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Q&A with NASCAR on NBC analyst Jeff Burton, Part 2

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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. Yesterday’s focus was on his transition into the broadcast booth. But today, we’ll focus on his work with MWR and his thoughts on the upcoming season.

Now, you mentioned that you didn’t test at Daytona last month in Preseason Thunder but you instead used that weekend to do short-track work for MWR at New Smyrna (Fla.) Speedway? How valuable do you believe that will be in the long run for the team?

“I think it’s real important. Obviously, the Daytona 500 is a huge race but you run four restrictor plate races and you run 34 other races…Along the lines of testing this winter, we’re going to Nashville Superspeedway a lot, New Smyrna several times. [MWR’s] real committed to getting out of the gate strong and understanding this new rule package.

“This new rule package is just different. It’s a completely different animal, and I commend their commitment of trying to be – trying to figure it out early. You never figure it [all] out because you’ll always be updating it, changing it and improving it. But the team, to get off to a good start, [figuring it out] will be very beneficial.”

The Gen-6 cars that debuted last year were certainly faster than their predecessors, but from a perspective that’s very much different than yours, they didn’t always produce the best racing at times. Your thoughts?

“It was a step. It was something better. The difficult thing is, what’s better racing? You ask 10 different people what a better race is, you’ll get 10 different answers! It’s very difficult to figure that out. You can have a great finish and somebody’s upset because just that lap was exciting. It’s a difficult thing to do and ultimately, NASCAR’s gotta continue working on making the racing as good as it can be and I think the fans need to have realistic expectations as well. But I thought the Gen-6 was a step in the right direction and I thought the racing was a little better.

“It wasn’t like racing at Daytona and Talladega every week but I don’t think that’s the intention. If it is, you’d have a lot of people not wanting to be a part of it because that’s just unrealistic – racing like you’re at Daytona and Talladega every week. But we should be able to race like we do when we go to Martinsville or when we go to Phoenix and those kinds of race tracks. The 1.5-mile [track] thing is a challenge. The faster you go, the harder it is and certainly, our series has migrated to being a [predominantly] 1.5-mile [track] series.

“I think we gotta make some more rule changes because of that, and also, we need to look at the race tracks. Do they need to repave, do they need to do some things? I think it’s time for the tracks to make some adjustments as it relates to competition. The car owners are continually making investments as it relates to competition and I think it’s time for the racetracks to make an investment.”

When you joined up with MWR, a lot of people pegged you as a “stabilizing force” as the team moves away from last fall’s incident in Richmond. Do you see yourself that way? If not, then what exactly?

“My role is to help move the company in the right direction as it relates to competition, and also, be there to have conversations about where it’s going, what are the overall goals and how we’re gonna achieve those goals. I’m certainly not there to be the ethics police or anything like that. But I think having a driver that has been around for a long time – really, the other two drivers [Clint Bowyer and Brian Vickers] are relatively young when you think about it. And having a driver that’s been around and can offer different perspectives, I think, is a good thing.

“But the one thing about that company is that there’s a lot of really good people and they feel strongly about what they’re doing and they’re committed to it. It’s a very, very strong company and it’s an important year for MWR. Coming out of what happened that year and the accusations about what happened, it’s important for them to have a really solid year and to kind of shut some of the critics up.”

It seems like, again, from an outside perspective, MWR is fighting for something even bigger than a championship this year. How would you gauge the team’s resolve heading into 2014?

“Let me state, in my estimation, they’ve paid the largest penalty ever in NASCAR. If you look at all the things that got put in motion after Richmond, you’d have a very difficult time finding a team that has been penalized as much as they have. I’m not saying the penalty came directly from NASCAR, but NASCAR’s decisions influenced a lot of other decisions. It all fell on MWR’s shoulders. I can’t think of a team that’s had a larger penalty than MWR. So, I think they got knocked back on their heels and I think everybody’s looking around wondering what the future holds.

“There are a tremendous amount of good, smart, young, hard-working people there with a lot of resolve, and at the same time, I think they’re on their heels a little bit and I think they gotta get on their toes. Come Daytona 500 time, it’s about 2014. ’13 is over. You’ve got what you’ve got and you gotta make the best of it. They’ve lost a lot, they really have – they lost a whole team. They lost quality crew chiefs, they lost quality engineers, they lost quality mechanics. They still have two very strong teams, but they lost a lot. How do you replace that and how do you make two teams work better than three – which I think you can actually do.

