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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.”

Red Bull GRC: Eriksson, Wiman keen to secure Honda’s first final win

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Red Bull Global Rallycross resumes this weekend at Bader Field in Atlantic City, N.J. (Sunday, 3 p.m., NBC) with the longest course this season (1.102 miles), and one which could play into the hands of Honda Red Bull Olsbergs MSE drivers Sebastian Eriksson and Joni Wiman.

Eriksson was the top rookie in last year’s season and finished second in points; Wiman captured the 2014 series championship. But it’s been a learning year for both drivers and the Andreas Eriksson-led team this year with a brand new car.

With a longer course that features faster corners, Eriksson rates the new Honda Civic Coupe’s chances of getting its first final round win (they’ve won heats before) a bit higher.

“It should be a fast track. I like that,” Sebastian Eriksson told NBC Sports. “The engine has good power and we’ve had good starts and launches all season. Since it is a fast track, that will suit our car better. It’s a bit longer. Smaller cars do better at hairpins. But at a fast track, our car is best.”

Wiman added,  “Just looking at the track map, I can tell we are really going have a blast in the Civic this weekend. It looks long and fast and I think that bodes well for us. Sebastian [Eriksson] and I are eager to be on the top step of the podium and represent Honda, Red Bull and the entire Olsbergs MSE team.”

Eriksson expanded on how much the team has grown with Honda this year throughout this development campaign.

“The season is shorter this season than before; it started later and finishes earlier,” he said. “So for us with a brand new car, we tried to develop between races. We try to find as much as possible.

“You need to remember, the car was brand new! We started with the build very late – it was a January build for three cars. There was not a ton of testing. But we have gotten better and better. The last race was really good. We found some improvements before this time off. We hope to be competitive, and fighting for the wins.”

Eriksson also hailed BFGoodrich, which has taken over as Red Bull Global Rallycross’ tire manufacturer this year.

“The BFGs are much better. Grip-wise, it is about the same. But the Yokohamas only had one lap before falling off. Now here, it’s faster on all the laps. That makes the racing more fair. Everyone competes at the same level at the time.”

In his second year in Supercars, Eriksson’s learned a lot. He admitted he made a lot of mistakes last year and while driving better this year, hasn’t had the luck he had in his first go-around.

“I think I’ve grown a lot. I made a lot of mistakes last year. I should have been able to score more points even than I did,” he said.

“We’ve had a lot of struggles this year with the car… too many DNFs in the finals, with three of them. And you lose a lot of points. All the points are in the final. In this series, you need a solid finish every race and we haven’t had that.

“Daytona was the best result-wise as you said (two third places), but in New River, we really had the pace and we had the semifinal win. Should have started from first row in the final because they canceled it because of the rain. I was positive we had the pace.

“In Washington, both Joni and second in semis. But I had the puncture. It has been a lot of bad luck. We have more speed than we have shown.”

Eriksson said growing with Honda has given him a much greater insight into their love and passion for racing. He had a chance to explore Honda Performance Development headquarters in California earlier this month.

“The thing that Honda that is so cool is it might be the only brand in the world that builds their brand and cars around racing,” he said.

“It feels almost like racing is in the first place and building cars is the second. They have a lot of tradition on both two and four wheels. IndyCar, Formula 1 and Motocross, and road racing. And now here in Red Bull GRC.

“It’s clear racing is big in the Honda family.”

Vergne fastest for Techeetah on second Formula E test day

FIA Formula E Championship 2015/16.
Beijing ePrix, Beijing, China.
Race.
Jean-Eric Vergne (FRA), DS Virgin Racing DSV-01  
Beijing, China, Asia.
Saturday 24 October 2015
Photo: Adam Warner / LAT / FE
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Jean-Eric Vergne made the most of his first public test for the new Techeetah Formula E team by topping the timesheets at Donington Park on Wednesday.

Vergne left DS Virgin Racing at the end of season two to join Techeetah, which took over from Team Aguri after a buy-out by a Chinese investment firm.

Vergne got his first run in the Renault-powered Techeetah car on Tuesday, finishing the morning session fastest with a new Formula E lap record at Donington Park.

The Frenchman’s time of 1:29.634 saw him finish 0.085 seconds clear of recent Indy Lights driver Felix Rosenqvist at the front of the pack, with season two champion Sebastien Buemi following in third place for Renault e.dams.

Daniel Abt led the afternoon session for ABT Schaeffler Audi Sport, but a flurry of late red flags meant that few drivers were able to get in a late flying lap, leaving Vergne’s morning time as the overall benchmark. Abt’s time was good enough for P4 in the final standings on Tuesday.

