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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 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.”

McFADIN: Return of ‘old-school Texas’ worth the wait

FORT WORTH, TX - AUGUST 27: James Hinchcliffe driver of the #5 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda leads Tony Kanaan driver of the #10 NTT Data Chevrolet and Graham Rahal driver of the #15 Mi-Jack/RLL Honda going into the final lap during the Verizon IndyCar Series Firestone 600 at Texas Motor Speedway on August 27, 2016 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Mike Stone/Getty Images for Texas Motor Speedway)
(Photo by Mike Stone/Getty Images for Texas Motor Speedway)
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FORT WORTH – If you squinted hard enough, it was 2002 all over again.

“It took some old-school Texas right there,” said Tony Kanaan, who was actually there. “I had to dig into my hard drive and remember how to do pack racing again, and it worked out pretty well.”

For a few hours Saturday night, it was as if 14 years hadn’t passed since Texas Motor Speedway’s peak era of “pack racing.”

James Hinchcliffe wishes that were the case. If it were, he might have won the 2016 Firestone 600.

“My night was great until about eight minutes to go,” Hinchcliffe joked in the TMS media center after finishing second to Graham Rahal in a race that began 77 days earlier on June 12.

Hinchcliffe led 188 laps between June 12 and Aug. 27, but Rahal led only one – the big one – by a track record .008 seconds.

“I’ve seen so many races won here on the high line, coming to the line because you just have that momentum off of (Turn) 4,” Hinchcliffe said. “I was going — thinking back to my IRL Classic days and Sam Hornish Jr.’s tricks and all the rest of it, but man, Graham just pulled through (Turns) 3 and 4 like no one had all night.”

Hinchcliffe, who lapped the field up to fifth place, said his No. 5 Honda was an “absolute rocketship.”

But after a late afternoon practice session, Rahal told his team over the radio that his No. 15 Honda was “a f—ing rocketship.”

Rahal initiated The Dive as he, Hinchcliffe and Tony Kanaan approached Turn 3 for the last time.

Other drivers, including Kanaan, had made similar desperate maneuvers in the seven laps since the last restart.

Rahal, who had restarted the race in 12th and at one point in the night survived a four-wide pass, was the only one who made it work.

“Once I could get there, I could drive through them,” said Rahal, who had to juggle battling Kanaan for second while also trying to overtake Hinchcliffe. “It was just a matter of trying to pick your spot, and very fortunately at the end, I knew I was going to have to try to take Hinch to the top side because there was only one way actually to clear him, which was to the bottom, and I was just very lucky it worked.”

After constantly fending off Kanaan, Hinchcliffe had expected to contend with him coming to the checkers. To Hinchcliffe’s surprise, it was the No. 15 that finally bested him as Kanaan settle into third.

“I hadn’t been next to a car all night that cleared me that quickly,” Hinchcliffe said, his right hand on his face in disbelief. “You know, he had the pace when he needed to. That was the time to make that move, and like I said, credit to him.”

Rahal, who won three times in the last two seasons, was gracious to Hinchcliffe as he wore the cowboy hat that winners at TMS are bestowed. The hat he lost to Justin Wilson in 2012.

“I have to thank Hinch a lot because, first of all, we’re flying home together tonight, so at least it’s not going to be awkward,” Rahal joked. “Second of all, he gave me some good room at the bottom and didn’t end up in tears. Have to thank him for good, clean driving.”

As Rahal and his car were pushed toward a waiting victory lane, his teammates would not stop yelling.

Amid the hollers, one gray-clad team member declared simply – “That’s racing!”

Even though he led 188 laps and finished second, Hinchcliffe agrees with those who snatched away his shot to wear a 10-gallon hat and fire off six-shooters.

“I had a blast. That’s the problem. I had an absolute blast. Had I not led every lap of the race, I would be much happier than I am,” Hinchcliffe said. “Certainly at the end we put on a hell of a show for the fans, and that’s what we’re here for … It would have been a lot more boring if some car just won by half a straightaway.”

That’s coming from the driver who until a series of late cautions, likely would have done that exact thing.

“It’s also a lot different than what it used to be,” Rahal said. “It is not just flat-out easy pack racing anymore. I mean, you were lifting a heck of a lot in traffic, but the way these cars suck up nowadays, the draft is huge so it just makes the racing awesome.”

