Q&A with NASCAR on NBC analyst Jeff Burton, Part 1

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With testing and occasional race duties coming up this NASCAR Sprint Cup season for Michael Waltrip Racing, Jeff Burton is still very much involved in the competition side of the sport.

But this year will also see Burton – universally respected and known among fans and media as “The Mayor” of the Sprint Cup garage – contribute to NBCSN’s new “NASCAR AMERICA” daily show that debuts on Monday at 5 p.m. ET.

Come 2015, he’ll move into a full-time analyst role with NBC Sports Group as it officially begins coverage of Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series racing.

Recently, MotorSportsTalk had the privilege of talking with him about a variety of topics. Today, you’ll see his thoughts on transitioning into the broadcast booth, and tomorrow, you’ll read about his role with MWR and his insights on the upcoming season – which starts Sunday with the Daytona 500.

What sort of impact did the NBC position have on you pulling back to part-time driving? Or had the pulling back part been on your mind before it opened up?

“The NBC thing certainly moved the ball. I knew 2014 was going to be my last full year. I had made up my mind on that. And the timing of NBC – that was going to be real convenient. We had a lot of conversations about it and it felt like that was going to work out. But then the opportunity to do [NASCAR AMERICA], being involved with that and being able to actually spend the time I need to spend – all that felt right to me.

“It just felt like the timing was right and I’ll be honest – and I’m not saying this because I’m talking to [an NBCSports.com writer] – the opportunity to work with NBC was very appealing to me. The reason I say that is I watch NBC Sports and I watch the way they cover sports, and I like it. It feels right to me. It feels very professional. It fits who I am…It’s not about self-promoting, it’s about what’s going on and that fits me. And that pushed me to make a decision that I wasn’t sure I was ready to make [laughs]! It became a lot easier to make it.”

How important is it to have the support of a company like NBC Sports as you transition from driving to the broadcast booth?

“We’re doing it first class and we’re doing it right. That’s been my belief forever – if you put an effort in to do it right, then there’s the opportunity for it to come out right. You go into it, put a half-hearted effort into it, and you can pretty sure you’re gonna get a half-hearted result. Sitting down with [NBC Sports/NBCSN executive producer] Sam Flood and [NBC Sports Group vice president of NASCAR production] Jeff Behnke and really understand how they wanted to cover the sport, I became very excited about it and was very energized and enthusiastic.

“And then the people they’ve gone out and gotten – I mean, going in with [Sprint Cup crew chief] Steve Letarte, that’s a big deal. He’s going to be unbelievably good. And [play-by-play announcer] Rick Allen – I mean, we’re 18 months away from doing our first [race] broadcast, but they knew who they wanted and they got ‘em. That shows you the kind of company they are: “This is what we want. We’re gonna go make it happen.”

“They’ve could’ve easily said, ‘Well, let’s just see what happens.’ But they went and said, ‘Hey, let’s jump on it now,’ and by doing that, they put something in Steve Letarte’s head…It just goes to show, if you’re dedicated and committed and you go after it, you can make good stuff happen. That’s the way I view it. They went head-first into this to get the best team they could and hopefully, we live up to it. We’ve got a lot of work to do. But they got all their No. 1 draft picks.”

A common refrain we’ve heard involving NASCAR in recent years is that the younger fans are leaving it behind. How do you, Rick and Steve intend to convey the excitement of the sport to those fans and have them maybe take another look?

“First of all, there are so many stories in the sport: We’re not gonna have to create stories. What we need to do is telling more stories, more about what’s going on and not just about the Top 5 guys running [in a race]. We need to talk about technology. We need to talk about the things going on in the car with the drivers in specific ways. We need to get creative in how we not only talk about it, but how we allow viewers to visually understand it from a technology standpoint, strategy standpoint, and driver’s standpoint. All those things create opportunities.

“I believe that young people still like cars. I’m around them all the time, as my son races and my daughter just turned 18 years old. She has a lot of friends that are buying their first cars and just started driving, and my son’s around kids that race. Kids love cars. Kids love to drive. They still do. Is it different? Yeah. It used to be we’d take the car, change the engine in it, and that’s not going on [as much] today, but they still love to drive and still love cars. We’ve gotta get them back to being excited about racing!

“We can do that. There’s a lot of ways to do that. There’s nothing about racing that kids don’t like. It’s exciting, it’s fun, it’s loud, it’s in your face, it’s action. We just need to find a better way to present it to them. I’m confident we can do this. But it’s going to take some work. If we try to do it the way everybody else has done it, we’re gonna get the same result and we need to go into this looking for better results.”