Sam Bird finished fourth for DS Virgin Racing ahead of Nick Heidfeld and Nico Prost, with Loic Duval following in P6 for Dragon Racing.

Jaguar Racing continued its first public testing programme with Adam Carroll once again behind the wheel, sharing duties with Mitch Evans, who is being evaluated for the second seat. Evans turned in a fastest lap of 1:31.267, edging out Carroll by one-tenth of a second.

Evans was joined in the Jaguar garage by ex-Formula 1 driver and defending WEC champion Mark Webber, who mentors the young New Zealander. Ford WEC driver Harry Tincknell will take over the reins of the second Jaguar on Thursday when the first test concludes.

Updated Firestone 600 schedule, starting grid, Lap 71 running order

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This weekend’s trip for the Verizon IndyCar Series back to Texas Motor Speedway features a bit of an oddity, as it’s a return to finish the remaining 177 laps left unfinished when the series raced in June.

Here’s a quick rundown of where we are as a result of that rain delay (initial PREVIEW and What to Watch For linked here as well).

QUALIFYING

Carlos Munoz scored his first career pole position in the No. 26 Andretti Autosport Honda. Here was the full report on that from my colleague Daniel McFadin in Texas.

Here was the starting grid, below:

FORT WORTH, Texas – Qualifying Friday for the Firestone 600 Verizon IndyCar Series event on the 1.455-mile Texas Motor Speedway oval, with qualifying position, car number in parentheses, driver, aero kit-engine, and speed:

1. (26) Carlos Munoz, Honda, 217.137
2. (9) Scott Dixon, Chevrolet, 216.901
3. (3) Helio Castroneves, Chevrolet, 216.740
4. (14) Takuma Sato, Honda, 216.740
5. (21) Josef Newgarden, Chevrolet, 216.684
6. (22) Simon Pagenaud, Chevrolet, 216.663
7. (12) Will Power, Chevrolet, 216.647
8. (10) Tony Kanaan, Chevrolet, 216.295
9. (98) Alexander Rossi, Honda, 216.262
10. (5) James Hinchcliffe, Honda, 216.262
11. (28) Ryan Hunter-Reay, Honda, 216.260
12. (27) Marco Andretti, Honda, 216.162
13. (15) Graham Rahal, Honda, 215.927
14. (20) Ed Carpenter, Chevrolet, 215.751
15. (83) Charlie Kimball, Chevrolet, 215.533
16. (7) Mikhail Aleshin, Honda, 215.299
17. (2) Juan Pablo Montoya, Chevrolet, 215.279
18. (11) Sebastien Bourdais, Chevrolet, 215.030
19. (8) Max Chilton, Chevrolet, 214.864
20. (41) Jack Hawksworth, Honda, 214.568
21. (18) Conor Daly, Honda, 213.826
22. (19) Gabby Chaves, Honda, no speed

RACE

The first stint of the race was pretty much status quo, save for Alexander Rossi’s rear tires falling off and the Indianapolis 500 champion doing a great job of saving his car.

Then Lap 42 happened and that nasty accident between Conor Daly and Josef Newgarden, which left Newgarden with a fractured right clavicle and a small fracture on his right hand.

That led to a long caution and then when the skies opened on Lap 71, 53 laps short of the Lap 124 halfway mark (600 kilometers is a 248-lap race), the race was red flagged and we were left with the scenario we are in now. The race was rescheduled to Saturday, August 27, and it’s where the IndyCar circus is needing to travel back to Texas again.

Here’s the running order on Lap 71:

1. (5) James Hinchcliffe, Honda
2. (28) Ryan Hunter-Reay, Honda
3. (7) Mikhail Aleshin, Honda
4. (12) Will Power, Chevrolet
5. (20) Ed Carpenter, Chevrolet
6. (19) Gabby Chaves, Honda
7. (3) Helio Castroneves, Chevrolet
8. (83) Charlie Kimball, Chevrolet
9. (26) Carlos Munoz, Honda
10. (2) Juan Pablo Montoya, Chevrolet
11. (11) Sebastien Bourdais, Chevrolet
12. (15) Graham Rahal, Honda
13. (98) Alexander Rossi, Honda
14. (9) Scott Dixon, Chevrolet
15. (22) Simon Pagenaud, Chevrolet
16. (10) Tony Kanaan, Chevrolet
17. (14) Takuma Sato, Honda, 1 LAP
18. (27) Marco Andretti, Honda, 1 LAP
19. (8) Max Chilton, Chevrolet, 1 LAP
20. (41) Jack Hawksworth, Honda 2 LAPS
21. (18) Conor Daly, Honda 29 LAPS
22. (21) Josef Newgarden Chevy 30 LAPS

COMPLETION PLAN

INDYCAR sent out this release on the Friday of Road America weekend, June 24, explaining the process to finish the Texas race:

INDYCAR has announced its plan for resuming the Firestone 600 at Texas Motor Speedway that was suspended June 12 after completing 71 of its scheduled 248 laps. The Verizon IndyCar Series race will be completed Aug. 27.