It may have looked like 2002. But in 2016, it might have been better.

Pagenaud takes pivotal fourth place finish in Texas

during practice for the Verizon IndyCar Series Firestone 600 at Texas Motor Speedway on June 10, 2016 in Fort Worth, Texas.
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The resumption of the Firestone 600 at Texas Motor Speedway offered Simon Pagenaud a challenge: recover from his first and thus far only mistake of the year on Monday in Pocono and put forth a championship-caliber performance, or incur a second straight dud result that could put pause to those hopes.

But despite the “weird” nature of the day that faced him going into it, Pagenaud delivered a key drive aided by a good strategic call from his No. 22 Hewlett Packard Enterprise Team Penske Chevrolet team to secure a potentially pivotal fourth place finish for the rest of the Verizon IndyCar Series season.

After a spate of late-race accidents, Pagenaud was one of two drivers along with Tony Kanaan who opted to pit for fresh Firestone tires.

The gamble paid dividends because inevitably, those cars with the fresher tires would move towards the front in the later stages.

Pagenaud, who’s certainly been better on ovals this season in his second year with Team Penske but hasn’t yet had that incredible “tip of your tongue” memory oval drive, had to balance fighting for the win with three hungry drivers who hadn’t yet won this year – Kanaan, James Hinchcliffe and eventual winner Graham Rahal.

But he did just that, fighting hard yet clean in an intense four-way battle on a night he needed a big result to restart his title momentum, in a race that was looming large on the calendar.

Yeah, he ended fourth – but with Will Power in eighth, he gained eight points to stretch his lead to 28 points – and that provides the latest pendulum swing between the two in a year full of them.

“My spotter said, ‘four-wide’, and I’m like uh, oh, that’s no good,” Pagenaud said post-race. “And then Rahal touched me and I touched Hinchcliffe, so I was actually loose going into the corner and had to back out of it.

“It’s unfortunate. I really wanted to get that first oval win. But, I think no matter what, that was a great performance. The HP car was amazing all night. Thanks to Chevy, obviously; this aero kit is really amazing. It really shows what the IndyCars can do. I think tonight we had a great show. Did you guys enjoy it? I did. I didn’t have any breath left, you know?

“Wow. That was exciting! I don’t think I have any breath left. I thought we were going to get it, but when it went four wide I got touched and pushed me into (James Hinchcliffe) and I had to back out of it or there was going to be a big wreck. The Hewlett Packard Enterprise Chevy just got better and better all night. I really thought it was going to come together right at the end when we got back on the lead lap. We were able to come in for tires. Everything nearly came together.”

Dixon, Carpenter disagree over contact at Texas (VIDEO)

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Scott Dixon and Ed Carpenter are both good dudes, dads, husbands, and fathers to multiple children. They’re both good friends who embrace Indianapolis. And they both happen to wheel an IndyCar pretty well.

Yet rarely do their paths cross on the racetrack – primarily because Carpenter only races in the Verizon IndyCar Series on ovals – but tonight they did at Texas Motor Speedway in the resumption of the rain-delayed Firestone 600.

And it got interesting when the two collided in the final 40 laps of the race.

Carpenter, who was wearing a throwback helmet, restarted in the No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet from fifth place and Dixon from 14th in the No. 9 Target Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet when the race resumed.

For a while, Carpenter had about the only car capable of challenging the pretty much dominant driver and car of the night, James Hinchcliffe in the No. 5 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda.

For a moment, it appeared as though Carpenter would seek to match Hinchcliffe’s strategy to get to the finish on potentially one less stop than their competitors.

Any strategy hopes went out the window though when Dixon, who was lapped at the time, and Carpenter made contact on Lap 213. The first replay made it appear as though Carpenter chopped Dixon, but that was misleading; upon a second replay, appeared actually more of a racing incident.

As Carpenter took the second apex in the tri-oval, Dixon also moved up, and it sent Dixon spinning out of control into Turn 1 – and then back across the track where fortunately all other cars (except the seemingly luckless Helio Castroneves, who’s been a magnet for other car contacts this year) managed to avoid hitting him.

