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.

IndyCar’s 2018 full-field grid nearing completion

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Following Wednesday’s confirmation of the all-Canadian tandem at Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, each of the eight full-time teams in the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season have announced at least one driver for 2018, leaving very few remaining question marks.

What stands confirmed is below:

CONFIRMED

  • Team Penske (3, Chevrolet): Josef Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power
  • Chip Ganassi Racing (1, Honda): Scott Dixon
  • Andretti Autosport (4, Honda): Ryan Hunter-Reay, Alexander Rossi, Marco Andretti, Zach Veach
  • Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (2, Honda): Graham Rahal, Takuma Sato
  • Schmidt Peterson Motorsports (2, Honda): James Hinchcliffe, Robert Wickens
  • Ed Carpenter Racing (2, Chevrolet): Spencer Pigot, Ed Carpenter (ovals)
  • A.J. Foyt Enterprises (1, Chevrolet): Tony Kanaan
  • Dale Coyne Racing (1, Honda): Sebastien Bourdais
  • Harding Racing (1, Chevrolet): Gabby Chaves

There are four additional drivers confirmed for selected races or an month of May program:

  • Team Penske (1, Chevrolet): Helio Castroneves
  • Andretti Autosport (1, Honda): Stefan Wilson
  • Calmels Sport with SPM (1, Honda): Tristan Gommendy
  • Team TBD (1, TBD): Kyle Kaiser

All told that’s 17 full-season driver and team combinations confirmed and four additional part-time programs, at least, that are set. Several of those driver/team combinations will have engineering and strategist changes, as well.

In a minor note since our last update at Sonoma, Marco Andretti confirmed he won’t run No. 27 next year. Of note, Bryan Herta served as Andretti’s race strategist this year, although the car he was an entrant on was Alexander Rossi’s No. 98 car. Herta will continue his relationship with Andretti Autosport again next season.

WHAT’S LEFT TO SORT? NOT MUCH

Elsewhere, there’s only a handful of remaining question marks as the series hits mid-October, a rarity from past years and an illustration of the urgency to fill seats to get as much preparation time in testing with the new 2018 Dallara universal aero kit as possible.

NBC Sports expects 2016 Indy Lights champion and 2017 IndyCar rookie-of-the-year Ed Jones to be confirmed soon as second driver in Dale Coyne Racing’s No. 19 Honda alongside Sebastien Bourdais, with team personnel and Bourdais both having indicated a preference in keeping the Dubai-based Brit for a second year.

NBC Sports also expects Jones’ successor as Indy Lights champion, Kyle Kaiser, to have his future announced shortly in terms of which team he’ll step up to IndyCar with. It would not be a surprise if Kaiser does graduate along with Juncos Racing, although Kaiser is known to have talked to multiple teams. The Mazda Motorsports scholarship nets him $1 million for a three-race program, including the 102nd Indianapolis 500, with the driver then needing to secure additional funding for further races, as Jones and Pigot both have each of the last two years.

The status of Brendon Hartley has now been thrown up as a slight question mark dependent on how his Formula 1 debut with Scuderia Toro Rosso goes at this weekend’s United States Grand Prix, and if Toro Rosso provides him a further race opportunity in one of the remaining three Grands Prix thereafter. Having been all-but-earmarked for Chip Ganassi Racing’s second seat in 2018, if an F1 offer comes, Hartley’s potential IndyCar bow could get delayed.

A McLaren-named entry competing either in the Indianapolis 500 or full-time seems further off than realistic for next year, McLaren’s Zak Brown told reporters on a teleconference this week. McLaren maintains an IndyCar technical presence though, via its McLaren Applied Technologies outfit.

What’s left then are the dominoes of whether Carlin’s IndyCar plans officially come to fruition as the team has gotten closer than it ever has to doing so, and who emerges in the second seats at A.J. Foyt Enterprises and Ed Carpenter Racing (road and street courses), respectively.

A number of young IndyCar veterans – Max Chilton, Charlie Kimball, Carlos Munoz and Conor Daly namely – are yet to land for 2018 and there’s no guarantee all four of them will be back in IndyCar next season.

There’s also a handful of young drivers, namely RC Enerson, Jack Harvey, Esteban Gutierrez, Santiago Urrutia, Zachary Claman DeMelo, Sage Karam and Matthew Brabham among others, who could well emerge in the frame for seats.

Gutierrez’s status seemed dependent on Mexico City being added to the 2018 calendar, and although the race still could be added, the fact neither is in place at this point doesn’t inspire as much confidence about his presence as a regular on the grid as it did earlier this summer.

All told, there’s not nearly that much to sort out as IndyCar’s grid for 2018 is looking very much close to set at this early stage of a long offseason.