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.

Aston Martin Racing confirms Stanaway, Serra in WEC seats

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Aston Martin Racing has confirmed that Richie Stanaway and Daniel Serra will join its GTE Pro line-up for the opening three rounds of the FIA World Endurance Championship season, including the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

AMR had already confirmed that defending champions Nicki Thiim and Marco Sørensen would be returning to pilot the No. 95 ‘Dane Train’ V8 Vantage GTE in 2017, with Stanaway now joining the pair.

Stanaway has links with Aston Martin dating back to 2013, and raced in six WEC rounds last year, claiming class victory in Mexico alongside Darren Turner.

“It’s great to be back at WEC this weekend and to be back with the team for this season,” Stanaway said.

“Obviously it’s going to be a little different driving with the Danes this year, but having worked with these guys over the past few years, we already understand each other really well.

“Both Marco and Nicki are ultra-quick and I’m hoping we can be challenging for victories straight away at Silverstone, Spa and then for the big one at Le Mans.”

Serra is a new face at AMR, having previously plied his trade in Brazilian stock-car racing and in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship with the Ferrari-backed Scuderia Corsa.

Serra will race alongside Turner and Jonny Adam in the No. 97 entry this year, making his WEC debut at Silverstone next month.

“What an amazing opportunity it is to be joining Aston Martin Racing in 2017. Having worked with the team last year in testing, it’s great to now step up and have the chance to help fight for strong results, in what is going to be a really competitive field in this year’s WEC,” Serra said.

“I’d like to thank the team for this opportunity and I cannot wait to start working with Darren and Jonny. Both are real professionals on and off the track and I hope we can bring the fight to our rivals this season.”

Stanaway and Serra will feature in the opening three rounds of the 2017 WEC campaign, with two six-hour events at Silverstone and Spa preparing them for the 24 Hours of Le Mans in June.

Carpenter set to focus only on two cars for 2017 Indy 500

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Unless a late deal comes together, expect Ed Carpenter Racing to only run two cars in the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

Chevrolet is in a position where it’s expected to make up the numbers to fill the 33-car field to get to at least 15, or possibly 16 cars for the marquee race of the Verizon IndyCar Series season.

But whereas an extra car was added each of the last three years for JR Hildebrand, team owner/driver Ed Carpenter said Thursday while he’d love to have Spencer Pigot in a third car this year the same way, the clock has nearly struck midnight for it to make business sense for the team.

Additionally, with Carpenter having missed out on the available KV Racing tub from the Key Auctioneers auction held earlier this week – A.J. Foyt Enterprises is believed to have acquired that chassis – there’s also the question of having enough proper tubs available to make a third car viable for ECR this year.

“We’ve done it in the past and it made sense to do, with a good program to do it well,” Carpenter told NBC Sports. “Right now, we don’t have it where makes sense for our business, and makes us more competitive. We’re not planning on doing it.

“It’s not that we don’t want to, but if the right combination isn’t there to have it happen, it won’t happen.”

Carpenter’s team finished third and sixth in last year’s Indianapolis 500 with Josef Newgarden and Hildebrand, while Carpenter himself retired with early race electrical issues and ended 31st.

While Pigot is emerging on the road and street courses this season, he was never confirmed in a third car for the Indianapolis 500 upon his confirmation for the 11 road and street races, although it made sense on paper.

Although he’s starred at a lot of tracks on his way to IndyCar in the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires, Pigot had a rough rookie month of May last year for the ‘500 as the first driver to hit the wall during practice and then qualifying 29th and finishing 25th in his last of three planned starts for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. He also struggled the previous year in his lone Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires start at IMS.

The Rising Star Racing-backed driver shifted to Ed Carpenter Racing starting with the Chevrolet Dual in Detroit doubleheader the following week, where he’s been since.

“One of our main goals is to win the Indianapolis 500,” Carpenter explained. “I’m concerned about car count and getting to 33 cars… but I can’t put that at a higher priority than our own goals of winning the race. If it doesn’t make us stronger, like JR has, I’m not gonna the feel pressure to do it.”

Carpenter said he would not want to hold Pigot back from seeking another opportunity at the Indianapolis 500 if a late deal can’t be struck to stay with ECR for this race. And anyway, as last year, he’d be back in the No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet in Detroit to commemorate one year since his team debut.

