For Clint Bowyer, more winning and less drama the goal for 2014

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Some of Clint Bowyer’s month of February has involved hunting and dirt tracks, two parts of his life that are part of his roots, his core being.

The other focus of the month, obviously, is on beginning his third season with Michael Waltrip Racing and bouncing back in 2014 after a challenging 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season.

Balancing that mix of “happy-go-lucky” and an ability to relate to the common fan, along with his driving prowess and focus on Sundays, will be key to seeing him return to the heights he achieved in his first year at MWR. That year, he finished second in points to Brad Keselowski in 2012.

Far too often in 2013, Bowyer and MWR came up on the unhappy side of the headlines. The Richmond saga stands out, but to Bowyer, the lack of wins on the whole was a more dispiriting part of the year.

“Richmond was tough, but the most frustrating thing for me was not winning a race, period,” Bowyer told MotorSportsTalk Wednesday.

“We couldn’t get the job done. Atlanta, we were so fast [he led 48 laps –Ed.]. It was the fastest car I’ve ever had. We set sail and were gone, and went so fast that the motor couldn’t keep up.”

He finished seventh in points, with 10 top-five and 19 top-10 finishes. But he has the potential to improve on that in 2014 because unlike a number of high-profile drivers (Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch, Ryan Newman and former MWR teammate Martin Truex Jr., among others) who are all switching teams and will need time to develop chemistry, Bowyer’s entrenched in a familiar environment.

For Bowyer, the foundation is there for his group at MWR in the No. 15 5-Hour Energy/PEAK Antifreeze Toyota team, led by crew chief Brian Pattie.

“Trust me, we’ve hunkered down and been hard at work,” he said. “We’ve gone to Nashville five or six times; done short-track running at New Smyrna. A lot of testing.

“Being together this long is key, because we haven’t really lost any assets on (the 15 team). We don’t have to start getting used to each other like guys that have shifted around. We know what to expect.”

Gaining Jeff Burton in the team’s third car for selected races, along with new full-time teammate Brian Vickers, Bowyer said will also make up for the team’s losses over the winter.

“We didn’t lose anyone on the 15, but no question we have lost some assets elsewhere,” Bowyer admitted. “(Crew chief Rodney) Childers was a big thing. The Martins (Mark Martin, Truex), losing them, you lose that database and great contribution they bring.

“But Burton I’ve worked with before. We speak the same language, same characteristics. He was a guy I leaned on early on in my career, and will do so again in the races he’s here.”

Bowyer and Burton were teammates at Richard Childress Racing from 2006 through 2011.

As for Daytona, the Toyotas have yet to show the pace of, ironically, the Childress-built Chevrolets thus far. Bowyer was the second fastest Toyota in qualifying … but only 20th overall, with Matt Kenseth best of the bunch in 17th.

Bowyer will start 10th for Budweiser Duel 2 on Thursday night. Despite the single-lap gap, Bowyer isn’t concerned the TRD brigade will be up against it for the rest of Speedweeks.

“I’ve learned not to put too much stock into what happens on qualifying day,” he said.

Where Bowyer was able to put some stock – and insight – was last Saturday’s Sprint Unlimited. As he didn’t score a pole position in 2013, he wasn’t able to race in the event. He observed the race and engaged with fans from FOX Sports’ “Hollywood Hotel” in the infield.

“It started out single file and in the booth I wanted to be like, ‘C’mon guys,’” Bowyer said. “To be honest, they were knocking the rust off, and it was the first time on track racing in three months. Then they went all out, and it turned into a wild shootout.”

Additionally, one other area where Bowyer is offering his time and insight is in a role as a judge and coach of the PEAK Stock Car Dream Challenge, which launched on Feb. 18th.

The PEAK Stock Car Dream Challenge is a nationwide search to find an amateur racer who has what it takes to be a professional driver. More information is available at PEAKStockCarDream.com; 2013’s winner was Patrick Staropoli, a 24-year-old Floridian who Bowyer said “Made the most of his opportunity” in his NASCAR K&N Pro Series starts.

But overall, Bowyer’s got his observations and insights largely out of the way. Now it’s time to see how he does on track the rest of this week in Daytona, and for the rest of 2014 as he seeks a bounce back season.

Carpenter set to focus only on two cars for 2017 Indy 500

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Unless a late deal comes together, expect Ed Carpenter Racing to only run two cars in the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

Chevrolet is in a position where it’s expected to make up the numbers to fill the 33-car field to get to at least 15, or possibly 16 cars for the marquee race of the Verizon IndyCar Series season.

