Hyundai Motorsport has taken a dramatic victory in Rally Italia Sardegna, the seventh round of the 2018 FIA World Rally Championship (WRC), as Thierry Neuville and Nicolas Gilsoul stole a last gasp win with a sublime performance on the final morning.

The Belgian crew started the day with a 3.9-second deficit to leader M-Sport Ford’s Sébastien Ogier, but a perfect Sunday morning with four stage wins, including the Power Stage, allowed them to steadily catch and pass the Frenchman.

They took a memorable result by a mere 0.7-seconds after 313.46km of competitive Sardinian stages. In one of the closest finishes in WRC history, it actually matches the same minuscule gap by which Neuville beat Elfyn Evans in the 2017 edition of Rally Argentina.

The result is Hyundai Motorsport’s third win of the 2018 season and tenth in its WRC history. It marks the team’s second victory in Rally Italia Sardegna following Neuville’s triumph in 2016, and the fourth Sardinia event in succession where it has finished on the podium.

Sunday celebrations
Four stages were contested on Sunday morning with two runs through the 14.06km Cala Flumini and 6.96km coastal Sassari-Argentiera tests. There was no respite for any of the crews with tense battles throughout the field. While Neuville and Ogier battled it out at the front, Hayden Paddon was able to defend his fourth place from Mads Østberg with a solid Sunday, securing his best result of the season so far.

One-time rally leader Andreas Mikkelsen wrestled two consolatory driver points for finishing fourth in the nerve-wracking and competitive Power Stage.

With this victory, Hyundai Motorsport has extended its grip on the manufacturers’ championship with 212 points, an increased gap of 28 points to M-Sport Ford in second. Neuville’s five additional points for Power Stage success saw him take the maximum available for the weekend and increase his lead in the drivers’ classification to 27 points over Ogier.

Since its WRC debut in 2014, Hyundai Motorsport has now taken ten victories and a total of 40 individual podiums. As the 2018 season passes its halfway mark, the team now heads into the summer break with an opportunity to reflect on a hugely successful season-to-date.

Crew Notes: Neuville/Gilsoul (#5 Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC)

  • Third win of 2018 season with six consecutive stage wins from SS15 to the SS20 Power stage
  • Increases drivers’ championship lead taking maximum 30 points on offer

Neuville said: “I can’t believe it! We knew we had to give it everything we had this morning, and it was a truly fantastic fight with Sébastien. The gap at the end was so small and we left absolutely nothing behind. We kept pushing as hard as we could without doing anything stupid. Battling against Séb is one of the most difficult things to do, so this is a precious victory. Nicolas and I send massive thanks to the whole Hyundai Motorsport team for giving us a great car this weekend. Without them we couldn’t have done this today. Starting first on the road on Friday put us at a disadvantage. The rain helped a bit but we never gave up and we can share in one of the finest wins of our career. Leading both championships heading into the break gives us all the motivation we need for the second half of the season.”

Crew Notes: Paddon/Marshall (#6 Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC)

  • Fourth place represents crew’s best result of 2018 season so far
  • Highest finish in Sardinia since second place in 2015

Paddon said: “A difficult weekend for us, but a positive end to the rally for the team. We wanted more from this rally, but to take fourth place gives us important confidence for the coming events. Things didn’t really click from the first stages, and we weren’t able to replicate the positive feeling we had from shakedown. Still, it’s nice to finish this event for the first time in three years, and to score important points for the team in the manufacturers’ championship. We will look to build from here, and to try and take a few more risks. Congratulations to Thierry, Nicolas and the whole team for a fantastic victory.”