(NOTE: The following is part of the answer to the previous question, but it wound up focusing on the competitive drive of the on-air team. We think it’s a good look into Jeff’s personality, so we’ve kept it in. – MST)

“In regards to the competition, nothing personal, but we intend to be the best. NBC intends to cover racing better than everybody else. It’s a competition. And I’ve been in competition my whole life. Rick Allen’s been a competitor [three-time All-American decathlete, University of Nebraska]. Steve Letarte’s been a competitor. We’re competitive people! And Sam Flood, too [college hockey captain]. We want to be the best. We want to take it to ’em – nothing personal, but we want to take it to ‘em. And that’s what we intend to do.”

What would be a sign of success to you in this role?

“When fans say to me, ‘I understand more today that I ever have. Racing is more fun to watch. This is fun. I know more about the sport than I used to know. I understand the rules more, I understand the process more.’ That’s a success. When I run into fans – it’s not about promoting me. It’s about telling the story of the sport. I don’t want people walking up to me, telling me how great I am.

“I want to them to walk up to me and say, ‘This sport is awesome.’ Because if they do that, then we’re doing our job…We have a great sport. We’ve got to get some energy back into it. We’ve gotta get people understanding how great it is. And everybody’s trying. It’s not like we’re the ones going to be trying. But we’re going to try and bring a fresh approach to it, a new approach to it.”

Rosberg, Button soak up their first weekends out of F1 (PHOTOS)

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Since 2008, Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel have won seven World Championships. The two drivers that won titles in that period not named Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel – Nico Rosberg (2016) and Jenson Button (2009) – were both enjoying their first weekends not on a Formula 1 grid for the first time in more than a decade this weekend as the 2017 season commenced at Melbourne’s Albert Park.

Rosberg made a visit to preseason testing in Barcelona a few weeks ago for his first appearance as spectator since winning the World Championship. But he watched from home this weekend with his family and posted a few thoughts during both qualifying and the race:

We’re now quite familiar with Rosberg’s home TV set and coffee table. This is the first time Rosberg has been out of an F1 race since 2005, the year he won the first GP2 championship.

Button meanwhile paid a visit to California for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series weekend at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana… once he got off his couch. He checked in with seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson at Fontana.

Do you guys know if there's anything good to watch on tele this weekend? @storm_and_rogue_pomskies

A post shared by Jenson Button (@jensonbutton_22) on

Given McLaren Honda’s struggles, Button is probably smart to have got out when he did. He’d been on the grid since 2000!

Meanwhile for Rosberg, he watched as Mercedes was unable to win the season opener for the first time since 2013.

DJR Team Penske wins three of four Supercars races at Melbourne

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DJR Team Penske has won its first Virgin Australia Supercars Championship races over the weekend during the Australian Grand Prix, with Scott McLaughlin and Fabian Coulthard taking the first three wins in the four-race, non-championship race weekend.

While Penske’s teams have long succeeded in North America and have had some international success, notably a Formula 1 win at the 1976 Austrian Grand Prix with John Watson, success has thus far eluded them since arriving in Supercars two years ago as majority shareholders of Dick Johnson Racing.

McLaughlin had the honor of beating Coulthard to the first win in race one of the weekend, before Coulthard doubled up with wins in races two and three. The first two races were one-two finishes, though, and McLaughlin said he’d received a text from Roger Penske in the wake of the victory.

“I got a text from Roger straight away and they’re all pretty happy,” McLaughlin told Supercars.com.

“They’re thanking me but I should be thanking them for giving me the opportunity.”

The first race was marred by this incident between Nick Percat and Lee Holdsworth, Percat having lost his brakes entering Turn 1 and crashing into Holdsworth, who was an innocent bystander.

But once the race resumed, McLaughlin held off Coulthard for the victory.

Coulthard led from start-to-finish in race two after his second straight pole position. He did the same in race three, albeit not in a Penske 1-2 as Jamie Whincup came second for Red Bull Holden Racing Team Commodore. McLaughlin was third.

A left-front puncture stopped Coulthard making it three in a row in the fourth race, and with steering damage, McLaughlin was resigned to 17th. Chaz Mostert took the win his Supercheap Ford, ending his own winless spell that dated to August of 2015.

Also of note from the weekend, ex-IndyCar driver Simona de Silvestro in her Team Harvey Norman Nissan Altima finished 13th in race one, her best finish yet in her first full season in the series.

The Supercars series is back in action at Symmons Plains Raceway on April 7-9.  Coulthard sits second in the series championship, 51 points back of Whincup’s teammate, Shane van Gisbergen.