The No. 18 Dale Coyne Racing Honda driven by Conor Daly and No. 21 Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet driven by Josef Newgarden will not be permitted to participate in the continuation due to the extensive chassis and engine damage each sustained in a crash on Lap 42. James Hinchcliffe of Schmidt Peterson Motorsports is the race leader after 71 laps.

Cars continuing in the race will be permitted to use the chassis and engine of their choice for the completion day. Tire allotment and fuel quantity for the completion are yet to be determined. Pre-race aero setups from the June event will be mandatory for the August completion, though INDYCAR may make changes prior to the completion based on the weather forecast for race weekend.

The remaining 177 race laps will be run at the conclusion of the Aug. 27 schedule that includes:

  • A mandatory systems check (an out/in lap only);
  • A 25-minute practice session: Cars will be split into two groups, each group receiving 10 minutes of practice time with a five-minute break in between;
  • A driver autograph session on the track’s concourse;
  • Completion of the race in the evening.

Texas Motor Speedway will be announcing its plans for ticketing, credentialing, camping and various other fan-related and facility-based items in the coming weeks.

UPDATED SCHEDULE

Here’s what you can expect for the IndyCar day at Texas, which will honor police officers as well.

All times are CT, one hour behind ET.

10:00 Garages Open
4:30-4:35 Mandatory Installation Lap
4:35-4:45 Practice, Group 1
4:50-5:00 Practice, Group 2
5:30-6:15 Autograph Session, TMS Concourse
7:10 Push Out
7:25 Grid IndyCars in Restart Order
8:00 NBCSN TV Window Begins
8:15 Estimated Drivers Start Your Engines

Lewis Hamilton “refreshed” after summer break, heading to Spa

HOCKENHEIM, GERMANY - JULY 31: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP celebrates his win in parc ferme during the Formula One Grand Prix of Germany at Hockenheimring on July 31, 2016 in Hockenheim, Germany.  (Photo by Getty Images/Getty Images)
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Lewis Hamilton heads into this weekend’s Belgian Grand Prix at Spa-Francorchamps both refreshed and recharged following the summer break – albeit a break which interrupted his run of four wins in a row in the month of July.

Hamilton swept into the title lead after successive wins in Austria, Britain, Hungary and Germany, and the four-for-four run of form now sees him 19 points clear of Mercedes AMG Petronas teammate Nico Rosberg heading into Spa this weekend.

As you’d expect, Hamilton went off the grid and spent a lot of time in Barbados and the Americas, but feels ready to resume his title charge this weekend. The Englishman is in search of his fourth World Championship, third in a row.

“It’s crazy how quickly this year is going by. It seems like a few weeks ago we were in Barcelona for winter testing and now we’re through the summer break, heading to Spa,” Hamilton said in the team’s race advance.

“The first half of the season was a bit of a rollercoaster, so it’s great to be in the position I’m in with more than half of the races behind us. There will be more up and downs to come, I’m sure. But the way myself and the team have performed so far gives me huge confidence.

“I’m feeling refreshed, re-energized and ready to go after a fun few weeks off, so hopefully everyone else has had a good rest too and we’ll come out fighting.”

Hamilton took pole and the win at Spa last year, marking his first Spa victory with Mercedes and second overall (McLaren in 2010).

He also has a chance to match his career-long win streak of five races in a row, achieved from the Italian through U.S. Grands Prix in 2014.

He never won more than three in a row in 2015, but this year has the four straight wins and six of the last seven dating to his surprise win in Monaco.

Additionally, he’s looking to carry the run of form for Brits in the sporting world these days.

“Spa is a great track – one that every driver enjoys. It was great to finally get back on the top step there last year, so fingers crossed I’ll be able to have another strong race this time around,” he said.

“It’s been such a proud few weeks for British sport, with the Olympics and then Cal Crutchlow becoming the first British MotoGP winner in more than 30 years. I’ll do my best to keep the flag flying this weekend. A big shout-out to the British fans heading out to this one. I’m sure they’ll be out in force as always!”