Crew Notes: Mikkelsen/Jæger (#4 Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC)

  • Led rally on Friday morning before transmission trouble
  • Two consolation points for fourth place in the Power Stage

Mikkelsen said: “We gave it all we could in the Power Stage to try and salvage something from what has been a frustrating weekend. Since the last rally, we have found a much better feeling from inside the car but we haven’t had the results to match. On Friday morning, we could show the potential we have with some strong times and leading the rally. Unfortunately, the transmission problem ended our rally and we’ve spent the remaining stages just refining things and picking up useful information about the car on these tough gravel stages. It is all valuable learning but we leave Sardinia with a feeling of missed opportunity. We will regroup over the summer break and be ready for Finland. Finally, congratulations to Thierry and Nicolas on an outstanding win this weekend.”  

Sardinian success story

  • 11 stage wins for Hyundai Motorsport crews in Sardinia
  • Third victory of 2018 and tenth in team’s WRC history

Team Principal Michel Nandan commented: “I am completely delighted, as are all members of the team, with this incredible victory. It was truly a perfect win for Thierry and Nicolas. The battle with Ogier started on Saturday and the intensity of that only increased. I was on the edge of my seat all Sunday morning, and the Power Stage was a superb piece of entertainment for all fans. To take our third win of the season in such exhilarating style is the ideal way to head into the summer break. We have had a faultless operation all weekend, thanks to the hard work of our team on site and in Alzenau. Hayden and Seb have taken their best result of the season in fourth, while Andreas also picked up some points in the Power Stage. It was a memorable battle with Sébastien and M-Sport Ford which will undoubtedly go down in the WRC history books. We came here hoping to defend our lead of both championships but instead we have extended it – the perfect weekend!” 

Next rally

  • The FIA World Rally Championship (WRC) heads into its summer break with the next round, Rally Finland, taking place from 26-29 July
  • Round 8 of the 2018 season will be the last of four consecutive gravel events before moving back onto tarmac

Final Overall Classification – Rally Italia Sardegna

1

T. Neuville

N. Gilsoul

Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC

3:29:18.7

2

S. Ogier

J. Ingrassia

Ford Fiesta WRC

+0.7

3

E. Lappi

J. Ferm

Toyota Yaris WRC

+1:56.3

4

H. Paddon

S. Marshall

Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC

+2:55.2

5

M. Østberg

T. Eriksen

Citroën C3 WRC

+3:10.9

6

C. Breen

S. Martin

Citroën C3 WRC

+4:31.7

7

J.M. Latvala

M. Anttila

Toyota Yaris WRC

+11:22.1

8

O. Tänak

M. Järveoja

Toyota Yaris WRC

+12:38.2

9

J. Kopecky

P. Dresler

Škoda Fabia R5

+13:14.6

10

T. Suninen

M. Markkula

Ford Fiesta WRC

+15:30.4

Australia’s own racing drivers won two of the most prestigious motor racing events this weekend with Daniel Ricciardo snatching the prestigious Monaco Grand Prix while down on power for more than 50 laps of the unforgiving street circuit. Ricciardo had started from pole after smashing the circuit record in final qualifying. Sebastian Vettel was next nearly eight seconds behind followed by Lewis Hamilton in third spot.

On the other side of the Atlantic, Will Power won his first career Indianapolis 500 after taking the lead from Stefan Wilson with less than five laps to go. Power started third on the front row and ran out front most of the race.

Danica Patrick's professional driving career ended after crashing out on Lap 67. Patrick started the race seventh and ran inside the top 16 before getting loose and hitting the wall. The 36-year-old was able to climb out of the car under her own power before making a visit to the medical centre.

British driver Kris Meeke’s future in the FIA World Rally Championship is in doubt after the official Citroën team dropped him from the remainder of the 2018 season, citing “an excessively high number of crashes”.

Team principal Pierre Budar said the stunning decision was a preventative measure for the safety of Meeke and co-driver Paul Nagle, who were lucky to escape a violent crash on last weekend’s Rally Portugal.

The pair’s Citroën C3 went off the road and into trees at high speed on Saturday afternoon. He and Nagle weren’t injured, but the car was destroyed.

