Photo courtesy of IMSA

Jeff Gordon getting black and blue chasing shiny Rolex watch

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) Jeff Gordon straightened his left arm to expose bruises around his elbow. They were the only ones he could show without taking off his clothes.

The four-time NASCAR champion has black-and-blue marks from the middle of his back to the back of his knees, remnants from hours of practicing driver changes before the Rolex 24 at Daytona this weekend. Gordon, who is driving in the prestigious endurance race for the first time in a decade, shared pictures of his injuries with his Wayne Taylor Racing teammates.

“They looked like war wounds,” teammate Jordan Taylor said Friday. “He looked like he got hit by a mortar.”

Taylor was obviously exaggerating, but Gordon made it clear the physical toll has been one of the toughest parts of getting back in a sports car for the first time since 2007.

“It looked like somebody had beaten me up pretty badly,” Gordon said.

It’s a small price to pay for what Gordon called a “dream scenario.” He retired from full-time racing after the 2015 season and took a less-rigorous job in the Fox Sports broadcast booth.

He didn’t rule out driving select events – he subbed for former NASCAR teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. in eight races last year – and when Wayne Taylor called to gauge his interest in driving in the 24-hour race, Gordon jumped at the opportunity.

“It was a slam-dunk for me,” said Gordon, who helped Wayne Taylor Racing to a third-place finish in 2007. “What prevented me from doing it other years was the commitment. You really want to be in the car in December. You want to be in the car in January. You want to be in the car as much as you can, especially with this type of car being so much different than NASCAR, stock car.”

IMSA officials lauded Gordon’s decision. Although several IndyCar regulars are in the event, Gordon is the only NASCAR star in the 55-car field. Fellow NASCAR regulars Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Larson, Jamie McMurray, Clint Bowyer, Michael Waltrip and AJ Allmendinger have driven the Rolex in recent years.

“Hard to put into words somebody with the motorsport accomplishments of Jeff Gordon to be a part of a race like the Rolex 24,” IMSA CEO Ed Bennett said. “He’s known worldwide. It’s a big shot in the arm, I think, for the attention of the sport and we’re just thrilled to have him. It’s the kind of thing you could never plan for. It’s just wonderful to see it come together the way it did. But he’s a superstar. We’re really proud he’s here.”

Gordon is expected to be the second driver behind the wheel of the No. 10 Konica Minolta Cadillac when the green flag drops Saturday in the 55th running of the event . Ricky Taylor is scheduled to start the race, and Gordon is slated to replace him.

Gordon has gotten plenty of seat time over the last three months, first testing in Charlotte, North Carolina, in November and then at Daytona in December and again in early January. He also got hours of simulator time in Indianapolis. Driver changes were a significant part of the process, with the team knowing how much time can be lost and gained on pit road.

“I think the biggest challenge for me is the unknown,” Gordon said. “It’s an unfamiliar car, so you don’t have a lot of experience in it, and it’s capable of doing a lot, so you have to push yourself. If you push yourself in the car too hard at certain times, you get yourself in a lot of trouble and cost yourself the whole race. It’s about managing traffic and what the tires are capable of giving you at different times.

“It’s exciting. It’s fun. But mentally … when I go to lay my head down on the pillow at night, I’m running through all those things throughout the night.”

He probably should have another concern.

Jordan Taylor is well known as a jokester and has been plotting to prank his new teammate. He dressed up as a Jeff Gordon fan – he donned 1980s sunglasses, a fake mustache, a NASCAR hat and a colorful DuPont jacket – at a recent test session and tried to get Gordon to sign an autograph. Gordon figured it out quickly.

“I think I know a way I can get him,” said Taylor, whose team finished second or third in each of the last four Rolex races.

Taylor plans to sneak into Gordon’s motorhome and hide a Bluetooth-enabled speaker. And then late one night, he will start blaring Backstreet Boys tunes.

Taylor can only hope the antics don’t cause Gordon to do any more damage to his backside.

“I’m playing pranks on one of my childhood heroes now,” Taylor said. “That’s pretty cool.”

More AP auto racing: http://www.racing.ap.org

Wehrlein nonplussed by Sauber-Honda speculation

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Pascal Wehrlein is not paying any attention to speculation that Sauber’s planned Formula 1 engine deal with Honda for 2018 could be on the rocks, saying his future remains open as he focuses on his current duties with the team.

Mercedes junior Wehrlein was placed at Sauber for 2017, and led the team to its first points finish of the year at the Spanish Grand Prix in May.

Sauber had been given a boost two weeks earlier when it announced a deal to become Honda’s second customer team for 2018, including technical and financial support.

However, the deal was put in doubt following Sauber CEO and team principal Monisha Kaltenborn’s departure, leading to speculation that it had not been finalized.

Kaltenborn’s replacement Frederic Vasseur has made it a priority to resolve the matter, but it has made for a bleak outlook at Hinwil for the future.

With the 2018 driver market beginning to stir, Wehrlein has stressed he is not yet thinking about next season, nor is he paying any attention to the speculation about Sauber’s deal with Honda.

“I have no idea what is happening next year. Of course, I have heard all these rumors as well,” Wehrlein told the official F1 website.

“I cannot influence any of these things, so why worry about them? Whatever rumors there are in the air, it is no distraction for me – that is the bottom line.

“I have a contract for this season so I am only focusing on this year. Decisions are made by others and I am only here to drive, to perform as well as I can.

