No more Mr. Nice Guy: Dale Earnhardt Jr. gets aggressive and ends up with career-best finish at Sonoma

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You almost have to wonder if Dale Earnhardt Jr. listened to Alice Cooper’s “No More Mr. Nice Guy” prior to Sunday’s Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway — and took the lyrics to heart.

Earnhardt came into the race never having finished in the top-10 at Sonoma in 14 prior starts.

But Sunday was a completely different story.

Instead of the passive Junior we’ve seen in past races at Sonoma, he got up on the wheel, became aggressive – overly aggressive in some instances (just ask Matt Kenseth) – and wound up with a career-best third-place finish at the twisting and turning road course in California’s wine country.

“Aside from holding a trophy, this is like a win for us,” Earnhardt said in the post-race press conference. “We came in here and knew we had a good car throughout practice, and I’ve been in the top 10 in a lot of these races with two or three laps to go, but we’ve just never been able to finish.

“So to be clear of the mess and just have an advantage with the tires at the end, there was a lot of confidence, and knowing we were going to be able to wrap it up or feel like we were in good position to wrap it up and really good.  The car was fun to drive all weekend.”

Earnhardt’s aggressiveness and confidence extended to crew chief Steve Letarte.

“Just putting the tires on and getting the strategy right with Steve” was the key to the win, Earnhardt told TNT after the race. “I told him (Letarte) the secret to being a great crew chief is to call every year like it’s your last, because he’s had the best strategy every week.

“Our car was fast all weekend really. I tried to screw it up a couple of times there in the race, but calmed down and was able to get a good finish out of it.”

No more Mr. Nice Guy, indeed.

To that end, Earnhardt got into at least two significant incidents that, while they didn’t hurt him and his car too bad, they pretty much ended the day for two other drivers, including one of his closest friends, Matt Kenseth.

Earnhardt and Kenseth were fighting hard on Lap 75, driving side-by-side, when Kenseth pulled slightly ahead going into Turn 7.

Earnhardt hit a curb and his car bounced back to the left, right into the right rear quarter-panel of Kenseth’s car, spinning him out hard and almost head-on into a tire wall.

Kenseth’s car was all but obliterated by the crash, and while he fortunately was uninjured, he also wound up with one of his worst finishes of the season: 42nd out of the 43-car starting field.

Earnhardt took complete blame for the incident.

“I got into Matt,” Earnhardt said. “I jumped that curb and just ran into him. Totally my fault.

“It was just racing a little too hard with him there and I probably should have let him have that spot. Other than that, we had a pretty good day.”

Earnhardt also got into a scrum with AJ Allmendinger 11 laps later, but this time it wasn’t Junior’s fault.

Allmendinger was coming out of Turn 11 and got pinched towards the inside retaining wall. Allmendinger bounced off the rear of Junior’s car in the process, spun and then continued bouncing like a pinball off the trailing cars of Kasey Kahne and Brian Vickers.

As a result, Allmendinger, who dominated the first half of the 110-lap race by leading 35 laps, finished with a very disappointing 37th-place finish, two laps behind the leaders.

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IndyCar recap: Honda Indy Toronto

Photo: IndyCar
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Street races for the Verizon IndyCar Series can often be affected by chaos, with the close quarters and “concrete canyons” often taking their toll on the IndyCar drivers and their machinery.

And the streets of Toronto, a venue notoriously rough of equipment, even in comparison to other street courses, was no different on Sunday.

The Honda Indy Toronto most certainly threw a wrench into the championship equation, as Scott Dixon’s victory combined with troubles from his rivals to see him increase his points lead to 64 points, but his win and the championship implications were certainly not the only stories of note on Sunday.

A look at other stories to emerge from Toronto are below.

Toronto Takes a Bite of IndyCar

A combination of tight city streets, hot temperatures, and a lot of rubble marbles wreak havoc on Sunday. Photo: IndyCar

Toronto is infamous as a venue that produces close quarters and often lots of contact between drivers, and Sunday’s race was no different.

And Toronto did not discriminate either, attacking veterans and young guns alike. Sebastien Bourdais (four-time champion, two-time Toronto winner) and spun and backed into the Turn 1 tire barrier. Ryan Hunter-Reay (former champion, Indy 500 winner, and 2012 Toronto winner) nosed into the Turn 3 tire barrier after locking up the brakes.

Josef Newgarden (defending IndyCar champion and 2017 Toronto winner) and Will Power (2014 IndyCar champion, this year’s Indy 500 winner, and a two-time Toronto winner) both clouted the wall exiting the final corner.

Alexander Rossi (2016 Indy 500 winner and a winner from this year’s Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach) suffered two damaged front wings and made six pit stops on the day. And rookie Rene Binder spun and stalled in Turn 8.

Indeed, Toronto was its usual carnage-filled self. But it wasn’t only because of the tightly packed circuit. Sunday’s race was also contested in hot and slick conditions, with tire marbles and dust also prominent from the outset.

