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.

Hunter-Reay bullish on Andretti manufacturer choice, whichever it is

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One of the key dominos to the Verizon IndyCar Series silly season prognosticating for 2018 is whether Andretti Autosport will stick with Honda or switch to Chevrolet for its powerplant.

Luckily for its second longest tenured driver in Ryan Hunter-Reay, with the stability of a long-term contract in place with the team and with DHL and having had success with both manufacturers, it doesn’t particularly matter.

Hunter-Reay is one of only three full-time drivers on the grid who have both an IndyCar championship (2012) and an Indianapolis 500 victory (2014) on his resume (Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan) and achieved them with separate manufacturers.

Andretti’s team went with Chevrolet when engine competition came back into the series in 2012, while the team switched back to Honda in 2014 as Chip Ganassi Racing went the other way from Honda to Chevrolet.

“It’s funny; I’m an Andretti Autosport driver and a DHL brand representative. But on the engine front, I’m usually one of the last to know!” Hunter-Reay told NBC Sports.

“Michael takes care of the business decisions. So I have a great relationship with both brands, and have won with both manufacturers. And we’ll keep our head down and focused. The only goal is to win races, regardless of which engine is powering us.”

Hunter-Reay is thankful to be solidified in his place at Andretti Autosport as the team – perhaps – and the series in general is poised for a busy “silly season” of movement, depending on the manufacturer selection.

Despite starting out with a limited number of races only with the team in 2010, a key win at Long Beach helped lay the groundwork for Hunter-Reay’s eventual consistent tenure driving the No. 28 DHL car – which became No. 1 in 2013 after he won the previous year’s title.

Considering from 2003 to 2009, Hunter-Reay’s open-wheel career took a variety of twists and turns, he’s appreciative of the support shown by all that has kept him gainfully employed.

“It’s been so nice. Obviously it’s been good to be in a position to work to be at Andretti Autosport, starting in 2010. But with more success with DHL; that started to accumulate. Then I became a DHL brand ambassador. They’re family to me,” he said.

“We’ve won a good amount of races, a championship and an Indy 500, but we need to do a lot more. We’re all so hungry. There’s no comfort or complacency in any way being here, but it’s nice knowing I’ll have the 28 DHL car for several more years to come.”

Pocono is a critical cross point for Hunter-Reay as he comes to this weekend’s ABC Supply 500 (Sunday, 2 p.m. ET, NBCSN), as it’s the two-year mark since his most recent win in the series at this race. He probably could have won last year had it not been for a mysterious electronics glitch that knocked him to the back of the field, before he recovered to third.

With Andretti Autosport having captured three of the six 500-mile superspeedway races since the manufacturer aero kit introduction in 2015 – Hunter-Reay at Pocono that year, then Alexander Rossi and Takuma Sato in the last two Indianapolis 500s – the team must be considered a favorite heading into this weekend’s race.

Especially, perhaps, if it might mark the team’s last superspeedway race for the foreseeable future with a Honda powerplant in the back.

Leclerc admits surprise over Formula 2 results in 2017

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Charles Leclerc has admitted he is surprised by his domination of the FIA Formula 2 championship through 2017, but is refusing to relent in his bid to step up to Formula 1 in the near future.

Leclerc, 19, stepped up to F2 for 2017 after winning the GP3 title last year, and has swept the competition away so far this season with five race wins and six pole positions to open up a 50-point lead at the top of the championship standings.

The Monegasque racer recently tested an F1 car for Ferrari and has been linked with a drive at Sauber for 2018, but does not feel any extra pressure despite the speculation surrounding him.

“The results in this first part of the season have been better than expected and we’re clearly delighted about that,” Leclerc told the official F1 website.

“Seeing my name in the media more often and having it linked to Formula 1 and Ferrari is nice, but it’s not putting any extra pressure on me.

“There’s never a day goes by when I don’t think about what I want to achieve and I always give a hundred percent to get there.

“Being in Formula 1 is my dream and my goal and I am doing everything I can to make it happen.”

While Leclerc is being touted as a future Ferrari driver, he is remaining focused on the job at hand: winning the F2 title in 2017.

“Yes, it’s true, racing for the Scuderia would be the realization of a dream,” Leclec said.

“But for now I have to focus solely on winning in F2, on giving it my all over the next few months.

“If I don’t succeed, then I won’t really go much further.”

Hinchcliffe: SPM doing ‘incredible’ job of handling driver instability

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With his own future beyond the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series yet to be sorted, James Hinchcliffe has instead hailed current team Schmidt Peterson Motorsports for handling turmoil in the team’s second car in an “incredible” manner.

SPM was meant to be a team featuring continuity this year. Without any driver, manufacturer or engineer changes going into the year, SPM was an anomaly following an offseason where nearly every team changed at least one if not more of those elements.

Alas, it hasn’t all gone to plan. Since the break after the Texas race in mid-June, Hinchcliffe, in the No. 5 Arrow Electronics Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda, has had three different teammates in the sister No. 7 Lucas Oil SPM Honda and has not had the same teammate for consecutive full race weekends since Detroit and Texas in June.

