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Sports car duties beckon for F1 figures throughout 2018

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We may be almost three months away from the beginning of the new Formula 1 season in Australia, but a couple of the series’ stars will be in action much earlier when they kick-start a busy year of sports car duties.

The Rolex 24 at Daytona will mark the opening event for the sports car calendar next year, taking place at Daytona International Speedway on January 27-28, and will welcome F1 racers Fernando Alonso and Lance Stroll to the grid.

Two-time F1 world champion Alonso will be making his sports car racing debut at Daytona with United Autosports, racing in the Prototype class as part of a star-studded line-up for the Anglo-American team.

The deal for Alonso to race for United came about via McLaren executive director Zak Brown, who is also a co-owner of the sports car team and was instrumental in Alonso’s appearance at the Indianapolis 500 earlier this year.

While nothing official has been signed beyond Daytona, Alonso’s entry is very much about preparing to enter the 24 Hours of Le Mans later this year with Toyota.

Much as Alonso’s debut at the Indy 500 was about pursuing his dream to win the ‘triple crown of motorsport’, an accolade only held once in racing history, Le Mans is the next step in that push.

Alonso’s ‘500 display was remarkable, qualifying fifth and leading a decent chunk of the race despite having never driven the car prior to an orientation test at the start of May, but his chance of winning Le Mans is even greater. In fact, you could say it’s 50/50.

Following Porsche’s exit from the FIA World Endurance Championship’s LMP1 class, Toyota will be the sole manufacturer racing in the top category at Le Mans next year. While a number of privateers will be stepping up to LMP1, they’re unlikely to pose much of a challenge to the might of Toyota.

Toyota is likely to enter two cars to Le Mans in 2018 – its full-season WEC entries – and a seat is there for Alonso following a successful first test in Bahrain in November. All parties remained tight-lipped about the test due to contract complications, but the noises coming out of the team were very positive indeed.

Toyota has been rumored to be considering a shake-up of its line-up, with multiple sources indicating to NBC Sports that at least one, if not two, of its existing drivers are set to be jettisoned. This opens up a seat for Alonso to take – for more than just Le Mans.

While WEC has looked precarious following Porsche’s LMP1 exit, the resulting revamped ‘super season’ calendar has its perks. The fact there are just five events in 2018 means Alonso can theoretically do a wider WEC program without affecting his F1 commitments too badly.

With just one clash – between the United States Grand Prix and the WEC round at Fuji – Alonso can appear at Spa, Le Mans, Silverstone and Shanghai next year, giving him plenty of opportunities to spread his wings outside of F1 and hone his sports car skills, with Daytona marking the start of his new adventure.

Alonso will be racing with some familiar names at Daytona. McLaren junior Lando Norris and Williams F1 test driver Paul di Resta are also part of United Autosports’ line-up, making it one of the teams to watch.

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES – NOVEMBER 24: Lance Stroll of Canada and Williams prepares to drive in the garage during practice for the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 24, 2017 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

Besides Alonso, fellow F1 full-time Lance Stroll will also be appearing at Daytona in January, making his second start at the Rolex 24 following a debut run to P5 with Chip Ganassi Racing in 2016.

Stroll, 19, will be making his first sports car appearance since then at the race, linking up with Jackie Chan DCR Jota alongside Felix Rosenqvist, Robin Frijns and Daniel Juncadella. The quartet are all close friends and all respected, successful racers, making it another interesting story to follow for the race.

Stroll remained coy when grilled about the possibility of more sports car racing outings through 2018, with the lack of clash between Le Mans and an F1 weekend giving anyone interested a chance to venture to the Circuit de la Sarthe.

Who else could dip their toe into the sports car water next year? Kevin Magnussen has long made his wish to race at Le Mans clear, preferably with his father, Jan, who races for Corvette. With the Corvette line-up set for the season, though, it seems unlikely the Haas driver would make his bow.

Magnussen’s teammate, Romain Grosjean, also has Le Mans on his hit list for the future, but has again stressed he only wants to do it if he can do it right. With Toyota holding the only realistic overall win hopes, unless he could find a seat there, an entry seems unlikely.