“But it’s gonna require them getting on their toes, moving forward, and not worrying so much about what happened in the past. And that’s hard to do. When you think about that company, they left Richmond feeling really good about themselves, right? Two cars in the Chase! And two weeks later? Whew! It was a whole different ballgame…”

Your first Sprint Cup race of 2014 is slated for Las Vegas in early March. Has the team told you yet where else you’ll be racing this year?

“Yeah, we’re gonna run Vegas and then – we’ll probably run about five races throughout the year. We have a hard schedule – Vegas being very hard and there are other ones we feel pretty sure about that we’re gonna run but we haven’t really talked about it yet so we might change our mind. We’re gonna run where it makes sense. Having more teams doesn’t make us better, right? So, what we gotta do is run when it’s smart. We gotta run where it make sense to run and not just run because we want to run. It’s gotta be part of a plan and if it’s not, we’re making a mistake.”

Who are some of NASCAR’s up-and-coming prospects that really jump out at you?

“Obviously, you look at [nephew] Jeb [Burton] and he had a great year last year. That rookie of the year battle [in the Camping World Truck Series] last year…Those three guys had a really great battle. Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott’s coming. We have a lot of young talent, but if you go back even further than that, you look at who the young guys are who are running late models right now – Kyle Benjamin, Joe Nemechek’s son [John Hunter Nemechek], Ross Kenseth [Matt’s son] – there is a lot of young talent in the pipeline. More so than I’ve seen in a long time.

“I was really nervous about two or three years ago. I was looking around wondering, ‘Where is the next guy coming from?’ I didn’t see it, I really didn’t see it. And in the last two or three years, they’ve emerged. I feel really good about it. We’ve got a young group of drivers coming that have the talent and the mindset. Our sport’s in good shape.”

Hendrick Motorsports went back on top last season with Jimmie Johnson. Which teams do you see challenging them for the championship?

“I think Penske showed a lot of strength [in 2013]. I know [2012 Sprint Cup champion Brad] Keselowski didn’t have the year he was looking for but it’s not uncommon for a championship team to not do as good the next year. I see them rebounding. And I really believe MWR is going to have a strong year.

“The big one is: What’s Roush Fenway [Racing] gonna do? You step back and look at their [2013] stats…They didn’t have a bad year. But you think about contending for a championship, they did have a bad year. But they weren’t miles away, they were a little bit away.

“I know Hendrick [Motorsports] is going to be competitive. They’re the Lakers…They find a way every year. They’re gonna be contenders. And with [Joe] Gibbs [Racing], is this the year that Kyle Busch really contends for a championship? He’s yet to be able to do it. He’s put himself in position, but you’ve got to be able to go to Homestead with the chance to win a championship. Matt [Kenseth] came in there last year and kind of took over and said, ‘I’m the lead driver.’ And Denny Hamlin, he had just a crazy year. How’s he gonna be?

“There are so many story lines this year. I think Joe Gibbs Racing, with Matt coming in there…I think that lit a fire under Kyle a little bit. And I think the trouble that Denny had last year – I think now, his perspective is probably healthier. Not being successful and not doing what you think is normal has a way of waking you up and I think that was an eye-opener for Denny and that team, and I really think they’re gonna come out strong.

“I look around and I really think [JGR] is in really good shape.

“The Childress team is a really interesting dynamic. You’ve got Austin [Dillon] coming up that doesn’t quite have the experience, and to be quite honest, hasn’t run well in a Cup car yet. In the races that he’s run, he hasn’t been really competitive. Can they find a way to be competitive? I believe the 31 [with driver Ryan Newman] will be the strongest team at Childress this year, I really do. Obviously, I know more about that then most people do (laughs), but I feel like with what’s gone on there the last couple of years, the 31 team’s in really good shape.”

“So, there’s a lot of story lines and if you ask me who’s gonna be the best team, how can you not say Hendrick? You ask me who the team is that can knock them off the pedestal? Standing here right now, I have to say it’s Joe Gibbs Racing.”

And we haven’t even talked about Stewart-Haas Racing yet…

“I think that expansion is going to be a little harder than they want it to be. You’ve got a lot of new people, Tony coming off his injury, and can Danica find a way to be competitive? There’s a lot of things going on, and starting a new team is not an easy proposition. Taking your whole company that’s been accustomed to running as three teams and now making it run four teams – those things are hard. It’s not as easy as you think. The question is how quickly can they adjust to that.

