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Kligerman: What does it mean to be a racer? Fernando Alonso might know

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In a sudden flurry of tweets and Instagram stories Wednesday, we were flooded with massive news.

Internet meme sensation and two-time Formula One world champion Fernando Alonso would be attempting the Indianapolis 500. Foregoing the champagne popping, mirrored sunglasses and bikini-filled yachts of Monte Carlo, Monaco, for a 2.5-mile rectangular-shaped stretch of asphalt in the flat plains of the Midwestern United States.

Describe it like that, and you might think this is some sort of old European film about an affluent young man heading west to discover America.

But I left out the most important part: Alonso is a racer (aside from being a professional race car driver).

How do I know this?

In his own tweet, accompanied by a painting of the start of an Indy 500, Alonso wrote “I love RACING. I’m just a RACER. Indy 500 here we come!!!” Followed by a series of muscle emojis and hashtags.

Than directly above this tweet he retweeted an Indy 500 champion and one of his new teammates; Ryan Hunter-Reay, who wrote “Welcome to the team @alo_oficial!! The epitome of a true racer. Huge undertaking, big crossover taking it head on. Look fwd to working w/you” (No emojis or hashtags followed.)

At first glance, this seems the beginning of great camaraderie between two top-notch race car drivers, both of whom are under the impression that Alonso is a racer.

It’s a cliche term that I admit to having used a time or two but constantly has left me asking, “What does it mean to be a racer?”

A look at Fernando Alonso’s Twitter avatar provides a good example. Instead of the typical race car driver — firesuit, cool sunglasses and some flashy, edited photo – Alonso is in a go-kart (admittedly it’s a Fernando Alonso Kart).

No super car, no top of the podium from one of his favorite wins at the pinnacle of the sport, not even a workout photo.

Just him in a kart and on a track.

And what is Karting? Karting is where we all start. If you polled all the professional race car drivers in the world, most likely 99 percent would say they started in a kart.

It’s the first point in a race car driver’s life where the gifted start to outshine the pedestrian. It’s racing’s equivalent of the third-grade Saturday morning soccer field. It’s probably the only place and time an eventual professional race car driver competes for one reason: The fun and thrill of driving.

As a driver climbs the ladder, it all becomes muddled with terms such as funding, sponsorship, lack of funding, marketability, perception and (my personal favorite)  talent.

Every move is scrutinized. The more success you have, the more people will surround you to adjust these things. You put up with it because you want to be a pro driver, and this is what it takes.

But pull any pro driver away from the money, fame, parties, yachts and helicopters. Many will confide they enjoyed it most in a kart, racing with their family and friends for the thrill of driving. For the fun.

Why?

Because back then, it was about being only a racer. Which brings us back to Alonso’s avatar.

The significance of being in a kart is this F1 champion’s way of saying “We all put our pants on, one leg at a time.” Admittedly he’s adorned in multimillion-dollar sponsors from his F1 team. It’s this juxtaposition that shows his nostalgia for the days of old.

He is proclaiming in visual form that he is not in Formula One for the “stuff.” He is there because he loves to drive, and he loves to race and the top of that just happens to be in Formula One.

But is that a true racer? Many will say it is. We will see that from the bajillion times Alonso will be called racer over the coming weeks.

I’m not convinced.

Many proclaim the true racers never get to decide to be nostalgic about the days of their accession – because there was no accession. These racers still are racing at the karting track, bombing around dirt tracks and scrounging for the funds to continue. They are working 9-to-5 jobs so they simply can get to the racetrack.

They don’t get the chance to be envious of a less complicated form of racing because they never left it. This is where my questioning of the term develops.

Earlier this year, I tweeted that I had become a massive fan of Fernando Alonso in the last few years. My central reasoning was because of his absolute non-politically correct “I don’t give a @%!#” attitude, none more evident than this year’s preseason testing.

When asked about when the much faster F1 cars in 2017 meant he was flat-out through turn 3 at the Barcelona test, Alonso joked: “Yes, but I think we are full throttle in many corners!” His woefully underpowered McLaren-Honda struggled to reach a speed that necessitated lifting off the throttle.

