Pirelli World Challenge primer: Houston

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Class championships will be on the line in GT, GTS and Touring Car B-Spec this weekend in Houston, as the 2013 Pirelli World Challenge comes to a conclusion on the bumpy, 1.7-mile Reliant Park street circuit. The Touring Car and TCB categories will run Rounds 13 and 14 on Saturday afternoon, while the GT and GTS categories will stage their Round 14 on Sunday morning.

The GT class appears certain to be settled between points leader James Sofronas (No. 14 GMG Audi R8) and defending class champion Johnny O’Connell (No. 3 Cadillac Racing CTS-V.R). Sofronas took a third-place finish last time out at Sonoma to grab the points lead from O’Connell, who finished outside the Top 10 in Northern California after getting caught in a first-lap accident.

Going into Houston, Sofronas holds a 21-point lead, 1360-1339, over O’Connell. There’s no doubt that Sofronas would love to dethrone O’Connell, but in his mind, the season has already been a success.

“Whatever happens on Sunday, everyone on this team should be proud of getting to this point,” Sofronas said in a team statement. “We’ve come so close to winning this thing in the past, nothing would make me happier than to finally take it; especially in our first full year with Audi.

“The way the points are shaping up, it should be a straight fight between Johnny and I on Sunday, so we’ll just have to keep our heads down and see where it goes.”

In GTS, Jack Baldwin currenly has a 46-point lead (1297-1251) over Lawson Aschenbach and a 47-point lead over Mark Wilkins (1297-1250) as we head into the final race. Baldwin was also involved in the aforementioned first-lap incident at Sonoma, which took him out of the race and enabled Aschenbach and Wilkins to draw closer to him in the standings.

Then there’s TCB, which features a riveting duel between Ernie Francis, Jr. and Robbie Davis that finds the two separated by just one point – 1242 for Francis, 1241 for Davis. Francis swept the Sonoma weekend, but post-race points penalties reduced what should have been a larger gap down to the single marker – and that gives Davis a prime opportunity to win the championship in his home state of Texas.

The only championship that isn’t up for grabs in Houston is the one for Touring Car, which is set to be won by Ryan Winchester. He also won both races in his class at Sonoma, and enters this weekend with a title lead of 297 points.

World-ChallengeTV.com will stream both days of competition live, with Saturday’s TC/TCB races going off at 6 p.m. ET and Sunday’s GT/GTS event starting at 11:15 a.m. ET. NBCSN will broadcast the races on Sunday, Oct. 20 at 4 p.m. ET.

Michael Andretti looking forward to new Australian Supercars venture

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If it seems like Michael Andretti is out to conquer the world, he is – kind of.

The former IndyCar star turned prolific team owner has won three of the last four Indianapolis 500s and five overall, second only to Roger Penske’s 16 Indy 500 triumphs.

Along the way, in addition to expanding his own IndyCar and Indy Lights operation, the son of Mario Andretti and the primary shareholder of Andretti Autosport has also branched out into Global RallyCross and Formula E racing in recent years.

And now, Andretti has further expanded his brand internationally, following Penske to the world down under — as in the world of Australian V8 Supercars.

Andretti has teamed with Supercars team owner Ryan Walkinshaw, along with veteran motorsports marketer and executive director of McLaren Technology Group and United Autosports owner and chairman, Zak Brown.

Together, the three have formed Walkinshaw Andretti United, based in suburban Melbourne, Australia. The new team kicks off the new season with the Adelaide 500 from March 1-4.

“It’s just extending our brand and putting it out there,” Andretti told NBC Sports. “The Supercars are such a great series.

“It all started with Zach Brown calling me and said ‘You have to talk to Ryan Walkinshaw. He’s got something interesting to talk to you about.’

“We talked and literally in like a half-hour, we said, ‘Let’s figure out how we’re going to make this work.’ And then Zack was like, ‘Hey, what about me?’ And then Zack came in as a partner and it’s cool now that we have the Walkinshaw Andretti United team.

“I’m really excited about that program, the guys at the shop are excited about it, we’ve been doing a lot of things to try and help it because it’s such a cool series and the cars are so cool.

“I went down there to Bathurst, which was to me one of the coolest tracks in the world. I wish I could have driven it, I really do. It looks like a blast.

“It’s amazing how big that series is when you go down there. It’s one of the biggest sports in Australia. It was just a great opportunity for us to extend our portfolio.”

Admittedly, Andretti had some extra incentive to want to get involved in the Supercars world: Penske joined forces with legendary Dick Johnson Racing in September 2014.

The organization came together quickly and the rebranded DJR Team Penske went on to win the 2017 V8 Supercars championship.

“Roger was down there the last few years,” Andretti said, adding that fact as incentive to get his own organization into the series. “So it’s cool to go race head-to-head with Roger. That was also in the back of our minds.”

This is no start-up venture for Andretti. The roots of the new venture began in 1990 as the Holden Racing Team, which went on to become one of the most successful organizations in Australian V8 Supercar racing, having won the drivers’ championship six times and the Virgin Australia Supercars Championship’s top race, the Bathurst 1000 (essentially Australia’s version of the Indy 500), seven times.

Last season, Holden Racing team morphed into Triple Eight Race Engineering and was renamed Mobil 1 HSV Racing.

And now the company has been renamed once again for the 2018 campaign under the Walkinshaw Andretti United banner.

The team will be composed of two Holden ZB Commodores with drivers James Courtney and Scott Pye, as well as a Porsche 911 GT3-R in the Australian GT championship.

What’s next for Andretti’s motorsports portfolio? Right now, it’s pretty full, but you can bet running for championships from Australia (Supercars) to globally (GRC) to Indianapolis (Indy 500) to the U.S. (Verizon IndyCar Series) are at the top of this year’s list.