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.”

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F1 Preview: 2018 Australian Grand Prix

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Save for two occasions, in 2006, and 2010, the Australian Grand Prix has served as the season-opening event for the FIA Formula 1 World Championship since 1996, and this weekend’s event will be the 21st time that the city of Melbourne has kicked off the Formula 1 campaign.

The 2018 season is the fifth one of the current hybrid power unit era, the second season of the current aero regulations, and the second under Liberty Media’s guidance.

Last year saw titans Mercedes AMG Petronas and Scuderia Ferrari duel for supremacy for most of the season before Mercedes distanced Ferrari late in the season to take the constructor’s title and the driver’s title, with Lewis Hamilton, who is now tied with Sebastian Vettel on four world championships apiece.

Four drivers on the grid have Formula 1 world championships to their name: Hamilton, Vettel, Kimi Raikkonen, and Fernando Alonso. Scuderia Toro Rosso’s Brendon Hartley also has a world championship to his name as a two-time titlist in the FIA World Endurance Championship.

So, what can viewers expect from the 2018 curtain-raiser in Australia? A handful of things to watch are below?

2018 Australian Grand Prix – Talking Points

Does Anyone Have Anything for Mercedes?

Only on one day during pre-season testing did a Mercedes driver lead the way – Lewis Hamilton was fastest on the final day of Week 1 at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya.

However, all indications were that was by design, with the team focusing the majority of the second week, if not the entire second week, on long runs with their W09 EQ Power+ chassis.

Such a decision is an ominous one, in that it indicates the team is very comfortable with the amount of speed in the car and did not see a need, or desire, to show their hand during testing.

With that in mind, the Mercedes duo of Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas may yet again have the best and fastest cars, and the team looks poised to potentially make it five constructor’s and driver’s championships in a row.

Ferrari and Red Bull Look to End Mercedes Reign

The biggest threats to Mercedes are undoubtedly Ferrari and Red Bull, the only other teams to win in 2017.

And both teams displayed a lot of pace during testing, particularly in the “one-lap speed” category. Ricciardo set a lap record around the Catalunya circuit during the second week, only for Vettel to supplant that mark later in the week. Teammate Kimi Raikkonen led the way during the final day of testing.

It is unknown how that pace will translate over the course of a race distance. Mercedes appeared to have an edge on both Ferrari and Red Bull over long runs and race simulations, but there is also a theory that neither Ferrari nor Red Bull had their true long-run form on display.

Still, if a team is going to knock off Mercedes, it will likely be either Ferrari or Red Bull.

McLaren on the Rebound?

Put simply, the previous three seasons for McLaren F1 Team were a bit of a disaster. Their partnership with Honda yielded point totals of 27 (2015), 76 (2016), and 30 (2017) in a three-year venture that was defined by poor reliability and underwhelming power.

The relationship hit a boiling point last year and both entities parted ways ahead of the 2018 season, with McLaren signing a new power unit deal with Renault.

Testing went better than in previous years, though the team continued to battle reliability problems. However, all issues appeared to be minor, needling issues rather than more significant, foundational problems, as the other Renault teams (Red Bull and Renault Sport F1 Team) had solid runs with few reliability issues.

The car does appear to have speed in it, so if the reliability problems are behind them, McLaren could be in for a rebound season.

Stuck in the Midfield Again

Formula 1’s battle amongst the midfield is set to be as fierce as ever as a host of a several teams have a chance at being “best of the rest.”

Sahara Force India has been the frontrunner from the the midfield teams each of the last two years, finishing fourth in the constructor’s title in both 2016 and 2017, though if the steady conflict between drivers Esteban Ocon and Sergio Perez continues through 2018, it could hamper their efforts significantly.

Renault Sport F1 Team and Haas F1 Team look to improve on their 2017 form, while Toro Rosso is in a new partnership with Honda power units…and has experienced a surprisingly smooth pre-season as Honda’s 2018 platform looks significantly better, with the team enjoying a solid run of testing with few, if any, reliability problems.

Williams Martini Racing and Alfa Romeo Sauber appear to be at the back of the pack entering the season, but both could battle for points finishes if those ahead of them falter.