Combine his current predicament with his comical accuracy in choosing to go to the wrong team at the wrong time, joining McLaren, Renault (again), Ferrari and McLaren (again) just as they were entering slumps.

You are looking at a guy who is arguably the best driver in Formula One — quite possibly in the world. Who should probably have at least double, if not a record-setting number of F1 championships.

Now he has chosen to try something entirely foreign and unique. Those qualities make me believe he is a rarity in modern-day racing — and I am not alone. In a recent Formula One survey by Motorsport.com, Alonso was vying for most popular driver against worldwide media sensation Lewis Hamilton.

So does racing the Indy 500 make Alonso a racer? No. To me, he already was one.

And does it answer the question of what it means to be a racer? No. I think that is in the eye of the beholder.

What I do know, as a race fan and a fellow professional race car driver, is this.

Whatever Fernando Alonso is, the sport only will benefit by having more like him.

Here’s the point(s): Brad Keselowski locked into second round already

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Brad Keselowski came into the NASCAR Cup playoffs concerned primarily about one thing: wins.

His strategy was if he won at least once in the first two or three rounds, it likely would leave him in good position to reach the final Round of 4 for the championship in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Ironically, Keselowski is just two races into the 10-race playoffs and he’s already advanced to the second round Round of 12 not on wins, but points.

After finishing sixth in the playoff opener last Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway, Keselowski finished fourth in Sunday’s ISM Connect 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

That’s enough points earned to put Keselowski and Kyle Larson into the second round with points, while Chicagoland winner Martin Truex Jr. and New Hampshire winner Kyle Busch also advance to Round 2 with their victories.

While Keselowski would have liked to earn his first playoff win and third triumph of the season, knowing he doesn’t have to worry about where he’ll finish next Sunday in the first round elimination race at Dover gave the 2012 Cup champion satisfaction indeed.

“It was great execution,” Keselowski said. “The pit crew was really solid today and a pretty good setup too. (Crew chief) Paul Wolfe and the engineers did a good job putting the right stuff under the car.”

Even though he never led a lap in Sunday’s race, a win was definitely possible for Keselowski, even though he was contending with the Toyotas of Kyle Busch and Truex Jr.

He stayed in the top 5 for much of the race, didn’t suffer any problems on pit road and stayed out of trouble.

“I felt like we were where we needed to be to win and to run up front with the pit crew and the setup, just kind of lacking a little bit with aero stuff to keep up,” Keselowski said. “But on this type of track, aerodynamics are a little less important and I felt like it helped us run a little bit higher this week.”

Now, Keselowski can go into Dover a bit more relaxed, knowing he’ll race yet another day after next Sunday – as in the Round of 12 opener at Charlotte on Oct. 8.

“I think today this execution is as good as you can get,” Keselowski said. “A little bit of luck helps and of course you want to be the fastest car.

“That’s not the scenario with rules the way they are now, so we’ve got to make the most of it and hope to catch a few breaks and make sure we do our part.”

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Ricky Stenhouse Jr. overcomes tough day to hold on to final transfer spot

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LOUDON, New Hampshire — No, there were not any bruises although Ricky Stenhouse Jr. admits it felt like “we were in a boxing match with Floyd Mayweather all week.’’

Stenhouse persevered Sunday, coming back from scraping the wall on Lap 7 of Sunday’s  race and getting lapped before halfway to finish 15th. That puts him in the final transfer spot for the second round with only next weekend’s race at Dover International Speedway left before the playoff field is trimmed.

Stenhouse is tied with Austin Dillon for the final transfer spot but owns the tiebreaker based on a better finish in this round. Stenhouse’s best finish in this round was the 15th-place finish he scored Sunday. Dillon’s best finish is 16th, which he scored last weekend at Chicagoland Speedway.

Stenhouse entered Sunday’s race four points behind Dillon for the final transfer spot. Odds were not in his favor to gain ground. Stenhouse had the worst average finish (20.44) at New Hampshire among the 16 playoff drivers coming into the race. It looked all weekend as if he’d struggle to make it into the top 20.

