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.

NHRA at Norwalk: Torrence wins 4th race of 2017; Beckman, Butner, Tonglet also win

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Steve Torrence earned a career-best fourth Top Fuel win in a season Sunday, capturing the Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals in Norwalk, Ohio.

Meanwhile, Bo Butner (Pro Stock) and L.E. Tonglet (Pro Stock Motorcycle) captured their third wins in 2017, while Jack Beckman (Funny Car) earned his second win of the season as the NHRA wrapped up the first half of its 24-race season.

TOP FUEL: Torrence (3.743 seconds at 331.45 mph) defeated Doug Kalitta (3.736 at 331.36) in the final round. Torrence has now reached six final rounds this season over the last eight events, with a 4-2 record.

“I knew I left good on the tree but I could tell it would just be a coin toss who got it and fortunately I was able to come out ahead,” Torrence said in an NHRA media release. “It’s been a great season so far and we are hoping to keep this momentum going.”

The win also keeps Torrence No. 1 in the Top Fuel point standings.

FUNNY CAR: “Fast Jack” Beckman (4.073 seconds at 311.85 mph) earned his 26th career win over Robert Hight (6.673 seconds at 98.53 mph). Beckman has now won two of the last three races.

“We were consistently a bit off this weekend, but we are definitely happy to earn the victory this weekend,” Beckman said. “Now that we are getting down the track consistently, it keeps our opponents honest and that is definitely a formula we will continue to use for the rest of the season.”

PRO STOCK: It was a great jump at the starting line that led Butner (6.601 seconds at 210.50 mph) to defeat Greg Anderson (6.581 seconds at 210.87 mph).

“Today was a great day, we made four pretty consistent runs and my car was good when it needed to be,” said Butner, who added to his lead in the Pro Stock standings. “It’s one thing to have a good car, but we also had a lot of things go our way to get those win lights today.”

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: Tonglet (6.824 seconds at 195.76 mph) earned his 13th career PSM win, defeating Matt Smith (6.882 seconds at 195.31 mph).

“I didn’t see any win lights throughout qualifying, but seeing them on Sunday is what matters and we are happy with the results,” Tonglet said. “This is huge for us and our position in the points standings, so getting as many wins as possible is definitely our goal.”

Tonglet, who took over the points lead with the win, leads all PSM riders, having reached the final round in three of the first five races this season, and won all three of those.

The NHRA has an off-weekend coming up before returning to action July 6-9 at the Fallen Patriots NHRA Route 66 Nationals in Joliet, Illinois.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

FINAL FINISHING ORDER:

TOP FUEL: 1.  Steve Torrence; 2.  Doug Kalitta; 3.  Leah Pritchett; 4.  Brittany Force; 5.  Terry McMillen; 6.  Clay Millican; 7.  Tony Schumacher; 8.  Antron Brown; 9.  Shawn Langdon; 10.  Dom Lagana; 11.  Pat Dakin; 12.  Mike Salinas; 13.  Ike Maier; 14.  Troy Buff; 15.  Troy Coughlin Jr.; 16.  Scott Palmer.

FUNNY CAR: 1.  Jack Beckman; 2.  Robert Hight; 3.  Bob Tasca III; 4.  Tommy Johnson Jr.; 5.  Ron Capps; 6.  John Force; 7.  Matt Hagan; 8.  Alexis DeJoria; 9.  J.R. Todd; 10.  Jim Campbell; 11.  Cruz Pedregon; 12.  Del Worsham; 13.  Jonnie Lindberg; 14.  Jeff Diehl; 15.  Dale Creasy Jr.; 16.  Tim Wilkerson.

PRO STOCK: 1.  Bo Butner; 2.  Greg Anderson; 3.  Jason Line; 4.  John Gaydosh Jr; 5.  Tanner Gray; 6.  Vincent Nobile; 7.  Jeg Coughlin; 8.  Allen Johnson; 9.  Erica Enders; 10.  Chris McGaha; 11.  Alex Laughlin; 12.  Val Smeland; 13.  Mark Hogan; 14.  Drew Skillman; 15.  Kenny Delco; 16.  Alan Prusiensky.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: 1.  LE Tonglet; 2.  Matt Smith; 3.  Hector Arana Jr; 4.  Scotty Pollacheck; 5.  Joey Gladstone; 6.  Mike Berry; 7.  Andrew Hines; 8.  Steve Johnson; 9.  Chip Ellis; 10.  Eddie Krawiec; 11.  Karen Stoffer; 12.  Cory Reed; 13.  Joe DeSantis; 14.  Angelle Sampey; 15.  Melissa Surber; 16.  Angie Smith.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

FINAL RESULTS:

TOP FUEL: Steve Torrence, 3.743 seconds, 331.45 mph  def. Doug Kalitta, 3.736 seconds, 331.36 mph.