“But Kevin going there is going to be a plus. Minute-to-minute, that’s gonna put the pressure on the company to succeed. Because Kevin – and by the way, Kurt too – that’s their personality. Those two [newcomers] will push that company. Can the company accept it? Is the company ready to have three guys – Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch – are they ready to have three people jumping up and down, demanding that they make changes and demanding that they be better? That’s going to be an interesting dynamic.”

Felix Rosenqvist confirms end of Indy Lights program

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CASTLE DONINGTON, UK – Felix Rosenqvist has confirmed that his Indy Lights program has ended following his move into Formula E with Mahindra Racing.

Rosenqvist moved into Indy Lights for 2016 after winning the FIA European Formula 3 title last year, joining Belardi Racing.

The Swede won his second Indy Lights race at St. Petersburg but was forced to miss a handful of rounds due to commitments elsewhere in GT racing and DTM.

Rosenqvist won both races of the Toronto weekend, which proved to be his last in Indy Lights. A move up into a race-seat in DTM with Mercedes was announced earlier this month after Esteban Ocon claimed a Formula 1 driver with Manor, but it was his Formula E deal with Mahindra – confirmed on Monday – that prompted him to call time on his Indy Lights involvement.

“I think it was more when the Formula E got confirmed,” Rosenqvist told NBC Sports.

“The clash I have next week with Nürburgring and Watkins Glen would be there anyway as I’m Mercedes’ reserve driver in DTM, so that didn’t really change anything.

“But the fact that the next Donington test is interfering with Laguna Seca made it for sure that I cannot compete unfortunately. That’s a shame but that’s how it is.

“The deal we had with Belardi for this year was they were aware I had some clashes and there might be more clashes. It’s fine from both sides and it was expected.

“It’s a shame we couldn’t do more than we did.”

Rosenqvist remains keen to return to America in the future, having enjoyed an IndyCar test with Chip Ganassi Racing at Mid-Ohio last month.

“I think IndyCar is for sure really high on my list of things I want to do,” Rosenqvist said.

“Obviously I tried the car this year, had a really good test for Ganassi there. It’s something I would like to continue, next year or not, doesn’t really matter for me.

“But I would really like to try that one more time.”

Rosenqvist believes he could have been in contention for the Indy Lights title had he not been forced to miss a number of races, but says failing to do so may make it difficult for others to judge his ability.

“I mean I didn’t do the whole championship. I think it’s hard to rate people if they don’t do the whole championship because maybe you have less pressure,” Rosenqvist said.

“For sure I won three races, so that was definitely good. I would like to be there and fight for the title. I’m sure I could have done it.

“I think it’s up to people to judge their impression from the time I was there. I definitely enjoyed it and I would like to go back to America at one point.”

Here are your Firestone 600 at Texas (take 2) times on NBCSN

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The Verizon IndyCar Series takes what would have been an off week and now has not only an extra trip, but a short week, to head to Texas Motor Speedway for the resumption of the rain-postponed Firestone 600 from June.

Following the rain-delayed Pocono Raceway race, the remaining 177 laps at Texas take place on Saturday night.

Here’s the details for NBCSN’s coverage this weekend:

INDYCAR FIRESTONE 600 – SATURDAY AT 9:30 P.M. ET ON NBCSN

NBC Sports Group continues its exclusive cable coverage of the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series this Saturday at 9:30 p.m. ET with live coverage of the Firestone 600 from Texas Motor Speedway. This race was rescheduled after torrential rain halted the race on Sunday, June 12, after just 71 of a scheduled 248 laps were completed. Saturday night’s race will resume on Lap 72, with James Hinchcliffe (Schmidt Peterson Motorsports), who held the lead at the time the race was halted, at the front of the pack.

Will Power (Penske) won the ABC Supply 500 at Pocono on Monday to move within 20 points of teammate Simon Pagenaud who continues to lead the championship standings. Power has finished in first or second place for the last six consecutive races, which includes four victories.

Coverage begins on NBCSN on Saturday night at 9 p.m. ET with pre-race coverage, followed by green flag action at 9:30 p.m. ET.

Kevin Lee (play-by-play) will call the action alongside analysts and drivers Paul Tracy and Townsend Bell. Reporters Jon Beekhuis, Katie Hargitt and Robin Miller will report from the pits.

