Leavine Family Racing: There may be no ‘I’ in team, but there’s a lot of family in it

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There’s nothing more important in this world than family. The closer you are to your family members, the better the relationships are and also the better chance for success in life.

That’s the same concept that is behind Leavine Family Racing. Not only is “Family” in the team name, it’s also the way the team goes racing, with all its employees essentially being extended family members.

And even though LFR is only a part-time team in the Sprint Cup Series, it’s looking for a better overall season for its family-team in 2015.

Admittedly, gains are small when you’re a single-car team that runs just over half the races on the Cup schedule. But gains are gains, no matter how small they are, because they hopefully can eventually lead to even bigger gains.

LFR took part in Day 3 of the NASCAR Media Tour in Charlotte on Wednesday and showed that gains are definitely what has gotten the team to where it is now, and where it hopes to be in the future.

Last season was the first together for LFR and driver Michael McDowell. The marriage couldn’t be more perfect, as both LFR and McDowell are not only family oriented, they’re also very religious.

While larger teams might consider the kind of year LFR had in 2014 as marginal, there were indeed gains that the team made that it hopes to build upon in 2015.

“2014 was an exciting year for us,” team owner Bob Leavine said. “We made some gains and advances. And, as always, it’s one step forward and two steps back.

“But we’re excited about what we did. We had some personal bests, Daytona, Michael had a personal-best finish of seventh, which was also our best. We also had solid finishes at Bristol, 18th, and finished up at Homestead 21st. We’re excited about that and the steps we made.

“2015, the momentum is really built off of what we didn’t get done last year. That’s motivation. The successes are okay, but if you don’t learn from what you did wrong, you’re not going to get any better. Our team is motivated by getting better, we’re obviously a small team, but a team with a lot of heart.”

Indeed, LFR is NASCAR’s little engine that could. It keeps chugging and gaining steam.

“Our goal is to qualify at every race we go to, qualify well, run strong and run in the top 25,” Leavine said. “And with our people, I think we can do that. I believe those are realistic goals for our team.”

The partnership between veteran crew chief Wally Rogers and McDowell grew strong throughout the season. While the team doesn’t have the financial resources to run the full 36-race Cup schedule, it did the best with what it could.

McDowell ran 19 races last season and still managed to finish 37th. In fact, McDowell has finished 37th for each of the last three seasons, and was 36th in 2011.

But he agrees with Leavine, that a jump up to the top-25 is definitely within his and the team’s reach. With power and chassis from Team Penske, McDowell and LFR are poised to make some noise in 2015.

“It was my first year with the team last year and we really started to build some momentum halfway through the season,” McDowell said. “By the end of the year, we were starting to figure out the cars and what I needed, just the communication it takes.

“I’m looking forward to working with Wally again. He’s assembled a great team in the offseason and we had a few changes and we really feel we’ve been fortunate to add a lot of great people to our organization.

“With our partnerships and alliances with Ford and Team Penske, we really feel we have the tools to go out there and be competitive. We’re a small team but still have great equipment and great people.”

The team got a big lift Wednesday when it was announced that Thrivent Financial will be primary sponsor for 10 races and an associated sponsor for an additional 10 races in 2015. Thrivent, which will sponsor McDowell’s No. 95 Ford in the season-opening Daytona 500, joins KLove Radio as among the team’s sponsors.

Interestingly, McDowell’s best two finishes in his eight-year Cup career have come in the last two Daytona 500s. He was ninth in 2013 and a career-best seventh in 2015.

The team is continuing to look for additional sponsors to potentially compete in more than 20 races, which would allow it the opportunity to reach its goal of finishing 2015 in the top 25 in the final standings.

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Valtteri Bottas takes pole position for season-opening Austrian GP

Leonhard Foeger/Pool via Getty Images
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SPIELBERG, Austria — Valtteri Bottas upstaged Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton to take pole position Saturday for the Formula One Austrian GP.

The Finnish driver edged out the world champion by 0.012 seconds to claim the top spot for the season opener at the Red Bull Ring in Spielberg. He clenched his fist as he climbed out of his car and shared a hug with Hamilton.

“It’s something special when you push the car to the limit,” said Bottas, who is chasing an eighth career win. “Feels so good. It’s very impressive (from the team).”

Red Bull’s Max Verstappen was third, and Lando Norris gave McLaren a boost by finishing fourth. Verstappen has won the past two years here, including 2019 when he started third behind Hamilton and Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc.

“It’s going to be interesting quite a bit warmer tomorrow and hopefully this will play to our advantage,” Verstappen said. “Today, Mercedes was on a different level, unfortunately. Last year we were also a little bit off in qualifying so I expect we will be a bit better in the race.”

Bottas had the leading time when drivers embarked on their final laps and beat his own mark before sliding off the track into the gravel.

Hamilton was chasing a record-extending 89th career pole. He was ahead but then dropped off slightly as Bottas secured a 12th career pole.

“Great job by Valtteri. It’s a great start to the season,” Hamilton said. “We show year on year that we continue to be the best team. We’re open-minded … constantly learning from each other and pushing the boundaries.”

Ferrari struggled for speed, with Leclerc nearly one second behind in seventh and Sebastian Vettel failing to make it into the third and final part of qualifying, known as Q3. He starts the race from 11th on the grid.

Vettel is leaving Ferrari at the end of the season with his future in F1 uncertain.

Earlier, Hamilton posted the fastest time in morning practice. The 35-year-old British driver was also quickest in both sessions on Friday.

Midway through third practice, F1 newcomer Nicholas Latifi misjudged the exit of a turn and spun his Williams car into a protective tire wall.