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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.”

Alexander Rossi wins 100th Indy 500 in fuel mileage stunner

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MAY 29:  Alexander Rossi, driver of the #98 NAPA Auto Parts Andretti Herta Autosport Honda celebrates after winning the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motorspeedway on May 29, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
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INDIANAPOLIS – Alexander Rossi has won the 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil following a stunning strategy gamble from Bryan Herta and the Andretti Herta Autosport team that came good.

It’s a stunning upset but an incredible run for the No. 98 NAPA Auto Parts/Curb Honda, having made it 36 laps home on fuel on the final stint of the race.

Rossi started 11th but his final lap of the race – the 14th he led on this day – was only at 179.784 mph to limp home on fuel.

Rossi is the first rookie to win since Helio Castroneves in 2001. The win is Andretti Autosport’s fifth as a team: the first as Forsythe/Green Racing in 1995 with second year driver Jacques Villeneuve, then Dan Wheldon in 2005, Dario Franchitti in 2007 (Andretti/Green Racing) and Ryan Hunter-Reay in 2014 (Andretti Autosport).

The Manor reserve driver in Formula 1 has moved to IndyCar this year for the full season, following a late move in the offseason when a sponsor fell through and sidelined Gabby Chaves.

But Rossi has been one of the pleasant surprises of the season, and his month at Indianapolis was close to flawless. He didn’t make a mistake all month, took to the track well, understood how to handle it and drove controlled all month.

The win with Herta follows up when Chaves won Rookie of the Year honors here last year with 16th place.

It might be one of the most incredible stories in Indy history… since the last time the ‘500 featured a 100 as part of its name.

The 100th anniversary race in 2011, the 95th running, saw Wheldon steal the win on the last lap – also driving for Herta – when J.R. Hildebrand crashed in Turn 4.

But this day, Rossi hung around – quietly – in the lower regions of the top 10

Had Rossi not been able to make it home, the win could have fallen to his teammate Carlos Munoz. The driver of the No. 26 United Fiber & Data Honda was flying in the final stages but, like most of the field, needed a late race splash as the race ran green for the final 32 laps.

The same story applied for Josef Newgarden, in the No. 21 Preferred Freezer Chevrolet, who led 14 laps and was in the top three most of the race. He ended a hard luck third.

Tony Kanaan and Charlie Kimball completed the top five, both having done a great job to move up quietly from sixth row starting positions for Chip Ganassi Racing Teams.

Hildebrand contacted Helio Castroneves late in the race, which dislodged Castroneves’ left rear wheel pod and forced a replacement for the three-time Indianapolis 500 champion. While Hildebrand ended sixth, Castroneves lost his hopes and ended 11th.

Polesitter James Hinchcliffe led 27 laps and finished seventh, with Scott Dixon an anonymous eighth. Sebastien Bourdais and Will Power completed the top 10.

Marco Andretti and Graham Rahal were non-factors in 13th and 14th.

Two more of Andretti Autosport’s bullets – Ryan Hunter-Reay and Townsend Bell – led a combined 64 laps (Bell 12, RHR 52) but ended 24th and 21st respectively after colliding in pit lane.

Defending champion Juan Pablo Montoya was the first driver to crash out, having gone out on Lap 64.

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Verstappen disappointed with himself after Monaco crash

MONTE-CARLO, MONACO - MAY 29: Max Verstappen of the Netherlands driving the (33) Red Bull Racing Red Bull-TAG Heuer RB12 TAG Heuer on track during the Monaco Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit de Monaco on May 29, 2016 in Monte-Carlo, Monaco.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Max Verstappen admitted that he felt disappointed with himself after crashing out of Sunday’s Monaco Grand Prix in his second race for Red Bull.

Two weeks on from his stunning victory in Spain, Verstappen endured a tough weekend in Monaco that saw him suffer three crashes.

A shunt in qualifying meant he had to start the race from the pit lane, but he made the most of the inclement conditions early on by switching tire to run inside the top 10.

