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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.”

Tire woes leave Haas down the grid in Russia

SOCHI, RUSSIA - APRIL 30: Romain Grosjean of France driving the (8) Haas F1 Team Haas-Ferrari VF-16 Ferrari 059/5 turbo comes back onto the track during qualifying for the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on April 30, 2016 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)
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Tire woes throughout practice and qualifying for the Russian Grand Prix left Haas Formula 1 drivers Romain Grosjean and Esteban Gutierrez down the grid ahead of Sunday’s race in Sochi.

NASCAR team co-owner Gene Haas saw his eponymous F1 operation come back down to earth in China two weeks ago when its run of points finishes since debut came to an end.

Grosjean and Gutierrez arrived in Russia hopeful of getting back into the top 10, but both struggled to get temperature into their tires throughout qualifying.

Low temperatures and a green track surface hit all of the teams hard in Sochi, yet Haas seemed more affected than others as Grosjean and Gutierrez qualified 15th and 16th respectively.

“It’s been a complicated weekend so far for us,” Grosjean said. “We’ve been struggling with the grip and the car. It’s difficult to get the tire to work on such a smooth asphalt. We’re progressing, we’re learning and doing the most we can do.

“I still don’t have the feeling I used to have earlier in the season with the car. We really need to analyze that. Then tomorrow’s going to be a long race with a lot of fuel saving. The tires are hard to keep in the window, so it’s going to be challenging for everyone.

“Maybe we can try to be a bit more clever. Let’s do our best, let’s analyse and let’s keep having some interesting data. We’ll see where we are after the race.”

Gutierrez enters Sunday’s race still chasing his first F1 points since the 2013 Japanese Grand Prix, and admitted that Haas needs a few surprises to be in with a chance of reaching the top 10.

“Qualifying was pretty hard. It was difficult to get the tires to work here so it’s been a bit of a challenge,” Gutierrez said.

“I was doing my best, with all the options we have available, to maximize everything but I’m not really satisfied with the result.

“However, we still have a race to do tomorrow. Hopefully a few surprises may come our way that will give us a chance to be up in the points.

“It’s probably not going to be very straightforward, as the pace is not as good as we want it to be, but we will definitely push hard and do our best to get there.”

The Russian Grand Prix is live on CNBC and Live Extra from 7am ET on Sunday.

Lowe: Mercedes let Hamilton down

SOCHI, RUSSIA - APRIL 30: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP in the garage during final practice ahead of the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on April 30, 2016 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)
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Mercedes Formula 1 technical chief Paddy Lowe says that the team let Lewis Hamilton down after he suffered a power unit failure for the second race weekend in a row during qualifying for the Russian Grand Prix on Saturday.

Hamilton was forced to start last in China two weeks ago after an issue on his power unit prevented him from posting a time during qualifying.

Although he did take part in both Q1 and Q2 on Saturday in Russia, a repeat of the issue on the same power unit meant that Hamilton could not run in Q3.

As a result, Hamilton will start 10th on the grid for the start in Sochi – and only if Mercedes makes no changes to his car.

While teammate and championship leader Nico Rosberg was able to sweep to pole position, Hamilton was left to prepare for yet another fightback drive on Sunday.

“Our day has been tainted by a failure which deprived Lewis of a shot at pole – and deprived the fans of what would surely have been a thrilling climax to an immensely close battle between our two drivers,” Lowe said after the session.

“We’ve let Lewis down for the second weekend in a row, so our apologies go to him once again. It’s a cruel twist of fate that, out of eight Mercedes-Benz Power Units on the grid, the problem should befall the same driver twice.

“We’ve been working very hard over the past couple of weeks to understand what happened in China – but unfortunately there is clearly still more work to be done.

“Our focus for the immediate future, however, is on making sure Lewis’ car is in the best possible condition for tomorrow’s race to give him the best chance of making the kind of strong recovery we’ve seen him pull off so many times in the past.”