Robert Wickens filled in briefly for Mikhail Aleshin with the Russian being delayed to Road America owing to immigration issues. While Aleshin returned fully for Iowa, Sebastian Saavedra was then called up for Toronto, where he filled in well in an eleventh hour role. Aleshin returned for Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course last race while Saavedra has now got the call for the next two oval races at Pocono and Gateway following SPM and Aleshin’s mutual parting of ways.

The instability in the second car has left SPM having unofficially adopted the “TBA” moniker from Dale Coyne Racing – the two teams even poked fun at each other about it on social media earlier this week – but Hinchcliffe said the team has handled a difficult situation well.

“There’s no doubt it’s a bit of a distraction,” Hinchcliffe admitted to NBC Sports. “We say it time and time again. Continuity is one of the keys to success in this sport. A lack of that on the other side of the garage does hurt… but, everyone at SPM has done an incredible job of managing that.

“Luckily Blair (Perschbacher, engineer) and Sebastian worked together in Indy Lights; so they have a relationship there. I’ve worked with Sebastian before. This particular scenario is almost a best-case scenario for when you find yourselves in this position. So, credit to the team and Sebastian for making a less than ideal situation as painless as possible.”

Hinchcliffe and Saavedra have been linked for most of their careers, and now get the second opportunity to work together as teammates.

From both racing in Formula BMW and Indy Lights in their junior open-wheel careers, the two were teammates in 2012 when Hinchcliffe was in his first season at Andretti Autosport and Saavedra drove for Andretti’s Indy Lights team, plus three IndyCar races.

Saavedra’s impressive weekend at Toronto did not go unnoticed by SPM’s more senior driver.

“He ran with Andretti in Lights my first year there and he did a few IndyCar races there, I know Fontana and Sonoma, and a couple other races,” Hinchcliffe recalled.

“I’ve known Seb since he was 18. It’s great to have him part of the team. He did an exceptional job, I think, at Toronto. It was much different than the Toronto than he remembered. It’d been quite a while since he even turned right in IndyCar. He was quick and mistake-free all weekend. Really, it’s ovals he’s done more of the last few seasons. We have no reason to expect him to do anything less than that these next two.”

The 2018 season is a natural topic of conversation for both Hinchcliffe and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. SPM has worked extra hard in preparing the Honda-powered 2018 Dallara universal aero kit, tested by Oriol Servia, which has featured rave reviews.

A free agent at year’s end, it remains to be seen whether Hinchcliffe will re-up with SPM or test the waters elsewhere, but he seems confident about both elements as it sits with four races left in 2017.

“June 1!” Hinchcliffe laughed when asked of a time frame for sorting out his next season plans. “Of course that’s not quite how it goes. There’s a lot of things can be distractions off-track on any given weekend. But at drivers we’re pretty well tuned to block it out and focus on job at hand. That’s what we’ve been doing.

“I think things are going well. There’s no time line necessarily, but I want to get it wrapped up sooner than later. It’s heading in the right direction. So hopefully there will be some news in the not too distant future.”

Heading into Pocono specifically for the ABC Supply 500 (Sunday, 2 p.m. ET, NBCSN), Hinchcliffe sits 10th in points and hopeful the team’s pace from last year doesn’t, like at Indianapolis, go missing. Aleshin won the pole and finished second; Hinchcliffe started sixth and finished 10th.

“Indy was a big mystery to us; we’re not sure what caused it,” Hinchcliffe said. “But not unlike Indy, this race could turn into a handling race. (Last year) Hunter-Reay put on more downforce and drove around everybody, and he was still good out front.

“In the 500, we made moves. The outright pace for us might be similar to what we saw. Qualifying might not go as well, but I’m confident we’ll get the car mechanically in a good spot.”

Marko laughs off Sainz stories as ‘typical summer slump rumors’

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Red Bull Formula 1 advisor Helmut Marko has laughed off suggestions Carlos Sainz Jr. could make a mid-season move to a rival team, calling the stories “typical summer slump rumors”.

Sainz sparked speculation that he could be set to leave Toro Rosso, Red Bull’s F1 B-team, in the near future over the Austrian Grand Prix weekend when he said that a fourth year with the team in 2018 was “unlikely”.

Red Bull’s bosses clamped down on Sainz, stressing he was still under contract for 2018, but did say he would be available for the right price.

Speculation arose ahead of the summer break that Sainz could switch to Renault mid-season in place of the struggling Jolyon Palmer, only for all parties to deny the suggestions in Hungary.

Speaking to the official F1 website ahead of next weekend’s Belgian Grand Prix, Marko laughed off the stories once more.

“Rumors! Typical summer-slump rumors,” he said.

“You will see Carlos in a Toro Rosso in Spa.”

Complete with questions about Sainz’s future, Toro Rosso has been going through a bumpy time in recent weeks, with an on-track clash between its drivers at the British Grand Prix being a low point.

Marko feels that Toro Rosso has failed to reach its full potential so far this season, and thinks it will be difficult to achieve its pre-season target of P5 in the constructors’ championship despite being just two points off the position.

“Incidents with the drivers like in Silverstone are unfortunate, as are the reliability issues,” Marko said.

“The aim was to finish fifth in the standings and I think that will be rather difficult. Budapest turned in our favor, but from Spa on you will see the Mercedes-powered cars showing us their rear.

“We had a lot of possibilities in the first half of the season that we haven’t taken. A shame.”