The most dramatic move in the WRC season so far means Meeke won’t contest Rally Italia Sardegna on 7-10 June, where Citroën will be represented by Craig Breen/Scott Martin and Mads Ostberg/Torstein Eriksen.

The team said it would shortly announce its line-up for the remainder of the season, including Kennards Hire Rally Australia on 15-19 November. Nine-time champion Sébastien Loeb has one more appearance scheduled in his three-event comeback programme with Citroën, in Spain in October.

A team statement from its base near Paris on Thursday afternoon said: “Due to an excessively high number of crashes, some of which were particularly heavy and could have had serious consequences with regard to the crew’s safety, and given that the risks involved were unjustified by the sporting stakes at play, Citroën Racing WRT has decided to terminate the participation of Kris Meeke and Paul Nagle in the 2018 WRC.”

Pierre Budar added: “This wasn’t an easy decision to make because it effects (sic) a driver and a co-driver, but it is largely founded on safety issues which come under my preoccupations as Team Principal. We have consequently chosen to make this decision as a preventive measure.”

Citroën did not say if Meeke would be involved with the team after this year.

Mentored by the late world champion Colin McRae, the Ulsterman, now 38, got his chance with the WRC elite when he joined Citroën late in 2013, just in time for Rally Australia. Blazing speed netted victories in Argentina in 2015, Portugal and Finland in 2016 and Mexico and Spain in 2017; his Finnish win was the first by a British driver.

But his talent seemed too often compromised by crashes. Last year, although he won in Mexico, a disappointing mid-season run of results led to him being benched in Poland.

Meeke contested Rally Australia in 2013 (retired), 2014 (4th), 2015 (3rd) and last year (7th).

BRITISH driver Kris Meeke’s future in the FIA World Rally Championship is in doubt after the official Citroën team dropped him from the remainder of the 2018 season, citing “an excessively high number of crashes”.
 
Team principal Pierre Budar said the stunning decision was a preventative measure for the safety of Meeke and co-driver Paul Nagle, who were lucky to escape a violent crash on last weekend’s Rally Portugal.
 
The pair’s Citroën C3 went off the road and into trees at high speed on Saturday afternoon. He and Nagle weren’t injured, but the car was destroyed.
 
The most dramatic move in the WRC season so far means Meeke won’t contest Rally Italia Sardegna on 7-10 June, where Citroën will be represented by Craig Breen/Scott Martin and Mads Ostberg/Torstein Eriksen.
 
The team said it would shortly announce its line-up for the remainder of the season, including Kennards Hire Rally Australia on 15-19 November. Nine-time champion Sébastien Loeb has one more appearance scheduled in his three-event comeback programme with Citroën, in Spain in October.
 
A team statement from its base near Paris on Thursday afternoon said: “Due to an excessively high number of crashes, some of which were particularly heavy and could have had serious consequences with regard to the crew’s safety, and given that the risks involved were unjustified by the sporting stakes at play, Citroën Racing WRT has decided to terminate the participation of Kris Meeke and Paul Nagle in the 2018 WRC.”
 
Pierre Budar added: “This wasn’t an easy decision to make because it effects (sic) a driver and a co-driver, but it is largely founded on safety issues which come under my preoccupations as Team Principal. We have consequently chosen to make this decision as a preventive measure.”
 
Citroën did not say if Meeke would be involved with the team after this year.
 
Mentored by the late world champion Colin McRae, the Ulsterman, now 38, got his chance with the WRC elite when he joined Citroën late in 2013, just in time for Rally Australia. Blazing speed netted victories in Argentina in 2015, Portugal and Finland in 2016 and Mexico and Spain in 2017; his Finnish win was the first by a British driver.
 
But his talent seemed too often compromised by crashes. Last year, although he won in Mexico, a disappointing mid-season run of results led to him being benched in Poland.
 
Meeke contested Rally Australia in 2013 (retired), 2014 (4th), 2015 (3rd) and last year (7th).

