Photo: Volkwagen Andretti Rallycross

Speed, VW start in “better position” to defend Red Bull GRC title

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As the Red Bull Global Rallycross kicks off this week at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park outside of Phoenix (coverage begins on Sunday, May 22, at 2 p.m. ET on NBCSN), defending Supercars champion Scott Speed feels both he and the Volkswagen Andretti Rallycross team are in a better position than 12 months ago.

And the Californian who now resides in Charlotte can say so with good reason. The team entered the 2015 Red Bull GRC campaign with only one race weekend under its belt with its new Volkswagen Beetles, which debuted in the 2014 season finale.

Now, though, the team has a whole year’s worth of data on the new cars and refined many of the early season mechanical niggling issues that put Speed into an early-season hole.

An incredible run of results followed from Detroit through the season finale in Las Vegas, when Speed posted two wins (Los Angeles doubleheader sweep) and seven podiums in eight starts, to complete an epic comeback for the title.

A better start will help Speed this year, and he’s keen to deliver early so he won’t need to rely on late-season heroics for a championship comeback (parts one and two of Speed breakout story last year here).

“We’re in a much better position now than we were last year,” Speed told NBC Sports. “Everyone’s done their development over the winter.

“The first race, the first qualifying is so exciting because you see where you stack up, and see where everyone is after doing their homework.”

Speed described his team’s improvements over the winter. The Michael Andretti-owned, Volkswagen-supported team, led by team manager John Tzouanakis along with a solid core of engineers and crew, tested in Arizona prior to the event this weekend.

“We did some testing already. The cars came back (from Europe) all straightened out, beautiful and repainted,” Speed said. “We tested the new bits to improve it and I think we’ve done just that.

“Having a long offseason break means we can develop new stuff, and try bigger things. There’s some big changes in the rear of the car. We’ve had the time for the engineers to develop things, to test first. You can’t just straight bring it to the track. I think we’ve certainly achieved some improvements.”

The Phoenix doubleheader is one of four this year, so the total of eight races from those four weekends (Phoenix, Daytona, The Base and L.A.) make up a total of two-thirds of the schedule.

Last year, Speed had a nightmare Daytona where he failed to advance out of the last chance qualifier in race one and failed to finish in race two. But in the remaining three doubleheader weekends, Speed secured a maximum six podium finishes out fo six starts, including that L.A. double race win sweep.

“They are the most important because it’s so easy to start a develop a snowball going in the wrong direction,” he explained. “If you have a mistake, failure it hurt.

“But I love the fact some are singles and some are doubles. It adds an extra aspect to the season.

“For the most part last year they treated us well. But Daytona we got caught with a problem we couldn’t fix and couldn’t start either final! We’ll be prepared; it’ll be a factor in championship.”

As for Speed’s offseason? He’s been busy testing, he did a one-off Audi TT Cup race to support his Volkswagen colleagues in Hockenheim and he did a one-off commentary bow in the FIA Formula E Championship booth filling in for Dario Franchitti at Mexico City.

“I got done with seven days testing and get to be a guest driver for Audi in Hockenheim. So I’m staying busy,” Speed said.

“The commentary was very different for me actually. It was something I’d do again in the future, but it’s a very different emotion for me. It was not anything I expected, but it was fun.

“If I don’t have to carry the commentary, and be the color commentary guy and insert tidbits of info, it was good. Being able to see how the main commentator works and what he does is a big eye opener.”

But Speed isn’t resting on his laurels having been the champion last year. The focus is firmly on the next races ahead this weekend in Phoenix.

“I haven’t thought much about it. I don’t plan too far ahead,” he said.

“The goal now is to start up with the best possible result in Phoenix.”

Lewis Hamilton receives Daytona 500 invitation from Bubba Wallace

Lewis Hamilton Bubba Wallace
Rudy Carezzevoli/Getty Images
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Lewis Hamilton is a fan of the new NASCAR Cup Series team formed by Denny Hamlin and Michael Jordan to field a car for Bubba Wallace.

Will the six-time Formula One champion also be a fan in person at a NASCAR race in the near future?

Wallace is hoping so.

After Hamilton tweeted his support Tuesday morning about the news of a Hamlin-Jordan-Wallace team making its debut with the 2021 season, Wallace responded with a sly invitation to the Daytona 500.

Much would need to be worked out, starting with how much garage and grandstand access would be afforded for a 2021 season opener that likely would occur during a still ongoing novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

But it would seem fitting given that Hamilton and Wallace have been two of the world’s most outspoken Black athletes about the quest for diversity and racial justice. Hamilton recently reaffirmed his commitment to activism after his donning a Breonna Taylor shirt sparked an FIA inquiry.

The idea of Hamilton attending the season opener already had legs, too. The Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 driver has expressed a desire to race the Daytona 500 after he has retired from Formula One.

He was a spectator (with racing legend Mario Andretti) at four-time champion Jeff Gordon’s final Cup race as a full-time in the 2015 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. In 2011, Hamilton swapped cars with three-time champion Tony Stewart at Watkins Glen International.

Having rubbed shoulders with other racing greats so often, it only would be fitting if Hamilton — who is one victory from tying Michael Schumacher’s career record and also could tie the F1 record with a seventh championship this season — spent some time with the greatest basketball player of all time.

Jeff Gordon was flanked by Mario Andretti and Lewis Hamilton before the 2015 Cup season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway (Jared C. Tilton/NASCAR via Getty Images).