Will long wait for breakthrough season finally be at hand for Paul Menard in 2014?

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When Paul Menard won the Brickyard 400 in 2011, not only was it his first career Sprint Cup win, it was a huge leap forward in what had been a rather nondescript Sprint Cup tenure up to that point.

By winning what has become one of NASCAR’s crown jewels, Menard finally had something no one will ever be able to take away from him: that he’ll forever be known and referred to as both a Brickyard and Indianapolis Motor Speedway champion.

But since that huge win, Menard has been kind of stuck in neutral. With the Brickyard triumph, four top-5 and eight top-10 finishes, he ended the 2011 season in a career-best 17th place.

In 2012, he improved slightly to a winless 16th in the standings, and last season, went right back to 17th, again without another win.

That has to change this season, Menard told NBC Sports’ MotorSportsTalk during last week’s NASCAR Media Tour in Charlotte, N.C.

“I think we’re definitely capable and our goal is to make the Chase,” Menard said. “And to make the Chase, we have to win races. That’s what we’re going for. That’s what we do every week.”

Menard comes into 2014 in a significantly different position and role than he was in during his first three seasons driving for Richard Childress Racing.

With Kevin Harvick having moved on to Stewart Haas Racing and Jeff Burton running a part-time schedule for Michael Waltrip Racing as a prelude to becoming a TV analyst for NASCAR on NBC in 2015, Menard is now the guy with the most seniority at RCR this season,

But even with new teammates Ryan Newman and Sprint Cup rookie (and Childress grandson) Austin Dillon, Menard claims there really hasn’t been that much of a change in the overall dynamic at RCR.

“Honestly, it’s not that different,” Menard said. “(Dillon and Newman are) guys I’ve known for a long time. I’ve worked with Austin for the last several years, and Ryan, I’ve raced against him for years. It’s really not that different.

“It’s welcoming Ryan into how RCR does things. He’s a smart guy, he’s going to fit right in, has a lot of the same interests as Richard and myself and Austin and Ty. So, it’s been pretty seamless.”

With so much attention focused on Dillon, at least at the beginning of this season due to his driving the fabled No. 3 car for the first time on the Cup circuit since the tragic death of Dale Earnhardt in the 2001 Daytona 500, and with Newman coming over from SHR, Menard loves the position he finds both himself and the organization in.

“Yeah, it’s two new guys and two guys that are very different in their personalities and the way they think,” Menard said. “You have Ryan, who is a degreed engineer, been around the sport a long time, a multi-time race winner and a Chase guy every year.

“And then we have Austin, who is this young and enthusiastic guy and full of energy. It’s really cool to see how all three of us are going to work together. I feel like we all have the same interests, we can talk about racing, talk about hunting, talk about just being outside or doing something totally different, spend time together doing that and get to know each other a lot better.”

Ever since that win in the Brickyard, it has appeared Menard has been ready for an even bigger career breakthrough.

Unfortunately, he’s still waiting.

But now in his fifth season with crew chief Slugger Labbe, Menard believes this could be a magical year for him, Labbe and RCR.

“We balance each other out really well, I think,” Menard said of Labbe. “Slugger is a very hands-on crew chief, at the shop every day, with the cars, really enjoys the cars and understands the mechanics of the cars. He’s a real go-getter, I guess.

“Myself, I enjoy working with the engineers and understanding what makes the car go fast. That’s pretty cool for me. I guess we just learned to work together a long time ago, it’s clicked, we enjoy working together, we’re good friends on and off the track and this is just one of those deals that works.”

One thing that won’t work is Menard returning to Indianapolis behind the wheel of an Indy car. While his father John has been involved in the Indianapolis 500 for more than three decades, Paul will not try to emulate what AJ Allmendinger and Kurt Busch are hoping to do – namely, race in the 500 in May and then compete later that same day in NASCAR’s most grueling race, the Coca-Cola 600.

