Crossroads for Burton, Labonte, as a new wave of NASCAR talent due to arrive

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Jeff Burton and Bobby Labonte are more than likely in their last years as full-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series drivers. It’s somewhat sad, but also fairly predictable.

Burton announced his departure earlier this week from Richard Childress’ No. 31 Chevrolet at the end of the year at age 46. Labonte, 49, has had his consecutive starts streak snapped earlier this year, has missed a race due to injury and will be replaced full-time in the No. 47 JTG Daugherty Toyota by AJ Allmendinger in 2014.

It’s likely the beginning of another sea change in NASCAR where the veterans who’ve raced in Cup since the ‘90s get phased out and a fresh batch come in.

The last one really came in about a decade ago, starting in 2004 and going through 2006. There, within those three years, Mark Martin, Rusty Wallace, Terry Labonte, Dale Jarrett, Bill Elliott and Ricky Rudd began to wind down their careers from full-time to partial schedules. Martin, of course, remains as fit as ever as a part-timer and Terry Labonte still runs a handful of restrictor plate races, but the other four’s driving days are over.

In those years, a new crop of drivers including Carl Edwards, Kasey Kahne, Kyle Busch, Clint Bowyer, Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. have all emerged as race winners and consistent Chase qualifiers, although none yet has a Cup championship. They also all entered at a point when sponsorship levels were at its highest, and allowed them to make the jump from the Nationwide and Truck ranks.

Starting this year in 2013, and for the next I would say two or three years, you’ll begin to see a drawdown of some the drivers who entered in the ‘90s and early ‘00s, and a new emergence of drivers.

Burton said earlier this week the series needs “new blood,” desperately.

“Oh, my God, yes,” was Burton’s response when asked whether the sport will be in good hands with the next new wave. “One of the things that the lack of sponsorship has created through these economic issues is opportunities for young drivers. We’re on the beginning edge of seeing a lot of new drivers coming into this sport.  I’m, you know, I know nobody believes this when I say it, because I’m 46 years old and I’m one of those guys that everybody wants my seat, but it’s time.

“It’s time for us to have some new drivers come in.  We really haven’t had a lot of new drivers coming into the Cup series or even into the Nationwide or Trucks.  You look around and you see, obviously, the name that’s everybody knows, the Dillons, and the obvious ones, Blaney and Morrisons, Jeb and Larson.  Everybody knows those.”

Burton says the expectations have changed for new drivers too, not only in terms of their on-track goals but their off-track marketing prowess.

“When I came in, the goal was to win Rookie of the Year, which was a big deal because the class I came in with Rookie of the Year, if you go back and look at who that was, that was an unbelievable class, and to finish 20th in the points. That was our goal.  I get the feeling that when these kids come in today, it’s like we’ve got to make the Chase, you know?  And it’s just a different expectation.  Sometimes we put too much on them.  We need to let them grow.  We need to let them make mistakes without so much pressure.  But it’s just so hard because everybody wants to be successful.”

The lack of available opportunities for youngsters coming up the last few years have made for a, with due respect to these winners, lackluster streak of official NASCAR Cup Rookies-of-the-Year. The last three winners are Stephen Leicht, Andy Lally and Kevin Conway, none of whom races in Cup full-time anymore. Lally, though, has returned to sports car racing where he is a star with privateer Porsche teams Dempsey and Magnus Racing.

But now, with the official arrival of Kyle Larson, the likely arrival of Austin Dillon, and others including but not limited to Parker Kligerman, Ryan Blaney, Darrell Wallace Jr., waiting in the wings between Nationwide, Trucks and regional NASCAR series, a new wave of drivers is coming. It will be fascinating to watch how things evolve.

Newgarden, Chevy top Phoenix practice

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Friday’s two-hour practice for the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix started out slowly, with only a handful of drivers turning laps in the opening 30 minutes. However, the second hour, and the final 30 minutes in particular, turned into a frenzy, with drivers making several runs and completing qualifying sims.

Josef Newgarden topped the speed charts with an average speed of 192.108 mph, the only lap above the 192 mark of the session.

JR Hildebrand enjoyed a strong run on his return after suffering a broken hand at Long Beach to run second in practice. Helio Castroneves, Simon Pagenaud, and Will Power completed the top five, making it a Chevrolet sweep of the top five spots.