Nico Hulkenberg was the last active F1 driver to enter Le Mans, taking a famous overall victory with Porsche in its third car in 2015 that Alonso would look to replicate. Given Porsche has already fixed up its line-up in GTE-Pro, a return with the German marque looks off the table.

Nevertheless, as the season ticks on and Le Mans draws closer, we’re likely to get a better picture of what active F1 racers may be tempted to give sports car racing’s greatest event a crack.

But even if it’s only Alonso flying the flag for F1, it will be a year that sees the series expand its horizons to other disciplines.

We may be long gone from the days of Mario Andretti criss-crossing the Atlantic to take part in two races on the same weekend, but there is nevertheless something refreshing about seeing F1’s stars have a shot at different series.

Todd LeDuc advances two positions in Monster Jam Power Rankings

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Neil Elliott held onto the top spot in the Monster Jam Power Rankings, but he has a new driver sniffing his exhaust as Todd Leduc advanced two positions to second this week.

The Stadium Series Green continues to hold the advantage in the Power Rankings with Elliott topping the chart, Morgan Kane in fourth, and Ryan Anderson eighth, but there is an equitable distribution among the other series throughout the field.

Notably, Leduc and his Monster Energy truck in the Stadium Series Red closed the gap with a 38-point overall victory at US Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, MN. Leduc achieved his win through consistency, pocketing the overall without winning a single individual event. Leduc’s best session was a second-place finish to Mike Vaters II in Overkill Evolution by .001 points.

Meanwhile on the West Coast, Elliott rambled on. Elliott won his sixth skills challenge in seven contests so far. That contributed to his 35 points for the event at PETCO Park in San Diego and allowed him to hold onto the No. 1 slot in the Monster Jam Power Rankings.

Colton Eichelberger also held station. Third last week, he entered the Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse on a mission in the Triple Threat Series Central. He topped the event points in all four events with timed race wins in each session, ATV race wins in three of the four, three wins in the speedster obstacle course, two freestyle wins and one win in the donut competitions.

MORE: Ryan Anderson and the anatomy of a Monster Jam freestyle run

Morgan Kane and Grave Digger had a rough night. He was ousted from the racing event in Round 2 by Max-D and Elliott. He failed to win either of the other two competitions of the night and ended with 29 points, which was a distant third to Ryan Anderson’s Son-Uva Digger (37) and Max-D (35).

Brandon Vinson moved up to the fifth position with three wins in the Triple Threat Series West. During the weekend he earned seven session wins, including a sweep of the speedster obstacle course and two victories in the two-wheel skills challenge.

Tom Meents debuted on the Monster Jam Power Rankings in 10th by winning the overall in back to back nights of the Stadium Series Yellow. The Saturday show can be seen Feb. 22 at 11:30 p.m. on NBCSN (click here for streaming). The highlight of Meents’ weekend were race wins on Saturday and Sunday, defeating Coty Saucier in a Monster Energy truck on Night 1 and Eric Swanson in Obsessed on Night 2.

Power Rankings

1. Neil Elliott–same
2. Todd LeDuc–up 2
3. Colton Eichelberger-same
4. Morgan Kane–down 2
5. Brandon Vinson–up 1
6. Tyler Menninga–up 1
7. Coty Saucier–down 2
8. Ryan Anderson–same
9. Linsey Read–up 1
10. Tom Meents-new for 2020

Upcoming TV Schedule (All showings on Eastern time on NBCSN)

Oakland: February 22 (Saturday); 11:30 p.m.
Miami: March 1 (Sunday); 12 a.m.
Jacksonville: March 9 (Monday); 6 p.m.
Detroit: March 21 (Saturday); 11 p.m.
Las Vegas: March 28 (Saturday); 7 p.m.
Santa Clara: April 11 (Saturday); 7 p.m.
Philadelphia: April 17 (Friday); 2:30 p.m.
Denver: April 25 (Saturday); 6:30 p.m.
Monster Jam World Finals Racing: May 9 (Saturday); 5 p.m.
Monster Jam World Finals: May 19 (Tuesday); 4 p.m.
Monster Jam World Freestyle: May 20 (Wednesday); 12 a.m.
Monster Jam World Finals: June 20 (Saturday); 2:30 p.m.