FUNNY CAR: Jack Beckman, Dodge Charger, 4.073, 311.85  def. Robert Hight, Chevy Camaro, 6.673, 98.53.

PRO STOCK: Bo Butner, Chevy Camaro, 6.601, 210.50  def. Greg Anderson, Camaro, 6.581, 210.87.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: LE Tonglet, Suzuki, 6.824, 195.76  def. Matt Smith, Victory, 6.882, 195.31.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

FINAL ROUND-BY-ROUND RESULTS: 

TOP FUEL: ROUND ONE — Clay Millican, 3.775, 311.63 def. Scott Palmer, Broke; Leah Pritchett, 3.760, 324.12 def. Ike Maier, 8.295, 105.60; Steve Torrence, 3.786, 326.32 def. Troy Coughlin Jr., 8.501, 87.48; Brittany Force, 3.772, 324.98 def. Pat Dakin, 3.832, 293.60; Doug Kalitta, 3.749, 329.99 def. Troy Buff, 8.421, 82.77; Antron Brown, 3.768, 323.35 def. Dom Lagana, 3.828, 322.34; Terry McMillen, 3.806, 323.04 def. Shawn Langdon, 3.787, 324.90; Tony Schumacher, 3.789, 326.56 def. Mike Salinas, 7.129, 96.03;

QUARTERFINALS — Torrence, 3.792, 326.79 def. Millican, 3.872, 312.86; Force, 3.808, 325.53 def. McMillen, 3.859, 291.32; Pritchett, 3.848, 322.04 def. Brown, 5.187, 142.16; Kalitta, 3.782, 325.85 def. Schumacher, 4.099, 232.03;

SEMIFINALS — Torrence, 3.751, 326.08 def. Force, 8.630, 75.66; Kalitta, 3.768, 328.62 def. Pritchett, 3.800, 314.46;

FINAL — Torrence, 3.743, 331.45 def. Kalitta, 3.736, 331.36.

FUNNY CAR: ROUND ONE — Ron Capps, Dodge Charger, 3.993, 310.27 def. Jonnie Lindberg, Toyota Camry, 8.596, 84.51; Robert Hight, Chevy Camaro, 3.913, 329.75 def. Jim Campbell, Charger, 4.101, 307.65; Matt Hagan, Charger, 4.349, 216.62 def. Jeff Diehl, Toyota Solara, 14.165, 61.22; John Force, Camaro, 3.930, 326.32 def. Dale Creasy Jr., Charger, Broke; Tommy Johnson Jr., Charger, 3.942, 322.34 def. J.R. Todd, Camry, 4.032, 318.69; Bob Tasca III, Ford Mustang, 3.944, 326.56 def. Tim Wilkerson, Mustang, Foul – Centerline; Alexis DeJoria, Camry, 3.972, 324.75 def. Del Worsham, Camry, 7.528, 98.54; Jack Beckman, Charger, 4.060, 319.82 def. Cruz Pedregon, Camry, 4.180, 266.11;

QUARTERFINALS — Johnson Jr., 3.960, 324.44 def. Capps, 3.965, 324.83; Hight, 3.978, 321.73 def. DeJoria, 4.741, 180.16; Tasca III, 4.006, 323.58 def. J. Force, 4.047, 301.00; Beckman, 4.078, 310.84 def. Hagan, 4.152, 275.06;

SEMIFINALS — Beckman, 4.074, 319.45 def. Johnson Jr., 6.049, 118.22; Hight, 3.925, 328.62 def. Tasca III, Foul – Red Light;

FINAL — Beckman, 4.073, 311.85 def. Hight, 6.673, 98.53.

