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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.”

Tony Kanaan had a blast despite finishing 100th Indy 500 in fourth

during the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motorspeedway on May 29, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana.
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He wasn’t in winning contention until late after starting 18th, but after back-to-back DNFs from accidents the last two years, fourth was almost a welcome tonic for Tony Kanaan and the No. 10 NTT Data Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet in Sunday’s 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

“I had a blast,” he said post-race. “I had the time of my life.”

Kanaan was one of the favorites to win, after setting the fastest lap in final practice for the race with a speed of 226.280 mph. It was clear the Ganassi team had made enough strides to his car on race setup to pull it off.

“When you have a good car all day and you’re fighting for the lead you cannot say it wasn’t fun,” Kanaan added.

Kanaan was still running fast at the end of the race, but rookie winner Alexander Rossi’s fuel mileage strategy made the difference in victory.

Among the top five drivers, Kanaan posted the fastest last lap with a speed of 220.294 mph. On fumes, Rossi was running 179.784 mph. Kanaan pitted with eight laps remaining in the race.

“Obviously toward the end there it got a little messy with where we were going to finish. We had to pit; this is racing.”

Hinchcliffe ends Indy 500 seventh, doubts victory was possible

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MAY 29:  James Hinchcliffe of Canada, driver of the #5 ARROW Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Chevrolet, leads a pack of cars during the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motorspeedway on May 29, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)
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James Hinchcliffe felt content with his run to seventh in Sunday’s 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil despite starting from pole and remaining in the lead group of cars for much of the race.

Hinchcliffe spent much of the first stint of the race exchanging the lead back and forth with Ryan Hunter-Reay, but a fuel issue cost him time at the opening round of pit stops in the No. 5 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda.

The Schmidt Peterson Motorsports driver battled his way back into contention for the win, only to suffer a loss in grip in the closing stages as temperatures rose at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

A late splash-and-dash for fuel with four laps to go ended Hinchcliffe’s hopes of a famous victory, just over one year on from his devastating accident, leaving him to settle for P7 at the checkered flag.

“I have to give everybody on the Arrow crew a ton of credit for the effort the entire month,” Hinchcliffe said after the race.

“Coming in third at the GP of Indy, qualifying on the pole and the race here, it was a solid effort.

“We were super strong the first half and definitely had one of the cars to beat. It was really just track temperatures that caught us out there.

“We started losing grip as the temperatures came up late in the afternoon and the last two stints were a real struggle when we tried to make the tires last. Well, more than a stint because we came in for that splash of fuel at the end.

“A couple guys out there took a punt on fuel – congrats to Alex [Rossi, race winner] and great to see Honda back on top.

“Realistically, I think we had a third or fourth place effort today, which is nothing to turn your nose up at.”

Combined with the points for pole position, the ‘500 has seen Hinchcliffe rise from eighth to fifth in the Verizon IndyCar Series drivers’ championship, ranking as the lead Honda driver on 205 points.

Third in Indy 500 a bitter pill to swallow for Newgarden, ECR

during Carb Day ahead of the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motorspeedway on May 27, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana.
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INDIANAPOLIS – This month at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, it was generally accepted that Josef Newgarden and the No. 21 Preferred Freezer Chevrolet for Ed Carpenter Racing was best of the “Bowtie brigade.”

And the 25-year-old American was ready to unleash a full serving of awesome sauce on the field in Sunday’s 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil starting from second on the grid.

But despite running in the top three to five all day and leading 14 total laps – including Laps 179 to 181, 184 to 190 and 192 to 193 – Newgarden was one of most of the field who needed a late-race splash for fuel inside the final 10 laps.

It meant that Newgarden, along with runner-up Carlos Munoz, fell back behind rookie Alexander Rossi once Rossi’s Bryan Herta/Michael Andretti combo pack pulled off a strategic stunner to perfection and ran 36 laps on the final stint.

For Newgarden, third was his best career Indianapolis 500 result in five starts.

Yet in many ways, it was the worst feeling: a crushing disappointment knowing his first best chance to win this most prestigious of races had slipped away.

“Yeah, I mean, it’s really heartbreaking, to be honest,” he said in the post-race press conference. “The reason is because I think we had a car to win. I’m not saying we should have won the race definitely because we had the best car, I just think we had a car that could have won.

“What I wanted was an opportunity to try to race those guys at the end. We didn’t get that. That’s no fault to my guys. I think that’s just how the race fell. Sometimes it doesn’t fall your way. Today was a day it didn’t fall our way.”

Newgarden admitted that he was underwhelmed by the fuel conservation finish that allowed Rossi to pull it off. That being said, he said had he been in Rossi’s shoes, he’d have been OK with the outcome.

“I think if I was in Alex’s position, I’d be the happiest man in the world right now. I wouldn’t care how we won the damn race. We won the damn race. So that’s one part of it,” he acknowledged.

The thing was though, a Newgarden and Munoz shootout likely would have been a better show for the fans rather than the somewhat anticlimactic final lap. And again, that’s with no disrespect to what the No. 98 team achieved.