But whereas an extra car was added each of the last three years for JR Hildebrand, team owner/driver Ed Carpenter said Thursday while he’d love to have Spencer Pigot in a third car this year the same way, the clock has nearly struck midnight for it to make business sense for the team.

Additionally, with Carpenter having missed out on the available KV Racing tub from the Key Auctioneers auction held earlier this week – A.J. Foyt Enterprises is believed to have acquired that chassis – there’s also the question of having enough proper tubs available to make a third car viable for ECR this year.

“We’ve done it in the past and it made sense to do, with a good program to do it well,” Carpenter told NBC Sports. “Right now, we don’t have it where makes sense for our business, and makes us more competitive. We’re not planning on doing it.

“It’s not that we don’t want to, but if the right combination isn’t there to have it happen, it won’t happen.”

Carpenter’s team finished third and sixth in last year’s Indianapolis 500 with Josef Newgarden and Hildebrand, while Carpenter himself retired with early race electrical issues and ended 31st.

While Pigot is emerging on the road and street courses this season, he was never confirmed in a third car for the Indianapolis 500 upon his confirmation for the 11 road and street races, although it made sense on paper.

Although he’s starred at a lot of tracks on his way to IndyCar in the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires, Pigot had a rough rookie month of May last year for the ‘500 as the first driver to hit the wall during practice and then qualifying 29th and finishing 25th in his last of three planned starts for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. He also struggled the previous year in his lone Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires start at IMS.

The Rising Star Racing-backed driver shifted to Ed Carpenter Racing starting with the Chevrolet Dual in Detroit doubleheader the following week, where he’s been since.

“One of our main goals is to win the Indianapolis 500,” Carpenter explained. “I’m concerned about car count and getting to 33 cars… but I can’t put that at a higher priority than our own goals of winning the race. If it doesn’t make us stronger, like JR has, I’m not gonna the feel pressure to do it.”

Carpenter said he would not want to hold Pigot back from seeking another opportunity at the Indianapolis 500 if a late deal can’t be struck to stay with ECR for this race. And anyway, as last year, he’d be back in the No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet in Detroit to commemorate one year since his team debut.

“I’d love to see Spencer in the race,” Carpenter said. “Obviously I would have liked to have found enough to have him in one of our cars, but I can’t do it without the right funding to not make it the right thing for the team’s sake, and his sake. I’m not gonna hold him back from any opportunity.”

Fuzzy’s Ultra Premium Vodka (Carpenter) and Preferred Freezer Services (Hildebrand) will be on the team’s cars for the Indianapolis 500, PFS having been confirmed back with ECR for a fourth consecutive year earlier this week. Last year, PFS sponsored both Hildebrand and Newgarden in the Indianapolis 500.

Carpenter will be back in the car for his second test of 2017 on Saturday as part of a Chevrolet manufacturer test at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Coupled with that test, the Texas Motor Speedway open test shortly after Long Beach and the Phoenix race end of April, Carpenter will have his busiest stretch of driving himself thus far in 2017 coming up within the next month.

“It’s a busy time for the team. I’m personally excited to be back in the car,” he said.

“I think (we) will be closer (to our teammates) this year. It was just one of those things last May, where we didn’t have the speed. I can’t say we totally had the answer as to why.

“But the team’s got a lot of work getting ready for the season. It’ll be fun to be on track Saturday. It’ll give us a sneak peek of where we are, and we’ll have a short window to make adjustments.”

Jean Todt: Playing field in F1 should be ‘much closer’

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FIA president Jean Todt has called for a more level playing field between teams in Formula 1, saying that the gaps between the biggest spenders and the smaller operations are too big.

2017 has marked the start of a new technical era for F1, with the design of the new-style cars being a focus for many teams over the past two years.

The opening round of the year in Australia saw Ferrari and Mercedes battle for victory, with Red Bull running a comfortable third-fastest, with the rest of the pack struggling to catch up. Race winner Sebastian Vettel lapped all but five cars.

Speaking to reporters in Australia, Todt expressed his concerns over the gap between F1’s ‘big three’ and the rest of the field, putting it down to the vastly different budgets.

“Ferrari did a good step forward with new regulations, it’s quite impressive. Mercedes is still very strong, there was a lot of speculation about the second driver, but for me there has never been a doubt that he [Bottas] would be very competitive,” Todt said, as quoted by crash.net.

