History 300

A winless champion could be trouble for NASCAR Nationwide Series

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The good news: a NASCAR Nationwide Series regular will win the 2013 series championship this weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

The bad news: the potential exists that champion could finish the 2013 season winless.

So long as Austin Dillon finishes ahead of Sam Hornish Jr. – the Richard Childress Racing prodigy leads Penske Racing’s Hornish by eight points entering Saturday’s Ford Ecoboost 300 – and doesn’t win, he’ll be the champion. To Dillon’s credit, that would give him titles in both Nationwide and the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series (2011).

NASCAR can spin it all it wants, as in “Dillon’s incredible consistency carried him to the title” or some such. But a winless champion would be the first all-time in any of NASCAR’s three top tiers, and a potential nightmare scenario from a marketing or PR standpoint.

After all, the Chase for the Sprint Cup was introduced a year after Matt Kenseth won a solitary race in 2003, building his lone title triumph on consistency rather than race wins and dominance.

Nationwide has, for better or worse, traditionally allowed the influx of Sprint Cup regulars to compete in its races. And while Cup drivers can’t register driver points, they can play major dividends in both the driver and owner championships.

The dominant teams entering this weekend are the No. 22 Penske Racing Ford and the No. 54 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota teams; Penske lead JGR by 4 owner points, 1256-1252. Both teams have 12 wins; Busch has all 12 for the 54 while four different drivers (Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, AJ Allmendinger, Ryan Blaney) have won in the 22. That’s a full 24 of 32 races thus far won by just these two cars (75 percent), and in total, 27 of 32 won by Cup regulars. Dillon’s and Hornish’s teams rank only third and fourth in the owner points, by contrast.

That’s a majority of the races where the 54 and the 22 have received the most ink, the most press, and the most coverage, instead of the series’ actual full-timers.

Knowing and learning how to win races should be part of a training ground, and so long as the Cup regulars continue to dominate the scoreboard, it’s always going to be difficult for Nationwide drivers to gain that skill before moving up.

Perhaps a “maximum race cap” gets introduced for Cup regulars, or the schedule itself designates only a certain number of races where Cup regulars will be eligible. That’s a topic for another day, though.

Still, it’s no coincidence that some of the most intriguing Nationwide races this year – Iowa and the road courses at Road America and Mid-Ohio, for instance – have featured less than a full handful of Cup regulars in the field. And all three were won by drivers not competing in Cup full-time.

You could properly see how well Dillon and Hornish fared against their Nationwide peers in those races compared to the majority, populated by Cup regulars, where all they really needed to do was finish “best in class” to keep building the points.

Hornish has finished second five times this year, and third four times. Of those nine races, the No. 22 Penske Racing Ford driven by Keselowski, Logano or Allmendinger has won five of them (Hornish finished second to the No. 22 three times, third twice). He finished best in class, but you could argue he left points on the table in ending behind the team car. Indeed, it’s more than 20 points that have gone begging as a result, and right now, those points would be pretty valuable heading into Homestead.

Sponsorship is the main reason Hornish doesn’t have a 2014 contract in place, although he plans to remain in NASCAR. But those missed winning opportunities have to loom large to potential suitors.

Perhaps Hornish overcomes the deficit this Saturday, and a win with Dillon outside the top five would do just that. For his and the series’ sake, it would be welcomed, to give him his second win of 2013. Or, Dillon could reduce the potential angst of a winless champ with a win of his own.

Either way, game on this Saturday.

Entry lists revealed for MRTI Spring Training in Miami

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Kyle Kaiser in Miami, 2015. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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The first real good, if not final, looks at the season to come in the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires come with next week’s Spring Training, which sees four total days of action at the Homestead-Miami Speedway for all three rungs of the ladder.

The Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires will run February 27 on Homestead-Miami’s 1.5-mile oval and March 2 on the 2.21-mile road course. Meanwhile the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires and Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda series will run solely on the road course over two back-to-back days, February 28 and March 1.

Indy Lights’ field seems closest to being finalized from this group, while Pro Mazda and USF2000 still have some gaps to fill.

In one other bit, Mazda will announce the teams of competition for its Soul Red-liveried drivers this year, all of whom won Mazda Motorsports Advancement Scholarships for their next step up this year. That’s why Aaron Telitz (Indy Lights), Anthony Martin (Pro Mazda) and Oliver Askew (USF2000) teams are listed as TBAs.

Anyway, quick notes:

Indy Lights (14 cars

All drivers on the Indy Lights entry list have been officially announced, and as noted, Telitz’s team is the only significant TBA of note. Car numbers are revealed for Zachary Claman De Melo and Matheus Leist at Carlin of 13 and 26 respectively, with the known in advance.

In terms of team breakdown, it’s four each at Carlin and Andretti Autosport (with Colton Herta’s No. 98 car an Andretti Steinbrenner Racing entry), Juncos Racing and Belardi Auto Racing each with two official cars and Team Pelfrey the lone one-car entry.

Of the 14 drivers, the field is split exactly in half between seven veterans and seven rookies.

Questions from here are whether one or two more cars not at this test will join the grid at St. Petersburg and push the number back up. Since the debut of the Dallara IL-15 Mazda in 2015, the St. Pete weekend has had 13 cars in 2015 and 16 cars last year, with this one falling in the middle.

Pro Mazda (6 cars)

In what’s very much a survive-and-advance season for Pro Mazda in the final year with its existing car, a small batch of cars come from Team Pelfrey, World Speed Motorsports and the team TBA for Anthony Martin for this test.