Thierry Neuville has raced back into the lead in the 2018 FIA World Rally Championship after winning a gruelling Vodafone Rally de Portugal on the weekend.

Victory at the sixth round of the WRC in northern Portugal promoted Neuville to the top of the drivers’ standings for the second time this year as the series approaches its midpoint. After starting 10 points behind reigning champion Sébastien Ogier, the Belgian left Portugal 19 points ahead and with his Hyundai team still leading the manufacturers’ standings.

Neuville won by 40 seconds over M-Sport teammates Elfyn Evans and Teemu Suninen, steering his Hyundai i20 away from trouble during four days of attrition that sidelined many frontrunners.

Ogier and fellow title challenger Ott Tänak were among drivers who ended pointless after falling foul of Friday’s rock-strewn stages. Kiwi Hayden Paddon’s return to Hyundai after 11 weeks on the bench started with victory on stage two but ended abruptly with a crash later in the day that ended his rally.

Neuville hit the front near the end of Friday’s first leg after the lead changed hands six times in a frantic opening. He doubled his advantage on Saturday and pressed it home on Sunday by claiming four bonus points in the closing Power Stage to secure his second win of the year.

“It was a clever approach all weekend. I had a fantastic car which was working well and I felt comfortable,” he said. “We can be proud of what we achieved here There are a lot of Portuguese mechanics in the team and I think the party is going to be big tonight.”

Second for Evans eased the pressure after a disappointing season and teammate Suninen helped erase the frustration of Ogier’s blank weekend in the M-Sport Ford squad by claiming his maiden podium. He finished 7.3sec behind the Welshman.

Suninen held off Esapekka Lappi and Dani Sordo in an intense fight for the final podium place. Lappi was 7.4sec adrift of his fellow Finn in a Toyota Yaris with Spaniard Sordo 6.2sec further back in his Hyundai. Sordo went to bed on Saturday night in third but woke on Sunday morning in fourth after receiving a 10sec penalty for dislodging two bales on a Porto street stage roundabout on Friday night.

Round seven promises a high-summer shootout on the Mediterranean island of Sardinia. The all-gravel Rally Italia Sardegna is based in Alghero on 8-10 June.

Results, Vodafone Rally de Portugal (WRC round 6 of 13):

1) Thierry Neuville/Nicolas Gilsoul (Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC) 3h49m46.6s
2) Elfyn Evans/Daniel Barritt (Ford Fiesta WRC) +40.0s
3) Teemu Suninen/Mikko Markkula (Ford Fiesta WRC) +47.3s
4) Dani Sordo/Carlos Del Barrio (Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC) +1m00.9s
5) Esapekka Lappi/Janne Ferm (Toyota Yaris WRC) +1m04.7s
6) Mads Ostberg/Torstein Eriksen (Citroen C3 WRC) +3m33.5s
7) Craig Breen/Scott Martin (Citroen C3 WRC) +5m23.0s
8) Pontus Tidemand/Jonas Andersson (Skoda Fabia R5) +14m10.8s
9) Lukasz Pieniazek/Przemyslaw Mazur (Skoda Fabia R5) +16m17.3s
10) Stephane Lefebvre/Gabin Moreau (Citroen C3 R5) +16m34.3s

Ford has confirmed its return to motorsport by announcing its support for DJR Team Penske and Tickford Racing as they prepare to race Ford Mustangs in the 2019 Virgin Australia Supercars Championship.

“Ford Performance’s diverse line-up of vehicles reflects customer feedback that Australians are looking for advanced, efficient, performance models across all types of vehicles,” said Ford Australia President and CEO, Graeme Whickman. “Ford Performance is about technology, innovation and product performance and to showcase our confidence in our performance range, we are bringing Mustang and the Ranger Raptor to the Supercars series in 2019.”

“We are giving Mustang a proper birthday today, with the Australian unveiling of the new 2018 model and confirming its Australian track-debut with Supercars in 2019,” said Whickman.