Friday’s first test at Indy got month of May prep underway

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Last Friday saw the Verizon IndyCar Series take to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the first time in 2017, with a Honda manufacturer test and Team Penske team test occurring on a warm, if windy, day at the 2.5-mile oval.

There’s always some elements to be learned from the test but considering the wind plays such a role at IMS, it was hard to read too much into the speeds, which Honda did release afterwards.

For what it was worth, Graham Rahal led the way in his No. 15 Penngrade Honda for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing at 227.182 mph, or 39.6159 seconds.

The speeds and times released by Honda are below. Team Penske, in a team test, opted not to release its times. For the Schmidt Peterson Motorsports pair, James Hinchcliffe didn’t run in the afternoon owing to the high wind gusts while Mikhail Aleshin ran only limited laps.

Practice for the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil begins on Monday, May 15.

SPEEDS

1. 15-Graham Rahal, 227.182
2. 9-Scott Dixon, 226.126
3. 10-Tony Kanaan, 225.794
4. 83-Charlie Kimball, 222.890
5. 8-Max Chilton, 221.829
6. 5-James Hinchcliffe, 220.049
7. 7-Mikhail Aleshin, 219.191

PHOTOS (all via IndyCar)

DiZinno: Dear Chip, you like winners… and Larson at Indy could be one

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Remember when you occasionally wrote open letters requesting things in hopes they could one day come true? Here’s my open letter for May, 2017, which I address to one of this country’s most successful racing team owners in Chip Ganassi.

Dear Chip,

Hi, it’s me, Tony. We’ve had occasional interactions as part of media roundtables in the past. I’m the young one in these sessions who could probably be misidentified as a PR type.

But because I have had some PR experience in the past, and because I like to think I’m somewhat knowledgeable about options that could try to help move the needle for the Verizon IndyCar Series, I would like to suggest a storyline that I’m sure you’ve thought of but never fully pulled the trigger on.

Kyle Larson. In a fifth Ganassi IndyCar this May for the 101st Indianapolis 500. Doing “The Double.”

You like winners. This is one hell of a winning storyline, and thanks to Larson finally getting his first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series win of the season on Sunday in his home state of California, at Fontana’s Auto Club Speedway, I think the door should be open for him to do so.

It’s one of two big-ticket races that Chip Ganassi Racing Teams participates in that Larson hasn’t done yet, the other being the 24 Hours of Le Mans. And with no disrespect to the French endurance classic this summer, Larson’s not realistically going to bring as much potential buzz there as he would for a race that needs another spark or big-time storyline this year.

But Indy? Indy needs Larson. And it needs something that will enhance the storylines that are on the verge of happening this year, which are great inside the largely Indiana-heavy bubble of IndyCar observers and fandom, but don’t really penetrate the national sphere beyond that.

Larson is at the phase in his NASCAR career where he’s just now entering that potential stratosphere – he’s finished first, second or third in six of the last seven races, and the only time he didn’t was when he was leading the Daytona 500 but ran out of fuel on the final lap.

Like Kurt Busch in 2014, he’s got a win early in the season, which also will guarantee his spot in the NASCAR playoffs provided he makes an attempt to start every race (or even if he doesn’t, as there have been occasional exemptions the last couple years) and stays in the top-30 in points. Considering he’s leading the points right now, he should be fine there. With a win, he can afford to have one or two off weekends results-wise… even if the prospect of him doing the “double” with the Indianapolis 500 and Coca-Cola 600 on the same day means he could still star in both.

Larson is also used to the frenetic travel schedule of racing in one place one day, another place the next day, so on and so forth from his short-track days. It’s how he entered the NASCAR radar to begin with and why he entered with as much hype as he did. You already have a partnership with Cessna; getting Larson to-and-from Indianapolis and Charlotte from a logistics standpoint could be organized.

And here’s the thing that’s really exciting to think about – Larson is an absolute animal in cars with low downforce. It’s part of why he’s succeeded as much as he has in NASCAR this year, as the package has changed to a primary low downforce setup.

You need to have some downforce in an IndyCar, particularly at Indianapolis, but the prospect of Larson hanging out an IndyCar planted – or sideways – at 230-plus mph is utterly tantalizing. How much would Larson dare to trim out? We can only dream.

He’s won races for you in other series before. Beating a field of sports car full-timers at the Rolex 24 at Daytona meant he had to do at least three or four hours of drive-time, if not more, to help carry a car to victory which he did with Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan and Jamie McMurray in 2015. So he already knows the fabric of what it’s like to work with Dixon and Kanaan.

