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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.”

Rosberg, Hamilton maintain similar approaches heading to Mexico

during the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 23, 2016 in Austin, United States.
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The official pre-race quotes from Mercedes AMG Petronas offers more of the same from Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton in terms of their mentality and psychological status heading to this weekend’s Mexican Grand Prix.

Hamilton scored a key victory on Sunday in the United States Grand Prix to keep his title hopes alive, but with Rosberg capitalizing on his team’s smart strategic play to get him a de facto “free stop” under a Virtual Safety Car period, he came second and so Hamilton only gained seven additional points.

Rosberg’s metronomic, one-race-at-a-time mentality has served him well all season and up 26 points heading to a race he won last year, he’s sticking to that focus this weekend.

“I came into Sunday with a good chance of winning but it didn’t work out,” Rosberg reflected in Mercedes’ pre-race advance. “That’s the way it is, so I accept that and now it’s on to the next one in Mexico.

“My goal is to try and win there just as it has been in every race. Of course, to be in a championship battle at the end of the year is awesome and I’m excited about that.

“But my approach is to keep it simple. There are so many things that can happen during a race weekend which are out of your control, so it’s best to just block all that out and focus on the job at hand. That’s what’s worked best for me and how I feel at my strongest.”

Hamilton, as you might also expect, is in a nothing-to-lose mode and looks to add Mexico to the list of countries and the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez the list of circuits where he won. A win this weekend would be his 51st, and tie him with Alain Prost for second all-time.

“It was great to finally get that 50th win after a couple of tough weekends,” he said. “I’ve just continued to keep a positive frame of mind, avoid dwelling on the past, work and train hard and I knew eventually the result would come.

“The moment you give up is the moment you lose. I’ve never been one to give up and I don’t plan on starting now. There are still plenty of points available and anything is possible.

“Next up it’s Mexico, which was a great experience last time out. It’s crazy how slippery the circuit is with the altitude giving you so little downforce from the car. It’s a big challenge, so even though last year’s race was a bit frustrating for me, I actually had a lot of fun out there. I’m looking forward to giving it another go and hopefully going one better this time.”

Same championship lineup back for Action Express in 2017

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As expected, the same quartet of IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship 2016 Prototype champions Dane Cameron and Eric Curran, and the previous two-time champs Christian Fittipaldi and Joao Barbosa, will be back with Action Express Racing in 2017.

Cameron and Curran (No. 31) and Fittipaldi and Barbosa (No. 5) will be in the same car numbers as they’ve been in the past couple years.

As General Motors has not publicly announced or confirmed its Daytona Prototype international program for 2017, the formal reveal of its car – expected to be a Cadillac-branded DPi entry – will come at a later date.

The Corvette DP program ended in 2016 as IMSA phased out the Daytona Prototype platform finishing with this year’s Petit Le Mans.

Cameron and Curran will be together for the third straight season, with Fittipaldi and Barbosa continuing on for a fourth straight season since the GRAND-AM/American Le Mans Series merger fusion into IMSA prior to 2014.

“It’s been a great experience working with everyone at Action Express Racing over the past two years and it’s exciting to be able keep some continuity with the same drivers and teammates,” said Cameron, who’s one of the proper stars of sports car racing.

“I think the relationship between the four drivers has been great over the past two years, and things really started to come together well over the past six months.”

Barbosa, the team’s longest-serving driver having been with Action Express Racing since the team’s winning debut in the 2010 Rolex 24 at Daytona, added, “I’ve been with Action Express Racing since the team started in 2010 – which is a long time. We have grown together as a team and all our years of working together have definitely paid off as we have had some great success as a race team. It’s very exciting to continue with the race team and I’m looking forward to another season together.”

Q&A: New Porsche Supercup champion Sven Mueller

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On Sunday, Sven Mueller secured the 2016 Porsche Mobil 1 Supercup at Circuit of The Americas, thus becoming the third driver who’s clinched the title at the Supercup season finale in Austin since the track first hosted the series in 2014 (Earl Bamber won in 2014, Phillip Eng last year).

Mueller, in his third year in the Porsche Junior program, claimed a double title this year with both the Supercup and Porsche Carrera Cup Deutschland championships.

He entered the weekend only two points ahead of fellow Junior driver Matteo Cairoli (135-133), but a second-place finish coupled with a DNF for Cairoli following Saturday’s first race left him needing only to score one additional point to win the title on Sunday. He finished in eighth place on the road, and that was enough for the Lechner MSG Racing Team driver to do it.

Mueller won three races and scored eight podium finishes in 10 races, to beat Cairoli 162-151 in points despite Cairoli winning four races. The third Porsche Junior competing in Supercup, Mathieu Jaminet, used a weekend sweep of the two races at COTA to finish third in the standings with 146 points, and having scored three wins.

We caught up with Mueller, who’s also raced in the U.S. in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship on a couple of occasions this year in a GT Daytona class Porsche 911 GT3 R (Frikadelli Racing in the Rolex 24 at Daytona, Alex Job Racing at Road America), prior to Sunday’s race where he ultimately clinched the title.

For the 24-year-old who lives near Frankfurt, the Supercup title could well be a springboard to bigger things (more here from Porsche Newsroom):

MotorSportsTalk: This is your third year. What have you learned this year that has allowed you to take that next step as a driver compared to previous seasons?

Sven Mueller: “I feel my evolution as a driver is huge. In my first year in a Porsche, I also had quite good speed, but to finish the race was not always the goal. The speed was there, but the consistency and all this stuff, I learned from year-to-year. And especially in my third year, the important things that were around the track and racing, yeah, I also improved a lot. This year, my goal is the championship. Last week, I had already won championship in Porsche Carrera Cup and I was working three years to get this, and hopefully I can get my second championship today.”

