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Damn, Daniil: Will Red Bull finally put Kvyat out of his misery?

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In a Formula 1 season filled with driver swaps and changes, 2017 offered up its latest twist when Toro Rosso confirmed on Monday it would enter this weekend’s Mexican Grand Prix with its third different line-up in as many races, and fourth in the last five.

Having drafted in Porsche factory driver Brendon Hartley to replace Pierre Gasly in Austin last weekend due to the latter’s Super Formula commitments in Japan, Toro Rosso confirmed it would be fielding the 2017 Le Mans winner once again this Sunday for his second F1 start.

With Gasly returning, Daniil Kvyat finds himself on the sidelines for the second time this season – and, quite likely by the looks of it – the final time.

Kvyat’s fall over the past 18 months has been one of the hardest stories to watch in F1, with the Russian going from Red Bull’s top scorer to the sidelines, being dropped three times along the way through its B-team.

Ever since Max Verstappen burst onto the scene as a fresh-faced 17-year-old with Toro Rosso in 2015, Kvyat’s position looked at risk.

In truth, Kvyat’s F1 position has always seemed that way, as his appointments or demotions to seats have always come with an element of surprise.

He got the initial call at Toro Rosso over Antonio Felix da Costa going into 2014, which was not expected. Then, he got the promotion to Red Bull after Sebastian Vettel’s shock departure the end of that year, and after the team had reneged on a promise it’d made to Jean-Eric Vergne should it happen.

Alas, Kvyat did well to ease some of the pressure through 2015 with a solid year, taking one podium en route to finishing as Red Bull’s top scorer in a fraught season for the team as teammate Daniel Ricciardo suffered regular reliability issues.

Even so, the 2016 season begun with Verstappen already being talked about as a rival for his seat, leading to questions for Kvyat at the launch of Red Bull’s new car, the RB12, in London that February.

As would become his approach for much of the last 18 months, Kvyat brushed it off and said he wasn’t bothered by any pressure Verstappen may apply, seeming at ease in life at Red Bull’s top team.

February 2016 also saw the emergence of a viral internet meme, ‘Damn Daniel’ (or, more accurately, ‘daaaaaaamn Daniel!‘) featuring a school kid admiring his friend’s shoes, specifically white Vans. In the months that would follow, it would be Daniil who would be left saying “damn” as his Red Bull career fizzled out.

SHANGHAI, CHINA – APRIL 17: Daniil Kvyat of Russia and Red Bull Racing celebrates on the podium during the Formula One Grand Prix of China at Shanghai International Circuit on April 17, 2016 in Shanghai, China. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

An opportunistic podium in China after a bold first-lap move that earned him the nickname ‘The Torpedo’ appeared to breathe fresh life into Kvyat’s hopes at Red Bull, only for a disastrous home race at Russia to give the team the excuse it needed to swap seats with Verstappen at Toro Rosso.

The rest of 2016 proved tough for Kvyat mentally. He maintained the outer steel that the machismo nature of F1 apparently obligates, but the cracks were there below. It was good to see him refreshed after the summer break and deliver some good displays that would get him a reprieve with Toro Rosso for 2017, leaving Gasly waiting in Red Bull’s wings.

A lack of on-track success proved costly, though. A crash in Singapore saw Red Bull take action and replace Kvyat with Gasly after he’d scored just four points all season long. Teammate Carlos Sainz Jr., by comparison, had racked up 48 in the same period.

Toro Rosso stressed in announcing Gasly that Kvyat remained firmly a part of the Red Bull family, with the team announcing after Japan he would return for the rest of the season after Sainz’s early move to Renault.

Things changed when Gasly was taken out, Hartley came in and did a fair job, leading Red Bull to commit to fielding the pair in Mexico, with this announcement making no mention of Kvyat at all.

It is possible for Hartley to see out the season alongside Gasly without missing any WEC races for Porsche, although it would commit him to a brutal eight-weekend run of races, starting with Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta two weeks ago and finishing with the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix via Fuji, Austin, Mexico City, Shanghai, Sao Paulo and Bahrain.

While no commitment has been made by Toro Rosso, such a call seems likely. Hartley looks set to wrap up the WEC title next weekend in Shanghai for Porsche, easing the late-season pressure. And as Toro Rosso has hit the season limit of four drivers already, Hartley and Kvyat must see out the year alongside Gasly.

If Red Bull truly does not have any plans for him in the future, it would be for the best that Kvyat does not return – for his own good more than anything.

Sportsmen rarely open up about the mental effect of defeat and disappointment, but they are human; they feel it. And Kvyat has felt it more than anyone in F1 of late. Three droppings must have sapped his confidence, particularly after delivering what he called a “perfect” display in Austin on Sunday despite limited track time and a month out. There was nothing more he could do.

Kvyat stressed in interviews in Austin he would talk to Red Bull advisor Helmut Marko to try and get some answers, wanting clarity more than anything. Why was he dropped after Singapore? Does he have a future? Apparently he has a long-term contract in place with Red Bull – will that be honored? And are both sides willing?

Kvyat needs to be given the chance to get on with his career. A GP3 and Formula Renault champion, he undoubtedly has talent, and could certainly find success in other series were he unable to find a spot in F1 given the lack of available seats. He just needs the chance to give it a go, be it Formula E, WEC, IndyCar – whatever takes his fancy.

The long-term contract in place with Red Bull is interesting. It could be that like Hartley or Sebastien Buemi, Kvyat remains a part of its wider motorsport family, just not in its F1 plans. Red Bull-backed drivers are always of interest to teams; someone with F1 pedigree even more so.

As for Toro Rosso? Hartley continuing points towards him being a contender for a 2018 seat, despite him appearing before to be nailed on for a ride with Chip Ganassi Racing in the Verizon IndyCar Series. The absence of other Red Bull juniors vying for the seat aids his bid, but the team could yet explore other options outside the program’s umbrella to find a partner for Gasly.

AUSTIN, TX – OCTOBER 22: Brendon Hartley of Scuderia Toro Rosso and New Zealand during the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 22, 2017 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Peter Fox/Getty Images)

What Kvyat does next will be of interest to the entire F1 paddock. Nobody likes to see a driver go through prolonged struggles. To see him move on and enjoy success elsewhere after a tough couple of years would be a real good news story in the sport.

But his time here does seem up. Results do not lie. Under the old points system, Kvyat would never have scored a point during either of his stints with Toro Rosso.

And that’s not the ‘old old’ points system that only saw the top six score points – that’s the top eight being covered, as used from 2003 to 2009. Kvyat’s highest finish for Toro Rosso is P9.

And in F1’s most cut-throat driver program at Red Bull, that simply does not cut it.

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