PRO STOCK: ROUND ONE — Allen Johnson, Dodge Dart, 6.627, 209.43 def. Chris McGaha, Chevy Camaro, Foul – Red Light; Vincent Nobile, Camaro, 6.595, 210.37 def. Erica Enders, Camaro, Foul – Red Light; Jeg Coughlin, Camaro, 6.567, 210.64 def. Alex Laughlin, Camaro, 6.676, 209.26; Jason Line, Camaro, 6.562, 210.50 def. Alan Prusiensky, Dart, 14.694, 58.11; Tanner Gray, Camaro, 6.558, 210.64 def. Kenny Delco, Camaro, 7.790, 130.97; Bo Butner, Camaro, 6.579, 210.70 def. Val Smeland, Camaro, 6.759, 198.76; Greg Anderson, Camaro, 6.570, 211.16 def. Mark Hogan, Pontiac GXP, 6.814, 203.52; John Gaydosh Jr, Chevrolet Camaro, 6.663, 208.01 def. Drew Skillman, Camaro, 7.212, 149.95;

QUARTERFINALS — Butner, 6.615, 210.73 def. Nobile, 6.687, 209.95; Anderson, 6.597, 210.90 def. Johnson, Foul – Red Light; Gaydosh Jr, 6.695, 207.18 def. Coughlin, 12.760, 68.65; Line, 6.585, 211.33 def. Gray, 6.599, 210.77;

SEMIFINALS — Butner, 6.606, 210.34 def. Gaydosh Jr, 6.701, 207.50; Anderson, 6.599, 210.80 def. Line, Foul – Red Light;

FINAL — Butner, 6.601, 210.50 def. Anderson, 6.581, 210.87.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: ROUND ONE — Mike Berry, Buell, 6.950, 192.22 def. Cory Reed, 6.991, 189.31; Scotty Pollacheck, Suzuki, 6.924, 193.43 def. Angelle Sampey, Foul – Red Light; LE Tonglet, Suzuki, 6.853, 195.25 def. Melissa Surber, Buell, 22.220, 24.02; Steve Johnson, Suzuki, 6.907, 193.74 def. Chip Ellis, Buell, 6.890, 193.93; Joey Gladstone, Suzuki, 6.880, 194.80 def. Eddie Krawiec, Harley-Davidson, 6.915, 195.96; Andrew Hines, Harley-Davidson, 6.910, 196.13 def. Angie Smith, Buell, Broke; Hector Arana Jr, Buell, 6.867, 194.69 def. Karen Stoffer, Suzuki, 6.924, 193.16; Matt Smith, 6.849, 196.27 def. Joe DeSantis, Suzuki, Foul – Red Light;

QUARTERFINALS — Pollacheck, 6.905, 194.46 def. Gladstone, 6.904, 193.49; Arana Jr, 6.846, 197.36 def. Hines, 6.925, 193.02; Tonglet, 6.823, 196.22 def. Johnson, 6.962, 182.72; M. Smith, 6.876, 196.50 def. Berry, 6.916, 192.77;

SEMIFINALS — M. Smith, 6.872, 195.48 def. Pollacheck, 6.969, 186.30; Tonglet, 6.831, 195.08 def. Arana Jr, 6.863, 195.22;

FINAL — Tonglet, 6.824, 195.76 def. M. Smith, 6.882, 195.31.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

POINT STANDINGS AFTER NORWALK:

TOP FUEL: 1.  Steve Torrence, 1,071; 2.  Leah Pritchett, 1,021; 3.  Antron Brown, 990; 4.  Tony Schumacher, 856; 5.  Doug Kalitta, 781; 6.  Brittany Force, 734; 7.  Clay Millican, 695; 8.  Terry McMillen, 477; 9.  (tie) Troy Coughlin Jr., 464; Scott Palmer, 464.

FUNNY CAR: 1.  Ron Capps, 1,095; 2.  Matt Hagan, 946; 3.  Jack Beckman, 855; 4.  Robert Hight, 809; 5.  Tommy Johnson Jr., 739; 6.  Courtney Force, 714; 7.  John Force, 683; 8.  Tim Wilkerson, 525; 9.  J.R. Todd, 508; 10.  Cruz Pedregon, 431.

PRO STOCK: 1.  Bo Butner, 1,067; 2.  Greg Anderson, 941; 3.  Tanner Gray, 887; 4.  Jeg Coughlin, 820; 5.  Jason Line, 781; 6.  Erica Enders, 690; 7.  Vincent Nobile, 670; 8.  Drew Skillman, 575; 9.  Chris McGaha, 454; 10.  Allen Johnson, 448.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: 1.  LE Tonglet, 480; 2.  Eddie Krawiec, 389; 3.  Scotty Pollacheck, 325; 4.  Jerry Savoie, 322; 5.  Andrew Hines, 317; 6.  Hector Arana Jr, 314; 7.  Joey Gladstone, 278; 8.  Matt Smith, 256; 9.  Steve Johnson, 219; 10.  Karen Stoffer, 217.

