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New opportunities for Burton, Letarte from NBC broadcast side in 2015

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Jeff Burton and Steve Letarte have been two of the most observant individuals in the NASCAR garage area over their respective careers, and seek to translate that expertise into the broadcast booth when the NBC Sports Group returns to broadcasting NASCAR races in 2015.

Executive producer for all of NBC Sports and NBCSN, Sam Flood, and vice president of NASCAR production Jeff Behnke joined Burton and Letarte at Friday morning’s NBC Sports Breakfast at Daytona International Speedway. Lead broadcaster Rick Allen was also in attendance but didn’t speak due to other responsibilities.

“I said if we ever got back in the sport, there were certain people we’d want on the team to be part of telling the story of this great sport to the nation on TV,” Flood explained to open the remarks. Burton and Letarte were on that short list.

“To me it’s a natural – feels really natural to me,” Burton said. “Steve has so much energy, and I’m looking forward to disagreeing with him on the air and having lively debates and proving once again that drivers truly are smarter than crew chiefs.

“It’s going to be fun, and honestly that’s what it needs to be. It needs to be fun and lighthearted and serious when it needs to be serious.”

Letarte, in his first public remarks since the announcement he’d be the third member of the broadcast team, said this has been on his radar for some time.

“I don’t think it’s any secret in the room that I’ve always enjoyed the broadcast side,” Letarte said.  “I’ve always dabbled in it. I do have a pretty loud and colorful personality and I think it’s enjoyable to be on that side of the camera.

“I have never been able to do it in a capacity where I feel it was my responsibility to bring much to the broadcast other than my color and expertise because as the color guys when you get invited in as a crew chief you really don’t have to prepare much.”

Letarte, who has been a Hendrick Motorsports “lifer,” admitted there is some fear with change. Still, that can be a net positive, and he does beieve this will be a positive for his family.

“There’s all kinds of fears. I think change drives fear in anybody. I’d be lying if not,” he said.  “All I’ve known is Hendrick Motorsports since I was 16.  I’ve never worked anywhere else.  But really when it comes down to it, probably the No. 1 thing is I have an eight- and a ten-year-old child and I know the commitment it takes to be a top-level crew chief. I don’t know firsthand the commitment that it takes to be great on television, and Sam and these guys are going to teach me that, but in my conversations with Sam, I don’t think it’s quite the same time commitment and travel commitment.”

Burton and Flood both confirmed the mutual interest from the day NBC Sports announced its return to NASCAR back in July.

“This was ahead of everything,” Burton said. “This was pretty far down the road, and it was rattling around in my head before anything else for sure.”

Added Flood, “The day we announced the deal, I was on the phone with Jeff. That’s how much we knew Jeff was going to be part of this team and wanted to be part of this team.”

Burton also said the booth needs to blend true enthusiasm with excitement and facts. None of this should come as a surprise, but reiterating those points make sense.

“Ultimately it’s about enthusiasm, excitement and facts, honestly facts,” Burton said. “When we’re talking, we need to be talking accurately. When we’re talking, people are assuming what we’re saying is factual, and we’ve got to make sure it is because I think that’s a disservice to our race fans if we don’t know what we’re talking about.”

Rosberg keeps cool amid Spa madness to win Belgian GP

SPA, BELGIUM - AUGUST 28:  The safety car leads Nico Rosberg of Germany driving the (6) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo, Daniel Ricciardo of Australia driving the (3) Red Bull Racing Red Bull-TAG Heuer RB12 TAG Heuer and Nico Hulkenberg of Germany driving the (27) Sahara Force India F1 Team VJM09 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo on track during the Formula One Grand Prix of Belgium at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps on August 28, 2016 in Spa, Belgium  (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)
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Nico Rosberg got his bid for a maiden Formula 1 drivers’ championship back on-track with a controlled victory in a manic Belgian Grand Prix at the Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps on Sunday.

Rosberg went lights-to-flag from pole position with a dominant display reminiscent of those at the beginning of the season when he won four straight races, yet he faced a number of challenges throughout the race.

Start-line drama and contact, a tire blow out, debris, a safety car period and even a red flag all threatened to spoil Rosberg’s day and bring title rival and teammate Lewis Hamilton back into contention.

