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NNS: Jeffrey Earnhardt, Blake Koch land full-time rides

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On the eve of Preseason Thunder testing for the NASCAR Nationwide Series, Jeffrey Earnhardt (pictured) and Blake Koch have each been signed to full-time drives in NASCAR’s No. 2 national series.

24-year-old Jeffrey, the son of former driver Kerry Earnhardt and grandson of the late seven-time Sprint Cup champion Dale Earnhardt Sr., will drive the No. 4 JD Motorsports with Gary Keller Chevrolet this season alongside teammate Landon Cassill in the No. 01 Chevy.

It will mark Jeffrey’s first full-season program in a NASCAR national series after running partial seasons in both Nationwide and the Camping World Truck Series in recent years. Last year, he made 17 NNS starts with a top finish of 16th at Talladega Superspeedway; altogether, he has 27 career NNS starts under his belt.

“It’s a great opportunity for me,” Jeffrey said in a statement. “This sport runs in my family, and it’s where I want to be every week. Racing with [owners] Johnny [Davis] and Gary [Keller] and the guys will give me a shot at running well every week and adding on the experience I need.

“I’ve sort of gotten my feet wet, but I need to be out there every race getting to know the ins and outs. JD Motorsports with Gary Keller has been there and done that. I think we can do good things together.”

As for Koch, he’ll be driving for TriStar Motorsports this season after making 28 starts last year in the NNS. Koch made some noise in the 2013 season finale at Homestead-Miami, where he qualified on the front row and finished 11th for RAB Racing in a one-off following the team’s release of then-regular driver Alex Bowman.

“I’m extremely excited, blessed and proud to join TriStar Motorsports,” said Koch, who finished 25th in the NNS standings last year despite missing some races. “[Team owner] Mark Smith has been in NASCAR for a long time and is respected by everyone in the garage. His team has evolved into a quality race team with continuous growth and a great reputation.

“There are talented people in place to build fast race cars and we will have strong Toyota engines supplied by his company, Pro Motor Engines. I’m also looking forward to working with teammates that I can lean on like Mike Bliss and Eric McClure. Daytona can’t come soon enough.”

Koch has 86 career NNS starts to his credit.

IndyCar 2015 Driver Review: Gabby Chaves

Gabby Chaves
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MotorSportsTalk continues its run through the driver-by-driver field in the Verizon IndyCar Series. In 15th and the rookie-of-the-year for 2015, was Gabby Chaves.

Gabby Chaves, No. 98 Bryan Herta Autosport Honda

  • 2014: Indy Lights champion
  • 2015: 15th Place, Best Finish 9th, Best Start 12th, 0 Top-5, 2 Top-10, 31 Laps Led, 19.3 Avg. Start, 14.4 Avg. Finish

Some drivers finish better than their performances show. Some drivers have performances better than their results show. The latter statement applied to Gabby Chaves in his rookie year, in what was an impressive first season after making the step up from Indy Lights, which deservedly earned him rookie-of-the-year honors.

The best comparison I’d make for Gabby is of Josef Newgarden in 2012 with Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing, a first-year driver on a single-car, newish team to the series.

Chaves rarely dazzled in qualifying but that wasn’t his fault; he and engineer John Dick worked well together and Chaves recounted multiple times this year that a tweak here or tweak there, the wrong way, on the aero kit would send them down the wrong setup path.

Results in races didn’t measure up either but again that was through almost no fault of his own. The only time Chaves looked truly like a rookie was at St. Pete, when he had several collisions. Otherwise he was ahead of eventual winner James Hinchcliffe at NOLA before getting punted off, reliable through the month of May in Indianapolis, finally able to break through for a ninth place in Detroit race two, overachieving in Texas, 11th at Milwaukee after some great wheel-to-wheel racing with series winners and champions, and then phenomenal at Pocono as he was on course for a first career win or podium before late-race engine issues – his first DNF of the season.

For both Chaves and Herta, you’d love to see them together for another season, and the results and confidence for both parties will grow as a result. Those who’ve seen Newgarden’s rise over four years with Fisher and now CFH will note the long-term stability, and that’s what Chaves could do if he gets the time.

He planted the seed of being a great IndyCar driver, and he became pretty versatile during the year too with additional appearances in the DeltaWing prototype, a short-track midget and one of Herta’s Red Bull Global Rallycross cars. To boot, he’s a smart, great kid who is mature beyond his years, and someone you should be buying stock in now. Anyone who saw Chaves in the Mazda Road to Indy should not have been surprised by his rookie season in the big cars.

Off The Grid: Monza preview (premieres Saturday 10/10 on NBCSN)

F1 Grand Prix of Italy
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Having already taken you behind the scenes in Barcelona, Budapest, Singapore, Melbourne and Silverstone, Will Buxton and Jason Swales now head to one of Formula 1’s most iconic venues for the latest episode of Off The Grid.

Monza has appeared in all but one F1 season since the formation of the world championship in 1950, and is a firm favorite among drivers, teams and fans alike.

However, there is far more to the Italian Grand Prix than meets the eye, as we find out in Saturday’s premiere of Off The Grid: Monza at 9:30am ET (follows Russian GP qualifying).

Having honed his talents in go-karts as a kid, Red Bull driver Daniel Ricciardo is now trying to pass on his knowledge to the next generation of racers. But can he teach Will or Jason a thing or two?

We also catch up with Force India’s Nico Hulkenberg and get a feel for life on the road as he takes us for a tour of his lavish bus in which he travels in for the European F1 races.

Have you ever wondered just how the suits F1 drivers wear are made? We go behind the scenes at Alpine Stars’ factory in Italy and find out.

Off The Grid: Monza premieres on Saturday at 9:30am ET on NBCSN following Russian GP qualifying.