MST: How has the competition level been this year with some of the new drivers?

SM: “Every year, you have new drivers. I think because now I’m at a really good level and I see that Matteo and Mathieu they are also really good. For me, this year is the hardest season I’ve ever had. I won only three times, Matteo won four times, Mathieu twice (before this weekend). We’re always on the podium and in qualifying, we’re always within a thousandth of a second. This shows how close the championship is.”

Mueller at Spa. Photo: Porsche AG
Mueller at Spa. Photo: Porsche AG

MST: How nice is it knowing driver talent makes so much of a different in this championship?

SM: “It does. This is a one-make Cup, it’s the same type of car, but also the teams they put quite a lot of effort to build up the car set-up wise that is the quickest for quali-simulation and also for quali-runs (qualifying runs). To have a really good car, it’s easier for a driver to handle this. To have a good car and a good driver, that’s the whole package. You can’t win with a bad car and good driver. The package always has to be perfect. For example, in qualifying, if you miss one of these parameters – being not 100 percent focused or the set-up is not 100 percent right – you can’t get the pole position. In Super Cup, to get the pole position or to win the race, everything has to be 100 percent.”

MST: What do you like about this track?

SM: “In 2014, I was here, so I had some experience in the dry. But Austin, or COTA, is by far the most difficult track at first for the driver because you have 21 corners and it’s so technical. For example, Turns 2 through 5 are really quick and all the corners are building up to the next corner. So if you start wrong entering the first corner, you’re going to end up in a mess. And the second thing is the car. It’s very difficult. The car and tires cannot rest, so they’re always under pressure. You only have one straight where the tire pressure and temperature can go down a bit, but Austin is really, really difficult. Yesterday, we had 14 laps and it felt really, really long – by far the longest race we’ve had in the season so far.”

MST: You’ve raced here now on multiple occasions. What do you like of the atmosphere of racing in the U.S.?

SM: “I really like racing in America. Daytona, I think, was not the best result I’ve ever had, but the whole week in Daytona, it was crazy and really nice. The racing and all the strategy with the team, it’s complex and difficult and you have to understand it. But with all the different manufacturers, to do proper racing, I really like it. And the fans, you can speak with them; in Europe, it’s a bit different. It’s also nice, but the Americans are really open and they’re not scared about asking questions or doing photos. I really like that.”

McLaren matched best ’16 result at COTA, 40 years to day after Hunt title

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 23: Fernando Alonso of Spain driving the (14) McLaren Honda Formula 1 Team McLaren MP4-31 Honda RA616H Hybrid turbo leads a line of cars including Esteban Gutierrez of Mexico driving the (21) Haas F1 Team Haas-Ferrari VF-16 Ferrari 059/5 turbo on track during the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 23, 2016 in Austin, United States.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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October 23 is a key day in McLaren F1’s history.

Some 40 years ago, on October 23, 1976, James Hunt scored his dramatic first and only World Championship in the scintillating 1976 season in Fuji, as Niki Lauda retired early while Hunt scored just enough points to usurp “the rat” and win the title. The season, of course, served as the inspiration for Ron Howard’s Rush, which was released in 2013.

October 23, 2016 may go down as the day McLaren began to look like McLaren again in terms of results, as it matched its best result of the season with Fernando Alonso finishing fifth, and Jenson Button in ninth in what may have been his last United States Grand Prix in Austin.

Alonso charged from 12th on the grid up to fifth, with late passes on Felipe Massa and Carlos Sainz Jr. being particularly impressive, while Button made a strong start early from 19th to get near the top 10, and then benefited from other retirements to score points.

It’s tough that a 12-point day is considered a high-water mark for McLaren in 2016 terms, but this result in Austin has matched a similar fifth and ninth place for the two drivers in Monaco this year as McLaren’s best points haul of the season.

McLaren sits a clear sixth in the Constructor’s Championship on 74 points for the year. Williams is fifth with 130 while Scuderia Toro Rosso is seventh with 55. By contrast, McLaren only scored 27 points total last year, ending ninth in the Constructor’s Championship.

“It was good and interesting today, I enjoyed it, especially the final part of the race,” Alonso said in the team’s post-race release.

“Carlos [Sainz] was on a different strategy and different tyres to me and Felipe, which allowed us to close the gap.

“Our tires were in better condition than the Toro Rosso’s and we took advantage of that. The last couple of laps were very intense, as we had some extra speed so we tried hard to overtake. It was quite easy to overtake the Toro Rosso as they’re slow on the straights, so you just need to open the DRS. I was following Carlos for 45 laps and he drove very well, very consistently, zero mistakes – so we had a great battle.

“To get past the Williams today you needed to overtake them in different places, like tight, slow-speed corners, and quite forcefully, and it was tough but hopefully enjoyable for the fans.

“Our result today is nice for motivation, so I’m happy with fifth, but we gained a couple of positions because of other people going out, and our pace hasn’t been great all weekend here, so we need to understand the reasons for that.”

Button added the start was key for him to get into a points-scoring position.

“I’m pretty happy to get into the points after a frustrating day yesterday,” he said. “The start was a bit of a crazy mess – there was so much action. Starting 19th makes your race a little bit more difficult but I had a good first couple of laps which I really enjoyed. I made up a lot of places and then fought my way into the top 10, and then I fluffed up my second pit-stop a little bit where I lost a place to Checo [Perez], but I think he would have got past me anyway.”