After starting 21st thanks to a grid penalty, Hamilton made the most of the frenetic early stages to rise up to third place after his first scheduled pit stop, bringing himself into the mix for a stunning victory.

However, a lack of pace through the middle stint and a slow pit stop meant Hamilton had to settle for third place, which despite being somewhat disappointing for the three-time champion meant he left Spa still leading the drivers’ championship.

Rosberg made a clean getaway from pole to retain the lead on the short run to La Source, leaving echaos to ensue just behind. Max Verstappen tried squeezing past Kimi Raikkonen for second place, only for the two to make contact and run into the path of Sebastian Vettel on the outside. Vettel was sent into a spin while both Verstappen and Raikkonen were left with damage, forcing all three to pit for repairs at the end of the first lap.

Vettel and Verstappen were serviced swiftly, but Raikkonen’s stop featured yet more drama when a small fire broke out underneath his Ferrari. It was quickly extinguished, allowing the Finn to head back out on-track, albeit one lap down.

A Virtual Safety Car period was called moments later when Carlos Sainz Jr. suffered a tire failure, causing damage to his rear wing and leaving debris on the track. Once the mess had been cleared, the race returned to green with Rosberg leading from Nico Hulkenberg and Daniel Ricciardo. Hamilton, meanwhile, had risen to P12 on the medium tire.

The race went under the safety car on lap six after a huge crash for Kevin Magnussen at the top of Raidillion after losing the back-end of the car. Thankfully, the Dane walked away from the crash, albeit with a limp after a severe hit. Renault confirmed soon after that he had been taken to hospital with a minor injury to his ankle for further checks.

Many of the super-soft runners took advantage of the safety car period to dive into the pits, leaving Rosberg to lead from Ricciardo and Hulkenberg, the latter emerging from the pits in P3 ahead of medium-shod Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton now sat P4 and P5.

After three laps under the safety car, race officials took the decision to red flag the race due to the damage caused to the guardrail by the crash. All drivers were sent to the pit lane and able to change tires before the race restarted behind the safety car some 20 minutes later.

The race went back to green on lap 11 with Rosberg leading the pack on the medium tire. Mercedes teammate and title rival Hamilton opted to switch to softs in P5, and with an array of sets still fresh after cutting qualifying short on Saturday, the Briton was in a strong position.

Rosberg quickly set about creating a gap to the chasing pack, immediately moving out of DRS range for the chasing Ricciardo. Hamilton eased past Alonso for P4, leaving just two cars between himself and his teammate.

Further back, Verstappen and Raikkonen once again entered battle while fighting over 14th position. Verstappen forced the Finn off the road at Les Combes before making an aggressive defensive move the next lap, leaving Raikkonen fuming over his radio to the Ferrari pit wall.

Rosberg was able to eke out a lead over Ricciardo in the laps that followed while Hamilton toiled behind Hulkenberg, keeping a close eye on his tires. The Briton eventually battled past into third place on lap 18, but was hungry to catch the leading pair.

Hamilton was not able to make inroads to Rosberg and Ricciardo as he would have liked, though. As his soft tires began to fade, Mercedes took the decision to bring Hamilton in on lap 21 and move him onto another set of soft tires, trying to get the undercut on the cars in front. A slow stop meant Hamilton returned to the track in P9 behind Valtteri Bottas.

The battle behind Hamilton saw Hulkenberg and Perez, running net P4 and P5, enter the pits together on lap 23. A quick stop from the McLaren crew allowed Alonso to get the jump, but Hulkenberg kept his nose in around the outside at pit exit, resulting in contact. Hulkenberg got back past at the end of the Kemmel Straight, ensuring their battle would rage on.

Ricciardo came into the pits at the end of lap 26 to switch to the medium tire, coming out ahead of Hamilton who still had one more stop to make. Rosberg continued to plug away at the head of the field on his mediums, having been given the call by Mercedes to push and move to ‘plan B’.

Rosberg came into the pits one lap after Ricciardo, taking on another set of mediums that would take him to the checkered flag. A lead of 10 seconds may not have been much, but it meant that Rosberg remained in control of a race that had taken many twists and turns.

Hamilton managed to run close behind Ricciardo, but his soft tires began to fade with around 13 laps remaining. Rosberg was able to increase his lead over the chasing drivers, running around one second per lap faster than both Ricciardo and Hamilton.

