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.”

Alonso gets seat fit, visits Borg-Warner Trophy in Indy

Photo: Michael L. Levitt/LAT Photo USA
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Fernando Alonso’s quick first visit to the U.S. before this weekend’s Russian Grand Prix continued Monday with a trip to Indianapolis with his Andretti Autosport team, following the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama in Birmingham, Ala.

After a jam-packed Sunday packed with media commitments and observing from the pits, Alonso went to Andretti’s shop on Zionsville Rd. where he made his seat fit for his upcoming first test on May 3 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

This was the only time this could be worked into his schedule before he heads to Sochi to resume his Formula 1 commitments in his day job, lead driver of the team’s McLaren Honda.

Alonso also met the trophy he hopes to win as part of his quest to capture the Triple Crown, the Borg-Warner Trophy.

Andretti Autosport is the defending champion team at Indianapolis with Alexander Rossi. Rossi follows Ryan Hunter-Reay (2014), Dario Franchitti (2007) and Dan Wheldon (2005) as winners for the team in the ‘500.

“It’s a beautiful trophy that I would be proud to take home if I won the Indianapolis 500. There are so many familiar faces on the trophy from the past and present that represent the greatest race in the world,” Alonso said, via BorgWarner. “Can I please get a full-sized trophy to take home if I win the race? The small ones (Baby Borgs) are nice but a big one would be wonderful!”

As Alonso is a two-time World Champion, he wouldn’t be the first driver to pull off an Indianapolis 500 victory. Others that have done so are listed below:

  • Jim Clark – Formula One World Champion in 1963 and 1965, Indianapolis 500 winner in 1965
  • Graham Hill – Formula One World Champion in 1962 and 1968, Indianapolis 500 winner in 1966
  • Mario Andretti – Formula One World Champion 1978, Indianapolis 500 winner in 1969
  • Emerson Fittipaldi – Formula One World Champion 1972 and 1974, Indianapolis 500 winner in 1989 and 1993
  • Jacques Villeneuve – Formula One World Champion 1997, Indianapolis 500 winner in 1995

NBCSN videos from Alonso’s Sunday at Barber are linked below.

Press Conference

Grid Interview with Townsend Bell

NBCSN Booth

Haas goes for first three-in-a-row scoring streak in Russia

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After back-to-back eighth place finishes from Kevin Magnussen at China and Romain Grosjean last time out in Bahrain, Haas F1 Team has its second chance to score points three races in a row for the first time in its F1 career – and arguably a more realistic chance at this weekend’s Russian Grand Prix (Sunday, 8 a.m. ET, NBCSN).

Grosjean’s shock sixth and fifth place finishes to open his 2016 account in Australia and Bahrain were unexpected but the team hit a bump in the road in China. Russia, however, saw the Frenchman return to the points with an eighth place, and bring his season tally to 28 points to conclude the remarkable start of results in flyaway races.

Now, with a car that could theoretically be considered the fourth best in the field behind Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull, hopes are high for either Grosjean or Magnussen to extend the team’s scoring streak to what would be the longest yet in its short history.

The team did well to note the Olympic tie in at the Sochi circuit, linking “Super G” and how fast the new 2017 Formula 1 cars are.

From the release: “The first time we saw Super-G in Sochi was in 2014 when the Russian city hosted the XXII Olympic Winter Games. Norway’s Kjetil Jansrud beat American Andrew Weibrecht by .3 of a second on the 2.096-kilometer (1.302-mile) course with a 622-meter (2,041-foot) vertical drop to nab gold in the alpine slalom event.

“Three years later, a Super-G of a different sort returns to Sochi, but instead of taking place on the white slopes of the Rosa Khutor Alpine Resort, it will happen on the black asphalt of the Sochi Autodrom as the fastest cars in Formula One history rocket around the 5.848-kilometer (3.634-mile), 18-turn circuit for the April 30 Russian Grand Prix.”

Grosjean described the physical uptick in training he’s needed to do. The 31-year-old is in his sixth full season and seventh overall in F1, since his midseason debut in 2009.

“The cars are brutal to drive – we are not far from 8G with the peak in high corners – so it is pretty good fun, but it is hard on the body, it is hard on parts, it is hard on the cars,” Grosjean said. “You better not miss the turning point on some places. The speed we go through the corners is insane compared to the past. You need to be more precise, more accurate, more on it.

“We’re going through more g-forces, so the neck is stronger and the core is stronger,” Grosjean added. “Your whole body had to adjust to these high speeds.”

Team principal Guenther Steiner explained the importance of needing to bank points early in the crowded midfield. Haas sits seventh in the championship now, just nine points behind Sahara Force India in fourth, who have scored with both drivers in each of the three races so far in 2017.

“It’s always good to come back from two races with points, and it shows that the car is capable to score points at each race. Then again, it’s always difficult because it’s a tight midfield and we all went testing after Bahrain and everyone has learned something,” Steiner said.

“It’s as tight as it’s ever been. With four to five teams so close together, I cannot remember when that happened, and every weekend it’s mixed up in a different way. Any of these teams can go into Q3 and get into the points. It’s a very tense battle, but I think a nice battle and it keeps the constructors championship pretty open for the midfield.”