“We just couldn’t find speed, couldn’t find the handle on the car,’’ Stenhouse said. “We made a lot of adjustments for today and was surprisingly a little bit better than we were in practice. I didn’t think we were as capable of a car to finish where we did, but we did what we needed and had some good breaks and some good pit stops and ended up gaining some points. That was our goal, so I feel really good about that. I’d say we’ve had two sub-par weeks and we’re still in this thing, so we’ll regroup and get focused and go to Dover.”

Stenhouse has 2,044 points, tied with Dillon and one point ahead of Ryan Newman.

Dillon finished 19th and was involved in an incident with Kevin Harvick that spun Harvick and triggered an eight-car crash at the end of the second stage.

Dillon said he didn’t know what happened.

“He kept coming left and I was in the gas and he bobbled and when he bobbled I tapped him and it spun him out,’’ Dillon said of Harvick.

As for next week, Dillon said: “We’ve got to go get ‘em … and have a good race and we will see where we end up.”

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Kyle Larson: ‘Top fives will get us to Homestead’

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Kyle Larson has finished in second a lot.

His runner-up finish Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway was his eighth of the year and his first in the playoffs.

In Sunday’s ISM Connect 300, the Chip Ganassi Racing driver started and finished second after failing to track down Kyle Busch in the closing laps of the race.

But Larson doesn’t mind, especially after he’s earned two top fives to open the playoffs.

“That’s a lot of second-place finishes this year, but I’m fine with second,” Larson told NBCSN. “Top fives will get us to Homestead (for the championship race), so hats off to everybody on our Target team. The pit crew was great all day. I think we gained spots every time. Normally I’m struggling on short tracks, but this year we were pretty good.”

Larson placed second in both New Hampshire races this year. Before this season, he hadn’t finished better than 10th in his previous four starts. He placed third and second in his first two New Hampshire starts in 2014.

Larson earned his first short-track win two weeks ago in the regular-season finale at Richmond Raceway. The rest of his five Cup victories have come at 2-mile speedways, of which there are none in the playoffs. But there is the short track of Martinsville and the 1-mile oval at Phoenix in the third round.

Any sting of finishing second once again is likely dulled by the fact Larson has already advanced to the second round based on points.

But Larson wants to make more trips to victory lane in the final eight races.

“You could probably point your way to (the championship race), but I would prefer to get a win in each of these rounds,” Larson later said in his post-race press conference. “If we can keep the good runs going, we should be all right.

“Obviously, I think as you get into the later rounds, wins are even more important than they are now. We had good regular season points, gave ourselves some good playoff points. This first round I knew would be fairly easy, but I think as we get into the next round and then the third round, a win would be great.”

Larson leaves New Hampshire second in the NASCAR Cup standings. He is 24 points behind Martin Truex Jr.

Larson’s next chance to win in the first round of the playoffs is next weekend at the 1-mile Dover International Speedway. In his seven starts at the “Monster Mile,” Larson has three top fives.

Two of those were runner-up finishes, including in the last visit there in June.

NASCAR Cup standings after Loudon: 4 drivers locked into second round

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Four drivers emerged from Sunday’s ISM Connect 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway with a bit of pressure taken off their shoulders.

In addition to race winner Kyle Busch and last week’s winner, Martin Truex Jr., Sunday runner-up Kyle Larson and fourth-place finisher Brad Keselowski are all locked into the second round of the NASCAR Cup playoffs, also known as the Round of 12.

That means no matter what happens at Dover International Speedway next Sunday, those four will have automatic berths in the second round.

Drivers in the first round that need strong results at Dover to advance — or run the risk of being eliminated if they don’t — are Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (12th place), Austin Dillon (13th), Ryan Newman (14th), Kurt Busch (15th) and Kasey Kahne (16th).

Following Sunday’s race, Martin Truex Jr. remains No. 1 in the standings, holding a 24-point lead over Larson, a 30-point edge over Kyle Busch, 43 points ahead of Brad Keselowski, 61 points ahead of Denny Hamlin and 62 points ahead of Matt Kenseth.

Click here for the full NASCAR Cup standings after Sunday’s race at New Hampshire.