Can Junior stay “Super” at Michigan?

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With his car bearing a scheme to promote Batman flick The Dark Knight Rises, Dale Earnhardt Jr. emerged from the darkness of a 143-race losing streak and triumphed at Michigan International Speedway last summer. Since then, Earnhardt has not returned to Victory Lane in the Sprint Cup Series – a problem he hopes to correct this weekend on MIS’ two-mile oval in a car that’s promoting the latest Superman film, Man of Steel.

Earnhardt is also hoping to start regaining ground in the Sprint Cup standings as well. While he’s solidly in a Chase spot right now at fourth in the table, he’s fallen off since charging to the points lead on the strength of five consecutive Top-10 finishes to start the 2013 season. His third-place run at Pocono last weekend was his first Top-5 finish in the last nine races, and he sits 82 points behind Hendrick Motorsports teammate and championship leader Jimmie Johnson.

“We talked about it last week after the race, but we kind of had some misses here lately and not many hits,” Earnhardt said at MIS. “As far as showing up to the race track and being competitive and getting the job done putting together a full weekend, we haven’t been able to do that. We started the season off so promising – the best that I had ever started a season.

“It just seemed like things were going so perfectly and it’s the way it is in this sport: You will think you have everything going in the right direction and then odds and fate and everything else [gets] in the way.”

Earnhardt feels that his team has been working hard towards returning to more consistent performances like they had at the start of the year. But in his mind, there are still “some holes to fill” as they look to catch up with stablemate Johnson – and nothing less than becoming a regular contender for wins will do.

“We want to win more races,” Earnhardt said. “We want that to be the status quo. We want that to be the norm.”

He’ll start 12th in Sunday’s 400-miler.

F1: Max Verstappen provides late-lap thrills at U.S. Grand Prix

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AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Leave it to Red Bull’s Max Verstappen to provide some late-race thrills at the U.S. Grand Prix.

Verstappen’s key block on Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton late in Sunday’s race denied Hamilton a chance to maybe chase down Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen to win. And it helped deny Hamilton’s bid for the season championship.

Verstappen’s defensive skills allowed the Red Bull driver to finish second, his best result yet at the U.S Grand Prix, his fourth podium in six races. By keeping Hamilton third, it kept the season championship alive, even if just another week to the Mexican Grand Prix.

Last season, Verstappen had surged past Raikkonen on a final-lap pass to finish third. It was the kind of aggressive move that earned him the “Mad Max” nickname. Before he could even reach the podium, race officials declared Verstappen’s move illegal and bumped an angry Verstappen down to fifth.

The Circuit of the Americas this week installed a new curb on the same corner, dubbed “Verstoppen,” to punish drivers who tried anything similar this year. It worked when Verstappen hit it hard enough in qualifying to knock his car out of the session with a damaged suspension and gear box. He started Sunday’s race 18th.

The Dutch driver launched a furious attack through the field and found himself in the thick of things late Sunday. His move to block Hamilton wasn’t on the same corner with the curbs, and it came with him playing defense instead of being the aggressor.

Verstappen had to make multiple moves to keep Hamilton behind him and finally drove the Mercedes wide, forcing Hamilton to finally concede the position and the race.

“I was trying to get close to Kimi but at the same time keeping an eye on Lewis in my mirror. It was close, but we managed to hang on,” Verstappen said. “It is safe to say today went a lot better than expected.”

Knowing Verstappen’s aggressive nature, Hamilton said there was too much at stake to risk a collision.

“The key to me was to make sure I finished ahead of Seb. I don’t care when you win a championship, just that you win,” Hamilton said. “”For Max, to come back from so far, he did a great job.”

Verstappen has been just as aggressive at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez in Mexico City.

In 2016, race officials ruled he improperly left the track to gain an advantage on Vettel to finish third and he was bumped from the podium. Last season, Verstappen’s strong start sent him into the lead out of the first turn, while Hamilton and Vettel bumped each other. The collision ruptured one of Hamilton’s tires.

Verstappen won the race while Hamilton limped home in ninth place, but still won the season championship.