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Deep Sprint Cup rookie class should lead to excitement

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It’s been a while since we’ve had intrigue about the yearly crop of NASCAR Sprint Cup rookies.

Yes, last year’s group of freshmen featured the highest-profiled newcomer in a long time with Danica Patrick. But because of her inexperience with stock cars, the Rookie of the Year title was still her boyfriend/two-time Nationwide Series champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s to lose (he didn’t.)

Before then, you had Stephen Leicht (2012), Andy Lally (2011), and Kevin Conway (2010) as your ROTY in the previous three seasons. All three are now gone from the series.

But this year promises to be different. Sure, on paper, you expect Richard Childress Racing’s Austin Dillon and Chip Ganassi Racing’s Kyle Larson (pictured) to have another one-on-one battle for the ROTY like we got last year between Stenhouse and Patrick. Dillon and Larson have the talent and the resources to make sure the fight stays between them and them alone.

However, that’s not to say the other rookies are just a bunch of cast-offs.

We’ll start with the newest official ROTY contender, Phoenix Racing’s Justin Allgaier. He’s a former ARCA champion and has been consistently strong in Nationwide for both Team Penske and Turner Scott Motorsports. While he’s never won an NNS title, he’s never finished worse than sixth in that series championship during the last five seasons (he finished fifth last year for TSM).

Yes, he’s only earned three NNS wins in that time frame but he’s shown that he can not only get the car home in one piece but also toward the front – both important for any rookie driver who hopes to succeed.

BK Racing’s new tandem of Alex Bowman and Ryan Truex have had their share of success along the way to Cup as well.

Bowman claimed six wins in ARCA across the 2011 and 2012 campaigns before moving to Nationwide last year for RAB Racing. While unable to beat out Larson for Nationwide’s ROTY award, he didn’t flop either, finishing 11th in points and earning a couple of poles as well.

Truex already has a couple of NASCAR championships on his mantle after winning back-to-back K&N Pro East titles in 2009 and 2010. From there, he went into NASCAR’s national series, where he primarily worked as a Nationwide part-timer (35 starts from 2010-2012) before getting to make his first three Sprint Cup starts last year for Phoenix Racing.

Another rookie pairing will take center stage at Swan Racing in the form of Parker Kligerman and Cole Whitt. Kligerman ran for two years in the Camping World Truck Series, finishing fifth in the 2012 championship before going to Kyle Busch’s Nationwide operation last year. There, he collected 13 Top-10s in route to a ninth-place finish in the standings.

Whitt experienced major success in the USAC ranks (he was the 2008 national midget champion) before jumping to stock cars in 2010. A fourth-place finish in the K&N East Series led to a move into the Trucks in 2011 and then into Nationwide in 2012. Last season, he competed in seven Cup events for Swan Racing toward the tail end of the year – the most out of the group of drivers that stepped into the Swan car after David Stremme was released.

Finally, there’s Michael Annett, in at Tommy Baldwin Racing. Annett will be looking for a smoother 2014 after missing part of his Nationwide season in 2013 due to a chest injury sustained in a crash during the season opener at Daytona International Speedway (he returned to action in May at Charlotte).

Annett finished fifth in his last full season of Nationwide competition in 2012, in which he earned six Top-5s and 17 Top-10s. You figure he’d be thrilled with a return to that form as he embarks on his first Cup season.

You’re tempted to think the pecking order is relatively set based on their teams’ strengths: Dillon and Larson at the top, Allgaier behind them, and then the rest – Bowman, Truex, Kligerman, Whitt and Annett – bringing up the rear.

But altogether, it’s not a bad group of greenhorns we’ve got here. And that should make things a bit more exciting in the Cup series this year.

Longtime Knoxville Raceway promoter, Ralph Capitani, dies

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Photo via @KnoxvilleRaces Twitter
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Knoxville Raceway likely wouldn’t be what it is as one of the country’s most renowned short tracks without the work of Ralph Capitani.

Capitani has died following a battle of cancer (according to Speed Sport), news of which was announced Monday by the track. The longtime promoter at the track was born in 1932.

Capitani, better known as “Cappy,” oversaw a huge rise in the stature and popularity of the track’s premier event – the Knoxville Nationals – after taking the reins as the track’s new race director and promoter in 1978.

Some of the elements Capitani worked to implement were improved facilities, purses, safety standards, car counts and audience, the latter of which saw the Knoxville Nationals eventually make it to TV. He also established the Knoxville Raceway Hall of Fame.

In his 40th year at Knoxville in 2007, Capitani said the prestige of the Knoxville Nationals remained incredible.

“I think the Knoxville Nationals is the best sprint car race of the year, bar none,” he said in 2007, via InLappedTraffic. “It is the only time you see ALL of the best sprint car drivers competing on the same playing field. It is a United States and Internationally wide event.”

He retired from the track at the end of 2011.

Knoxville Raceway released a statement confirming Capitani’s passing, and thanking him for all he did to put the track and race on the map.

A portion of the statement reads: “A visionary in the sport, Cappy aimed to make sprint car racing at Knoxville Raceway grander, the purses bigger and the grandstands fuller. He achieved them all with a smile on his face and a hearty handshake for every team owner, driver, crew member and fan that ever crossed his path.”