 

Penske drivers lament missed victory at Road America (VIDEO)

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Team Penske dominated the entire Kohler Grand Prix weekend at Road America, twice going 1-2-3-4 over the three practice sessions on Friday and Saturday and then doing the same in qualifying, with Helio Castroneves taking pole from Will Power, Josef Newgarden, and Simon Pagenaud.

However, race day represented a missed opportunity. Though Castroneves led early, it was Newgarden who emerged as their best hope for victory following a spectacular outside pass on Castroneves entering turn 1 on lap 19. That put Newgarden in the lead, and he seemed to be in full control.

Still, Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon had been stalking the Penske foursome all race long, and sat behind Newgarden in second for a lap 30 restart. With Newgarden on primary blacks and Dixon on alternate reds, Newgarden was somewhat of a sitting duck, and Dixon muscled his way into the lead with an equally spectacular outside pass in turn 1, with Newgarden briefly falling to third behind teammate Castroneves.

Josef Newgarden led several laps, but could not find his way around Dixon for the win. Photo: IndyCar

Although Newgarden regrouped, overtook Castroneves during the final pit stop sequence, and closed to within a second following a restart with seven laps remaining, he was never close enough to make a move for the win.

Even though the Team Penske drivers all finished in the top five, going 2-3-4-5 with Newgarden leading Castroneves, Pagenaud, and Power, missing out on victory was a bitter pill to swallow.

“It stings a little bit coming home second when you feel like you have a winning car,” Newgarden revealed in the post-race press conference.

He added that an ill-timed lap 28 caution for a spinning Takuma Sato ultimately put paid his chances of victory. “The caution didn’t fall our way. You can’t predict that stuff. It hurts when it comes at the wrong time. That’s pretty much what happened today. With (Tim Cindric calling the strategy), I feel confident with all our decisions, everything those guys do on the pit box. Things just didn’t fall our way today.”

For Castroneves, a slight error before his final pit stop saw him pit earlier than the team wanted, due to an alarm that went off in the cockpit. However, as he explained to NBCSN’s Marty Snider, it was of little consequence to the outcome of the race.

“We mentioned in the debrief that if in turn 14, the blue lights come on, you are to come right away. So I came in. I am sure they had a little buffer, and they knew what exactly was going on. (Race engineer Jonathan Diuguid) said keep going but I couldn’t quite understand him. But at the end of the day it didn’t cost us anything in terms of a win or second place.”

Still, the strong results see Pagenaud and Castroneves sit second and third in the championship, while Newgarden and Power sit fifth and sixth, respectively.

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F1 Paddock Pass: Azerbaijan Grand Prix post-race (VIDEO)

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One of the crazier, most eventful Formula 1 races in recent memory took place at the Baku City Circuit today in Azerbajian.

That makes it a challenge to recap but it’s something NBCSN F1 pit reporter and insider Will Buxton, along with producer Jason Swales, attempt to do in the latest post-race edition of the NBC Sports Group original digital series, Paddock Pass.

You can see it below. Thursday’s pre-race edition is linked here. A full roundup of Sunday videos from Baku is linked here.

 

Bottas gives everything in Baku fightback from a lap down to P2

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Valtteri Bottas says he “gave it absolutely everything” after falling a lap down and running last early on in Sunday’s Formula 1 race in Baku before fighting back to finish second for Mercedes.

Bottas qualified second for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix behind teammate Lewis Hamilton, but dropped back after contact with Kimi Raikkonen at Turn 2 on the opening lap, sustaining a puncture.

Bottas fell a lap down on the field immediately, but was waved past and able to get back onto the lead lap during the first safety car period.

From there, Bottas produced a stunning fightback, dodging the minefield of incidents through the race to eventually cross the line second after a drag race to the checkered flag with Williams’ Lance Stroll.

“Today was a crazy race, especially for me. I had a puncture on the first lap after the contact with Kimi on Lap 1,” Bottas said.

“I was a lap down, then had to overtake the field under the Safety Car. The second Safety Car after that really helped me out and, step by step, I moved forward from there.

“My main goal today was to fight for the win but that went out of the window after the first lap. I was actually last at one point, but I got my head down, gave it absolutely everything and tried to get the absolute maximum out of every single corner.

“We didn’t quite manage to win but P2 from where we were is a great feeling. Importantly for the team, we scored more points in the fight with Ferrari and I got some good points for myself as well.”

Bottas ultimately finished as Mercedes’ lead driver following Lewis Hamilton’s second pit stop when his headrest came loose, resigning the Briton to fifth place at the checkered flag.