Grosjean added, “It was good to score points in Bahrain. Clearly, we deserved them – since race one, actually. I think the most encouraging fact for now is that the car is performing well everywhere we’ve been. So now we go to Russia, which was a bit of a tough one for us last year. We’ll see if we’ve made progress and if the car is working well at every type of circuit. If so, then pretty much everywhere we could score points.”

For Magnussen, the chance of a score comes after he delivered his best 2016 result here last year – seventh for Renault. He was also fifth in 2014 with McLaren, and has a chance to score for a third different team here this weekend.

“I think it’s a good track and I’ve had some good races there. Hopefully, I can have another good one there this year,” he said.

“I know last year I had a good first lap. Quite a few people messed up and lost things like front wings and so on. I made up lots of positions with that. I then had a really good race after that to finish seventh.”

 

 

PWC: 36 SprintX cars, lineups pack variety, diversity at VIR

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No less than 36 cars are set to compete in the first of five Pirelli World Challenge SprintX weekends, this weekend at VIRginia International Raceway.

Breaking down those 36 cars, they’re split this way:

  • 12 GT Pro/Pro
  • 16 GT Pro/Am
  • 1 GT Am/Am
  • 1 GT Cup Pro/Am
  • 1 GT Cup Am/Am
  • 2 GTS Pro/Am
  • 3 GTS Am/Am

And that’s before you get to the rest of the entry list: GTS: 9; GTSA: 10; TC: 32; TCA: 15; TCB: 8.

In sports car racing, the easiest way to get hooked is to embrace the variety and diversity of machinery first and ask questions about how complex it is later.

So with that in mind, here’s a breakdown of the GT SprintX entries (which themselves are split between three classes, but we’ll set that aside for a minute) and their respective lineups.

Cadillac Racing, Cadillac ATS-V.R

3 – Johnny O’Connell/Jordan or Ricky Taylor
8 – Michael Cooper/Jordan or Ricky Taylor

The fully professional Cadillac lineups give the Taylor brothers a chance to dip their feet back into Pirelli World Challenge competition alongside the team’s full-season drivers. That being said, it’ll be weird to see Jordan and Ricky racing against each other again, and Cadillac still hasn’t confirmed which brother goes where.

Magnus Racing, Audi R8 LMS

4 – Pierre Kaffer/Spencer Pumpelly (Kaffer misses Lime Rock)
44 – John Potter/Marco Seefried (Seefried misses Lime Rock)

For Magnus Racing, a return to the mini-endurance racing with pit stops could see the team with a slight advantage over those PWC-only teams in recent years. Kaffer and Pumpelly is as good a lineup as you’ll find on the grid while Potter and Seefried know each other’s nuances well.

K-PAX Racing, McLaren 650S GT3

6 – Bryan Sellers/Jonny Kane
9 – Alvaro Parente/Ben Barnicoat
98 – Mike Hedlund/Michael Lewis

With Strakka Racing coming to McLaren, Jonny Kane is the ace of reckoning added here with Sellers. Meanwhile Parente has the talented but inexperienced McLaren GT junior driver Barnicoat alongside; Hedlund and Lewis provide a very solid all-American duo.

GMG Racing, Porsche 911 GT3 R

14 – James Sofronas/Laurens Vanthoor (VIR and CTMP)
14 – James Sofronas/Matt Halliday (Lime Rock, Utah and COTA)

Calvert Dynamics, Porsche 911 GT3 R

77 – Alec Udell/Preston Calvert (partnership with GMG)

In simple terms, Sofronas’ team is one that should benefit from the SprintX format. Porsche places factory driver Vanthoor in when available while Halliday is a team veteran. Udell and Calvert will share a Calvert Dynamics entry prepared by GMG, which combines the two top teams from the series’ GT Cup class.

Wright Motorsports, Porsche 911 GT3 R

16 – Michael Schein/Jan Heylen
58 – Patrick Long/Joerg Bergmeister

Two solid lineups here for John Wright’s team. The iconic pairing of Long and Bergmeister is reunited in the team’s all-pro entry with Heylen and Schein one of the top pro/am entries.

RealTime Racing, Acura NSX GT3

43 – Ryan Eversley/Tom Dyer
93 – Peter Kox/Mark Wilkins

Wilkins and Dyer, the team’s SprintX additions, are underrated for a reason – they’re solid, quiet, capable drivers who aren’t flashy but usually get the job done. But they’re going to have to rise up against some of the other pros competing, especially when Acura’s four full-season drivers in IMSA aren’t added here.

Bentley Team Absolute, Bentley Continental GT3

78 – Yufeng Luo/Alexandre Imperatori (VIR and CTMP)
88 – Adderly Fong/Vincent Abril

Past Blancpain GT Series champion Abril is an excellent addition to this young lineup, and he and Fong will be the car to watch versus the pro/am No. 78 car.

