you can,” Verstappen said.

Easier said than done, because few drivers have Verstappen’s level of confidence, even given his young age.

Ocon began this year racing for Mercedes in Germany’s DTM touring car championship and was a reserve driver for the Renault F1 team.

Things quickly changed two weeks ago, when Manor terminated Rio Haryanto’s contract – having run out of patience with his sponsors – and replaced the Indonesian driver with Ocon for the remainder of the season.

Ocon fully intends to take his chance.

“I had the best preparation I could have got,” he said. “It’s great to start in Spa. It’s a track that I know, so it will help me get up to speed.”

Ocon is considered a strong candidate for a race seat at Renault next year, particularly with speculation surrounding the future of Danish driver Kevin Magnussen.

Before that, however, he hopes to pick up some tips from his Manor teammate Pascal Wehrlein, a 21-year-old German who will be racing in only his 13th GP.

“He’s a great driver and he has been quick throughout the whole season,” Ocon said.

IndyCar: Delayed Texas race leaves Gabby Chaves in a good position

Gabby Chaves is ready to go in the resumption of the IndyCar race at Texas this Saturday.
(Photo: IndyCar/Joe Skibinski)
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Some people look at the glass half-empty, others look at it half-full.

And then there’s Verizon IndyCar Series driver Gabby Chaves – he’s looking at the glass totally full, as he’s back in action for the first time since Iowa on July 10.

As IndyCar returns to Texas Motor Speedway this Saturday to complete the race that was suspended June 12 due to weather, Chaves put the 2 ½ month delay in one of the best perspectives we’ve seen or heard this week.

While some drivers aren’t necessarily happy that the series had to go back to TMS for a re-do of sorts – picking up on Lap 72 when the scheduled 248-lap race restarts – it feels a lot longer to Chaves.

“I went into this race at 22 years old and I’ll finish it at 23, so hopefully that will be some good luck,” Chaves said.

So, the driver of the No. 19 Boy Scouts of America Honda of Dale Coyne Racing will make his seventh start of the season. His two best showings thus far have been close to top-10s: 12th and 13th in both Belle Isle races.

In his most recent race, at Iowa, he finished 17th.

But Chaves has high hopes for the return to Texas – even if he’s a year older since the last time he was there (birthday was July 7). If you see him licking his lips, it’s because he’s thirsty for a win and if things go the way he hopes, that’s a definite possibility.

When the race was red-flagged after 71 laps on June 12 (after the original scheduled race on June 11 was, alas, rained out), Chaves was running sixth in the 22-car field.

So, that’s where he’ll start when the race resumes this Saturday. And even though he’s endured a lengthy hiatus, just like every one of the other 21 drivers in the race, Chaves is ready to potentially save his best for last – the last oval race of the season, that is.

“We’re definitely in a position where we can actually go for the win,” Chaves said. “So, I’m very excited and very much looking forward to finishing out the oval calendar on a very high note for the team and myself.

“It’s always tricky to get back in the car, especially that we will only have 10 minutes to get sorted and get running before going straight into the race.

“You have to be committed and trust in the abilities that you have and trust in what the team gives you and that’s what I’ll be doing.”

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