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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 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.”

Famous faces descend on Austin for USGP weekend

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 22:  Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP talks with actors Christoph Waltz and Rosa Salazar in the garage  during final practice for the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 22, 2016 in Austin, United States.  (Photo by Lars Baron/Getty Images)
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Formula 1 has a habit of attracting the rich and famous out to play for the weekend, and the United States Grand Prix in Austin, Texas has been no exception to the rule.

A number of celebrities have descended on the Circuit of The Americas this weekend to catch some on-track action.

Some of the names have appeared in the F1 paddock before, but others are first-timers at COTA, keen to get a glimpse of one of the most exciting sports in the world.

Here’s a quick social run-down of the famous faces that have been spotted this weekend.

Tennis star Venus Williams was a guest of Mercedes on Saturday, and even took time to congratulate Lewis Hamilton following his charge to pole position.

Noted actor and villain in the latest James Bond film, Spectre, Christoph Waltz made an appearance in the Mercedes garage, receiving a tour from Hamilton himself.

American actress Rosa Salazar joined Waltz in the Mercedes garage.

NASCAR legend Jeff Gordon took some time out of his busy schedule to pay a visit to COTA, spotted here chatting to Nico Rosberg before the race.

F1 aficionado and TV chef Gordon Ramsay chatted with McLaren chief Ron Dennis ahead of the race – given McLaren’s excellent catering, it was probably not about the food…

McLaren’s other guest is literally out of this world: British astronaut Tim Peake.

Skateboarding star Ryan Scheckler has been with Red Bull all weekend, seen here swapping gear with Daniel Ricciardo.

Skier Lindsey Vonn received a birthday surprise from the Red Bull drivers.

Gerard Butler is another big F1 fan, seen here chatting with Red Bull team boss Christian Horner.

2016 Olympic triathlon champion Gwen Jorgensen also came along (not many free seats in the Red Bull garage!).

Verstappen unlikely to change style despite F1 defense rule clarification

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 22:  Max Verstappen of Netherlands and Red Bull Racing in the garage during qualifying for the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 22, 2016 in Austin, United States.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Max Verstappen doubts he will change his on-track racing style despite the FIA’s clarification of permitted defensive moves in Formula 1 ahead of Sunday’s United States Grand Prix.

Verstappen came under fire from his rivals in Hungary and Belgium earlier this year after appearing to move under braking, and was subject to a brief protest from Mercedes in Japan for the same reason.

Verstappen’s on-track moves were brought up in Friday’s drivers’ briefing at the Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas, prompting FIA race director Charlie Whiting to clarify the rules regarding defensive moves.

Whiting confirmed that any move under braking that forces the car behind to take evasive action will be investigated by the stewards, appearing to clamp down on Verstappen’s moves.

However, the Dutchman told reporters on Saturday evening that he doubted it would have any effect on his approach or style on-track.

“I don’t think so. I think it’s good to make it more clear what’s allowed and what’s not,” Verstappen said, as quoted by Reuters.

“So far it said in the rules that you could go to the inside under braking. Now it’s not. So we’ll see how that’s going to affect the racing.”

Verstappen will start fourth on the grid in Sunday’s United States Grand Prix, live on NBC and the NBC Sports app from 2:30pm ET.

Hamilton: ‘Incredible’ to be closing in on Senna’s pole tally

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 22:  Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP waves to the crowd after qualifying in pole position during qualifying for the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 22, 2016 in Austin, United States.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Lewis Hamilton finds it “incredible” to be closing in on Formula 1 legend Ayrton Senna’s tally of pole positions after adding to his haul in Austin, Texas on Saturday.

Hamilton scored the 58th pole of his F1 career in qualifying for the United States Grand Prix after edging out Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg in Q3, recording the fastest ever lap around the Circuit of The Americas.

Hamilton trails only Michael Schumacher (68) and Senna (65) in the list for all-time poles in F1, the latter being an inspiration to the Briton throughout his junior racing days.

