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The Year in Motors, Part 2: NASCAR and NHRA

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As the off-season has gone by, MotorSportsTalk has produced multiple season reviews in various racing categories. Today marks the second part of our Year in Motors, and with that, here’s a quick rundown of the NASCAR and NHRA seasons.

NASCAR Sprint Cup

A competitive and sometimes controversial season ended with Jimmie Johnson returning to the top of the Sprint Cup Series. The Hendrick Motorsports driver claimed his sixth Cup championship with a ninth-place finish in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, enabling him to defeat title rival Matt Kenseth by 19 points after their exciting battle throughout the post-season Chase.

The Chase was nearly overshadowed by scandal that took place during the final regular season race of the year in September at Richmond International Raceway. In a bid to help Michael Waltrip Racing teammate Martin Truex Jr. make the Chase, Clint Bowyer intentionally spun out in the final laps at RIR and Brian Vickers went to the pits after the race went back to green.

NASCAR ultimately decided MWR had attempted to manipulate the race and came down hard with penalties that knocked Truex out of the post-season. They then opted to add Jeff Gordon, one of the drivers affected by the Richmond incident, into the Chase as a 13th competitor. Eventually, MWR sponsor NAPA decided to leave the sport, which forced the team to relegate their third car to part-time status and caused Truex to find another ride at Furniture Row Racing.

This year was also notable for the debut of the Generation 6 cars, which were designed to improve racing especially on the intermediate tracks. However, while noticeably quicker than their predecessors, many races in 2013 still came down to track position. After a pair of tests at Charlotte this fall, NASCAR has produced a new aero package for the Gen 6 that’s slated to debut this coming March at Phoenix, the first race after the Daytona 500.

NASCAR Nationwide

Austin Dillon and Sam Hornish Jr. took their fight for the championship all the way to the finish at Homestead, but Dillon ultimately won out by a scant margin of three points over the former Indianapolis 500 winner. The triumph served as a prelude to grandfather/car owner Richard Childress’ announcement that Dillon would bring the iconic No. 3 back to Sprint Cup next season for Richard Childress Racing. As for Hornish, he is currently a free agent at this time.

The NNS also had a spirited race for the owner’s championship between Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 54 team and Penske Racing’s No. 22 team. Kyle Busch won 12 races for the No. 54, but Penske’s quartet of Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, A.J. Allmendinger and Ryan Blaney combined for 12 wins of their own – and it was Logano’s sixth-place finish at Homestead that enabled the Penske camp to win that particular title by one point.

Kyle Larson claimed Rookie of the Year honors after starting his NNS campaign with a devastating crash in the season opener at Daytona International Speedway; Larson was sent flying into the catch fence moments after contact was made by Regan Smith and Brad Keselowski while the field scrambled to the checkered flag. Debris from the incident injured more than 30 fans.

NASCAR Camping World Truck

Matt Crafton rode the consistency wave all the way to the CWTS driver’s championship, earning one win and 19 Top-10 finishes across 22 starts. He came up short, however, of giving his ThorSport Racing team the series’ owner’s title after taking late damage at Homestead. That opened the door for Kyle Busch Motorsports to take the owner’s crown after Busch won the race; KBM earned the championship on a tie-breaker with its No. 51 Truck winning seven times in 2013 compared to Crafton’s lone win for the Thorsport No. 88.

Also making a major impact was a bumper crop of young talent. There were five first-time winners in 2013, with Kyle Larson, Darrell Wallace Jr., Jeb Burton, Chase Elliott and Eric Jones all earning their inaugural series wins. And there were other memorable episodes too, from the post-race brouhaha at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park to the first-ever “Mudsummer Classic” on the dirt at Eldora Speedway.

NHRA

The face of the NHRA returned to championship glory in 2013, as John Force claimed his 16th career Funny Car class championship. Also adding another title to their respective mantles were Jeg Coughlin Jr. in Pro Stock (his fifth PS title) and Matt Smith in Pro Stock Motorcycle (his second PSM title). The lone first-time champion was Shawn Langdon, who broke through in Top Fuel after a season that saw him win the NHRA’s signature gathering, the U.S. Nationals.