“It’s something I’ve thought about, for sure, but I don’t think it’s doable, honestly, to give it a good, fair shake,” Menard said. “I drove an Indy car 10 years ago, they’re just totally different today. They have a ton of grip until they don’t, there’s no saving them.

“I’ve seen a lot of good guys get hurt really bad, and I think it’s something you definitely have to respect. If you’re going to run a race, especially the Indy 500, you have to be there the whole month. You have to start with a lot of downforce in your car and start trimming it out until you feel that comfort. It’s going to be real hard to go out there and go fast and have your car trimmed out and not crashed and not break both your legs. That’s just my opinion.”

And then with an impish grin, Menard added, “Besides, those guys (IndyCar drivers) are little. They’re 5-foot-5 and 120 pounds. I’m six foot and 200 pounds. For one, I don’t think I could fit in the car with enough padding and security to be safe with it, and secondly, it’s a huge weight disadvantage, carrying 60 more pounds than the next guy.”

So, will 2014 really, truly be the long-awaited breakthrough year that Menard and his fans have long hoped for?

“I’m really looking forward to 2014,” he said. “It’s a year of change, for sure, not only for RCR but our sport. I’m really excited about the changes coming down the pike in our sport, and I’m really looking forward to working with Austin and Ryan this year.

“I’m just excited to get down to Daytona and kick the year off. I’m looking forward to getting back into the race car and kicking off 2014 on the right foot.”

Menard already has a Brickyard 400 win. Could a Daytona 500 win in less than two weeks be next?

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F1 narrowing down target cities for second US race

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GENEVA, Switzerland – Formula 1 CEO and chairman Chase Carey says that Liberty Media has begun to narrow down its target cities for a second grand prix in the United States.

Liberty Media completed its takeover of F1 in January, with Carey being appointed the sport’s new chief in place of Bernie Ecclestone.

Liberty has expressed a desire to expand F1’s footprint in key markets such as the United States, with a second grand prix to accompany the existing USGP at the Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas being a key objective.

Speaking to reporters at the FIA Sport Conference in Geneva earlier this week, Carey confirmed that Liberty was continuing to explore options for a second US race, narrowing down the possible locations.

“There’s probably some that we’ve ruled out, but it’s certainly more than a few. We still have multiple cities, and in a couple of cities, there are multiple options or multiple potential options,” Carey said.

“I don’t think we’re going to get too deep into what I think are private discussions. I think these discussions are better-had privately between parties. We’re not looking to go out and publicly play cities against each other and venues against each other.

“I think we want to make a decision that’s best on the merits for the sport and its fans. It’s a priority so we’re actively engaged on it. We’re moving forward, but we’re not going to put a deadline on it or go through the process publicly.”

Carey has previously expressed a strong desire to take F1 to big cities all over the world, and named New York, Miami and Las Vegas as possible targets for street events, although he recognized that getting grands prix in the very heart of them may prove difficult.

“I don’t think they’ll be [permanent] tracks, because I guess the cities we’ve cited like New York, Miami, Las Vegas, there aren’t tracks. So we’re not going to build a track in Miami or New York,” Carey said.

“But I don’t think we’re going to be racing down 5th Avenue in Manhattan either, so I think we like the connection to cities.

“By definition in those certain places we’ll use street races that will be upgraded to a place where they have the quality and requirements necessary to host a race.

“So clearly there will have to be things done to make that circuit ready.”

F1 is also set to put on more events in cities in host nations in the lead up to grand prix weekends, with several days of activities being the goal for Liberty moving forward in a bid to build interest.

“We’d like to be connected to the city. In many ways if you want a week-long event the events up to the race weekend are probably more city-centric and you evolve towards the track as you get to Friday, Saturday, Sunday,” Carey said.

“So having that connection to the city is something that we lack. I think we can make it work in places where they’re further afield as some of the historic tracks exist, but I think that connection to the city enhances the ability to engage the city.

