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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.”

Franchitti praises INDYCAR’s direction with ’18 renders, urges series not to rush Halo

ST PETERSBURG, FL - MARCH 29:  Former driver Dario Franchitti of Scotland stands on pit wall prior to qualifying for the Verizon IndyCar Series Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg at the Streets of St. Petersburg on March 29, 2014 in St Petersburg, Florida.  (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)
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BIRMINGHAM, UK – Dario Franchitti has praised INDYCAR’s plans to revamp the bodykits used in the Verizon IndyCar Series from 2018, calling the series’ direction “fabulous”.

Franchitti raced in IndyCar between 1997 and 2013, claiming four championships overall, three with Chip Ganassi Racing (first with Andretti Autosport in 2007) before being forced to call time on his career after sustaining injuries in a crash at Houston. The Scotsman remains heavily involved with the series as an advisor to the Ganassi team.

Following INDYCAR’s release of the first car renders for 2018, Franchitti was quick to praise the series’ officials for moving away from the “ugly” aerokits currently being used.

“The drawing of the rending is just that right now, but the direction they’re going in is fabulous,” Franchitti told NBC Sports at Autosport International.

“I talked to Jay Frye quite a bit about what I felt was wrong with the current body kit.

“And I believe that all the drivers sung from the same song sheet of wanting more underbody downforce, get rid of all this top side nonsense. Make the cars look a bit better again, because the car has got quite ugly.

“I have to say that his team have listened to everybody. They know the direction they want to go in now. I think it’s going to be good.”

Part of INDYCAR’s five-year plan discussed in Detroit included further discussions regarding the introduction of cockpit protection, with the Halo device tested in Formula 1 on the table.

“I think everybody is looking at [Halo], but it has to be done in the right way,” Franchitti said.

“We’re here in the UK, it makes you think of Dan and Justin. We lost both of those guys to head injuries. Would they have survived with a Halo? Who knows.

“But if it’s going to be done, it’s got to be done right. And there are so many unintended consequences when you do that.

“You don’t want to rush into it, but you want to introduce it as quickly as possible.”

Franchitti also previewed the 2017 IndyCar season, set to start in St. Petersburg on March 12, and is intrigued to see how the fight between defending champion team Penske and Honda-returnee Ganassi plays out, as well as how a number of drivers fare with new teams.

“The driver market a wee bit obviously with Sato to Andretti, Newgarden to Penske, the Foyt guys have changed around,” Franchitti said.

“Bourdais has gone to Dale Coyne. Dale Coyne seems to have really strengthened his team.

“And then us with the Ganassi team going back to Honda. There are some big changes there. It will be interesting to see how it all plays out.

“That’s going to be the interesting fact because last year the two big teams had Chevy. Now it’s split. It’s going to be fascinating how it all plays out.

“We’ve tested the car. I can’t say much about it, but it will be an interesting season.”

Timeline: Tracking six weeks that flipped the 2017 F1 driver market

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 27:  Valtteri Bottas of Finland driving the (77) Williams Martini Racing Williams FW38 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo and Felipe Massa of Brazil driving the (19) Williams Martini Racing Williams FW38 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo on track  during the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 27, 2016 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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The waiting is finally over. After six or so weeks of speculation, rumors and theories about who might replace Nico Rosberg at Mercedes, Valtteri Bottas was finally unveiled by the team as its second Formula 1 driver for 2017 on Monday.

Bottas’ arrival from Williams has been expected since about the middle of December, making the news hardly surprising. Nevertheless, it is still highly significant.

With Pascal Wehrlein joining Sauber and Felipe Massa due to return at Williams, the driver market is – for now – complete. We still wait for news on Manor’s future after it entered administration earlier this month.

Can’t remember all that has happened since Nico dropped the mic and walked away from F1? Here’s a timeline of events to refresh your memory.

November 27 – Nico Rosberg clinches his maiden F1 world title in Abu Dhabi, finishing second in the race to win the championship by five points. Felipe Massa makes what was planned to be his final F1 start.

December 2 – Rosberg announces his immediate retirement from F1 in a press conference ahead of the FIA gala in Vienna, Austria.

December 3 – Mercedes non-executive director Niki Lauda says he has received calls from half the F1 grid enquiring about Rosberg’s seat.

December 4 – Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel dismisses the suggestion he could leave Ferrari and take Rosberg’s seat for 2017. Lewis Hamilton claims he’s not chasing number one status at Mercedes following Rosberg’s departure.

December 6 – Mercedes F1 chief Toto Wolff admits the team has to consider Fernando Alonso for the vacant seat, but hints a deal for 2017 would be unlikely.