Mercedes brought Hamilton in at the end of lap 32, bringing the Briton back out behind Hulkenberg and ahead of Sergio Perez in the second Force India. With another set of mediums fitted, Hamilton questioned the decision taken by Mercedes, but soon found his feet to latch onto the back of Hulkenberg ahead. The pass was completed at Les Combes, lifting Hamilton back into a podium position.

At the front, Rosberg looked comfortable. While all about him appeared to lose their heads at Spa, the German had kept his to cross the line over 10 seconds clear and record his sixth win of the season and cut the gap to Hamilton in the drivers’ championship.

Ricciardo was able to follow Rosberg home in second place, increasing Red Bull’s lead over Ferrari in the constructors’ championship with another impressive drive.

Hamilton had hoped to cut the gap to Ricciardo and secure Mercedes a one-two late on, but the medium tire wasn’t quick enough, forcing him to settle for third place at the checkered flag.

Nico Hulkenberg’s wait for his first podium finish in F1 continued as he was left to settle for fourth place ahed of teammate Sergio Perez, capping off a hugely impressive weekend for Force India.

Sebastian Vettel recovered from the first-lap drama to cross the line sixth for Ferrari ahead of Fernando Alonso and Valtteri Bottas, the latter unable to make it through on the final lap despite closing up on the Spaniard.

Kimi Raikkonen’s rollercoaster race culminated in two points for P9, while Felipe Massa picked up his first point since Baku with P10 for Williams.

Verstappen’s home race weekend that held such promise ended without points as he crossed the line a lowly 11th ahead of Haas drivers Esteban Gutierrez and Romain Groseajn. Daniil Kvyat was 14th for Toro Rosso ahead of Jolyon Palmer, while Esteban Ocon was 16th on his F1 debut ahead of Sauber’s Felipe Nasr.

Magnussen taken to hospital with ankle injury after Spa shunt

SPA, BELGIUM - AUGUST 27: Kevin Magnussen of Denmark driving the (20) Renault Sport Formula One Team Renault RS16 Renault RE16 turbo on track during final practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Belgium at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps on August 27, 2016 in Spa, Belgium.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Kevin Magnussen has been transferred to hospital with an ankle injury after a hefty crash during Sunday’s Belgian Grand Prix.

Magnussen lost the rear end of his Renault Formula 1 car at the top of the hill after Eau Rouge and Raidillion, slamming into the wall on the right-hand side of the circuit at high speed.

The crash was severe enough to cause Magnussen’s head-rest to break free, leaving much of the car wrecked.

Magnussen did manage to get out of his car unaided, but was limping when walking away from the shunt.

Renault confirmed that Magnussen had been taken to the medical centre with an injury to his left ankle, and has since been transferred to hospital for further check-ups.

Belgian GP red flagged after Magnussen crash

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The Belgian Grand Prix has been red flagged following a frightening crash for Kevin Magnussen that caused significant damage to the barrier at Raidillion.

Magnussen went off at one of the fastest points of the circuit, losing the back-end of his Renault after running through Eau Rouge and Raidillion corners coming uphill.

The crash was so severe that the headrest in Magnussen’s car came loose, leaving his R.S.16 wrecked. Thankfully, the Dane was able to walk away, albeit with a limp.

Three laps after the crash, stewards decided to red flag the race as repairs needed to be completed to the guardrail, forcing all drivers to head to the pit lane.

Once the repairs were completed, stewards gave the call for the race to resume with a 10-minute warning, leaving Rosberg to lead away the pack once again.

Graham Rahal able to ‘tame the beast’ of Texas ghosts with win

FORT WORTH, TX - AUGUST 27: Graham Rahal driver of the #15 Mi-Jack/RLL Honda speaks at a media conference after winning the Verizon IndyCar Series Firestone 600 at Texas Motor Speedway on August 27, 2016 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Mike Stone/Getty Images for Texas Motor Speedway)
(Photo by Mike Stone/Getty Images for Texas Motor Speedway)
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FORT WORTH – Graham Rahal swears he didn’t give the final 177 laps of the Firestone 600 a single thought between June 12 and Aug. 27.

