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.”

Hartley happy with ‘big progression’ on first day with Toro Rosso

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With 69 laps completed (28 in free practice one and 41 in free practice two) and respectable lap times in both sessions, Brendon Hartley quickly acclimated to a modern day Formula 1 chassis in his first run with Scuderia Toro Rosso in Friday practice for the United States Grand Prix.

The Porsche factory driver has been drafted into the team following a convoluted series of musical chairs that sees Daniil Kvyat back after a two-race absence, Carlos Sainz Jr. now at Renault and Pierre Gasly racing at the Super Formula season finale in Suzuka.

Over the time in the car today, Hartley experienced changeable conditions in FP1 before a more normal FP2, and discovered the new F1 cockpit after a day learning in the garage yesterday.

“A steep learning curve today! It all went pretty smoothly and I kept the car on track without making too many mistakes, so I’m quite happy,” the New Zealander reflected at day’s end.

“I didn’t really know what to expect from today because I just had so much to learn! I think I made quite a big progression throughout the day.

“The biggest difference from what I’m used to is the high-speed grip, it’s incredible here in Formula 1…it was quite an eye-opener! Another challenge are the tires, which are also quite different to what I’m used to. On the other hand, the long-run looks quite positive and I did a good job managing the tires there – the biggest thing I need to work on now is the new tire pace, and I’ll get another crack at it tomorrow morning before qualifying.

“All in all, I’d say it’s all coming together. We’ll now work hard and go through plenty of data tonight and hopefully I’ll make another step forward tomorrow.”

His best lap was 1.1 seconds up on Friday driver Sean Gelael, the Indonesian Formula 2 driver, in FP1 (1:39.267 to 1:40.406, good enough for 14th) and 1.1 seconds off the returning Kvyat in FP2 (1:37.987 to 1:36.761, good enough for 17th). Interestingly, the Gelael/Hartley combination in FP1 marked the second time in three races that Toro Rosso had a pair of drivers in its cars without a single Grand Prix start between them – Gasly’s debut at Malaysia was the other, when he and Gelael were in in FP1.

Coming into Friday’s running, Hartley said he was more ready for this opportunity now than he had been as a teenager. He admitted he’d called Red Bull’s Helmut Marko in the wake of Porsche’s LMP1 withdrawal news earlier this year to say he was game for any chance that might come.

“I’m a lot stronger than I was back then, basically. I wasn’t ready at 18 years old. I like to think I’m ready now,” he said.

“I haven’t driven a single-seater since 2012, but I like to think that Porsche LMP1 has hopefully prepared me well.”

As for the rest of his weekend, it’s been made more complicated by Hartley being assessed a 25-spot grid penalty, even though Hartley had done nothing to accrue the penalties.

The roundabout sequence of driver changes at Toro Rosso saw Gasly replace Kvyat, Kvyat replace Sainz, and now Hartley replace Gasly, as is outlined by NBCSN pit reporter Will Buxton below.