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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.”

IndyCar 2015 Driver Review: Tony Kanaan

Tony Kanaan
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MotorSportsTalk continues its run through the driver-by-driver lineup in the Verizon IndyCar Series, after the 2015 season, with eighth-placed Tony Kanaan.

Tony Kanaan, No. 10 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet

  • 2014: 7th Place, 1 Win, Best Start 2nd, 6 Podiums, 6 Top-5, 12 Top-10, 407 Laps Led, 9.2 Avg. Start, 9.3 Avg. Finish
  • 2015: 8th Place, Best Finish 2nd, Best Start 2nd, 3 Podiums, 6 Top-5, 10 Top-10, 213 Laps Led, 7.6 Avg Start, 9.9 Avg. Finish

You have to give TK credit. Armed with one of the best cars on the grid, Kanaan has certainly raised his game the last two years, and probably hasn’t received enough credit or enough results for some of his drives he’s put in since joining Chip Ganassi Racing after the 2013 season.

The 2015 season was no exception. All 10 of his top-10 finishes were between second and seventh, so there were plenty of times he was in win and podium contention. The other area where he improved was his qualifying. Kanaan only had two starts outside the top-12 all season, one of which occurred at Detroit race two, where the grid was set by points following a rain cancellation. Detroit was pretty much the only weekend where Kanaan didn’t figure into qualifying or the race. Blame the Taylor Swift-inspired Big Machine Records livery for that one if you want.

Accidents at the Indianapolis 500 and Pocono were costly retirements as Kanaan definitely had a shot to win both those races. But realistically you couldn’t find many other faults. Losing a sure win at Iowa due to a mechanical issue was a gutting blow. He was also unlucky to come up just shy at Fontana, and may have prevailed in a last-lap shootout.

More often that not however, Kanaan was firmly on top of his game, and reliably on par with his championship-winning teammate Scott Dixon, which was all you could ask for. It’s fitting the two of them opened the year as part of the winning lineup in the Rolex 24 at Daytona, with Kanaan then helping out matters by finishing ahead of Juan Pablo Montoya at Sonoma, to ensure Dixon had enough points to win the title on countback.

IndyCar 2015 Driver Review: Josef Newgarden

Josef Newgarden
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MotorSportsTalk continues to run through the driver-by-driver breakdown in the Verizon IndyCar Series field for 2015. Next up on the heels of another breakout year, Josef Newgarden, who has recently re-signed with CFH Racing for 2016.

Josef Newgarden, No. 67 CFH Racing Chevrolet

  • 2014: 13th Place, Best Finish 2nd, Best Start 2nd, 1 Podium, 2 Top-5, 7 Top-10, 20 Laps Led, 10.7 Avg. Start, 13.7 Avg. Finish
  • 2015: 7th Place, 2 Wins, 1 Pole, 4 Podiums, 5 Top-5, 9 Top-10, 345 Laps Led, 8.4 Avg Start, 10.8 Avg. Finish

Josef Newgarden’s fourth year in the Verizon IndyCar Series was firmly, and without question, the year he arrived as the series’ biggest rising star. It followed on nicely after three prior years where he seemed to hit almost all the high points at various stages, but didn’t put together a fully complete season.

Perhaps some of that was due to having a teammate for the first time in his career, although it was not the same driver throughout the year – it was split between Luca Filippi and Ed Carpenter depending on the circuit. Still, there was always a second set of data to study and analyze. Even better, there was a Chevrolet in the back of his car for the first time, and that likely helped matters a bit. And retaining Jeremy Milless as his engineer continued to pay dividends; you can’t teach chemistry and it’s apparent these two have it.

It spoke volumes that in qualifying, Newgarden was the single fastest driver outside of the Penske and Ganassi camps all season. An average starting position of 8.4 was not only a career best, but best in the field behind six combined drivers from the two established “super teams.” Only at Detroit, where he had a nightmare weekend and at Texas, where Carpenter admitted the team missed the setup, did he start outside the top 12.

Yet it was in the races where again, he shone brightest. The Barber win was as dominant as it was overdue and deserved. The Toronto win – if a bit lucky due to when the cautions and pit stop cycle fell – was also well executed. Then the drives on the ovals at Milwaukee, Iowa and Pocono were excellent.

Far too often though, still, pit stops proved Newgarden’s undoing. Mid-Ohio was a sore spot again, and Sonoma in particular was the nadir. The other tough results races, notably at the Grand Prix of Indianapolis and at Fontana, came through mistakes not of his own doing. Really only Detroit was a weekend he’d like to have back.

But he led the most laps in the field, he finally broke through to win, and firmly lived up to the hype and potential that’s been building for years. If you’ve been paying attention more than just this year though, Newgarden’s 2015 season will have come as no surprise.