December 8 – Mercedes posts a tongue-in-cheek advert in Autosport magazine regarding its driver vacancy for 2017.

December 9 – Former manager and long-term confidante of Alonso, Flavio Briatore, says that the Spaniard will not take Rosberg’s seat.

December 11 – Hamilton and Wolff enjoy an “amazing” meeting regarding plans for the 2017 season. Hamilton says Mercedes will have “the strongest partnership” to defend its titles. BBC Sport reports that Valtteri Bottas is Mercedes’ prime target and has already tabled an offer for the Finn.

December 13 – Alonso tells the entire McLaren team at its base in England that he remains committed to the project, ending speculation about a possible move.

December 14 – Williams’ Pat Symonds says that keeping Bottas is “crucial” to the team’s future success.

December 15 – Mercedes confirms that it will make no announcement regarding Rosberg’s replacement until January 3 at the earliest. Claire Williams says that Williams was open to letting Bottas leave, relying it could find a suitable replacement.

December 16 – Red Bull F1 chief Christian Horner says he would not allow junior driver Carlos Sainz Jr. to take Rosberg’s seat.

December 20 – Reports suggest that Massa has agreed to come out of retirement and return to Williams for 2017, paving the way for Bottas to leave the team.

December 30 – Massa posts on Instagram that he is back “training hard” in America.

January 3 – The earliest date for an announcement from Mercedes passes.

January 4 – Mercedes confirms it will launch its 2017 F1 car, the W08, at Silverstone on February 23.

January 6 – Manor – the team Wehrlein raced for last year – enters administration, raising doubts over the team’s future and place on the 2017 grid.

January 15 – Claire Williams says she expects to make an announcement about Bottas’ future within a week.

January 16 – Pascal Wehrlein is officially announced by Sauber; photos of Bottas in Mercedes team gear leak online; Williams confirms Massa will return; finally, Bottas is announced officially at Mercedes.

Valtteri Bottas joins Mercedes F1 for 2017 season as Rosberg’s replacement

Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez, Mexico City, Mexico.
Sunday 30 October 2016.
Valtteri Bottas, Williams Martini Racing.
Photo: Glenn Dunbar/Williams
ref: Digital Image _X4I0171
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Valtteri Bottas has officially joined Mercedes AMG Petronas ahead of the 2017 Formula 1 season, replacing World Champion Nico Rosberg.

The long-expected announced was made by Mercedes on Monday, putting an end to six weeks of speculation in the wake of Rosberg’s decision to walk away from F1.

It followed two other announcements made the same morning, with Pascal Wehrlein going to Sauber and, more importantly for Mercedes’ case, Williams Martini Racing’s release of Bottas to Mercedes and confirmation Felipe Massa would come back for one more year.

Mercedes still managed to have fun with the now worst-kept secret in F1, building up the “suspense” on Twitter:

And then Mercedes made it official, via a live video from its factory in Brackley.

Bottas joins Mercedes for his fifth season in F1, having raced with Williams since 2013 and recorded a best finish of fourth in the drivers’ championship in 2014.

The Finn led Williams to third place in the constructors’ championship in 2014 and 2015, scoring nine podium finishes during his time with the team.

Mercedes had been due to field an unchanged line-up of Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton in 2017, only for Rosberg to announce his immediate retirement from racing five days after winning his maiden F1 title in Abu Dhabi.

The news sent the F1 driver market into a late flux, with Bottas appearing towards the top of Mercedes’ shortlist alongside its in-house junior driver Pascal Wehrlein.

Mercedes decided against promoting Wehrlein due to his inexperience, having only completed one season in F1, leaving Bottas as its prime target.

Bottas had re-signed with Williams for 2017, rejecting a move to Renault, and had been set to partner 18-year-old Lance Stroll during his rookie campaign.

Mercedes’ first approach for Bottas included Wehrlein as part of the deal, only for Williams to reject the German on account of his inexperience and the need to have at least one driver over the age of 25, as per a requirement for title sponsor Martini.

Williams found a solution by luring Felipe Massa out of retirement, the Brazilian having raced for the British team since 2014.

Massa said an emotional farewell to F1 in Abu Dhabi, but is now set to return for at least one more season to help the team develop its new car, the FW40, during a period of regulation change.

With Massa agreeing to return for 2017, Williams gave the green light for Bottas to join Mercedes, ending the six-week waiting game that had played out.

Having missed out on seats at Mercedes and Williams, Wehrlein is now due to race for Sauber in 2017, replacing Felipe Nasr at the Swiss team.