The new Ford Mustang will make its Australian track debut at the first round of the Supercars Series in March 2019 at the Adelaide 500. Ford Australia and Ford Performance are working with DJR Team Penske and Tickford Racing in homologation of Mustang for competition next year, as the Supercars Series enables two-door coupes entry into the nation’s most popular series for the first time since its inception in 1997.

Daniel Ricciardo won the Chinese Grand Prix after championship leader Sebastian Vettel and Max Verstappen collided during a thrilling race.

Ricciardo started from sixth place, taking advantage of an excellent pit stop strategy to chase his rivals, hauling in Lewis Hamilton, Valterri Bottas, Kimi Raikkonen and Sebastian Vettel with amazing manoeuvres under brakes.

Valtteri Bottas aiming for victory after Ferrari made an error which allowed Bottas to move ahead of Vettel during their pit stop.

The race shifted when the safety car was deployed following a collision between the Toro Rosso pair of Brendon Hartley and Pierre Gasly on the 31st lap.

Ricciardo and Verstappen diverted to the pits to strap on fresh tires which paid off for Ricciardo as he passed Kimi Raikkonen, Lewis Hamilton, Vettel and finally Bottas for a big win.

Verstappen, who was ahead of Ricciardo, ruined his chance of victory, when he ran off road while attempting to make his way past Hamilton and then later struck Vettel.

The collision caused Vettel to finish in eighth place which allowed Hamilton to reach fourth after Verstappen received a 10-second penalty.

McLaren's Fernando Alonso overtook Vettel for seventh place on the penultimate lap.

"I don't seem to win boring races," Ricciardo said after claiming victory. "That was unexpected. It was hectic. I heard the safety car call a turn 14 and they said we are going to stop. It happened very quickly, but it was a decisive, winning move.”

Hyundai i30 N TCR customer teams lead the FIA World Touring Car Cup (WTCR) points after a spectacular performance across the opening three races of the brand new championship at the Race of Morocco (7-8 April). With two wins from the weekend, as well as the five points on offer for taking pole position from Sunday’s qualifying session, BRC Racing Team driver Gabriele Tarquini leads the championship.

Having already taken victory in Saturday’s historic first race around the Marrakech street circuit Tarquini led four i30 N TCR to lock-out the front two rows of the grid in the weekend’s second qualifying session, with his BRC teammate Norbert Michelisz and the pair of Yvan Muller Racing cars lining up behind him. After a battling Race 2, where their stellar one-lap pace put them at the back of a reversed top-ten, the Hyundai-running teams returned to the front for the finale.

Tarquini led from lights to flag to earn his way onto the top step of the podium ahead of the two YMR entered drivers, led by Team Manager Yvan Muller. Unaffected by the brake issues that dogged rival manufacturers thought the weekend, despite the series’ Balance of Performance regulations making the i30 N TCR one of the heaviest cars on the grid, the teams hold a handsome lead in the standings.

Gabriele Tarquini said about his historic win: “The Hyundai i30 N TCR was fantastic, fast and reliable, and kept a great pace all weekend. BRC Team impeccably coped with every situation. I’m over the moon and hope the dream continues”.

Norbert Michelisz explains: “It was a pretty unlucky weekend, but I still managed to get important scores for the general ranking. We have 27 races ahead and nothing is lost. I’m very motivated for the next event, my home race at Hungaroring”.

BRC Racing Team CEO Massimiliano Fissore commented: “The Marrakech weekend was very positive for BRC Racing Team. We proved to have a good team, excellent drivers and the Hyundai i30 N TCR was extremely competitive. These factors make us optimistic for the season ahead, and we believe we have all the parts to be among those challenging for the victory all year”.