“Red Bull seem to be a bit behind, and honestly I’m a bit concerned that between first and seventh or eighth, it is about two seconds. Still the gap is too big.

“We will really dream of having the 10 first cars within seven or eight tenths, and at the moment it is not yet happening.

“You have a lot of reasons for that, but clearly it is too big a discrepancy between the small budgets and bigger budgets, and the playing field should be much closer.”

F1 drivers relishing Silverstone, Suzuka races in new-style cars

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Formula 1 drivers Sebastian Vettel, Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas are all relishing the challenge of high-speed tracks such as Silverstone and Suzuka after enjoying their first races in the new-style 2017 cars last weekend.

This season has seen the introduction of revised cars under the new technical regulations that are capable of lapping multiple seconds per lap faster than their predecessors, aided by greater downforce and wider tires.

The new cars raced together for the first time last Sunday in Australia, with the pace difference around the tight confines of the Albert Park street course still notable.

All of the drivers have been impressed by what the new cars are capable of, finding them more fun and rewarding to drive, but it is when F1 hits the classic, high-speed tracks on the calendar that they will really come into their own.

When asked what track they were most looking forward to racing on this year, the top three finishers in Australia gave similar answers.

“Probably Silverstone. I think with that amount of grip and downforce,” Vettel said.

“Probably Suzuka as well later on in the year. Also I guess the cars will be even faster from what they are now.

“So, yeah, I think that would be quite nice. I’m looking forward to that.”

Hamilton added: “Yes, Silverstone, I agree” before Mercedes teammate Bottas echoed his peers’ thoughts.

“I think all the quick ones: Spa; Suzuka; Silverstone will be nice,” Bottas said.

“But I think even street circuits will be a bit more challenging I think – not that it wasn’t challenging before, but with these cars it will be nice.”

One of the biggest changes for 2017 has been the extra physicality of the cars, but Hamilton said he felt no major issues following the race in Australia.

“It was more physical but it was no problem for me and doesn’t look like it was for these guys either,” he said.

Vettel added: “It’s not the most physical circuit in the year. I think later on it will be very interesting. Here is very technical. So, first couple of laps, at least for me, were very intense.

“Obviously it’s easy to have an error, get something wrong under braking, go a bit wide etc. Later on I had a bit of a gap and I could control it, and therefore it was a bit easier.”

Chinese Grand Prix kicks off heavy April F1 stretch on NBCSN

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After an interesting kickoff to the 2017 Formula 1 season on NBCSN with the Australian Grand Prix last week, in just over a week the series will be back in action with the second round of the season, the Chinese Grand Prix from the Shanghai International Circuit. It’s the first of three F1 races in April with the Bahrain and Russian Grands Prix occurring later in the month.

Last year saw Nico Rosberg win in Shanghai over Sebastian Vettel and Daniil Kvyat, the last two having had a coming together at the start of the race before Vettel, now of Ferrari, beat his successor at Red Bull, Kvyat. Lewis Hamilton, meanwhile, only finished seventh after starting 22nd and last, missing qualifying with a mechanical issue.

Vettel enters China on the heels of his victory in Melbourne, but not having won in Shanghai since 2009, when he won for Red Bull for the first time. Mercedes has won the last three Chinese Grands Prix, Rosberg winning last year while Hamilton won in 2014 and 2015. Ferrari last won here in 2013, with Fernando Alonso.

Will Vettel continue with a second straight win to open the season, or will Mercedes reassume its place up top and continue its win streak in Shanghai? Can Red Bull reassert itself and who in the midfield will emerge?

All sessions will be live streamed on NBC Sports or via the NBC Sports App. FP2, qualifying and the race also will air on NBCSN. Leigh Diffey, David Hobbs and Steve Matchett are on the call with Will Buxton reporting from the pits and paddock. As in Melbourne, qualifying and race run during the late hours of the evening on the East Coast, and a bit earlier for those on the West Coast.

Here’s the schedule with where to watch on TV on digital platforms.

  • Practice 1: Thursday, April 6, 10 p.m.-11:30 p.m. ET (digital only)
  • Practice 2: Friday, April 7, 2 a.m.-3:30 a.m. ET (NBCSN)
  • Practice 3: Saturday, April 8, 12 a.m.-1 a.m. ET (digital only)
  • Qualifying: Saturday, April 8, 3 a.m.-4:30 a.m. ET (NBCSN)
  • Race: Sunday, April 9, 1 a.m.-4:30 a.m. ET (NBCSN)

The next race is the Bahrain Grand Prix, on April 16.