However, a mistake at Massenet on lap 34 sent him careering into the barrier and out of the race, ending his hopes of a fightback to points.

“Disappointed in myself and disappointed for the team, because they worked very hard to get the car ready and I didn’t give them the result they deserved today,” Verstappen said.

“We were in a good way, we were in the points and to start from the pit lane and end in the points would have been very good, but I learned from this and hopefully we can come back stronger in Canada.

“It was pretty tricky especially in the beginning of the race it was a very slippery track. It got better and better, the track was drying, and I think from then on we had great pace and I was overtaking cars, charging through the field and everything felt well.

“Then we put the softs on and I locked up. Unfortunately I went a bit off-line and of course then you arrive in the wet area and I was a passenger from there on.

“That’s racing in the end, it can go up and down very quickly but you shouldn’t back off because of this you should keep positive, keep pushing.

“I learn a lot from those moments as well and I’m already focusing on Canada now and leaving Monaco behind.”

Bell, Hunter-Reay crash in pit lane battling for Indy 500 lead

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MAY 27:  Ryan Hunter-Reay, driver of the #28 Andretti Autosport Honda Dallara, practices during Carb Day ahead of the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motorspeedway on May 27, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
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Ryan Hunter-Reay and Townsend Bell’s hopes of winning the 100th Indianapolis 500 for Andretti Autosport were dashed after coming together in the pit lane when battling for the lead of the race.

Following a caution period called for crashes involving Mikhail Aleshin and Conor Daly, the majority of the field dived into the pits for the fifth round of pit stops.

Both Hunter-Reay and Bell had been running inside the top three before the caution, battling with Tony Kanaan, James Hinchcliffe and Helio Castroneves for the lead of the race.

On the race off pit road, Bell’s car was released into the path of the oncoming Castroneves, resulting in contact.

Bell’s car was sent into Hunter-Reay just as he was released, leaving both pointing the pit wall nose-first.

Only one crew member was in the line of fire, but he managed to jump out of the way quickly. A tire was also hit, but did not come off the ground, meaning no-one in the area was hurt.

Bell was assessed a penalty for the incident, unsafe release:

Andretti was forced to wheel both of its cars back to their pit boxes, costing both drivers time before they were sent back out again. At the time of writing, Hunter-Reay and Bell now run P25 and P26 respectively and are battling to remain on the lead lap.

Castroneves leads halfway; Karam crashes out on Lap 94 at Indy 500

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MAY 27:  Helio Castroneves #3 of Brazil watches alongside owner Roger Penske during Carb Day ahead of the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motorspeedway on May 27, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
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INDIANAPOLIS – Thus far the quartet of Ryan Hunter-Reay, James Hinchcliffe, Townsend Bell and Josef Newgarden have had the strongest cars in the 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

But it’s Helio Castroneves who now leads at the 100-lap mark, as he did last year, following the fourth round of pit stops. He’s in search of his fourth Indy 500 win.

Prior to Lap 100, Bryan Clauson was out front. Clauson went a lap down early and has not made his fourth pit stop yet in the No. 88 Cancer Treatment Centers of America Honda for Dale Coyne Racing. But courtesy of a typically-cagey Coyne strategy play, he was nearly out front for this historic moment in the longest Indianapolis 500 outing of his three starts thus far.

There’s already been 31 lead changes – other leaders include Hunter-Reay who’s led a race high 44 laps, Hinchcliffe, who’s led 26, then Will Power (8 laps led), Bell (8), Castroneves (6), Clauson (3), Newgarden (2), Sage Karam (2) and Carlos Munoz (1).

Just prior to halfway, Sage Karam’s strong run from 23rd up to seventh came to a crashing halt in Turn 2. The driver of the No. 24 Gas Monkey Energy Chevrolet for DRR-Kingdom Racing appeared to get pinched in Turn 1 by Bell – who also made a similarly tight move on Newgarden – then hit the wall and careened through to Turn 2.

Karam’s accident means he’s the second car officially out of the race, along withe defending race winner Juan Pablo Montoya.

At Lap 100 the order is below:

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