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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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.