Heavy winds wreaked havoc on the session, with sand blowing onto the track surface throughout practice. Conditions became severe enough that practice was halted a couple minutes prior to its scheduled conclusion.

Of note: driver Ed Carpenter, in his first race outing of 2017, suffered a shortened practice due to mechanical issues and the crew reportedly was working on swapping out the fuel cell on his No.20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet.

Times and qualifying order are below. Qualifying begins at 11:00 p.m. ET (8:00 local time).

 

 

Honda defends decision to redesign F1 power unit for 2017

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Honda Formula 1 chief Yusuke Hasegawa has defended the decision to redesign its power unit layout for 2017 despite suffering a number of reliability and performance issues at the start of the season.

Entering its third year since returning to F1 as an engine supplier, Honda looked to make gains by revising the layout of its power unit to mirror that of pace-setter Mercedes.

The decision appeared to backfire, though, with a lack of both performance and reliability leaving customer team McLaren frustrated and without a single point after three races.

Speaking in Friday’s FIA press conference in Russia, Hasegawa was asked if the decision to revise the power unit layout was a mistake, and defending the move despite admitting to the ongoing problems.

“I don’t think we made a complete mistake from last year’s performance. We knew that we have to change everything, not only the package but also the combustion, so we tried to modify all areas,” Hasegawa explained.

“Some areas we succeeded, to reduce the weight and lower the center of gravity, but yeah, definitely we couldn’t get enough power from the combustion. So, yeah, it is just an excuse, but we still need time.

“But we don’t think we made a huge mistake, the direction was right. We are very much disappointed with our current situation.

“But because the base concept is correct, we believe we can make good progress in the middle of the season.”

McLaren’s hopes of scoring its first points of the year in Russia took a hit on Friday when Stoffel Vandoorne was forced to take new elements for his power unit, triggering a 15-place grid drop for the race.

More brake issues strike Haas in Russia F1 practice despite supplier change

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The Haas Formula 1 team endured another difficult day of practice ahead of the Russian Grand Prix as drivers Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen suffered more brake issues despite changing supplier.

Haas confirmed on Thursday that it would be switching from Brembo to Carbon Industrie brakes, having suffered problems throughout its 14-month stint in F1.

Despite enjoying a positive test in Bahrain with Carbon Industrie parts last week, both Grosjean and Magnussen struggled with their brakes in FP1 and FP2 at the Sochi Autodrom on Friday.

Grosjean finished FP2 14th-fastest, with Magnussen breaking into the top 10, charging to ninth place in the VF-17 car.

“We’ve got very little grip. We’re really struggling with the balance,” Grosjean said. “We had some issues, as well, with the brakes over the long runs. We need to look at what we can do better with them.

“Generally, it’s just been a very difficult Friday. The car didn’t perform well – very low grip on low fuel and high fuel.”

Team principal Guenther Steiner added: “We had a lot to do and I think we did a lot. We still haven’t got all the results yet, as we need to go through data.

“I would say the issues with the brakes were mainly because they’re new to us. We need to find out how they work. Going through the data, we will decide tomorrow what we’re doing and how we continue.

“All in all, we had pretty fruitful sessions. We did a lot of laps and we learned a lot. Now we need to get the best out of what we learned for tomorrow to go into qualifying.”

Qualifying for the Russian Grand Prix is live on CNBC and the NBC Sports app from 8am ET on Saturday.

F1 Paddock Pass: Russian Grand Prix, Friday edition (VIDEO)

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While the drivers may be the stars of Formula 1, their on-track escapades would not be possible without the titanic effort from those behind the scenes at their respective teams, making it key for us to hear from the people who make racing possible from time to time.

Following on from the special Friday edition of NBC Sports’ original digital series ‘Paddock Pass’ in Bahrain, Will Buxton is back with all of the interviews from the team bosses in today’s FIA press conference in Russia.

In part one, we hear from Otmar Szafnauer, COO at Force India, who gives his verdict on the team’s showing in 2017 so far and new driver Esteban Ocon’s start to the season. We also catch up with Renault technical boss Nick Chester and Pirelli’s new F1 chief, Mario Isola.

In part two, Ferrari’s engine boss Luigi Fabroni offers his thoughts on the Italian marque’s strong start to the 2017 season following Sebastian Vettel’s wins in Australia and Bahrain. At the other end of the success spectrum, McLaren’s Matt Morris and Honda’s Yusuke Hasegawa discuss the ongoing rebuilding project at woking.