Double 1-2 from Pirelli World Challenge debut

The sensational debut on the world stage completed an incredible few weeks for i30 N TCR customers. Opening the Pirelli World Challenge season at the Circuit of the Americas (March 24-25) in Texas, Bryan Herta Autosport dominated the first event for the TCR category in the championship. Drivers Mark Wilkins and Michael Lewis swept the front row in qualifying for the Hyundai America backed team – beginning their first season in touring cars - and then went on to take 1-2 results in both races, with each man taking a victory in a perfect start to their campaign.

TCR class podium on first Nordschleife run

The same weekend a pair of Hyundai N entered i30 N TCR took on the Nürburgring Nordschleife in the first round of the VLN championship. Despite being left facing the wrong way at the very first corner of the four-hour race Tarquini and Korean driver Jae Kyun Kim fought back to finish third in a very competitive TCR class on the incredibly demanding 25km circuit. The experienced pairing of Nicola Larini and Manuel Lauck also fought back after problems early in the running, after Larini slid off track on oil dropped by a competitor and damaged the right-rear corner against the barrier. The team was able to repair the car, returning the pairing to the action for a sixth placed finish in class.

Young driver shows i30 N TCR pace in TCR UK

With Lewis Kent and his Essex & Kent Motorsport team the i30 N TCR was part of the first weekend of the TCR UK championship at Silverstone (March 31-April 1). One of the youngest drivers in the series Kent qualified a very impressive fourth fastest in mixed conditions. Unfortunately, a minor issue during race day kept him from converting his pace into a deserved result. However, his pace on a single lap gave a signal of intent for his first season in the TCR category.

Panasonic Jaguar Racing returned to Mexico City and achieved their highest ever Formula E points haul to move to third in the team standings. The successful race concludes a historic week for Jaguar following the launch of the new all-electric Jaguar I-PACE.

Brazilian Nelson Piquet Jr showcased his consistency and race craft with another strong performance. The team made a strategic decision to keep him out on track for one more lap compared to the rest of the field, giving Nelson more usable energy for the second half of the race. Nelson battled it out for a podium finish with Sebastian Buemi but settled for fourth and more valuable points.

Mitch Evans started in 12th position, and after a strong start in his Jaguar I-TYPE 2 the Kiwi driver rapidly moved into the top ten. A quick pit-stop put him in front of his team-mate but Nelson was able to safely overtake with more energy available and Mitch then had a clean run to the end finishing in sixth.

The British team’s performance in Mexico City demonstrates a fast, consistent and reliable performance in their second season in the ABB FIA Formula E Championships. Panasonic Jaguar Racing move to third place in the team standings with 74 points. Both drivers have held their positions in the driver’s championship with Nelson in fifth and Mitch in seventh place.

James Barclay, Team Director Panasonic Jaguar Racing: “It’s a strong result for the team, the best ever points finish for Panasonic Jaguar Racing. Great progress was made by both drivers, demonstrating the speed of the Jaguar I-TYPE 2 and team this season. To come away from Mexico sitting in third position in the team’s championship, it is clear that we have made huge steps forward and a podium will come soon. We only have a short break before we get back on track in Uruguay and we will renew our focus pushing forward and securing more points.”

Nelson Piquet Jr, #3: “It was a solid race. Depending on the drivers around you, it’s important to make a decision about whether to risk overtaking or conserve energy. A better starting position would have given us a podium, so this will be the aim for Punta del Este in a few days time. I believe the Jaguar I-TYPE 2 is the most consistent car on the track and hopefully soon we will be the quickest as we move towards a top three finish.”

Mitch Evans, #20: “It was a good race for us. I started 12th and finished sixth so I’m definitely happy with that. It was a tough qualifying so I am excited to get another double points finish here in Mexico. The crowd in Mexico City was even bigger than last year and it was a great atmosphere to race in. I’m leaving now for the Geneva Motor Show and the debut of the Jaguar I-PACE before flying out to Punta. I’m really looking forward to my first visit and racing again so soon.”