“Congratulations to Rossi and Honda. It’s a huge achievement to win around here,” he said, graciously, in defeat. “I just wish we had an opportunity to race those guys straight up at the end. I really think we would have had something for them if we could have gone flat out there at the end and tried to beat them straight up.

“Just proud to be here, though. Shoot, just having an opportunity to be here with as good of a car as I did, not many people experience that. Today was something new to me.”

Newgarden described his would-have-been strategy had it come down to a he-and-Munoz shootout.

Sort of.

“To be honest, I was going to wing it at the end,” he explained. “My priority was staying up front, going flat out, trying to get as much speed out of the car at the end of the race as possible. I thought we had to trim this thing to win it. We had a lot of downforce at the beginning. We tried to trim and trim and trim. My sole focus was, Let’s get to the last three, five laps and be up front, then I’ll do whatever I got to do at the end to win the thing.

“That kind of sounds silly. Well, didn’t you have a plan? Weren’t you thinking of a plan the whole race? I was. I was sticking to my priority of ‘Let’s get this car up front, the keep it there for the last five laps’. When we’re up there, we’re going to have a great shot at winning the thing.

“Really, you can’t predict what’s going to happen at the end of the race. I could see how Carlos was, I could see where he was good, where he was bad. I think he had a little bit more straight speed than us, which was going to be difficult to overcome. I was going to wing it on those last three to five laps and kind of feel out what I had to do to try to beat him, if he was the guy I had to actually race at the end.”

For Newgarden though, long regarded as America’s brightest IndyCar hope the last five years and on the heels of his best month ever at the Speedway, this was a particularly bitter pill to swallow.

He’s had some heartaches in his IndyCar career before – Long Beach and Mid-Ohio losses in 2014 come immediately to mind – but nothing like this.

“I don’t think I have a pity card to play. You could probably go through the list of guys that have nearly won this thing or that should have won the thing,” he said.

“This is really the first time I’ve ever felt like I could have won that race and it just didn’t happen. It’s really the first time I’ve ever felt that way.

“So it’s tough. I hope I have more opportunities to try to win it. You kind of feel special when you have a car that you think you can win and you got a shot to win the thing at the end. That’s kind of rare to get that opportunity and be in that spot.

“I’m thankful for that. I can’t be sour about it, like I said. There’s been a lot of guys that have had near misses around this place. It’s going to suck, but…

“The good thing is we race again next weekend. That kind of helps. I don’t have to go on the media tour, which I guess is a positive. I would have loved to do it if I won the race. I can rest a little bit now and go to Detroit and try to kick everyone’s ass again. That’s positive.”

Until he pit for fuel, Carlos Munoz ‘knew’ he had Indy 500 won

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MAY 27:  Carlos Munoz of Columbia, driver of the #26 Andretti Autosport Honda Dallara, practices during Carb Day ahead of the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motorspeedway on May 27, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
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Carlos Munoz was sure of three things throughout Sunday.

The first – the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 was going to be his.

“I knew I had this won,” Munoz told ABC’s Rick DeBruhl after the race.

But the 24-year-old Colombian didn’t make this declaration as the 70th winner of the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing.” The Andretti Herta Autosport driver was lamenting the second runner-up finish of his career in the race.

“My car was flying,” Munoz said of his No. 26 United Fiber & Data Honda that had started fifth and was leading on Lap 195 of the race. “I was so good emotionally, physically, mentally. The car was flying.”

The second?

“I knew I didn’t have enough fuel.”

Munoz was a half-lap short on fuel and on Lap 196 pitted in order to rectify his situation. That move created the 54th and final lead change of the race, allowing rookie Alexander Rossi, and Munoz’ teammate, to assume the lead.

Rossi hadn’t pitted since Lap 164 and he wouldn’t in the last four laps.

When Munoz got back up to pace two laps later, he was in second, 16.68 seconds behind Rossi. A lap later, with the white flag displayed over the first sold-out crowd in the “500’s” history, Munoz had only gained three seconds.

“I was just cruising around flat out, saying ‘I’m not going to lift, this is my race,'” Munoz told ABC, later recalling in his post-race press conference, “‘I’m going to keep it flat. If I crash, I crash. I don’t want second; I want to win.'”

When Rossi entered Turn 3 for the final time, with his No. 98 NAPA Honda running on fumes and hope, Munoz was still a straightaway behind him.

Munoz was within 4.5 seconds of Rossi when he saw the American become the 70th different winner of the Indianapolis 500.

And he was still bemused by the fact it happened.

“I don’t know how my teammate did it without stopping. If I’m honest, I want to know what he did. I will look. I am second, why he’s not stopping? He’s supposed to stop. I have to look and see what he did. I don’t know what he did,” Munoz admitted.

“This is the 500, everything can happen. Now we’re second,” he said

The third thing Munoz was sure of Sunday is that won’t be the case in the future.

“One thing is clear, that I will win the 500 one day.”