Newgarden particularly highlighted the marbles and dust when describing his contact with the Turn 11 wall.

“It was a tough race. Making contact with the wall didn’t help. I don’t know what it was to be honest with you, it was either marbles or dust from the sweepers; they’re trying to clean off the track and that yellow, when we already had tons of marbles 27 laps in,” he explained.

Even race winner Dixon bumped the wall once exiting Turn 1. While he didn’t suffer damage, he also noted how tricky the conditions were, and revealed just how exhausting the day was.

“I’m worn out, man, that was a physical race,” he detailed. “It was definitely easy to pick up lots of debris on the tires out there, and I think that’s what happened to Josef (Newgarden) on that restart where we took the lead. He tried to go a little bit fast into the last corner there in Turn 11, got into the gray and that was pretty much it.”

Indeed, the tricky conditions combined with the already difficult Toronto street circuit to create another chaotic outing north of the border.

Wickens, Hinchcliffe Give Canadian Crowd Something to Cheer About

Robert Wickens was elated to finish on the podium at his home race. Photo: IndyCar

Canadian fans are among the most enthusiast race fans you’ll ever find, and they’re particularly passionate about their homegrown heroes.

And they had plenty to cheer about on Sunday, notably in the form of Schmidt Peterson Motorsports teammates Robert Wickens and James Hinchcliffe.

Starting ninth (Hinchcliffe) and tenth (Wickens) respectively, they maneuvered their way through the chaos to run inside the top five – Wickens even used a slick move on a Lap 34 restart to go from fifth to second.

Wickens eventually finished third after battling with Simon Pagenaud, while Hinchcliffe was elevated to fourth after a late pit stop by Marco Andretti – Andretti needed a splash of fuel with one lap left.

Their results mark the third year in a row that a Canadian driver has been on the podium in Toronto (Hinchcliffe finished third in the 2016 and 2017 outings).

Wickens, who acknowledged he doesn’t typically get emotional, couldn’t help but feel a little emotion after scoring a podium finish in his home race.

“Thankfully, I’m not an overly teary guy, but that (finishing on the podium in Canada) was really cool. I can’t thank these Toronto fans enough. I mean, this whole week has been such a whirlwind of emotions, and to stand on the podium in my first professional home race, I couldn’t ask for anything better,” Wickens revealed.

For Hinchcliffe, finishing fourth was just as impressive, if not more so given that he did it with a damaged car. Hinchcliffe suffered suspension damage following the Lap 34 crash in Turn 1, in which he had contact with Takuma Sato.

James Hinchcliffe overcame suspension damage to finish fourth in the Honda Indy Toronto. Photo: IndyCar

“On that restart melee, we got tagged by Takuma, which I should know better than staying on the inside of him in a corner like that. I bent the toe link, and from there, it was a bit of a struggle to feel the car out and see how it was going to change with the bend in the suspension,” he detailed. “Honestly, the Arrow Electronics car was still pretty great, and in that last stint, we were chasing down the leaders. Who knows what could have been, but ultimately happy with Robbie being on the podium and two SPM cars in the top five.”

And their results paid dividends in their championship standings. Wickens now sits sixth, while Hinchcliffe is back inside the top 10 – ninth.

New Faces Grace the Top 10

Charlie Kimball was one of several new faces to finish near the front in Toronto. Photo: IndyCar

Because so many of the usual suspects had trouble, some new faces graced the top 10, and even the top five, for the first time in 2018.

Charlie Kimball gave Carlin Racing its first top five by finishing fifth, his best finish since he finished sixth at Road America last year.

Tony Kanaan finished seventh for A.J. Foyt Racing, their first top 10 since Race 2 of the Chevrolet Dual in Detroit (Kanaan also finished seventh there).

Zach Veach finished eighth, his best result since he finished fourth at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.

Marco Andretti was running fourth before he pitted for a late splash of fuel – it would have been only his second top five of the year (fourth in Detroit in Race 1 is his best result of 2018).

And Jordan King just missed out on his first top 10, finishing 11th.

They all found themselves in position to capitalize as others around them faltered, and some were rewarded immensely as a result.

Misc.

  • Conor Daly deserves kudos for a strong outing after a last-minute call up from Harding Racing. He qualified 11th and ran a clean race to finish 13th. While unspectacular, Daly gave a nice account for himself as he seeks to return to IndyCar full-time.
  • A possible top five, what would have been his third in a row, got away from Takuma Sato when he smacked the wall exiting Turn 11. Combine that with Graham Rahal being involved in the Lap 34 pileup, suffering damaged suspension in the process, and it was a day to forget for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing.
  • Very quietly, Zachary Claman De Melo, the “other” Canadian in the field, drove another clean race to finish 14th. While it won’t garner attention like the results of his countrymen, it is another solid outing for a rookie who is still learning the ropes.

The Verizon IndyCar Series now takes a weekend off before heading to the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course for the Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio (July 29 on NBCSN).

@KyleMLavigne