IndyCar’s last big pre-season test occurs this week at Sebring

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Conor Daly. Photo: IndyCar
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Pre-season testing for the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season will conclude this week with all eight full-season teams having two days at Sebring International Raceway’s short course on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Sebring marks the closest venue to simulate street course conditions; four of the first eight races are street races while only one street race, Toronto, occurs in the second half of the season.

Although this is private testing, this will be a de facto “spring training” on the 1.5-mile road course for teams to see what the others are running all at once. IndyCar’s official spring training, the Prix View test at Phoenix International Raceway’s 1-mile oval, occurred on February 10-11.

The bulk of the field runs tomorrow, with seven of the eight teams set to test – the only exception is Andretti Autosport. Andretti is listed to test on Wednesday.

All but one of the 21 full-season drivers expected for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg season opener on March 12 will test this week. The one not listed is Sebastien Bourdais of Dale Coyne Racing; Bourdais and Ed Jones tested at Sebring in January prior to the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

They’ll be joined by the three drivers making their test debuts, all for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports: Robert Wickens, Luis Felipe “Pipo” Derani and Luis Michael Dorrbecker.

Wickens tests tomorrow as part of his planned ride swap with James Hinchcliffe, with Derani and Dorrbecker set to test on Wednesday.

Sebring is usually a hotbed for tests over the IndyCar offseason. This year saw A.J. Foyt Enterprises (in late January with Chevrolet) and Chip Ganassi Racing (in early January with Honda) premiere their new manufacturers and aero kits at Sebring, among other teams that have tested here.

Although the test season has seen an increase in interest this year, the regular season starts in St. Petersburg and returns to NBCSN with Long Beach on April 9.

F1 Paddock Pass: 2017 launch roundup (VIDEO)

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The NBC Sports Group original digital series Paddock Pass returns today with a recap of the remaining launches of the 2017 Formula 1 cars that occurred over the weekend.

Williams was first to reveal a rendering of its 2017 car, but it wasn’t a formal launch. Sauber’s online launch properly kicked off proceedings last Monday, before Renault, Force India and Mercedes did actual launches, and then Ferrari (online) and McLaren (in Woking) both launched on Friday.

Official launches then followed for Williams, Red Bull, Haas and Toro Rosso over the weekend. Haas had pictures of its car leak the day before its planned launch as it was a filming day on track.

In this edition of Paddock Pass, NBCSN pit reporter and insider Will Buxton and producer Jason Swales recap the remaining cars revealed over the weekend.

Previous Paddock Pass editions from this week are below:

Testing continues this week with days two through four of the first test at Barcelona.

Alonso’s McLaren struggles on first day of F1 tests

MONTMELO, SPAIN - FEBRUARY 27: Fernando Alonso of Spain driving the (14) McLaren Honda Formula 1 Team McLaren MCL32 on track  during day one of Formula One winter testing at Circuit de Catalunya on February 27, 2017 in Montmelo, Spain.  (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)
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MONTMELO, Spain (AP) Troubled Formula One team McLaren has gotten off to a wretched start in preseason testing.

Fernando Alonso spent most of the first day waiting to get back out of the garage after his car broke down following just one lap at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya on Monday.

What the team identified as an “oil system” malfunction to its Honda-made engine kept the two-time world champion out of action until after the lunch break. Back behind the wheel, his 29 total laps was the lowest amount of the 11 drivers who participated.

Alonso also posted the second-slowest time, more than three seconds off the leading pace set by Lewis Hamilton in his Mercedes. Only Sauber’s Marcus Ericsson was slower.

“It’s disappointing,” Alonso said. “You work for three months and at the track on the installation lap something breaks down and you lose the day.”

This misstep is the latest technical hiccup to plague McLaren since it paired up with Honda.

One of F1’s most successful teams with eight constructor titles and 12 driver titles, the British outfit has struggled since it switched from Mercedes to the Japanese automaker before the 2015 season.

After earning just a combined 27 points from Alonso and Jenson Button in the first year with Honda, the team showed some growth last season with 76 points and two fifth-place finishes. But that is still a far cry from the glory days of the Woking-based team whose last race win was in Brazil in 2012.

For his part, Alonso hasn’t won a race since he claimed his 32nd victory back in 2013 at the Spanish Grand Prix while with Ferrari.

“It is fair to say that after the difficulties we had the last three seasons, it’s a nice temptation for the media,” Alonso said.

“From the point of view of the team, we are disappointed and sad to arrive to the first day of testing and not run.

“We are focused on what we have to do to make up the lost time. We know that we have four days for each driver and now one day is gone to prepare for the world championship.”

Stoffel Vandoorne, who has replaced Button, will get his turn for McLaren on Tuesday.

McLaren team chief Eric Boullier acknowledged that the relationship with Honda is far from perfect.

“It is like any marriage, you can have some ups and downs,” Boullier said. “We went through a lot of stress through the last couple of years, but we have a positive and constructive relationship and I don’t expect this to change in the future.”

The opening test will run through Thursday.

The track near Barcelona will host a second round of testing from March 7-10 before the season starts at the Australian GP on March 26.