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

NASCAR America: Newgarden recaps rise to IndyCar title (VIDEO)

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Newly crowned Verizon IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden joined NBCSN’s NASCAR America on Tuesday to reflect on his rise to the top of the series.

Newgarden chatted with show host Carolyn Manno about his championship season, integration to Team Penske and bonding with his three teammates, Will Power, Helio Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud.

Pagenaud won Sunday’s GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma season finale but it wasn’t enough to overcome Newgarden’s points lead.

 

Report: Verizon likely to drop IndyCar title sponsorship after ’18

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One of the under-the-radar elements that’s percolated in the Verizon IndyCar Series paddock this year is Verizon’s activation strategy itself, in its fourth year of its first five-year deal as title sponsor of the championship.

Hulman & Co. CEO Mark Miles, head of INDYCAR’s parent company, told the Sports Business Journal’s Adam Stern while he thinks it’s likely Verizon will end its title sponsorship of the series after 2018, they hope to continue the relationship in a different capacity.

While Verizon got in before 2014, IndyCar was a viable platform for the wireless company to activate in a way it couldn’t in NASCAR, when Sprint was the Cup Series’ title sponsor.

That’s since changed with Sprint’s contract ending after 2016. Verizon still activates within the paddock, working with CSM Sport & Entertainment, but its activation outside the paddock has seemed rather limited this year.

Verizon’s primary point of access or reference point of digital technology has been the Verizon IndyCar Mobile app, which was initially only for Verizon Wireless users but was later expanded to other carriers. That provides some app-specific exclusive content as well as a compilation of written, photographic and video content from IndyCar.com.

Even in the paddock, a Verizon-sponsored “Lunch with Legends” series – where some of IndyCar’s stars from the past had lunch at tracks with fans to provide some exclusive access – was not retained for 2017. Verizon hosted an event at a 5G-outfitted house in Indianapolis this year, prior to the Indianapolis 500, to showcase some of that network capability and virtual reality (VR) technology.

Provided Verizon does not continue as title sponsor past 2018, it would leave the IndyCar series in almost the same situation as prior title sponsor IZOD was in 2013, with a lame duck year.

The absence of a Verizon contract renewal has lurked beneath the surface all year in a year when INDYCAR (sanctioning body) has announced several long-term extensions with key manufacturer partners Dallara, Firestone, Chevrolet, Honda and many of its race tracks.

The competition side of IndyCar has done rather well and has enough momentum with Jay Frye at the head of its President of Competition and Operations for the last two years.

But it’s imperative for IndyCar’s sake its commercial side does as well too, which will make the 2018 season an interesting one from a “how to progress” and find a partner that can truly activate to lift the series’ profile even bigger than it is now.

The title sponsor evolution and the series’ new TV contract, with the current one set to end after 2018, enter as the early leaders in the clubhouse for biggest off-track stories to follow over the winter and into the start of 2018.

Vettel loses huge ground in title race after Singapore blip

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SINGAPORE (AP) In the space of three races, Sebastian Vettel has dropped twice as far behind Lewis Hamilton as he was ahead of him.

After winning the Hungarian Grand Prix in late July, Vettel led by 14 points, with both drivers on four wins heading into the summer break.

But after crashing out on the first lap in Sunday’s Singapore GP, the Ferrari driver trails Hamilton by 28.

“That was very disappointing and it was definitely not the result we were expecting,” Ferrari team principal Maurizio Arrivabene said. “But it doesn’t mean that the battle is all over, just that it has become more difficult.”

Yet it might seem to Mercedes that, for all of his experience, Vettel is throwing away the Formula One title.

“Clearly we would not feel comfortable in Ferrari’s shoes,” Mercedes head of motorsport Toto Wolff said. “But this is not the time for cheering.”

Hamilton has won all three races relatively comfortably since the championship resumed in August, and with only six GPs remaining Vettel faces a huge task to stop Hamilton.

“We guarantee that we will be fighting right to the final corner of the very last Grand Prix of the year,” Arrivabene said.

Mercedes is still expecting a challenge.

“This result doesn’t change a thing in the big picture,” Wolff said. “If anything, it’s a stark reminder that there are six more opportunities for the luck to go against us this season, just as it happened to Ferrari.”

But it will be abundantly harder now for Vettel because, unlike last season, Hamilton has so far not retired from any races. Although he has failed to finish on the podium four times for Mercedes this season, that is the same number as Vettel’s finishes outside the top three.

After winning three of the first six races, Vettel’s grip has loosened with only one win in the past eight.

Points have been thrown away, too.

At the British GP in July, Vettel looked at least assured of a podium finish until an unexpected tire problem at the end of the race bumped him down to seventh.

On Sunday, he had a great chance to win starting from pole position on a hard-braking track much more suited to Ferrari than Mercedes.

A few seconds later, he was out of the race.

Vettel made a hasty error of judgment trying to cut off Max Verstappen heading into the first turn and ultimately caused a crash that also took out Ferrari teammate Kimi Raikkonen – who had made a blistering start – Verstappen and Fernando Alonso.

Vettel apologized to his Ferrari team afterward.

With both Ferraris out, Mercedes had a clear path as Hamilton won his 60th career race and teammate Valtteri Bottas took third.

Mercedes faced a similar scenario at the Spanish GP last year, when Hamilton and then-teammate Nico Rosberg collided on lap 1 and both went out. Mercedes was livid with both drivers that day, and came perilously close to imposing team orders on them.

“You kind of feel for Ferrari. I have been in the situation of losing both cars,” Wolff said. “I know how bitter this is.”

The difference was that Hamilton and Rosberg were fighting each other for the title and, with no main rival from another team, it effectively cost them nothing.

Within Mercedes, Hamilton’s title charge is now the priority.

Although team orders are very unlikely to be imposed, it is clear – unofficially at least – that Bottas will be racing to help Hamilton equal Vettel on four world titles.

Wolff confirmed as much when he inadvertently referred to Bottas as “our second driver” in his post-race debriefing on Sunday, before quickly correcting himself to say “ah, other driver.”

Bottas has had a fine first season since joining as an emergency late replacement for Rosberg, who retired days after winning the 2016 title. Bottas has even exceeded expectations with 10 podiums in 14 races, including two wins, and sits in third place overall.

With a new contract for next year already signed, the Finnish driver has no need to impress Mercedes management and can play an ideal support role to Hamilton in the closing part of the campaign.

Still, he has a little bit of ambition left.

“There are plenty of races to come and plenty of opportunities,” said Bottas, who is 23 points behind Vettel. “Definitely Sebastian is the next target.”

With Hamilton ahead and Bottas closing behind, Vettel is under pressure to deliver at the Malaysian GP in two weeks’ time.

Ocon confirmed for another year at Force India

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Sahara Force India will keep the same driver lineup in 2018, with Esteban Ocon confirming Tuesday he’ll stay alongside Sergio Perez next season.

Although the two drivers have occasionally been at odds this year as Ocon has threatened Perez’s place as team leader, both have been instrumental in keeping Force India a clear fourth place in the Constructor’s Championship, at the top of the crowded midfield behind Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull.

Ocon’s had a very strong year, with 56 points scored and having made the points in all but one race (Monaco) this season. His best finish is fifth at the Spanish Grand Prix.

Being confirmed for 2018 means like others, the jockeying for spots in 2019 will be fascinating to watch.