The only remaining seats on the F1 grid for 2017 are at Manor, which is yet to confirm either of its drivers amid ongoing takeover talks with American-Mexican investor Tavo Hellmund.

2017 Formula 1 driver line-ups

Mercedes: Lewis Hamilton/Valtteri Bottas
Red Bull: Daniel Ricciardo/Max Verstappen
Ferrari: Sebastian Vettel/Kimi Raikkonen
Force India: Sergio Perez/Esteban Ocon
Williams: Felipe Massa*/Lance Stroll
McLaren: Fernando Alonso/Stoffel Vandoorne
Toro Rosso: Carlos Sainz Jr./Daniil Kvyat
Haas: Romain Grosjean/Kevin Magnussen
Sauber: Marcus Ericsson/Pascal Wehrlein
Manor: TBA/TBA

Felipe Massa backtracks on F1 retirement, confirms Williams return for ’17

SAO PAULO, BRAZIL - NOVEMBER 13:  Felipe Massa of Brazil and Williams stands with a Brazilian flag for his last home Grand Prix with his son Felipinho on the drivers parade before the Formula One Grand Prix of Brazil at Autodromo Jose Carlos Pace on November 13, 2016 in Sao Paulo, Brazil.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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Less than six weeks after making what was set to be his final start in Formula 1, Felipe Massa has confirmed his return to the grid for 2017 with Williams, on a one-year deal.

The news was announced by the team on Monday, completing its line-up for the 2017 campaign ahead of the season-opener in Australia on March 26.

“Firstly, I am very happy to have an opportunity to return to Williams. I always intended to race somewhere in 2017, but Williams is a team close to my heart and I have respect for everything it is trying to achieve,” Massa said. “Valtteri has a great opportunity, given the turn of events over the winter, and I wish him all the best at Mercedes.

“In turn, when I was offered the chance to help Williams with their 2017 Formula One campaign, it felt like the right thing to do. I certainly have not lost any of my enthusiasm for racing and I’m extremely motivated to be coming back to drive the FW40. The support from my fans over the last few weeks has been a huge boost and I’m grateful for that. I also look forward to working with Lance; I’ve known him for many years and seen his talent develop during that time, so I look forward to seeing what we can achieve together.”

Claire Williams, deputy team principal, added the experience Massa will bring should help the team this season.

“I’m delighted that Felipe has agreed to come out of retirement to be a part of our 2017 campaign. With Valtteri having a unique opportunity to join the current Constructors’ Champions, we have been working hard to ensure that an agreement could be made with Mercedes to give Valtteri this fantastic opportunity,” she said.

“Valtteri has been part of the Williams family since 2010 and in that time has proved a huge talent, securing nine podium finishes. I would like to take this opportunity to thank him on behalf of the whole team, and wish him a successful season as he joins Mercedes.

“Felipe has always been a much-loved member of the Williams family, and having the opportunity to work with him again is something we all look forward to. He was always going to race somewhere in 2017, as he has not lost that competitive spirit, and it was important that we had a strong replacement in order for us to let Valtteri go. Felipe re-joining us provides stability, experience and talent to help lead us forward. He is a great asset for us.

Massa, 35, announced in September that he would be retiring from F1 racing at the end of the 2016 season, making way for 18-year-old Lance Stroll to take his seat alongside Valtteri Bottas at Williams.

Massa made what would have been his final start in Abu Dhabi, having said an emotional farewell to his home fans in Brazil two weeks earlier in some of the most powerful scenes of the 2016 season.

However, following Nico Rosberg’s shock decision to retire from F1 just five days after winning his maiden world title, Mercedes identified Bottas as its primary target to replace the German.

Williams was offered a discount on power units and the services of Mercedes junior Pascal Wehrlein in return for releasing Bottas from his contract for 2017, but rejected the proposal.

Williams stressed it wanted a racer more experienced that Wehrlein – an F1 sophomore for the coming season – to aid the development of its new car through the change in technical regulations for 2017. The team also requires at least one driver over the age of 25 to satisfy sponsor Martini, an alcohol brand.

Williams instead turned to Massa and put together a deal to bring the Brazilian out of retirement for 2017 that was accepted in the lead up to the holiday season.

Following Jenson Button’s decision to step back from an F1 seat for 2017, Massa will be the third-most experienced driver on the grid for the forthcoming season, with Australia due to be his 251st race start.

Of the active drivers racing in F1, only Fernando Alonso (278) and Kimi Raikkonen (251) have made more appearances than Massa.