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Dale Earnhardt Jr. on Tony Stewart’s return to racing: ‘I’m sure that’s where he wants to be’

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HAMPTON, Ga. – Dale Earnhardt Jr. joined the chorus of voices welcoming Tony Stewart back to racing this weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Shortly after Kevin Harvick won Saturday night’s Great Clips 300 NASCAR Nationwide Series race in a JR Motorsports car, Earnhardt spoke in a subdued voice about Stewart and all that has happened since the Aug. 9 incident that claimed the life of young sprint car driver Kevin Ward Jr.

“I just can’t imagine what the situation must be like,” Earnhardt said, “so it’s very difficult for me to comment on it or have an opinion about it because it’s just so overwhelming and so unthinkable.

“To be in his shoes, I can’t even imagine what it must be like to try to come back or try to show up and try to compete.”

But there’s no question Earnhardt is happy to see his good friend back.

“I’m glad he’s back and it’s fun seeing him back out in the car in practice,” Earnhardt said.

Earnhardt echoed comments made Friday from Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon about Stewart’s return.

“One of the things that I did read was Jeff’s comments that Tony belongs at the track,” Earnhardt said. “I can only imagine that being here and being back to work and talking about race cars and working on his car and going through the process of the weekend is probably the best medicine.”

Earnhardt hopes to have an in-depth conversation with Stewart when the time is right, but for now is maintaining a distance and respecting Stewart’s space.

“I saw some quotes from his press conference where he said he’d be affected by this for the rest of his life and he’ll have to carry that to the end,” Earnhardt said. “But, I like him as a competitor and we’ve been friends for many, many years.

“I’m glad he’s back and hopefully he can get back into the groove and get back into the racetrack, have some success and get back to running his race team and doing the things that he thinks he needs to do.

“It’s a hard situation for everybody, the whole sport. But coming back to the racetrack, that’s where I want to be and I’m sure that’s where he wants to be.”

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Report: No Mexico, 16 races expected on 2016 IndyCar schedule

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IndyCar chairman Mark Miles doesn’t expect the 2016 Verizon IndyCar season to begin in Mexico in February next year, according to a report by USA Today.

Though Miles said the Mexico race was “unlikely,” he believes the final schedule will 16 races at 15 venues over the course of seven months.

Miles said the series is waiting for a “highly, highly likely” event to be approved by a board around Oct. 13, going on to say it wasn’t Pocono Raceway.

“If we had to, we probably could put this out, in theory, sooner, but we want to go through the formality and respect the process of a formal approval from one of the promoters,” Miles said.

Miles said the Mexico City race has been put on hold due to concerns for proper promotion for the event, which would be the series’ first outside the United States since racing in Brazil in 2013.

“The process they needed to go through to get everything lined up has not really left a lot of time to be confident that everything can be done to properly promote the first race,” Miles told USA Today. “So I think the conversation is very much about ‘17. We just kind of ran out of time for ‘16.”

This is what is know about the 2016 IndyCar schedule so far.

Either the track, IndyCar, or an IndyCar support series (Pirelli World Challenge) have announced these dates for 2016:

March 13: St. Petersburg, Fla.
April 17: Long Beach, Calif.
April 24: Birmingham, Ala.
May 14: Indianapolis, In. (Indy GP)
May 29: Indianapolis, In. (100th Indy 500)
June 4-5: Detroit, Mich.
June 11: Fort Worth, Texas
June 26: Elkhart Lake, Wis.
July 31: Lexington, Ohio
Sept. 4: Boston, Mass.
Sept. 18: Sonoma, Calif.

These dates are not formal but are highly likely for 2016, per media reports:

April 2: Phoenix, AZ
July 17: Toronto, Ontario

These tracks have been rumored, but are yet to announce the status of IndyCar races for 2016:

Iowa Speedway
Pocono Raceway
The Milwaukee Mile
Gateway International Raceway

Williams hopes to improve on 2014 performance in Russian GP

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At this weekend’s Russian GP, Williams Martini Racing is looking for more of the same from Valtteri Bottas and a little improvement from Felipe Massa.

Last year, Bottas started and finished third while Lewis Hamilton ran away with the win, finishing 13 seconds over Nico Rosberg and 17 over Bottas in the inaugural race at the Sochi Autodrom.

Meanwhile, Massa started 18th after a fuel flow issue knocked him out of the first round of qualifying and managed an 11th-place finish.

Bottas and Massa enter the Sochi race fifth and sixth in the driver standings.

“We had a good result last year in Russia so we’re expecting another strong weekend and a good collection of points,” said Bottas in a release. “We all know the track now and it has a really good flow, with the long straights a good fit for our car.”

Bottas has finished in the top five in each of the last three races, two of which were won by Hamilton.

“Pace-wise we were close to Mercedes in Japan and I think we can be close again in Sochi, just like we were in 2014,” Bottas said, who also noted after Japan the team is set to turn its focus to its 2016 car.

Massa, who has two podium finishes this year, will try to bounce back from a DNF at Marina Bay and a 17th-place finish in Japan.

“I hope to make amends for qualifying last year and I’m confident we can have a competitive race,” Massa said in a team release.

“Russia is a very nice track with a few long straights which makes it interesting for overtaking,” Massa said of the 18-turn track. “The circuit has almost everything, starting with a straight and then moving into high-speed corners and then very slow corners in the middle sector. This makes setting up the car really important and the importance of downforce evident.”

The Russian Grand Prix can been seen on NBCSN on Sunday at 7 am ET.