Jeff Burton to leave No. 31 Childress car for an uncertain future

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Jeff Burton announced Wednesday he’ll be leaving the No. 31 Caterpillar Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing in 2014, a year ahead of schedule. Burton cited a lack of full funding and said this would be a “major sacrifice” for Childress to commit to.

“I’d gone to Richard a while ago and said at the end of 2014 I’d step back and not run a full schedule, do partial schedule. We’re just accelerating it a year,” Burton said. “But I know I’m walking away right as we’re about to blossom. I’ll tell you, don’t be surprised if we pop us a win in the next couple weeks. We’re running well. I agreed to step aside and let the team continue to grow. I have no plans yet, and I haven’t spoken to any teams; I don’t know what I’m doing next year.”

Burton, 46, has 21 career NASCAR Sprint Cup victories but none since 2008. He last made the Chase for the Sprint Cup in 2010. He hasn’t missed a race since the spring race at Atlanta in 1996, so has started more than 600 straight races since.

But now, in the twilight of his Cup career, he faces an uncertain future. He acknowledged during a conference call with reporters that he wants to find a competitive situation and doesn’t want to simply ride around.

“I still have a passion for it but this is part of the reality of the sport,” he said. “I don’t anticipate doing anything that won’t be competitive. I have had some people reach out to me, but I haven’t returned any calls.”

Asked whether a Nationwide or Camping World Truck opportunity could be next, Burton didn’t dismiss it.

“As far as Nationwide or Trucks yeah, that’s always a possibility,” he said. “I’ll tell you this right now, I tell myself I’m a Cup driver, but there’s no shame in running Nationwide, Truck, late model. It shouldn’t be about what series you’re in. Racing is a damn blessing. It’s not a privilege. You see guys like Brian Vickers, Elliott Sadler. Regan Smith all run Nationwide. Yeah everyone wants to be in the big show. But I don’t consider myself just a Cup driver. I’d definitely entertain Nationwide/Truck offers. And I’ve had Sunday efforts.”

Burton joins Kevin Harvick in leaving RCR at the end of 2013. It’s a major upheaval for one of NASCAR’s longest-tenured operations, as Harvick (2001) and Burton (full-time since 2005) have been entrenched in the team for years.

“I thought about that the other night,” Burton admitted. “Between Clint (Bowyer), myself and Kevin, what we did didn’t compare to Earnhardt. But collectively, we three working together had a lot of success, all making the Chase and one of us always had a shot at winning the championship. Next year none of us will be there. Most of it is circumstantial. It’s a transformation and it does look different than it did three years ago. Richard’s committed to three, hopefully four cars. He doesn’t want half-rate drivers.”

Burton said NASCAR’s new era of younger drivers needs to begin. That will all but certainly include Austin Dillon in one of Childress’ Cup entries next year, and also will feature Kyle Larson in Chip Ganassi’s No. 42. For now, Burton’s future is undetermined and could include future races in 2014 or potentially, television work.

Schmidt Peterson confirms all-Canadian lineup of Hinchcliffe, Wickens

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The Schmidt Peterson Motorsports team is going for a diet of denim, maple syrup, pace and politeness in its 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series lineup, with an all-Canadian pairing of James Hinchcliffe and Robert Wickens confirmed for next season.

Hinchcliffe was known to want a driver of Wickens’ caliber alongside him in the second seat after three less-than-fruitful seasons with James Jakes (2015), Mikhail Aleshin (2016) and a combination of drivers (Aleshin, Sebastian Saavedra, Jack Harvey) rotated through the second car the last three years.

Recent changes have brought them to this point and now leads them to becoming full-time teammates for the first time in a decade, since the defunct country-focused A1 Grand Prix series in 2007-2008.

Hinchcliffe has re-signed with Schmidt Peterson after three seasons with the team. His first was shortened due to his near life-threatening injuries sustained in an accident in practice for that year’s Indianapolis 500. A rapid and welcome recovery followed throughout the second half of 2015 before his comeback to action in 2016, with an Indianapolis 500 pole and a couple near-misses on wins that followed. In 2017, he won Round 2 at Long Beach but faltered in the second half of the year through a litany of mechanical woes and bad luck.

Wickens, meanwhile, faced an uncertain future when Mercedes-Benz announced earlier this year it would withdraw from DTM at the end of 2018. One of Hinchcliffe’s long-time friends, Wickens hasn’t raced full-time in North America in more than a decade since they were both in Formula Atlantic in 2007, at separate teams (Wickens at Red Bull Forsythe Racing and Hinchcliffe at Sierra Sierra Enterprises). As he pursued his Formula 1 dream and had a wealth of success in the junior series, he never got a proper shot, and has since gone onto several successful years with Mercedes in DTM.

A ride-swap between the two of them came together earlier this year where Wickens sampled Hinchcliffe’s No. 5 Arrow Electronics Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda at Sebring’s short course, while Hinchcliffe then flew to Italy to sample Wickens’ Mercedes-AMG C63 DTM after the St. Petersburg season opener. Hinchcliffe ended 13th in points in IndyCar, Wickens ninth in DTM this year, both with one win each during the year. Wickens also had a Friday to sample the No. 7 Lucas Oil SPM Honda at Road America this year, but had to relinquish the seat once Aleshin returned from a visa issue.

“Not only am I really excited to be able to say I’ll be back with SPM for next year and beyond, but I am also really looking forward to being teammates with one of my oldest friends,” said Hinchcliffe.

“Robbie and I grew up racing against one another, eventually took different paths, me staying in North America in open-wheel cars and him going off to Europe in sports cars, but it’s pretty neat that we both ended up here and we get to live our dream of being professional racing drivers, together on the same team.

“I think 2018 is going to be a great year for the SPM organization, from having Robbie here to the team’s new partnership with Honda and the 2018 aero kit; I just can’t wait to get back on track and bring some good results home for the Arrow Electronics crew.”

Wickens added: “This is an entirely new chapter to add to my racing career, and I am really excited for this opportunity that Schmidt Peterson Motorsports has given me.

“I think everyone knows the story by now that James and I grew up racing against one another in go karts, and to make it to the largest open-wheel racing series in North America together as teammates, it’s crazy to think about.

“I am very thankful for the six years I had with everyone at Mercedes and DTM; those are memories I will cherish forever. I can’t wait to truly see what the Verizon IndyCar Series is all about!”