“Silverstone is a way outside London and yet we’re going to have stuff in London that is celebrating the week in Silverstone.

“So just because you have the distance, I think if we have the opportunity to be more connected to the city, we think that presents interesting and fun opportunities.”

Todt confirms interest from new teams to join F1 grid

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GENEVA, Switzerland – FIA president Jean Todt has confirmed there is interest from new teams to join the Formula 1 grid in the near future following recent speculation about some fresh projects being worked on.

Ten teams currently race in F1, marking its lowest full-season roster since 2009 following the closure of Manor before the start of the new campaign.

Speculation has emerged in recent week about new projects being worked on to get a team on the grid in the near future, with staff at current teams reportedly being approached at recent races.

Talking to reporters at the FIA Sport Conference in Geneva, Todt confirmed that there had been interest from new teams, but that an entry would be dependent on a tender being issued.

“There are always rumors, but we have had some interest from some teams,” Todt confirmed, adding the interest had come “recently”.

“When we feel it is time we will be able to make a tender,” Todt continued. “At the moment we have 10 teams and the idea is to have up to 12 teams.

“So we have an opportunity, if we have one or two strong newcomers it could be possible.

“First we need to check the request ourselves, it’s going through a kind of audit to see who are the potential buyers. If it’s a big manufacturer, it’s easy, if it’s a privateer, you need to be more careful.

“And then, once you are sure that there is a real interest, and once you’re sure that people are capable, like it was the case with Haas, for example, then we make tender.”

Todt’s comments also come in the wake of a company changing its name to ‘China F1 Racing Team Limited’ in the UK last month, appearing to add up with speculation about Chinese investment being behind the push for a new team.

Sauber confirms Kaltenborn’s departure from team

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Sauber F1 Team has released two statements late Wednesday night, with the second confirming Monisha Kaltenborn’s departure after reports surfaced earlier Wednesday she was due to leave with immediate effect.

Sauber’s second statement said, attributed to Pascal Picci, Chairman of the Board:

“Longbow Finance SA regrets to announce that, by mutual consent and due to diverging views of the future of the company, Monisha Kaltenborn will leave her positions with the Sauber Group effective immediately. We thank her for many years of strong leadership, great passion for the Sauber F1 Team and wish her the very best for the future. Her successor will be announced shortly; in the meantime we wish the team the best of luck in Azerbaijan.”

An earlier statement released in conjunction with this, also attributed to Picci, scolded media reports hinting at unfair treatment within the team.

“The owners and board of Sauber Motorsport AG take strong exception to speculative and widespread media reports today that our race drivers have not been, and are not being, treated equally. This is not only patently untrue, it would be contrary to the team’s absolute and longstanding commitment to fair competition. These reports, attributed to anonymous “sources”, are highly detrimental to both Marcus Ericsson and Pascal Wehrlein as well as to the management and all staff of the Sauber F1 Team.”

More to follow…

Global MX-5 Cup heads to Road America after Indy double

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The next two races in the Battery Tender Global MX-5 Cup presented by BFGoodrich Tires series take place this weekend at Road America, part of the Verizon IndyCar Series’ KOHLER Grand Prix weekend.

Robert Stout (won by just 0.0632 of a second) and Patrick Gallagher split the race wins last weekend at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course, but kept McCumbee McAleer Racing’s perfect streak alive in 2017.

Gallagher leads the championship by a healthy margin of 39 points over Nathanial Sparks of Sick Sideways Racing.

Mark Drennan, Stout and Todd Lamb complete the top five in the championship.

MX-5 has raced at Road America on several different weekends in the past, but is now part of the IndyCar weekend.

All four Andersen Promotions-operated series – MX-5 plus the full complement of Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires series – are at Road America this weekend.

This marks the first time that’s happened since MX-5 came under the Andersen umbrella. Pro Mazda was not at Barber, when MX-5 premiered its season.

MX-5 races at 12:40 p.m. Friday and 10:05 a.m. Saturday.