“Of course I want to see Sauber do well. They have the potential and have already been in good positions in the past and I want them to get back there. How and when? That is on another page.”

Wehrlein expressed his confidence in Vasseur’s leadership, although he expects the team to shift focus to its 2018 plans.

“I do have expectations of Fred and the team. I don’t know how fast Fred can change things or how he can change them, but we now have one race left before the summer shut down,” Wehrlein said.

“In the second half of the season the team will focus on next year, so I don’t think you will see his touch too much this year. So let’s see what we can still do with the tools that we have right now.

“I really respect Fred. I used to work with him in DTM. He had a team when I drove there in 2015. He has so much experience in motorsport and in many other ventures outside racing.

“He is a very successful man. He could help Sauber. He could be very good for the team.”

Keeping Grosjean, Magnussen for 2018 ‘a given’ in Gene Haas’ eyes

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Gene Haas is planning to field an unchanged line-up for his Formula 1 team in 2018, believing it to be “a given” that Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen will continue beyond the end of the season.

NASCAR team co-owner Haas took his eponymous F1 operation onto the grid in 2016, pairing Grosjean with Esteban Gutierrez.

While Grosjean scored a fifth-place finish in Haas F1 Team’s second race and picked up 29 points across the course of the season, Gutierrez failed to record a single top-10 result.

The Mexican was replaced by Magnussen for 2017, with the Dane taking 11 points through the first 10 races of the season.

Despite the fluidity of the driver market for 2018, Haas revealed in an interview with the official F1 website that the team is planning to race with Grosjean and Magnussen together once again next year.

“We will run with the same drivers that we have this year again next year. That is a given,” Haas said.

“And given the other continuity aspects, we should be better racers next season.”

Haas had been tipped to take on a Ferrari junior such as Antonio Giovinazzi or Charles Leclerc for 2018 given its technical ties to the Italian marque.

Grosjean is understood to be a target for Renault should it miss out on re-signing Fernando Alonso, while Magnussen penned a multi-year deal upon arrival at Haas at the start of the season.

Reflecting on Magnussen’s contribution, Haas believes the team has benefitted from his greater race performance that has allowed it to match its debut season points total in just 10 races in 2017.

“Esteban was a good driver. He was as fast as Romain in practice, but I think that Kevin has an edge in terms of race experience,” Haas said.

“He can score points and that was the key for bringing him on board. Kevin can grab points and Romain can too.

“We now have 29 points. Last year around this time we also had 29 points, but did not score for the rest of the season.

“So now if we can score another 29 points by Abu Dhabi, that would be a great position.”

Pirelli: Slow puncture caused Vettel’s British GP tire failure

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Pirelli has determined that a slow puncture was the cause of Sebastian Vettel’s Formula 1 tire failure towards the end of last Sunday’s British Grand Prix.

Vettel suffered a failure on his front-left tire on the penultimate lap of the race at Silverstone while running third, forcing him into a late pit stop that ultimately left him P7 at the checkered flag.

The incident was just minutes after Ferrari teammate Kimi Raikkonen had also hit trouble with his front-left tire, although Pirelli stressed after the race that the incidents were unrelated.

Pirelli announced on Friday that, after conducting extensive analysis of the tire, it could confirm that its initial belief that Vettel had suffered a puncture was indeed correct.

“As appeared clear since Sunday afternoon, a full investigation has now confirmed that the original cause of the failure was a slow puncture,” Pirelli said.

“The consequent driving back to the pits on an underinflated and then flat tire led to the final failure.

“Kimi Raikkonen’s damaged tire shows less evidence of what occurred, so further tests and analysis are still ongoing in Pirelli’s laboratories and indoor testing facilities.

“It will take a few more days to reach a definitive conclusion.”

BMW completes first test with 2018 M8 GTE in Germany

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BMW has completed the maiden track test of its new M8 GTE car that will race in the FIA World Endurance Championship and the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship in 2018.

BMW announced back in September that it would be returning to the 24 Hours of Le Mans through the WEC in 2018, entering the GTE-Pro class.

The German manufacturer has since been developing its new M8 GTE car which will also replace the existing M6 GTLM in the IMSA-run series, where it is raced by Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing.

BMW announced on Thursday that it had completed a three-day test last week at the Lausitzring in Germany, with factory drivers Martin Tomczyk and Maxime Martin both enjoying time behind the wheel.

“To see the BMW M8 GTE on the racetrack makes me very proud. Everyone involved has done a magnificent job in recent months to allow us to reach this milestone in the development of our new flagship for the GT racing scene,” said BMW head of motorsport Jens Marquardt.

“In the first instance, the purpose of a test like this is obviously to get to know the car. In this regard, greater emphasis is placed on the safety aspect than performance. However, the first impression of the BMW M8 GTE out on the track is a very positive one.”

“Firstly, I feel very honored to have been able to drive at the first real test of the BMW M8 GTE on the racetrack. I had great fun with the car,” added Tomczyk.

“The BMW M8 GTE is good to drive from the outset, and it is easy for us drivers to work out the way it handles, which is important. We got a lot of kilometers under our belt, and gathered a lot of data. We also took our first steps with regard to performance, which is by no means a given at a first test.

“We will obviously work more intensively on that at the coming tests, and will build on the strong basis we established here at the Lausitzring.”

The BMW M8 GTE is set to enjoy another on-track test next month, with Antonio Felix da Costa due for some lap time.