Date Coverage Time (ET) Network
Sat., Aug. 27 IndyCar Pre-Race Show 9 p.m. NBCSN
IndyCar Firestone 600 9:30 p.m. NBCSN
IndyCar Post-Race Show 10:30 p.m. NBCSN

Here are your Belgian Grand Prix times on NBCSN, NBC Sports App

SPA, BELGIUM - AUGUST 23:  Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP drives during the Formula One Grand Prix of Belgium at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps on August 23, 2015 in Spa, Belgium.  (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)
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After the summer break, Formula One is back in action this weekend with the Belgian Grand Prix. Live free practice two and the race occur on NBCSN while live qualifying will occur via live streaming on the NBC Sports app (link here); it will air Saturday at 1 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

Full details and times for the weekend are below:

FORMULA ONE BELGIAN GRAND PRIX – SUNDAY AT 7:30 A.M. ET ON NBCSN

NBC Sports Group continues its coverage of the 2016 Formula One Championship this Sunday with the Belgian Grand Prix, as Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton aims for his fifth consecutive win and seventh victory in eight races. Hamilton now leads the drivers’ standings (217 points) by 19 points over teammate and rival Nico Rosberg (198 points) as he races towards a fourth career F1 season championship. Hamilton won last year’s race at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps, the second Belgian GP win of his career (2010).

Live coverage begins exclusively on NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app on Friday morning at 4 a.m. ET with Practice 1, followed by NBCSN’s live coverage of Practice 2 at 8 a.m. ET. Streaming coverage on NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app continues Saturday at 5 a.m. ET with Practice 3 and live qualifying at 8 a.m. ET. NBCSN will air delayed coverage of qualifying on Saturday at 1 p.m. ET.

Live Belgian Grand Prix coverage begins Sunday morning at 7 a.m. ET on NBCSN with F1 Countdown, and is followed by F1 Extra at 10 a.m. ET.

Lead F1 announcer Leigh Diffey will call this weekend’s action, and will be joined by veteran analyst and former racecar driver David Hobbs, and analyst and former race mechanic for the Benetton F1 team Steve Matchett. F1 insider Will Buxton will serve as the team’s on-site reporter in Belgium.

Times are below:

Date Coverage Time (ET) Network
Fri., Aug. 26 F1 Belgian Grand Prix – Practice 1 4 a.m. Streaming
F1 Belgian Grand Prix – Practice 2 8 a.m. NBCSN
Sat., Aug. 27 F1 Belgian Grand Prix – Practice 3 5 a.m. Streaming
F1 Belgian Grand Prix – Qualifying 8 a.m. Streaming
F1 Belgian Grand Prix – Qualifying* 1 p.m. NBCSN
Sun., Aug. 28 GP2 Belgium 6 a.m. NBCSN
F1 Countdown 7 a.m. NBCSN
F1 Belgian Grand Prix 7:30 a.m. NBCSN
F1 Extra 10 a.m. NBCSN

Clauson’s “Chasing 200 Tour” now in a race to register 200 new donors

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MAY 20:  Bryan Clauson driver of the #39 Sarah Fisher Hartman/ Curb Agajanian car waits to take to the track for the Indinapolis 500 qualifying at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 20, 2012 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
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Wednesday will be the day that the late Bryan Clauson’s life will be celebrated at Kokomo Speedway in Kokomo, Ind., the Noblesville, Ind. driver’s adopted home track.

Late Tuesday night, the Clauson family announced that Bryan’s pursuit of competing in 200 races this year – “The Chasing 200 Tour: Circular Insanity,” will continue on.

Clauson, who was revealed as a registered organ and tissue donor after his passing (an important element of what made him such a special person), helped to save five lives and heal dozens more.

But now, that race will continue, with the goal of registering 200 organ and tissue donors in Bryan’s memory, announced tonight.

“This has been such a bittersweet moment for our family,” said Tim Clauson, father of Bryan Clauson.

“We miss our son terribly. However, what has kept us going is the outpouring of support from the community and Bryan’s decision to be an organ donor. We have always been proud of him for the generous person he was. Being a donor saves lives and gives us hope to see Bryan continue to live on in the lives he has helped.”

Here’s the full release, via the Clauson website.

Countless BC Forever tributes took place this past weekend at both Bristol Motor Speedway in NASCAR and Pocono Raceway in IndyCar. Ricky Stenhouse Jr., one of Clauson’s closest friends, finished second in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race on Sunday. His emotional interview is below.