On Saturday 17 March Panasonic Jaguar Racing will race in Punta del Este for the sixth E-Prix of the ABB FIA Formula E Championships. FanBoost opens for the sixth E-Prix of the season at 17:00 GMT on Monday 12 March and closes 19:10 GMT Saturday 17 March.

Daytona Day was a rousing success for NASCAR, which was able to celebrate its storied past and youthful future on its biggest stage.

The Daytona 500 is the most important race of the year for NASCAR. With Austin Dillon’s victory in the famed No. 3 and Bubba Wallace’s history-making, second-place finish, NASCAR got perhaps its most promising glimpse to date of the next generation.

Dillon wrecked Aric Almirola on the final lap in overtime at Daytona International Speedway to drive the car owned by his grandfather, Richard Childress, back to victory lane 17 years to the day after Dale Earnhardt was killed in an accident on the final lap of the season opener. It came 20 years after Earnhardt’s only Daytona 500 victory, and in just the fifth appearance for the No. 3 in “The Great American Race” since Earnhardt’s death.

Dillon and much of his Richard Childress Racing crew celebrated into the wee hours Monday by getting tattoos, permanent ones, on their buttocks. Wallace was the first black driver in the Daytona 500 field since 1969. His finish was the highest in the race for a black driver since Wendell Scott was 13th in 1966, and Wallace got the finish driving the iconic No. 43 for Richard Petty.

Wallace has rocketed to fame in the past month and won new fans following an emotional, post-race scene that included a long, tearful embrace with his mother that symbolized the struggles Wallace has faced on the road to NASCAR’s top series. Baseball Hall of Famer Hank Aaron called Wallace, a fellow native of Mobile, Ala., before the Daytona 500. Lewis Hamilton, the only black driver in Formula 1, tweeted that he would be cheering for Wallace. When told about Hamilton’s well-wishes, Wallace admitted to “fan-girling out.”

“I look up to him. He does so many great things in the F1 world. ... Then he sent out a tweet and I got weak at the knees,” said Wallace.

Wallace noted what the kind words from Aaron and Hamilton really mean for the sport.

“People are tuning in and hopefully noticing the new face and the new change that are coming to NASCAR,” he said. There has been much angst over NASCAR’s problems, and there are many issues, including the weak TV ratings for the Daytona 500. The 5.1 overnight for Fox was down 22 per cent from last year.

It’s problematic, and NASCAR needs to find new reasons for fans to watch. There had been much hand-wringing over the retirements of Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Danica Patrick, but it may have been unnecessary concern. Why? Because their replacements are really racy and showed Sunday they aren’t content to simply turn laps in a pack, collect paychecks and take chartered flights home.

Wallace sparred with 2016 winner Denny Hamlin, a Manchester High graduate, on the final lap, then criticized Hamlin afterward. Ryan Blaney led a race-high 118 laps and wrecked Kurt Busch, last year’s winner, trying to win the race. Chase Elliott was wrecked racing for points at the end of the first stage. Alex Bowman started from the pole and was the top Hendrick Motorsports driver.

All those drivers are under 30 years old and are considered the future of the sport. If they race the rest of the season as they did at Daytona, the on-track product might be pretty good. The changing of the guard was so palpable at Daytona that Dillon could feel the energy in the garage. Once awestruck to be racing against his childhood heroes, Dillon is part of a new crop eager to spice up the series. Previously, he just wanted to stay out of the way of the veterans.

“I feel like a lot of these guys are coming in, we’re all going to start trying to be ourselves because the people that led our sport for so long have kind of moved out,” Dillon said. “It definitely feels good to have Bubba and I up there and fighting. I think there’s going to be some great battles this year with all the young guys. There’s going to be storylines, and the NASCAR fans are going to love what they see.”

Thierry Neuville kept calm in the heat of a furious fight to win Rally Sweden for Hyundai on Sunday and take the lead in the FIA World Rally Championship. The Belgian became only the third non-Nordic driver to win the calendar's only pure winter rally and end an agonising 12-month wait after crashing out of a comfortable lead last year.