Kimball, Larson and Ganassi last May. Photo: IndyCar

He made a cameo appearance last year on a practice day when Charlie Kimball changed his number from 83 to Larson’s NASCAR number of 42 to go along with a promotion for his partner, Tresiba. It was a fun story, but it wasn’t nearly as big as if it had been Larson in a 42 car in May. Here’s what Larson said at the time.

“I would love to. I was always a big Indianapolis fan growing up. I think mainly because my dad is a huge Indianapolis 500 and IndyCar fan.

“To me, I think this is the biggest race in the world by far. Yeah, I would love to race it someday, you know, be driving for Chip Ganassi Racing. He’s got so many different types of vehicles, you hopefully get the opportunity to run someday.

“Been lucky enough to run in the Rolex 24-hour race and win that. It would be incredible just to start the 500 someday in my future. But it’s more up to the guy to my left than me.

“He’s been a great car owner for me. Hopefully someday, after I win a Cup race, two, or three, a championship, I can run the Indianapolis 500.”

DAYTONA BEACH, FL – JANUARY 25: The #02 Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates Target/Ford EcoBoost Riley driven by (l-r) Tony Kanaan, Kyle Larson, Jamie McMurray and Scott Dixon receive Rolex watches after winning The Rolex 24 at Daytona at Daytona International Speedway on January 25, 2015 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images)

Since the time of that quote, May 16, 2016, Larson’s won two Cup races – one last year at Michigan and now one yesterday in Fontana. He could and should well be a championship contender this year.

Here’s where we get to the important part of the pitch though: the commercial value in the deal. And the reason you’re as successful as you are is that you’re good at business, for your partners.

I can tell you it’s not good for business that we’ve talked and written ad nauseum about Scott Dixon – one of the greatest drivers of his generation – not having a full-time sponsor announced yet to replace Target, which left the IndyCar side of the program at the end of 2016 after supporting your team for 27 years. In your words at Mid-Ohio last year, Target was the “greatest sponsor ever.” But yet here Dixon’s been in a plain white car, which quoting the POTUS if I may, is “Sad!”

Could Target be convinced to come back for one more ‘go-round at Indianapolis, with a car that we expect is going to be a better fit for the 2.5-mile Speedway with the Honda aero kit and engine than it was last year with your competitor?

Or could Cessna, which hasn’t had its own primary sponsorship effort in an Indianapolis 500, be persuaded to step up as a natural primary backer of an effort that will require many Cessna air miles to make it happen?

LONG POND, PA – JUNE 2: Kyle Larson, driver of the #42 Cessna/NTT Data Group Chevrolet, practices for the NASCAR Xfinity Series Pocono Green 250 at Pocono Raceway on June 2, 2016 in Long Pond, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)

You’re already very good at navigating the field to where you can run Hondas in IndyCar, Chevrolets in NASCAR and Fords in sports cars. I don’t know how you do it but I’m impressed that you can maintain successful relationships with the manufacturers that allows you to pull this off.

Since Busch ran a Honda in his 2014 Indianapolis 500 outing and a Chevrolet in NASCAR, the driver/manufacturer crossover has been successfully navigated once before. That Rolex 24 win in 2015? That was in a Ford… and Larson drives a Chevrolet in NASCAR, so he’s worn different manufacturer gear in the past as well.

And Honda will likely need to run 18 cars to make up the field of 33 this year. You can tentatively pencil in 17 of those 18 cars, but one of the existing teams is almost guaranteed to have to add an extra car in order to ensure there’s enough entries.

You’ve got the crew from your sports car program – your team ran a fifth car as recently as two years ago for Sebastian Saavedra alongside the full-time four. Many of that crew came from the IndyCar side to begin with. Brad Goldberg could engineer the thing because he’s helped Kimball to success in the past, including his lone IndyCar race win.

And with no disrespect to Saavedra, Larson would be better for the overall business and buzz of the race.

You guys won this year’s Rolex 24 at Daytona for Ford, after having won Le Mans in June, which completed a back-to-back sweep of 24-hour races.

But because a certain old “retired” driver won in a Cadillac, and that overshadowed his own co-drivers, the Ganassi/Ford win at Daytona didn’t generate as much ink as it could have.

You like winners. I like writing about winning storylines.

Larson’s stock and availability given the factors at play isn’t likely to be as high as it is now to run an extra car for this year’s Indianapolis 500.

Michael Andretti and Roger Penske can’t generate all the attention at Indianapolis this May, Andretti as the defending champion owner and Mr. Penske with five cars for the first time.

They both will be running five cars. Why not you, as well, to match?

If you can make it happen, Chip, it might be the biggest win IndyCar gets this season.

Yours sincerely,

TDZ