Within a 20-to-30-plus, multiple-class series of racing, six cars for one class wouldn’t necessarily be a problem. But six on their own for an independent series is certainly an issue. The number simply has to grow by St. Petersburg to at least eight at a bare minimum, the low-water mark last year, with 10 a significant step forward at this rate (the series had 12 cars at St. Petersburg last year).

USF2000 (22 cars)

Quite by contrast, the new Tatuus USF-17 premieres in USF2000 with 22 cars at this test and the potential of more cars by St. Petersburg (the series had 26 starters last year with two additional withdrawals).

Six returning drivers join 12 rookies and four TBAs on this list, all split among 10 teams. Dutch driver Rinus VeeKay, initially announced as driving for Benik in 2017, is listed in a third Newman Wachs Racing entry for this test.

Juan Pablo Montoya samples Risi Ferrari in Sebring IMSA test

during practice for the Verizon IndyCar Series Firestone 600 at Texas Motor Speedway on June 10, 2016 in Fort Worth, Texas.
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One of the best drivers of his generation, Juan Pablo Montoya’s recent run of sampling a diverse amount of machinery continues with his testing debut in the No. 62 Risi Competizione Ferrari 488 GTE at this week’s IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship test at Sebring International Raceway.

Initially reported by Sportscar365, Montoya received the guest drive opportunity from an old colleague of his when he raced F3000. Team manager Dave “Beaky” Sims planned to put Montoya in for a few laps this afternoon to give him his first proper running in a GTE-spec car.

Montoya, a race winner in Formula 1, IndyCar and NASCAR, two-time Indianapolis 500 champion and past CART and F3000 champion prior to that, got into the low 2:00 range in his handful of laps before turning the car back to Toni Vilander, who will share the car for the March 18 race with Giancarlo Fisichella and James Calado. Times are unofficial because this is a series test.

Montoya’s race plans this year are thus far limited to the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil in a fifth Team Penske IndyCar. He won the individual portion of the Race of Champions in Miami last month. He’s been linked to the rumored (by RACER.com and others), if not yet official, Penske Daytona Prototype international (DPi) effort.

A couple social posts from the Colombian’s run are below, including from Vilander, IMSA Radio pit reporter Shea Adam and IMSA timing & scoring provider Al Kamel Systems. More info from this week’s test will follow soon.

@Regrann from @imsa_racing – Juan Pablo Montoya turns a few laps in @risicomp's 488. – #regrann

A post shared by Risi Competizione (@risicomp) on

MRTI: Recent February USF2000, Pro Mazda signings roundup

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Pabst confirmed a USF2000 driver. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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As the new season for the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires continues to draw near, there’s been a few announcements in both the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires and Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda ranks to go along with those that have come from the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires series.

A quick note first: the expected team announcements for Mazda scholarship drivers Anthony Martin (Pro Mazda) and Oliver Askew (USF2000) will come from Mazda directly, so while those two drivers will be racing they’ve been not formally announced as yet.

Anyway, here’s what’s come down in the last couple weeks:

USF2000

  • Luke Gabin joins the list of those back for a third season in USF2000, and will join fellow third-year driver Parker Thompson at Michael Duncalfe’s Exclusive Autosport. Gabin was one of the more exciting drivers to watch last year and scored his first few podiums, extracting the maximum from a tight budget at JAY Motorsports. The Australian will be in the No. 91 Tatuus USF-17. The full release is linked here.
  • Kart racer Rick Donison of India is Cape Motorsports’ first confirmed driver for the season and will be in the team’s No. 2 car. His initial background is in karting prior to his car debut in both Formula BMW India and UAS F4 races. The full release is linked here.
  • A couple weeks ago, Pabst Racing announced their second driver for 2017 with Brazilian Lucas Kohl back for a second season. Kohl raced last year with John Cummiskey Racing; JCR is yet to announce a driver for 2017. The full release is linked here.
  • Menards made a big splash into IndyCar upon its return to the series last year with Simon Pagenaud at Team Penske. The Midwest retailer will now adorn Chandler Horton’s No. 20 RJB Motorsports entry in USF2000.
  • Gabin’s announcement makes 13 car/driver/team combinations confirmed thus far in the series. More are expected given the number of car orders and teams which have yet to fill out one or more seats from here.

Pro Mazda

  • FatBoy Racing! joined Leading Edge GP as the second new team to announce its intentions of entering Pro Mazda this season. Drivers Brendan Puterbach and Charles Finelli raced sporadically in the USF2000 National class last year.

MRTI

Next week’s test at Homestead-Miami Speedway has this schedule:

  • February 27: Indy Lights oval testing
  • February 28, March 1: USF2000, Pro Mazda road course testing
  • March 2: Indy Lights road course testing

F1 Paddock Pass: McLaren MCL32 Honda Launch (VIDEO)

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The week of Formula 1 car launches continue with two more today, the Ferrari SF70H online and later, the McLaren MCL32 Honda in Woking, in the U.K.

The NBC Sports Group original digital series Paddock Pass continues along with it, with NBCSN pit reporter and insider Will Buxton and producer Jason Swales making the trip to the McLaren Technology Center (MTC) for today’s McLaren launch of the new orange-and-black liveried car.

Hopes are high that the Honda-powered McLaren will be more than just troubling the midfield this year, and instead making that next leap back into the upper crust of Formula 1, where both McLaren and Honda have so much history together.

Those tasked with that goal include American Zak Brown, the team’s new executive director, drivers Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne, and a host of others including but not limited to Jonathan Neale and Eric Boullier of McLaren, and Yusuke Hasegawa of Honda.

Previous Paddock Pass editions from this week are below:

Stay tuned for more on NBCSports.com in the buildup to testing next week in Barcelona. A recap of the launches held this weekend will come next week, to link up with the start of testing on February 27 at the Circuit de Catalunya-Barcelona.