A less than pleased Dixon channeled his inner Will Power at Loudon in 2011 responded by giving Carpenter an infamous “double bird” salute. Carpenter continued, and Dixon was done on the spot.

But Carpenter’s race didn’t last much longer, as he got loose exiting Turn 4 and crashed out, again collecting Castroneves. Max Chilton spun in avoidance to the infield grass on the tri-oval.

With both drivers out, it marked a frustrating end to their nights.

Dixon’s continually frustrating 2016 season sees his championship hopes all but mathematically end tonight. After finishing 19th and with a maximum of 158 points left on the table, Dixon sits 132 back with just two races to go. His perhaps greater streak, finishing in the top three in points every year since 2006, is also in jeopardy; he sits sixth.

“I like Ed [Carpenter] and he’s a good friend, but I don’t know what the hell he was doing out there,” Dixon said, via post-race quotes distributed by Chevrolet.

“Three laps before that he nearly crashed me doing the same thing going into Turn 3. And then going into Turn 1 he just turned left into me. I don’t know if his radio wasn’t working or he didn’t have a spotter, but how you don’t get a penalty for that I have no idea.”

Carpenter ends his 2016 season behind the wheel with only one race finish – a lapped 18th in Iowa – in five starts. What he thought was his best chance to bank some sort of result tonight went awry after the contact, and later, his own car getting loose out of Turn 4. He ended 18th tonight.

“The car was awesome. On long runs, I think we were for sure the best car out there. I’d cut into James’s lead every stint. He was a little quicker. We didn’t have the fastest car, but it was good on the long runs,” Carpenter said.

“I’m just bummed. It’s been such a rough year. We’ve had such better cars that what we had last year and really just can’t catch a break.

“Whatever happened with Scott and I there, when my left rear touched his front wing, it must have cut a tire and that led to the accident.

“I’m just really bummed. I thought tonight was a night that we could have gotten a good result. It’s going to be a long off-season before I can get back in the car, but we’ll come back strong next year.”

Spencer Pigot returns to Carpenter’s No. 20 Chevrolet for the final two races at Watkins Glen International and Sonoma Raceway. The latter site is where Pigot made his IndyCar test debut a year ago driving for Team Penske last year, and captured the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires title in 2014.

Kanaan praises “old school Texas” as he delivers another star drive (VIDEO)

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The haters can say Tony Kanaan should retire. The haters are incorrect.

Kanaan’s incredible 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series season in the No. 10 NTT Data Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet rolled on Saturday night in the resumption of the rain-delayed Firestone 600 at Texas Motor Speedway, when he finished a perhaps hard-luck third after another stout drive.

Kanaan’s been among the best – if not the best – drivers in the field to have not won this year. He came close to ending a near two-year winless drought Saturday night in Texas after fighting with James Hinchcliffe for the lead of the race in the waning stages, with team owner Chip Ganassi and strategist Barry Wanser opting to pit him for fresh Firestone tires in the waning stages.

Graham Rahal got them both by the checkered flag, but Kanaan, 41, still proved there’s plenty of life left in the “old dog.”

“Oh, that was so much fun. I’ve got to thank the fans that came back. I didn’t think there was going to be a lot of people but whoever didn’t come missed a hell of a race,” Kanaan told NBCSN’s Robin Miller post-race.

“That was some old school Texas right there.

“It was a good night. We started way in the back, but we made up positions right away. I think with INDYCAR not changing the rules and the earlier race being a day race, we had a ton of downforce that we had to run during tonight’s race, so the cars felt a lot closer as you could see. I had to dig into my hard drive and remember pack racing again. It worked out pretty well.

“Big props to the guys in front who gave each other room, that’s why we finished the way we did. It’s always a pleasure to race like that. I feel bad for the people that didn’t come back tonight from the first race to watch because it really was a hell of a show.”

Kanaan described the finish: “On the inside. But if Graham (Rahal) wasn’t pushing Hinch (James Hinchcliffe), I was going to have it. So, I was hoping for Graham to get greedy and go three wide. That was going to slow everybody down, but that didn’t happen. He was smart enough.”

With this result, Kanaan is now third in the points, only behind Simon Pagenaud and Will Power. Although he hasn’t won yet in 2016, he has five top-five finishes and only one finish (25th at the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis) outside the top-12 all season.