The Russian Grand Prix is live on CNBC from 7am ET on Sunday.

Hamilton reprimanded for Russia qualifying misdemeanor

SOCHI, RUSSIA - APRIL 29: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP in the Paddock during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on April 29, 2016 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Lewis Hamilton has been given a reprimand by the FIA stewards for failing to follow the race director’s instructions during qualifying for the Russian Grand Prix on Saturday.

Ahead of the weekend at the Sochi Autodrom, FIA race director Charlie Whiting had a white bollard placed in the run-off area at Turn 2 to guide drivers where to go if they ran wide at the corner.

The idea was used successfully in Canada last year, and forces drivers to pass through the ‘penalty zone’ that ensures they do not gain an advantage by running wide.

During Q1, Hamilton ran wide at Turn 2 but failed to pass to the left of the bollard. Although he did not gain an advantage or improve his lap time, the stewards still opted to look into his misdemeanor after qualifying.

Late on Saturday, they confirmed that Hamilton had been handed a reprimand for the incident, marking his second of the season. If he racks up one more, he will receive a 10-place grid penalty.

Hamilton ultimately finished 10th in qualifying after an issue on his power unit prevented him from taking part in Q3.

“It’s obviously not a great feeling to be on the sidelines again – but that’s life,” Hamilton said. “I knew there was a problem and that it was probably the same failure that I had in China pretty much straight away. I went out for a second run in Q2 to get a feeler lap and felt the same power loss as last time.

“When it happened in Shanghai it was something we hadn’t seen before and now unfortunately it’s happened again, so we need to understand it. I’ve never been superstitious about these things, though, and I never will be. There’s nothing I can do about it, so I’ll move on and look ahead to the race.”

Hamilton said that Mercedes was yet to decide whether or not it would make any changes to his power unit overnight that may result in him receiving another penalty.

“I don’t know where I’m going to start yet – we’ll wait to see how that unfolds,” Hamilton said.

“But I never give up and I’ll give it all I’ve got to recover whatever I can in the race, like always. It’s not an easy track for overtaking. With the levels of tire degradation and it being so tough to follow here, it’s not going to be easy to make my way forward.

“But there are long straights and we’ve got good pace, so if I can keep the car in one piece I’ll be fighting for decent points I’m sure.”

The Russian Grand Prix is live on CNBC and Live Extra from 7am ET on Sunday.

Raikkonen: P4 in Russian GP qualifying ‘better than nothing’

SOCHI, RUSSIA - APRIL 29: Kimi Raikkonen of Finland driving the (7) Scuderia Ferrari SF16-H Ferrari 059/5 turbo (Shell GP) on track during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on April 29, 2016 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Kimi Raikkonen says that qualifying fourth for the Russian Grand Prix is “better than nothing” after struggling to get to grips with his Ferrari SF16-H car at the Sochi Autodrom.

Raikkonen finished fourth in Saturday’s Q3 session, and will move up to third place on the grid for tomorrow’s race thanks to Ferrari teammate Sebastian Vettel’s grid penalty.

Despite being in a position to lead the Italian marque’s charge against Mercedes and make the most of Lewis Hamilton’s grid penalty, Raikkonen was far from jubilant after qualifying.

The Finn had been set to take third in Q3, only to make a mistake on his final qualifying lap that meant he was unable to improve his time, leaving him P4 at the checkered flag.

“The whole weekend has been tricky: for whatever reason, I struggled all the time to put one decent lap together,” Raikkonen said.

“In qualifying it was a bit better, but I was still fighting with the front end in a few places. It could have been good enough for a second or a third place on the grid, but on my last lap I completely missed the last corner and slid away.

“Obviously I’m a disappointed with what happened, but considering how difficult it has been, this result it’s not ideal but it’s better than nothing.

“At least we are in third place at the start, we’ll see what happens tomorrow, I think in the race it’s going to be better.”

The Russian Grand Prix is live on CNBC and Live Extra from 7am ET on Sunday.