And in case you missed our first part of the Year in Motors, here’s that as well.

CJ Wilson completes first test in Porsche GT3 Cup car

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Photo courtesy of CJ Wilson Racing
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CJ Wilson’s new career is officially underway, following his retirement from professional baseball and now having completed his first test last week at Texas World Speedway in his new 2017 Porsche 911 GT3 Cup car.

Wilson, who formally announced the news he’d be transitioning into racing full-time during Rolex 24 at Daytona race week, did a two-day test at the still active oval/road course combo track in College Station, Texas. Wilson tested one of the team’s Porsche Cayman GT4 Clubsports (the team runs two in IMSA’s Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge) and then advanced into the Cup car.

Wilson got fairly close to teammate Marc Miller’s times during the test as he acclimated to both the Cup car and the Yokohama tires.

“It’s great to take another step towards my goals,” Wilson said. “We had a chance to burn through two sets of tires today and I made a lot of progress. Having Marc as my coach was incredibly helpful because we have a lot of faith in each other and communicate using the same terms. Having sat in driver debriefings for the past six years with the race team, I was able to take all the input logically and make progress each session.

“The only odd thing about the test is that nobody else was here, which was the first time I have ever been on a track completely alone, so when we did a race simulation I had to use my imagination. TWS is a really fast and bumpy track. Looking forward to getting back in the car in ten days and pick up where I left off.”

Miller added, “CJ did great job, but I expected as much. He is logical and methodical which makes him easy to help and that translated into a very quick progression along the learning curve. Like any professional athlete though he is never truly satisfied because he wants to be perfect. He took quickly to the new Porsche 911 GT3 Cup car. It is confidence inspiring and such a capable platform so that suited him well in getting up to speed. Overall, it was a successful first outing and I look forward to working with CJ this season. I expect he will have a solid debut at Sebring. He better or I’m likely fired.”

A teaser of on-board footage is below, along with a couple other social posts from the test:

Danny Watts: ‘Staying hidden was nothing but torture and pain’

LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 22:  (l to r) Strakka Racing drivers Danny Watts, Nick Leventis and Jonny Kane pose during the 2013 FIA World Endurance Championship Photo Call on March 22, 2013 at Potters Fields in London, England.  (Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images)
Watts (left) with Leventis and Kane in 2013. Photo: Getty Images
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Sports car veteran driver Danny Watts has announced his retirement from active competition, but is in the news for an entirely different reason on Monday.

The 37-year-old Brit has announced he’s gay, penning a first-person piece for the Huffington Post and also doing interviews with both Daily Sportscar and Autosport. The latter article features a well-written op-ed from author Matt Beer.

In the Huffington Post piece, Watts, an eight-time starter and 2010 LMP2 class winner at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, wrote that hiding his sexuality in the heavily white male heterosexual world of motorsport was simply becoming too much to keep under wraps.

“There isn’t any one moment that stands out in my mind as the moment I realized I would need to live in the closet if I wanted my motorsport career to go anywhere; it was just a general feeling I got,” Watts wrote.

“All the other guys in the paddock had girlfriends, so I got one to blend in. When that relationship ended, I got another one, and so I continued pretending to be straight for seventeen years.

“Staying hidden was nothing but torture and pain.

“I hope that there are a few people who are supportive. If the response I’ve had from the queer motorsport community thus far is any gauge, I feel hopeful that I’ll find a supportive group to start driving change for my queer siblings in the sport I love.”

Within the motorsports world, Watts’ name is best known to the sports car paddock, and he was a regular with the Strakka Racing team alongside co-drivers Jonny Kane and Nick Leventis. But he isn’t particularly known to the racing world at large.

This announcement comes as Watts has opted to call time on his full-time driving career and instead will focus on coaching for the future. It also represents one of the higher profile names in racing announcing his sexual orientation, which makes it newsworthy.

