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United States GP Paddock Notebook – Sunday

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AUSTIN, Texas – What. A. Day.

If Saturday was a day to remember for all the wrong reasons, or seek to forget as quickly as possible, then Sunday, October 25, 2015, at Circuit of The Americas was a day that will live on in Formula 1 lore for days, months and/or years to come.

A World Champion has been crowned, as Lewis Hamilton has taken a dramatic, emotional victory in the United States Grand Prix to claim his third title – the tenth driver in history to reach that threshold.

Furthermore, Hamilton won it after one of the crazier, more exciting and entertaining Grands Prix in recent memory.

And it happened on a day when both qualifying and the race took place in the same day, adding to the intensity up and down the paddock all day today.

Here’s the roundup from the track:

SESSION REPORTS

PADDOCK NEWS AND FEATURES

THOUGHTS FROM THE TRACK

Hamilton 2, Rosberg 0

When World Championships have been there for the taking, Lewis Hamilton has seized the opportunity ahead of his Mercedes AMG Petronas teammate Nico Rosberg. That sentence crystallizes matters and makes it simpler than it really is. But when it has come to crunch time, Hamilton has delivered while Rosberg has wilted. The moments are too many to count in the last two years, but Hamilton has a clear mental, psychological edge on his teammate… even if recently, Rosberg’s held the upper hand in qualifying. My MotorSportsTalk colleague Luke Smith will undoubtedly have more on Hamilton’s latest World Championship, and the magnitude of what it means.

Hamilton vs. Rosberg…

In a standard, not ridiculously crazy as all-get-out Grand Prix, Hamilton’s forceful pass of Rosberg into Turn 1 off the start might have stood as the sole pass for the lead. But four Safety Cars (two Actual, two Virtual), varying tire strategies and various weather conditions later, it wasn’t the form book-type Grand Prix as you’d come to expect. Rosberg, as you might expect, was pissed at how it all went down. Again, more on this to come in the coming days, too.

…and Rosberg vs. Rosberg

Still, despite all the changing elements of this race, it still shaped up as Rosberg’s to win, and he didn’t pull it off. Rosberg’s rare moment of wheel spin exiting Turn 15, on entry into Turn 16 – the first of the triple-apex right-hand sweeper around the COTA Observation Tower – removed a near-certain victory from his grasp after losing near-three second lead.

The subplot was too sweet to ignore. Here was Rosberg, son of 1982 World Champion Keke, losing his own latest shot at a championship in the same country where his dad won his only title. Thirty-three years later, it’s Rosberg’s teammate who has clinched the title on U.S. soil, the first driver to do so since.

Vettel’s proper post-race decorum

While Rosberg was miffed, Sebastian Vettel had also lost out on the World Championship, and he’d entered the race in second place in points. Yet his demeanor, body language and expression was so much better… even despite being mad at himself for not finishing higher than third.

Yes, it’s easier to be less outwardly pissed when you’ve overachieved expectations in your first year in a new team, and you’ve won four World Championships previously. Or when you haven’t been beaten – again – by your teammate.

But Vettel didn’t have to be as diplomatic, congratulatory or as jovial as he was in the post-race press conference, where he and Hamilton joked about how long they wanted to make their championship-clinching presser. Vettel made several efforts to properly note it was Hamilton’s day. The two were almost bonding as if to troll Rosberg – they have seven championships between them and there was Rosberg, sitting to Hamilton’s right, looking less than thrilled.

We can only hope for a proper Hamilton vs. Vettel World Championship duel next season, provided Ferrari continue to improve.

Mad Max the 18-year-old superstar-in-waiting

Max Verstappen is 18. He is also ridiculously good.

Having had the opportunity now to have seen him on site and in person for the first time, I was simply awed by his racecraft, his poise, and… this will seem strange to say for an 18-year-old, but his maturity. His post-race interview with NBC’s Will Buxton sounded of someone at least three or four years older, and considering how effortless he was in moving through the field while others made some daft, questionable moves, the sky is the limit.

Rossi’s dramatic, glorious, almost-points P12 day

You remember when we wrote in IndyCar that Conor Daly recorded the best 17th place finish in recent memory at Long Beach earlier this year? Probably not.

But was Alexander Rossi’s 12th place in Austin, in his Manor, the best 12th place finish in recent memory in F1? You betcha.

It was ohsoclose to an elusive and incredible point for the team, but it was a near-perfect reward for the hard work, dedication and incredible effort put in by the American on home soil ahead of his home Grand Prix. Credit not just to Rossi, but to the Manor team and all of Rossi’s own personal PR/media team for their efforts during this week.