“Seven is still a long way to go but to think that I’m within shooting distance is incredible,” Hamilton said after qualifying at COTA.

“But it also just goes to show just how amazing a driver he was. To get as many poles as that in the amount of time that he had, it’s taken me a lot longer to get where I am so it was clearly phenomenal.”

At just 31 years old, Hamilton stands a good chance of becoming F1’s all-time pole position leader, particularly if Mercedes can continue its current domination of the sport over into the 2017 season.

In the running for the FIA Pole Trophy in 2016, Hamilton pulled clear of Rosberg in Austin, the pair previously tied for eight poles heading into the weekend. Daniel Ricciardo is the only other driver to have started a race from pole this year, leading the field away in Monaco.

Hamilton is bidding for his fourth victory at COTA in Sunday’s United States Grand Prix, live on NBC and the NBC Sports app from 2:30pm ET.

WATCH LIVE: USGP on NBC, NBC Sports app from 2:30 p.m. ET

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 22:  Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP and Daniel Ricciardo of Australia and Red Bull Racing shake hands in parc ferme  during qualifying for the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 22, 2016 in Austin, United States.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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AUSTIN, Texas – After the three practice sessions were split three ways between Lewis Hamilton, Nico Rosberg and Max Verstappen, Hamilton snatched the pole position for today’s United States Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas with a magical lap, at a circuit and in a country he pretty much loves.

The stage is then set for yet another battle between the Mercedes AMG Petronas teammates as they continue to fight for this year’s Formula 1 World Championship.

Hamilton, down 33 points to Rosberg heading into the 18th of 21 Grands Prix this season, realistically needs to make up a big chunk of points today if he is to secure a third consecutive title.

Rosberg can win the title with second-place finishes in each of the final four races, but he has said repeatedly he is going for race wins only and is not thinking about the championship. And at the moment, that strategy seems to be working for him.

But with Red Bull Racing on row two starting with a split strategy – Daniel Ricciardo on Pirelli’s supersoft tires and Max Verstappen on the slightly harder soft compounds – those two could throw a spanner in the works. Ricciardo loves the U.S. near as much as Hamilton, if not more so, and would be keen for another podium or perhaps his second win of the year.

And how will Haas F1 Team, America’s first F1 team in 30 years, fare in its first United States Grand Prix? It’s been a challenging weekend for Gene Haas’ team, but Esteban Gutierrez (14th) and Romain Grosjean (17th) will give it their all despite something of a downforce deficit.


You can watch the United States Grand Prix live on NBC and the NBC Sports App from 2:30 p.m. ET on Sunday, which is 1:30 p.m. CT and local time in Austin. CLICK HERE to watch via live stream.

Leigh Diffey, David Hobbs and Steve Matchett will be on the call, and along with pit reporter Will Buxton, all are on the ground in Austin providing updates and interviews throughout the race.

Also be sure to follow the @F1onNBCSports Twitter account for live updates throughout the race.

2016 United States Grand Prix – Starting Grid

1. Lewis Hamilton Mercedes
2. Nico Rosberg Mercedes
3. Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull
4. Max Verstappen Red Bull
5. Kimi Raikkonen Ferrari
6. Sebastian Vettel Ferrari
7. Nico Hulkenberg Force India
8. Valtteri Bottas Williams
9. Felipe Massa Williams
10. Carlos Sainz Jr. Toro Rosso
11. Sergio Perez Force India
12. Fernando Alonso McLaren
13. Daniil Kvyat Toro Rosso
14. Esteban Gutierrez Haas
15. Jolyon Palmer Renault
16. Marcus Ericsson Sauber
17. Romain Grosjean Haas
18. Kevin Magnussen Renault
19. Jenson Button McLaren
20. Pascal Wehrlein Manor
21. Felipe Nasr Sauber
22. Esteban Ocon Manor