Despite some detractors (as you might expect), a number of other drivers and key motorsports figures have revealed their support for Watts, and why this news matters, on social media today:

Marino Franchitti returns to Mazda at Sebring

SEBRING, FL - MARCH 15:  Left to right, Marino Franchitti, Memo Rojas and Scott Pruett celebrate after winning the 12 Hours of Sebring at Sebring International Raceway on March 15, 2014 in Sebring, Florida.  (Photo by Brian Cleary/Getty Images)
Franchitti (left) won at Sebring in 2014. Photo: Getty Images
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Marino Franchitti will make his return to a Mazda entry for next month’s Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring, to be run March 18, as third driver in the team’s No. 70 Mazda RT24-P with Joel Miller and Tom Long.

The Scotsman competed in the team’s RX-8 and 6 models in the GT ranks but has been out of a drive since his role with Ford Chip Ganassi Racing last season in one of the team’s Ford GTs in the FIA World Endurance Championship.

Franchitti replaces James Hinchcliffe, who was the third driver in the No. 70 car at the Rolex 24 at Daytona. He’ll test for the team later this week at Sebring prior to the race run in the second IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship race of the year.

“A big part of those results are being with great teams and having great teammates. I’ve been fortunate in that regard,” said Franchitti, who co-drove to win overall at Sebring in 2014. “I love driving there, I always have since the first laps I did. It’s a proper old-school track. If you go over the limit, you crash, simple as that, rather than going onto some tarmac run-off like many tracks. I love the challenge of walking that tightrope. Of course, there’s the challenge of the bumps too, trying to get the car to handle over them and the beating the car and driver takes. There’s a reason people come from all over the world to endurance test their cars here, it’s the ultimate test of a vehicle and its durability.

No. 70 Mazda RT24-P. Photo courtesy of IMSA
No. 70 Mazda RT24-P. Photo courtesy of IMSA

“It’s so cool to be coming back into the Mazda family,” said Franchitti. “Like everyone else, I was blown away when I saw the first shots of the RT24-P and how incredible it looks, so there’s a lot of excitement at getting to drive it. I’m relieved I get a chance to test the car, as many times I’ve just jumped in and raced, so this is a bit of a luxury! Being a part of the development process of a car is something I’ve been lucky enough to do several times and it’s something I really love.”

Mazda Motorsports director John Doonan added, “He’s a proven winner there, and he’s been a part of the Mazda family for years. Just look at his record at Sebring! He has the experience that can really help our team. Because he’s driven with Mazda before, we know his personality is a great fit. That’s important to us, and it goes a long way in helping the team chemistry remain strong. He’s a great fit with Tom [Long] and Joel [Miller], just as Spencer Pigot has been great with Nunez and Bomarito.”

Pipo Derani set for IndyCar test with SPM at Sebring

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Photo courtesy of IMSA
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Pipo Derani has become a star in the sports car world the last couple years, courtesy of his drives primarily with Tequila Patron ESM.

Meanwhile for at least a day, the 23-year-old Brazilian will be returning to his open-wheel roots in a big way.

NBC Sports has learned Derani will test for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports on March 1 in a rookie test for the Verizon IndyCar Series. Derani joins Mexican driver Luis Michael Dorrbecker, who will also make his test debut that day at that test at Sebring International Raceway’s 1.5-mile short course.

Derani raced a partial season in the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires series in 2014 with Team Pelfrey, before shifting to sports cars later that fall, starting with Murphy Prototypes.

Derani excelled with G-Drive in 2015 before his star turn with ESM last year. This year, his schedule grows even greater, as he’s been confirmed with Ford Chip Ganassi Racing for the first three races of the FIA World Endurance Championship season, including the 24 Hours of Le Mans, sharing the No. 67 Ford GT with Andy Priaulx and Harry Tincknell.

It’ll be interesting to see what Derani does on the Sebring short course in one of SPM’s Honda-powered entries. He’ll be back at Sebring a couple weeks after his IndyCar test, as he prepares to defend his win in the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring with ESM.