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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.

Saturday’s NASCAR Cup, Xfinity schedule at Richmond

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Today is the midpoint of the racing weekend at Richmond International Raceway.

The NASCAR Cup Series will have two practice sessions, while the NASCAR Xfinity Series will have qualifying and then race in the Toyota Care 250.

Here’s how today’s schedule shapes up (all times are Eastern):

6:30 a.m. – Xfinity garage opens

7:30 a.m. – 4 p.m. – Cup garage open

9 – 9:55 a.m. – Cup practice (FS1, MRN)

10:05 a.m. – Xfinity qualifying; three rounds/multi-car (FS1)

11:15 a.m. – Xfinity driver-crew chief meeting

11:30 a.m. – 12:20 p.m. – Final Cup practice (FS1, MRN)

12:30 p.m. – Xfinity driver introductions

1 p.m. – Toyota Care 250; 250 laps/187.5 miles (FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Starting grid for Cup Series Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond

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The Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond International Raceway will begin Sunday with Matt Kenseth and Ryan Blaney on the front row.

They will lead a 38-car field to green in the ninth race of the Cup season.

Filling out the top five is Martin Truex Jr., Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Joey Logano.

Click here for the full starting grid.

Denny Hamlin: Joe Gibbs Racing’s rebound won’t happen ‘overnight’ or ‘in a month’

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With NASCAR visiting a track where Joe Gibbs Racing has won the last three races, one of its drivers admits the issues that have plagued the team so far in 2017 won’t be remedied quickly.

“I think we are slowly getting better, we’re gaining more knowledge trying to figure out what it is that we need to work on,” Denny Hamlin said Friday at Richmond International Raceway. “It’s not going to happen overnight, it’s not going to happen this week, it won’t happen in a month. Some things are going to take a long time for us to get better at, but I’m very confident that when push comes to shove, we’re in September starting the (playoffs), we should be hopefully back where we were, if not better.”

Entering the Toyota Owners 400, Joe Gibbs Racing has yet to win race through eight events. All four of its drivers sit outside the top 10 in points. Hamlin was the last active JGR driver to win, winning last years’ regular season finale at Richmond.

The 2016 Daytona 500 winner is 15th in the standings and has yet to finish in the top five. By this point in each of the last two seasons, Hamlin had three top fives and one win.

“It’s always taken me a long time to get over winter break,” Hamlin said. “For whatever reason, it’s taking 10 races or whatever into the season to kind of hit my stride. I’m not really sure what it is. I try just as hard at the beginning as I do at the end. It just seems like that break in the offseason, it takes myself a little while to get over that hump, get in the flow of things. I’m not really sure.”

JGR is still learning about its new 2018 Camry bodies, which Toyota introduced this year. Furniture Row Racing, which is in a technical alliance with JGR, has one win with Martin Truex Jr. (Las Vegas), who is also third in points. Erik Jones is 13th in the standings with just one top 10.

Truex and Jones claimed the top spots in Friday’s only Cup practice session.

“We all get the same information,” Truex said Friday. “I guess at the end of the day it’s how you use it, how you put it to use. I think our team, (crew chief) Cole (Pearn), (engineer) Jazzy (Jeff Curtis), (competition director) Pete (Rondeau), our guys in general are just – right now we’re just clicking. We have a lot of confidence. Things are going well.”

Through eight races, there have been six different winners. NASCAR America analyst Steve Letarte has called this Sunday’s race “pivotal” for Joe Gibbs Racing.

“I think our competition also did a phenomenal job over the off‑season of getting better,” Hamlin said. “They just showed up this year with just more raw speed than what they had at the end of last year. It’s the same drivers, same crew chiefs, but their cars are faster. That makes their job a whole lot easier. But these are the trying times, you could say, that defines your character. It makes you work hard. We were on top for probably a year and a half, every week having four out of five of the fastest cars each week. Sometimes we won, sometimes we didn’t. But we’re going to get better. We’re not on top right now, so we’ve got to work extra hard to get there.”

One piece of the JGR puzzle who has had to work harder is Daniel Suarez.

The defending Xfinity Series champion enters the ninth race of his rookie season 22nd in points. The biggest road block for him has been working with two crew chiefs. His initial partner, Dave Rogers, took an indefinite leave of absence following the West Coast Swing. Since then, the No. 19 team has been led by Scott Graves, who was Suarez’ crew chief last year during his title campaign.

“It’s been a lot going on for sure,” Suarez said Friday. “I felt like we were going in a good direction maybe a month and a half ago and then we had some changes that were out of our hands and I feel like we had to start again on these processes in the Cup car. Scott, he’s a very smart crew chief, he knows a lot and he has won two championships in a row in the Xfinity Series, but in the Cup car it’s different and he knows that and I’m learning that. I believe now we are learning together instead of I’m just learning myself.”

All of these comments were made Friday morning and afternoon. In the evening, Matt Kenseth did his part to turn things around for JGR by winning the pole for Sunday’s race.

It’s the first pole for JGR since the Kenseth claimed it last fall at Kansas Speedway.

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Matt Kenseth wins first pole of year for Toyota Owners 400

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For one afternoon at least, Matt Kenseth changed the conversation about Joe Gibbs Racing’s early season problems by winning the pole for the Toyota Owners 400.

Kenseth won his first pole of 2017 with a speed of 121.076 mph around Richmond International Raceway. It’s also the first pole for Toyota this season.

It’s Kenseth’s 19th Cup pole and his second at the .75-mile track (spring 2013). Kenseth’s previous best start this season was fourth at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

“Those guys did really a job adjusting between rounds,” Kenseth told Fox Sports 1. “We had enough speed in out Circle K Camry that we only had to do one lap in each of the first two rounds to get into the third round. … This year has not been a good year for us, obviously so far. … We haven’t been getting any stage points, we’re buried in the points back there. We finally got a decent finish last week (at Bristol).

“Hopefully this week we can start up front, stay up front and collect some stage points.”

Kenseth will try to extend JGR’s win streak at Richmond to four races.

Ryan Blaney qualified second with a speed of 120.854 mph.

“The last lap of the last section we moved up (the track),” Blaney told FS1. “I wish I had done it both laps of the last session. so I knew how hard to go. I was in there little bit shallow the second lap and I knew I regretted it right away … I guess a bunch other cars did that and they picked up. I don’t know where (Kenseth) ran. It was a solid effort.”

It will be Blaney’s third start from second this season, which is a fact that annoys the sophomore driver in the No. 21 Ford.

“I really want to race the Clash at Daytona, that’s like my biggest thing right now,” Blaney said. “It’s upsetting me that we can’t get a pole.”

Filling out the top five for Sunday’s race is Martin Truex Jr., Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Joey Logano.

In his first race since announce his retirement following this season, Dale Earnhardt Jr. will start 12th.

Other notable starting spots: Chase Elliott (14th) Brad Keselowski (15th), Denny Hamlin (16th) Jimmie Johnson (17th) and Kyle Larson (18th).

Austin Dillon will start last as a penalty for failing pre-race laser inspection five times last week at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Click here for full qualifying results.