“I’d love to see Spencer in the race,” Carpenter said. “Obviously I would have liked to have found enough to have him in one of our cars, but I can’t do it without the right funding to not make it the right thing for the team’s sake, and his sake. I’m not gonna hold him back from any opportunity.”

Fuzzy’s Ultra Premium Vodka (Carpenter) and Preferred Freezer Services (Hildebrand) will be on the team’s cars for the Indianapolis 500, PFS having been confirmed back with ECR for a fourth consecutive year earlier this week. Last year, PFS sponsored both Hildebrand and Newgarden in the Indianapolis 500.

Carpenter will be back in the car for his second test of 2017 on Saturday as part of a Chevrolet manufacturer test at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Coupled with that test, the Texas Motor Speedway open test shortly after Long Beach and the Phoenix race end of April, Carpenter will have his busiest stretch of driving himself thus far in 2017 coming up within the next month.

“It’s a busy time for the team. I’m personally excited to be back in the car,” he said.

“I think (we) will be closer (to our teammates) this year. It was just one of those things last May, where we didn’t have the speed. I can’t say we totally had the answer as to why.

“But the team’s got a lot of work getting ready for the season. It’ll be fun to be on track Saturday. It’ll give us a sneak peek of where we are, and we’ll have a short window to make adjustments.”

Jean Todt: Playing field in F1 should be ‘much closer’

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FIA president Jean Todt has called for a more level playing field between teams in Formula 1, saying that the gaps between the biggest spenders and the smaller operations are too big.

2017 has marked the start of a new technical era for F1, with the design of the new-style cars being a focus for many teams over the past two years.

The opening round of the year in Australia saw Ferrari and Mercedes battle for victory, with Red Bull running a comfortable third-fastest, with the rest of the pack struggling to catch up. Race winner Sebastian Vettel lapped all but five cars.

Speaking to reporters in Australia, Todt expressed his concerns over the gap between F1’s ‘big three’ and the rest of the field, putting it down to the vastly different budgets.

“Ferrari did a good step forward with new regulations, it’s quite impressive. Mercedes is still very strong, there was a lot of speculation about the second driver, but for me there has never been a doubt that he [Bottas] would be very competitive,” Todt said, as quoted by crash.net.

“Red Bull seem to be a bit behind, and honestly I’m a bit concerned that between first and seventh or eighth, it is about two seconds. Still the gap is too big.

“We will really dream of having the 10 first cars within seven or eight tenths, and at the moment it is not yet happening.

“You have a lot of reasons for that, but clearly it is too big a discrepancy between the small budgets and bigger budgets, and the playing field should be much closer.”

F1 drivers relishing Silverstone, Suzuka races in new-style cars

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Formula 1 drivers Sebastian Vettel, Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas are all relishing the challenge of high-speed tracks such as Silverstone and Suzuka after enjoying their first races in the new-style 2017 cars last weekend.

This season has seen the introduction of revised cars under the new technical regulations that are capable of lapping multiple seconds per lap faster than their predecessors, aided by greater downforce and wider tires.

The new cars raced together for the first time last Sunday in Australia, with the pace difference around the tight confines of the Albert Park street course still notable.

All of the drivers have been impressed by what the new cars are capable of, finding them more fun and rewarding to drive, but it is when F1 hits the classic, high-speed tracks on the calendar that they will really come into their own.

When asked what track they were most looking forward to racing on this year, the top three finishers in Australia gave similar answers.

“Probably Silverstone. I think with that amount of grip and downforce,” Vettel said.

“Probably Suzuka as well later on in the year. Also I guess the cars will be even faster from what they are now.

“So, yeah, I think that would be quite nice. I’m looking forward to that.”

Hamilton added: “Yes, Silverstone, I agree” before Mercedes teammate Bottas echoed his peers’ thoughts.

“I think all the quick ones: Spa; Suzuka; Silverstone will be nice,” Bottas said.

“But I think even street circuits will be a bit more challenging I think – not that it wasn’t challenging before, but with these cars it will be nice.”

One of the biggest changes for 2017 has been the extra physicality of the cars, but Hamilton said he felt no major issues following the race in Australia.

“It was more physical but it was no problem for me and doesn’t look like it was for these guys either,” he said.

Vettel added: “It’s not the most physical circuit in the year. I think later on it will be very interesting. Here is very technical. So, first couple of laps, at least for me, were very intense.

“Obviously it’s easy to have an error, get something wrong under braking, go a bit wide etc. Later on I had a bit of a gap and I could control it, and therefore it was a bit easier.”