The win was Neuville’s first since Kennards Hire Rally Australia last November. Off-setting a disappointing result on the season-opener in Monte-Carlo three weeks ago, it also put him at the top of the drivers’ standings – ahead of Sébastien Ogier - and the factory Hyundai squad first in the manufacturers’ competition.

He overcame an electrical glitch with his Hyundai's gearshift, a lurid spin into a snow bank and extreme pressure from the chasing pack to win the four-day encounter on snow and ice-covered forest roads by 19.8sec.

"It's an incredible weekend. We didn't expect to be so fast over here this year, but the team and the car gave us the chance to fight for victory. We deserved it last year, even more this year," Neuville said. He finally broke clear of his pursuers on Saturday afternoon and, with five stage wins to his credit, eased through Sunday's final three tests to head Ireland's Craig Breen, driving a Citroën C3, for whom second was a career-best result.

Breen climbed to second on Saturday morning when Andreas Mikkelsen spun at the same point as Neuville. He kept his composure to hold off the Norwegian, teammate to the rally winner, by 8.5sec. Esapekka Lappi hounded Neuville early on until he plunged down the order after burying his Toyota Yaris in a snow bank. He fought back and gained two places in the final three stages to finish fourth, 17.5sec adrift of Mikkelsen.

A final stage mistake from Hayden Paddon made life easier for Lappi. Although capturing two stage wins in his season return for Hyundai, the Kiwi stalled his i20 a couple of kilometres from the finish and trailed the Finn by 8.6sec. After only a day's pre-event testing, Mads Østberg was sixth on his debut drive in a C3. The Norwegian ran as high as second but slid down the order as unfamiliarity with the car and a lack of confidence in its set-up cost time.

Jari-Matti Latvala, who delivered Toyota Gazoo Racing a fairytale win last season on only the Japanese manufacturer's second rally back at the top level after a 17-year absence, was seventh after being delayed by a troublesome front differential and adverse road conditions. Fellow Finn Teemu Suninen was seventh in a Ford Fiesta and the leading M-Sport World Rally Team driver after the squad, which headed the manufacturers' standings after Rallye Monte-Carlo, endured a nightmare weekend.

Ott Tänak and Monte-Carlo winner Sébastien Ogier dropped big chunks of time in Friday's opening leg as they ploughed a path through deep snow. Ogier won the most stages overall, six, but neither he nor his world champion M-Sport teammate could regain lost ground, finishing ninth and 11th respectively.

The WRC tackles dramatically different conditions when it continues at the high-altitude Rally Guanajuato Mexico on 8-11 March. The gravel event based in León, 330 kilometres north of Mexico City, will see the return of nine-time champion Sébastien Loeb in the first of three 2018 cameos with the Citroën World Rally Team.

Final outright final standings, Rally Sweden (WRC round 2):

  1. Thierry Neuville/Nicolas Gilsoul (Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC) 2h52.13.1s
  2. Craig Breen/Scott Martin (Citroen C3 WRC) +19.8s
  3. Andreas Mikkelsen/Anders Jaeger (Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC) +28.3s
  4. Esapekka Lappi/Janne Ferm (Toyota Yaris WRC) +45.8s
  5. Hayden Paddon/Sebastian Marshall (Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC) +54.4s
  6. Mads Østberg/Torstein Eriksen (Citroen C3 WRC) +1m15.3s
  7. Jari-Matti Latvala/Miikka Anttila (Toyota Yaris WRC) +2m04.9s
  8. Teeu Suninen/Mikko Markkula (Ford Fiesta WRC) +2m52.2s
  9. Ott Tänak/Martin Järveoja (Toyota Yaris WRC) +3m44.4s
  10. Elfyn Evans/Daniel Barritt (Ford Fiesta WRC) +5m27.4s