A day for the midfielders

We haven’t touched on them much in the wake of the title, race and other drama that took place today, but great finishes for all of the runners from fifth through ninth: Sergio Perez, Carlos Sainz Jr., Jenson Button, Pastor Maldonado and Felipe Nasr. For Maldonado, eighth marks his third consecutive points-paying finish, a career first, and for Sainz, it was a nice bounce back after his crash in qualifying, just rewards for his Toro Rosso team.

A great day for the fans

I’ll touch on this more in a post-weekend column, but I was so impressed – and surprised – by the fan turnout today. Certainly more than I would have pegged to show up.

Lewis Hamilton is the undoubted driving star of the USGP weekend, 2015, but the fans are the overall stars.

The other contenders for “overall stars” awards: the corner marshals, the track workers, and the TV crews, who undoubtedly had hours to fill – or if you were a cameraman/woman, torrential conditions to deal with. All the unsung heroes must be the ones celebrated this weekend.

***

I’ll undoubtedly have more to come in the next day or two from COTA.  All told, what a day, what a weekend… and we’re thankful you were there to be a part of it on MotorSportsTalk on NBCSports.com.

Behind the scenes of how the biggest story in racing was kept a secret

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In a world where nobody is able to keep a secret, especially in auto racing, legendary business leader and race team owner Roger Penske and INDYCAR CEO Mark Miles were able to keep the biggest story of the year a secret.

That was Monday morning’s stunning announcement that after 74 years of leadership and ownership of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the Hulman George Family was selling the track, the Indianapolis 500 and INDYCAR to Penske.

In an exclusive interview with NBC Sports.com on Thursday, Miles revealed the extreme lengths both sides went to so that nobody found out about this deal ahead of time. That included meeting with Penske at his Detroit offices early on Saturday mornings and late on Sunday nights.

The most important way of keeping it confidential was containing the number of people who were involved.

“We thought it was important to keep it quiet until we were ready to announce it,” Miles told NBC Sports.com. “The reason for that is No. 1, we wanted employees and other stakeholders to hear it from us and not through the distorting rumor mill.

“That was the motivation.

“We just didn’t involve many people. For most of the time, there were four people from Roger’s group in Michigan and four people from here (IMS/INDYCAR) involved and nobody else. There were just four of us. We all knew that none of the eight were going to talk to anybody about it until very late.”

Even key members of both staffs were kept out of the loop, notably Indianapolis Motor Speedway President Doug Boles, who admitted earlier this week he was not told of the impending sale until Saturday when he was at Texas Motor Speedway for the NASCAR race.

Both Penske and Miles realize the way a deal or a secret slips out is often from people far outside of the discussions who have to get called in to work to help set up an announcement.

Miles had a plan for that scenario, too.

“On Saturday, we had to set up a stream for Monday’s announcement,” Miles said. “We came up with an internal cover story so if anybody saw what was going on, there was a cover story for what that was, and it wasn’t that announcement.

“The key thing was we kept it at only those that needed to know.”

It wasn’t until very late Sunday night and very early Monday morning that key stakeholders in INDYCAR were informed. Team owner Bobby Rahal got a call at 7:30 a.m. on Monday. Racing legend Mario Andretti was also informed very early on Monday.

At 8 a.m. that day came the official word from Hulman & Company, which owns the Indianapolis 500, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and INDYCAR as well as a few other businesses, that Penske was buying the racing properties of the company. It was an advisory that a media conference was scheduled for 11 a.m. at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

It was a masterful move by both Penske and Miles.

Penske is already famous for keeping one of greatest secrets in racing history in 1993 and 1994. That is when his famed racing team along with Ilmor Engineering created “The Beast” – a 209 cubic-inch, pushrod engine that was designed, developed and tested in total secrecy. A small, select group of Team Penske mechanics were involved in the top-secret project and were told by Penske that if word of the engine leaked out, “it would be like cutting your paycheck.”

Nobody talked.

History repeated itself with the biggest racing story of the 21st Century, the sale of the world’s most famous race course that hosts the largest single-day sporting event in the world – the annual Indianapolis 500.

When INDYCAR held its “Victory Lap” award ceremony on Sept. 26 in Indianapolis, Miles told the crowd of an impending announcement that would be big news for the sport.

Was he coming close to giving away Monday’s announcement?

“No, that was about a sponsor announcement that will be coming along later,” Miles said on Thursday night.

Penske is one of America’s greatest and most successful business leaders. He is also the most successful team owner in auto racing history with 545 wins in all forms of racing including a record 18 Indianapolis 500 wins, a record 16 NTT IndyCar Series championships as well as two Daytona 500 wins and two NASCAR Monster Energy Cup championships just to name a few.

