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.

Vettel ‘not looking for excuses’ after P4 in Baku qualifying

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Sebastian Vettel will start fourth for Sunday’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix (9 a.m. ET, NBCSN) with a thus far off the boil weekend for Scuderia Ferrari.

Vettel, who leads the Formula 1 championship by 12 points over Lewis Hamilton heading into Sunday’s race at the Baku City Circuit, had a pre-qualifying engine change and didn’t appear to have the pace of the Mercedes AMG Petronas pair this session.

But for Vettel, he didn’t seem too worried about the lack of pace today or the potential race pace differential between Ferrari and Mercedes on Sunday.

“I don’t want to look for excuses. We were not quick enough,” Vettel told NBCSN’s Will Buxton after qualifying.

“The gap to Mercedes was bigger than anyone expected. Us and Red Bull looked a good match all weekend.

“Overall they felt a little more confident and they found a bit more in the car. I wouldn’t worry too much. It’s not ideal. But the pace should be good for tomorrow’s race.”

Asked whether Mercedes’ pace was too much, Vettel replied, “Today they did, but not tomorrow!”

Vettel was second this race last year and is keen to go one step higher on Sunday. Although from fourth, he’ll have to get past the Finnish pair and proverbial sparring partners Valtteri Bottas and Kimi Raikkonen to do so. Hamilton has the pole.

“Well, we start P4 – so if we improve by one that’s a podium,” Vettel deadpanned.

“Mercedes will be quick tomorrow, but I have no doubt we can be a match. Let’s see what we can do tomorrow.”

Hamilton: Baku F1 pole ‘one of the most exciting laps’ of the year

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Lewis Hamilton believes that his charge to Formula 1 pole in Azerbaijan on Saturday was “one of the most exciting laps” of the season as he headed up a front-row lock-out for Mercedes.

Hamilton bounced back from a mistake on his first Q3 run to take P1 by four-tenths of a second, moving clear of Ayrton Senna to sit second on the all-time record list with 66 pole positions to his name.

Hamilton struggled throughout the Baku weekend in 2016, and despite coming under pressure to overhaul Mercedes teammate and provisional pole-sitter Valtteri Bottas, the Briton was able to charge it into a stunning final lap.

“That was one of the most exciting laps I’ve had all year,” Hamilton said in parc ferme after qualifying.

“A lot of pressure obviously. The first lap I had the time but made a mistake in the last corner. We’d been struggling to get temps in the tires.

“It was all or nothing. The lap got better and better. I knew Valtteri ahead was on good lap. I came from last corner, saying: ‘Please be enough!’ I’m ecstatic!”

Hamilton made no secret of how much the result and lap meant to him, but he is still anticipating a tough race in Baku given the challenging nature of the high-speed street circuit.

“As I said, I’m so pumped with that. That’s how qualifying should be,” Hamilton said.

“I’m so thankful to put a lap together like that.

“Tomorrow will be a long hard race but today is in the best position to start.”

Hamilton dominates Azerbaijan F1 qualifying for 66th career pole

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Lewis Hamilton moved clear of racing hero Ayrton Senna in the all-time pole position record list by taking the 66th of his Formula 1 career in qualifying for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix on Saturday in Baku.

Hamilton banished the difficulties of his 2016 race in Baku to break the existing pole record time with a lap of 1:40.593, giving him pole by four-tenths of a second ahead of Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas.

Despite clipping the barrier at Turn 8 with his right-rear tire, Bottas was able to lay down the initial benchmark in Q3, with his lap of 1:31.274 being one-tenth of a second faster than Hamilton’s best effort after the Briton ran wide in the final sector.

Hamilton began to work up a faster lap time, only for his charge to be halted by red flags with three minutes to go in the session when Daniel Ricciardo clipped the wall at Turn 6, sustaining a puncture in the process.

The stoppage left drivers with just three minutes to get back out on-track and get their tires up to temperature, with Hamilton managing to tame his Pirelli super-softs better than the rest.

Kimi Raikkonen led Ferrari’s charge in third place, but was a distant 1.1 seconds off Hamilton at the top. Teammate and F1 championship leader Sebastian Vettel was fourth ahead of Red Bull’s Max Verstappen.

Force India’s impressive form of late continued as Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon qualified sixth and seventh respectively, while Lance Stroll took eighth for Williams, outqualifying teammate Felipe Massa for the first time. Ricciardo rounded out the top 10 after his shunt.

Toro Rosso suffered a double drop-out in Q2 as Daniil Kvyat and Carlos Sainz Jr. struggled for straight-line speed, qualifying 11th and 12th respectively ahead of Haas driver Kevin Magnussen.

Nico Hulkenberg finished 14th for Renault, while Pascal Wehrlein led Sauber through to Q2 in P15 despite the current state of flux at the team following CEO Monisha Kaltenborn’s exit.

Already facing a combined grid drop of 75-places, McLaren-Honda drivers Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne’s struggles continued as they were both eliminated in Q1, finishing 16th and 19th respectively as they failed to make up for the power deficit of the Honda engine.

While Haas got one car through to Q2 after a late lap from Magnussen, teammate Romain Grosjean’s struggles under braking continued as he ailed to P17 ahead of Sauber’s Marcus Ericsson.

Jolyon Palmer propped up the timesheets in P20 after failing to get out in qualifying due to the engine fire that sidelined him in final practice.

The Azerbaijan Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 8am ET on Sunday.

Herta on pole for second Indy Lights race at Road America

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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ELKHART LAKE, Wis. – Colton Herta rebounded from a tough Friday dogged by persistent mechanical issues where he was barely on track, and a 13th place start for race one, to take the pole for Sunday’s race two (9 a.m. ET online on IndyCar.com; 11:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN) for the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires at Road America.

The 17-year-old excelled in the cooler conditions this morning for qualifying in his No. 98 Andretti/Steinbrenner Racing Dallara IL-15 Mazda to post a time of 1:52.0034 for the top spot at the 4.014-mile circuit. He’ll start only 13th for today’s first race.

Freedom 100 winner Matheus Leist, who enjoyed his maiden IndyCar test here last week with Andretti-Herta Autosport, was back in his Carlin car and is second on the grid, just 0.0223 of a second off Herta’s time.

For Sunday, points leader Kyle Kaiser made it three teams in the top three for Juncos Racing, with Zachary Claman De Melo and Santiago Urrutia completing the top five on the grid.

Americans Neil Alberico and Aaron Telitz are sixth and seventh with Nico Jamin in eighth.

Leist’s pole time for today’s first race was 1:53.1760 with qualifying in warmer conditions, set yesterday afternoon.

Leist, Alberico and Ryan Norman will lead the field to green, which comes online today at noon CT and local time, 1 p.m. ET, online at IndyCar.com.

Weekend results are linked here.