What a difference a year makes for Hendrick at Michigan

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One year ago at Michigan International Speedway, the Hendrick Motorsports stable suffered through a rough afternoon across the board.

Jeff Gordon was taken out in an early wreck. Kasey Kahne was leading when a tire blew and sent him hard in the wall. Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s chances of victory ended with a blown engine, and Jimmie Johnson crashed while running second with three laps to go thanks to a flat.

All four Hendrick drivers finished outside of the Top 25 that day; it was the first time such an instance had occurred in a Sprint Cup race since 2005.

But today at MIS, HMS thrived. In addition to Jimmie Johnson finally winning there for the first time, Kahne, Gordon and Earnhardt also ran and finished toward the front.

Kahne is still seeking to join his HMS teammates on the Chase Grid with a regular season win, but showed lots of determination with his fifth-place performance.

Off of a restart on Lap 7, Kahne was unable to avoid a spinning Kyle Larson in Turn 2 and also skidded out of control. Luckily, he was able to come away with just minor damage and take the subsequent restart in 36th place.

From there, Kahne moved through the field somewhat and then took advantage of a “lucky dog” free pass around halfway to get back on the lead lap.

In hindsight, that appeared to be a critical boost as he drove himself all the way to the lead with 18 laps remaining. Kahne still had to pit two laps later, but was able to hang on for the Top-5.

“We struggled for a while, but we got it and then we were on a good strategy there at the end – I thought we were pretty competitive with the guys in front of us,” Kahne said.

“…We’ve just ran way too bad for the first 14, 15 races, and hopefully, this will get us going and we can get strong from here, make some points up, get a win, and get in the Chase. That’s all we can really shoot for at this point.”

Gordon led 36 laps before earning a sixth-place finish that allowed him to retain the Sprint Cup points lead.

“We lost some track position and when we lost track position, we knew it wasn’t going to handle as good,” he said about his day. “But we were just super loose even when we got clean air, so that probably hurt us more than anything.

“We just never could move forward, and then at the end, we came in and took two tires and boom, the thing was gone and flying again. Sixth – not really indicative of the race car or what I felt we were capable of, but we’ll certainly take it.”

As for Earnhardt, who had won the most recent race at Pocono, he and crew chief Steve Letarte tried various pit strategies. During a caution at Lap 121, Earnhardt actually made two stops – one for right side tires and then another for left sides.

That knocked him all the way to 20th, but it allowed Earnhardt stay on track and rise up to fourth while many leaders pitted during a later yellow at Lap 147. He ultimately faded to his final result after making his last stop (two tires, fuel) at Lap 167.

Today was also a good day all-around for Hendrick engines as well.

In addition to the aforementioned HMS drivers, second-place Kevin Harvick (Stewart Haas Racing) and eighth-place Kyle Larson (Chip Ganassi Racing) made for six Hendrick-powered competitors among the Top 8.

Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and Formula One embrace the United States

Verstappen Perez United States
Jared C. Tilton / Getty Images
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Last week, Red Bull Racing revealed their new car, the RB19, and a new relationship with US-based Ford Motors in a press event in New York City complete with drivers Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and Team Principle Christian Horner. They are the only Formula 1 team to launch in the United States, but even that small move of the needle reflects a major shift in the attitude of both F1’s management and their teams – and the extent to which the American audience has fully embraced the sport.

“It’s something fantastic and unique, for the sport to be able to break it into the U.S,” Perez told NBC Sports. “The market is huge and it’s a huge opportunity for everyone involved, for the drivers, for the team. It’s always a huge market.”

Verstappen Perez United States
Sergio Perez finished fourth in the Unites States Grand Prix, but he was first with the fans.  – Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

In 2023, Formula 1 will race three times in the United States and five times in North America. The Circuit of the Americas will host their 11th consecutive race in October before heading south to Mexico City. Miami returns for a second time in May on a temporary street course around the Hard Rock cafe and the third addition is in downtown Las Vegas in November.

With the Canadian Grand Prix on the schedule for June and the Brazilian Grand Prix in November, American fans are now in the ballpark of Europeans, who have eight events on the continent and one in England.

In 2022, Verstappen won every race in North America. He was kept from sweeping the hemisphere only by George Russell, who won in Brazil. That fact is less remarkable when one considers that Verstappen won 15 times in the season – nearly two-thirds of the races on the schedule.

By the time Formula arrived in Austin for Round 20 of 23, Verstappen had already wrapped up his second consecutive championship.

“Sometimes it can be hard to replicate the season, but I think it’s the same as with the car, right? You always try to improve it,” Verstappen told NBC Sports. “And I always look at the little details that even when you have had a good race, you could have done better. And then of course you also learn from the bad races. So we always try to look for these little improvements and general experience you gain year after year.

“You try to do better, but of course it also depends a lot on the package you have.”

Verstappen Perez United States
Max Verstappen United States Grand Prix win was one of 15 for the drivers and 17 for Red Bull.
(Gongora / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Now Verstappen’s thoughts will inevitably turn to establishing a dynasty – and America will again play a pivotal role.

“I just enjoy what I’m doing,” Verstappen said.  “After the years in Formula One, when you have to be on top of your game and you gain a lot on your experience – in that sense nothing really can get to you anymore. Every year you just try to do the best you can. But a lot depends on the material around you. It’s always a bit of a guess. Start the season as fit as you can be and be well prepared. But if you don’t have the car, you’re not going to win the championship.”

Perez added two wins to Red Bull’s total, at Monaco and the Marina Bay Street course. With two of the US 2023 races on street courses, Perez hopes to close the gap on Verstappen and potentially be his principle rival for the championship.

“The strategy is clear; it is to maximize the potential of the car – and we believe we have a good car, but how good?,” Perez said “We don’t know what the competition is doing. We just give our best in building this car and we hope that it’s good enough to get us to win races.

“I think we have to work together as a team. At the same time. We both want to win the championship. It’s just having good compromise. The competition will be really strong out there, so we really need everything we possibly can get from each other.”

Formula One returns to the United States for Round 6 and the Miami Grand Prix on May 7.