CRP Racing, Mercedes-AMG GT3

2 – Ryan Dalziel/Daniel Morad

“Razzle Dazzle” and “State of Moradness” combine for one of the coolest nickname and driver pairings on the grid. The Canadian should learn the Mercedes quickly and combined with the rapid Scot who’s based in Florida, this team should excel.

TR3 Racing, Ferrari 488 GT3

31 – Daniel Mancinell/Andrea Montermini

Mancinelli has raised more than a few eyebrows in his first two weekends in the series, but has the pace to star. Ferrari GT veteran Montermini is a nice counterbalance.

R. Ferri Motorsport, Ferrari 488 GT3

61 – Alex Riberas/Kyle Marcelli

Remo Ferri’s entry is one of the best ones out there, with two very talented drivers sharing the team’s Ferrari 488 in the SprintX races. Marcelli’s vastly experienced for his still tender age of 27; Riberas is a rising GT star in sports car racing.

Scuderia Corsa, Ferrari 458 GT3

7 – Martin Fuentes/Stefan Johansson

Giacomo Mattioli doesn’t usually enter something unless he thinks he can win, and this pro/am lineup of last year’s GTA champ (Fuentes) and Ferrari veteran and team sporting director Johansson, is one of the best in this category.

M1 GT Racing, Audi R8 LMS

23 – David Ostella/James Dayson

Pair of Mazda Road to Indy veterans-turned-sports car Canadians share a car that will be consistent if not the outright fastest among pro/am entries.

MOMO NGT Motorsport, Ferrari 458 GT3

30 – Henrique Cisneros/TBA

Cisneros usually assembles a good effort, and the identity of his co-driver will be interesting.

Black Swan Racing, Mercedes-AMG GT3

54 – Tim Pappas/Jeroen Bleekemolen

The band has come back together for the past GTC champions of American Le Mans Series. Bleekemolen remains rapid as ever; he and Pappas have gelled well before.

DXDT Racing, Mercedes-AMG GT3

63 – Aaron Povoledo/David Askew

Team’s strength comes from its 2016 SprintX experience, something many others don’t have.

Always Evolving Racing/AIM Autosport, Nissan GT-R NISMO GT3

75 – Ricardo Sanchez/Frankie Montecalvo

There’s a lot of newness for the AE/AIM/Nissan combo including a new driver lineup and new 2017 car. While it’s unfortunate past Nissan winners Bryan Heitkotter and James Davison aren’t here, young guns Sanchez and Montecalvo have potential in spades.

McCann Racing, Audi R8 LMS

82 – Mike Skeen/Michael McCann

This SprintX-only, pro/am entry could provide an avenue for “ginger stig” Skeen to live up to his lanky frame and produce some typical giant-killing performances.

MCC Motorsports, Mercedes-AMG GT3

92 – Alexandre Negrao/Alexandre Negrao Sr.

Little known here about this entry, other than it’s another Mercedes that features a past GP2 veteran in Negrao.

TRG, Aston Martin V12 Vantage GT3

007 – Kris Wilson/Drew Regitz

Wilson has been capable of winning races with TRG before but it’s hard to see this aging car and the lone am-am labeled driver lineup doing much of that here. That said, in the hands of James Davison, it does still have some speed left.

Dream Racing Competition, Lamborghini Huracán GT3

07 – Cedric Sbirrazzuoli/Lawrence DeGeorge

The pairing has driven together in Lamborghini Blancpain Super Trofeo North America, the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship and now PWC SprintX. Sbirrazzuoli’s got the speed here between this duo.

DIME Racing, Lamborghini Huracán GT3 (First Alternate)

111 – Jonathan Summerton/Michael Macs

Past Atlantic series race winner Summerton leads this lineup, although whether he’ll get a chance to race depends on one of the primary entries having a pre-race issue that promotes the first alternate into the field.

REST OF THE FIELD

There are also seven additional entries for the first SprintX race of the season, with two GT Cup and five GTS entries. Those cars may interfere with the GT competitors but will have their own interesting race within the race, as well.

Tom Dillmann confirmed for Formula E debut at Paris

Photo: Sam Bloxham/GP2 Series Media Service.
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Mike Conway (Faraday Future Dragon Racing) will have company among guest drivers in the upcoming FIA Formula E Championship Paris ePrix on May 20.

Venturi, Conway’s old team, have confirmed French open-wheel veteran turned occasional sports car racer Tom Dillmann as a fill-in driver for Maro Engel at Paris, and will thus make his series debut. Engel is racing for Mercedes in DTM, while Loic Duval is racing for Audi at the EuroSpeedway Lausitz the same weekend.

Dillmann has driven the Venturi VM200-FE-02 before, standing in for Stephane Sarrazin for the shakedown in last month’s Mexico City ePrix as Sarrazin was en route to Mexico from the FIA World Endurance Championship Prologue test in Monza.

He’s an F3, GP2 and WEC race winner already. The 28-year-old Frenchman is understandably keen to impress on debut.

“Formula E is an exciting place to be for a driver – with thrilling motor racing and interesting technical developments. It goes without saying that it’s my goal to contest a full season in this series in the future,” he said in a release.