“I haven’t thought about it at all until this week,” said Rahal, who was now thinking about nothing else after winning said race by .008 seconds over James Hinchcliffe, a Texas Motor Speedway record.

Rahal and the rest of the Verizon IndyCar Series have been busy since June, competing in –  and actually finishing – five races since the Firestone 600 was postponed 77 days for rain after reaching Lap 71.

After visiting Road America, Iowa Speedway, Toronto, his home track of Mid-Ohio and Pocono, the 1.5-mile track in North Texas finally, surreally, came back around.

“It’s a very strange thing actually,” Rahal said, still wearing the 10-gallon Cowboy hat awarded to race winners by track president Eddie Gossage. “We came down here this morning, and I don’t know, it was just a weird day to kind of get into the groove of it. It was like, we landed so early, we had so much time to kill, then such a short practice, and then we just go racing.”

Due to what transpired over the those five races – not finishing better than fourth after a Road America podium and only leading two laps – Rahal was having very specific thoughts about Saturday night’s race.

“This week I knew, again, because of the year that we’ve had, it was an opportunity,” Rahal said. “I felt like in June we had a great race car, we just didn’t get to see it through and tonight obviously from the front, we went forward, and it was a great night.”

After restarting 12th in a car Rahal described after a brief practice session as a “f—ing rocket,” the No. 15 carved its way through the pack. By the final 25 laps it one of five cars on the lead lap, led by Hinchcliffe.

“I just thought if I could get there, we’d have a good chance, and then we went fighting at the end there,” Rahal said. “I had a lot of front tire degradation. I was having to take the early laps a bit slower to try to save that outside front. You could see Kanaan and (Scott) Dixon even a little bit quicker than me but 15 laps or so into the stint I closed back up because my car, I think, was better on the tires in the long run.”

Then, unlike Hinchcliffe, Rahal’s team decided to pit late for tires under caution. That decision set up an eight-lap sprint that will likely be considered the most thrilling of the season. With three and four-wide racing, it looked like the memorable Indy Racing League races at Texas of a decade ago.

On a night where TMS honored law enforcement, Rahal’s path through the field was oversaw by spotter Steve Turner, a retired police officer from Speedway, Indiana.

“Steve does a great job. But tonight I had to keep my eyes particularly peeled at all times to my mirrors, Rahal said. “I always trust the spotter but I want to make sure in a lot of cases that we gave ourselves a little extra room.”

In the closing laps, Rahal’s thoughts didn’t drift to those old “pack” races. They went to a more recent Texas visit in 2012. That year, Rahal led 27 laps at the climax of the race with Justin Wilson chasing him. With three laps left, Rahal bounced off the wall out of Turn 4, allowing Wilson to pass him and win.

It would be the last IndyCar win for Wilson, who died a year ago last week from injuries sustained at Pocono Raceway.

“You know what I was motivated by a little bit is I kept thinking about Justin there, because a couple years ago we had a great battle here,” Rahal said. “Quite honestly I was picturing him shooting those things off there the last couple of laps, just trying to get it done for ourselves here.”

That failure in 2012 came in the middle of seven winless seasons for the son of Bobby Rahal. Graham Rahal ended that last season with a win in another tense, hotly contested “pack race” at Auto Club Speedway.

“It’s just nice to kind of tame the beast a little bit,” said Rahal, who has made nine starts at Texas, but only finished in the top 10 three times. “This place is a tough place to win … So it feels nice. To not go through this year winless is the biggest pressure I feel off my shoulders. I can’t tell you how pleased I am to get that over because not that it would have been a dry spell like last time, but I don’t want to have to hear the questions again, so it was nice to just get that.”

Even when Rahal got the win, he was afraid he has celebrated too soon. As his car neared the finish line, he raised his right hand in a celebratory fist before quickly dropping it down right as Hinchcliffe was pulling even with him.

“I was like, ‘make sure his roll hoop says two.’ Looked over and I could see it said two, and I knew I had it,” Rahal said. “Those LED panels that IndyCar started using are awesome.”

The win also gave Honda just its second win of 2016, a year after it earned five. After two months of not thinking about a race, Rahal won’t want to stop talking about it.

“It’s special for us to get a win for Honda for sure, and be able to call corporate on Monday and have a good talk,” Rahal said.