Penske was not the only bidder, but he was the one who made the most sense to the Hulman George Family, because it was important to find an owner who believed in “stewardship” of the greatest racing tradition on Earth more so than “ownership” of an auto racing facility and series.

“There were a number of parties that were engaged in thinking about this with us,” Miles revealed to NBC Sports.com. “There were a couple that got as far as what I call the ‘Red Zone.’

“Then, Tony George reached out to Roger Penske on Sept. 22.

“Price and value were always important, but the thing that nobody could match was the attributes that Roger could bring to the table, in terms of his history of the sport, his knowledge of the sport, combined with his business sense.

“He was viewed as the leader from a legacy or stewardship perspective, which was a very important factor.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500 

NHRA: How this weekend’s championship battles shape up

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After nine months and 23 races, the 2019 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series season all comes down to this: one race for the championship.

This weekend’s Auto Club NHRA Finals at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, California will crown champions in a number of classes, most notably the four professional ranks of Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle.

This weekend’s race is one of only two – the other is the U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis on Labor Day Weekend – that offers drivers 1.5 times as many points as they earn in the season’s other 22 races.

To give you a better idea of how valuable those extra points are, here’s how they break down for all four classes: Winner (150 points), runner-up (120 points), third-round loser (90), second-round loser (60) and first-round loser (30 points).

Drivers also earn qualifying points: 10 for first, 9 for second, 8 for third, 7 for fourth, 6 for fifth and sixth, 5 for seventh and eighth, 4 for ninth through 12th and 3 for 13th through 16th.

In addition, every driver that qualifies earns 15 points each. Plus, performance bonus points are awarded for each qualifying session for: low elapsed time of each session (4 points), second-quickest (3 points), third-quickest (2 points) and fourth-quickest (1 point).

Here’s a quick breakdown of what – and more importantly, who – to watch for in those four pro categories:

TOP FUEL: Steve Torrence is going for his second consecutive championship. But the route to this year’s title has not been nearly as easy as it was last year, when Torrence became the first driver in NHRA history to sweep all six races of the Countdown to the Championship playoffs.

Steve Torrence (Photo: NHRA)

Torrence has still had a very strong season, but his championship hopes are anything but secure. He leads 2017 champion Brittany Force, who has come on strong late in the season, by a mere 16 points coming into this weekend.

And don’t count out third-ranked Doug Kalitta, who at 55 points behind Torrence is less than two rounds of points away from taking the top spot if Torrence is upset. Kalitta is seeking his first career Top Fuel championship.

Mathematically at 86 points behind, even fourth-ranked Billy Torrence – Steve’s father – is still in contention, although it would take a complete first- or second-round meltdown in Sunday’s four final rounds of eliminations by his son, Force and Kalitta for dear old dad to rally to win the championship.

Still, that’s the beauty of NHRA racing: anything can happen.

FUNNY CAR: Robert Hight is aiming for his third championship but has some of the best in the class all still within striking distance heading into this weekend.

Robert Hight (Photo: NHRA)

Hight, who is president of John Force Racing when he isn’t hurtling down a drag strip in his AAA Auto Club Chevrolet Camaro, leads a pair of Don Schumacher Racing drivers, Jack Beckman (46 points behind Hight) and Matt Hagan (-56).

And don’t rule out 16-time Funny Car champion John Force, who is 72 points behind his teammate. Force needs to win the race, as well as have Hight, Beckman and Hagan all lose in the first two rounds, to potentially earn his 17th championship.

Still in it mathematically is Bob Tasca III, but at 104 points behind Hight, he would likely have to be No. 1 qualifier, set both ends of the speed and elapsed time national records, and have the four drivers in front of him all be eliminated in the first or second rounds.

PRO STOCK: Erica Enders has a very healthy lead in her quest for a third Pro Stock championship.

Erica Enders (Photo: NHRA)

Enders leads teammate Jeg Coughlin Jr. by 92 points heading into this weekend.

Three other drivers are mathematically still in the running, but if Enders gets past the second round, they’ll be eliminated unless they potentially go on to victory.

Those three drivers – who are separated by just five points – are 2017 champion Bo Butner (113 points behind Enders), Jason Line (-116) and Matt Hartford (-118).

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: About the only way Andrew Hines fails to clinch his sixth career PSM championship is if he fails to qualify for Sunday’s finals, is kidnapped by one of his rivals or simply doesn’t show up.

Andrew Hines (Photo: NHRA)

Fat chance of any of those things happening.

Hines has a commanding 115-point lead over 2016 champion Jerry Savoie.

Right behind is three-time champ Eddie Krawiec (-116 points), leads last year’s PSM champion, Matt Smith, by 117 points and has a 124-point edge over Karen Stoffer.

Follow @JerryBonkowski