Earnhardt not going “What if?” over Chase-opening engine failure

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Seeing Dale Earnhardt Jr. once again battle for a win in tonight’s Sprint Cup season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, you couldn’t help but wonder what might have been if he hadn’t had his engine blow up in a smoky display in the September Chase opener at Chicagoland Speedway.

Perhaps the majority of Junior Nation felt that way at some point as well. Earnhardt suffered a 35th-place result in the Windy City thanks to that motor, but in the final nine races, Earnhardt went: Sixth, second, eighth, 15th, second, eighth, second, fourth, and finally, third tonight in South Florida.

But while Earnhardt, in his words, “would just love to go to another race next week,” he believes the Chicagoland episode probably didn’t have much of an impact on his championship hopes.

“We didn’t win enough races in the regular season,” he said. “We didn’t win any. That was the difference. When we started the Chase, we were already in the hole a little bit to Matt. It’s too competitive. Just like the end of this race, the reason why I couldn’t get Matt is because he’s running second. The guy in second, the guy in first, they’re not going to be easy to pass.

“We just got behind in the regular season not winning enough, not doing enough to get bonus points. Those guys did. Those points are so important. If you put a good 10 races together, add them bonus points on top of it – man, you’re going to be hard to beat.”

Nonetheless, Earnhardt put together his best stretch of the season when it counted, and it paid off with a fifth-place finish in the Sprint Cup standings – his best season-ending ranking in the last seven seasons.

When asked what made the difference for him, crew chief Steve Letarte and the entire No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports squad in these final 10 races, Earnhardt insisted that he’s “asked everybody on the team at least once or twice what we’re doing different.”

According to NASCAR’s most popular driver, he was met with the response that they weren’t doing anything different.

“I really don’t know why,” he said. “I have the same feeling, like our cars are way faster. We have been more competitive…I just think the 88 team has really stepped it up. But each year, we’ve gotten better.

“When we first started working together – it’s easy to forget about all this, but when me and Steve started working together, we were working our guts out to finish in the Top 10. Each year, it’s kind of gotten easier to run a little better.”

And that should make Junior Nation eye the 2014 season with anticipation that their man will be able to fight for a championship.

Lessons learned in three rounds of Extreme E pay huge dividends in the Copper X Prix for Tanner Foust

Foust Copper X Prix
McLaren Racing
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To paraphrase the Grateful Dead, what a long, unique trip it’s been for Tanner Foust in his first season with the Extreme E series as he took his early season lessons to Chile to compete in the Copper X Prix. And he’s learned his lessons well.

In February, McLaren announced they would expand their motorsports program with an Extreme E entry. They signed two talented rally drivers in Foust and Emma Gilmour – and paired them for the opening round in Neom, Saudi Arabia with just a few days of testing under their belts. Baked by the Arabian desert sun, it was trial by fire.

The duo performed well in their debut, advancing into the final round and finishing fifth. As Extreme E headed to another desert halfway across the globe for Round 4, it was a good time to catch up with Foust and ask about McLaren’s progress. The Copper X Prix was held this past weekend in one of the most extreme regions in the world: the Atacama Desert.

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“The shock going into the first race was the speed,” Foust told NBC Sports. “It was much higher than we had tested. We spent a lot of time around 100 miles per hour [in race trim] and our testing speeds were more in the 60 to 70-mile range. Then, once we sort of got around that, the car got updated so you can drive it even faster.”

In rally racing, some incidents are out of a driver’s control. Even peeking around another car can be dangerous because of potholes that have recently been gouged in the ground or large bushes that seem to sprout up between laps. A couple of rollovers brought Foust back to earth – but the pace was there and that was important.

“We had some challenges this season,” Foust said prior to the Copper X Prix. “We had a good start; made the final, which is a difficult thing to do in this series. I had two rolls in the first three events, but I have improved each time. Now we come into Round 4 in Chile in a pretty strong position. We have competitive times as a team. We are communicating really well and have our heads around this Odyssey vehicle.”

Foust’s words proved to be prophetic.

He won the Crazy Race – Extreme E’s version of a Last Chance Qualifier – and did so after passing the field. It was the same manner in which he qualified for Saudi Arabia’s finale, but this time things would be better. There were those hard-earned lessons on which to lean – and Foust had reps under his belt. He was not going to be caught off guard by any random obstacles.

Tanner Foust passed Sebastien Loeb heading to the Switch Zone in the Copper X Prix. (Photo by Sam Bagnall / LAT Images)

In the Copper X Prix finale, he pressured one of the best rally drivers in the history of the sport.

Pitching sideways through a tight left-hander late in his stint, Foust put his McLaren Extreme E Odyssey at the head of the pack in front of Sebastien Loeb as they headed to the Switch Zone. There, he would turn the car over to his co-driver Gilmour.

The Extreme E series pairs male and female drivers with both taking a turn behind the wheel.

After the driver change, Gilmour lost the lead momentarily to Loeb’s teammate Cristina Gutierrez, but as they charged toward the finish line, she surged ahead and crossed under the checkers first.

“What an improvement for the team over this year,” Foust said after the race. “We have struggled through some of the events, being in our first year in competition. We showed true pace this weekend; overtaking Sebastien Loeb was a highlight.

“Emma put in a great run in the Final. I was fortunate to go from last to first in the Crazy Race and then first in the Final but with some flag penalties, we had 20 seconds added to our time, which put us into fifth. It was a great feeling crossing the line first, I love this wide style track and the NEOM McLaren Odyssey was fantastic here.

“Hopefully we can continue that momentum into Uruguay.”

Loeb and Gutierrez were elevated to the top of the podium, but no one can take away the feeling of crossing under the checkers first.


Racing Responsibly

Since cars were first invented, racing has played a socially responsible role by improving safety. As Earth reaches a tipping point with climate change, racing needs to adapt to these new needs and requirements, which is where Extreme E’s unique strategy becomes increasingly important.

The Extreme E experience is more than simple racing. Each race is accompanied by a legacy program designed to offset damage done by climate change and to erase the footprint caused by the events.

Foust, a biology major from the University of Colorado, was given the chance to rekindle his interest and give back to the environment ahead of the Copper X Prix.

The Atacama is the oldest desert in the world at 150 million years. It is the driest place on earth and has the highest degree of ultraviolet light. And yet somehow life perseveres through underground rivers with oases dating back to Incan times. Foust participated in preparing a local habitat for the reintroduction of a critically endangered water frog to Chile’s longest river, the Loa, which snakes its way through the desert.

“I’m loving the experience,” Foust said. “I’m putting on a lot of Chapstick, a lot of sunscreen. What a fascinating part of the world. I never would have come here otherwise.

“I honestly am very honored to be a part of this sport. I am a huge believer in the fact that motorsports has done us good in the last 100 years. I think we benefit every single time we put our seatbelts on and drive down the road to the lessons learned in racing since the turn of the century. And I really hope motorsports continues that tradition.

“I think that motorsports like [Extreme E] does it in a responsible way, a gender-neutral way and a carbon-neutral way.”