Jeff Burton kicks off final Sprint Cup season Sunday in Las Vegas


Jeff Burton kicks off his 2014 farewell tour of sorts Sunday, beginning his final season as an active driver in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, in the Kobalt 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

The veteran Sprint Cup driver left Richard Childress Racing following last season and agreed to run a part-time, limited schedule of races for Michael Waltrip Racing in 2014.

Sunday will be the first of a still unspecified number of race events for Burton this season.

That’s as a prelude – some might say weaning himself away from behind the wheel on his own terms – to Burton moving to the announcing booth next season, where he’ll be one of the key analysts on NBC’s telecasts of NASCAR.

“I am really looking forward to getting back in a race car this weekend,” Burton said. “We spent a lot of time testing this winter.

“I really like the direction that Michael Waltrip Racing is heading. I really like my team and I am excited to see how our off season testing worked for us. I am excited to work with everyone at MWR and I am really excited to see what we have for them in Vegas.”

Burton was originally slated to run a series of races solely for Michael Waltrip Racing. But a recent agreement between MWR and Jay Robinson Racing formed a joint effort that will run the full Sprint Cup season.

MWR team co-owner Michael Waltrip drove in the season-opening Daytona 500 (finished 41st due to a crash), Joe Nemechek finished 40th this past Sunday at Phoenix and now Burton will make his debut in the No. 66.

Nemechek is expected to drive the majority of races in the car, with Burton the next most and then Waltrip.

But as for who will drive when and where, that is still being worked out.

“We have a hard schedule – Vegas being very hard,” Burton said in a recent interview with MotorSportsTalk’s Chris Estrada. “And there are other ones we feel pretty sure about that we’re going to run, but we haven’t really talked about it yet so we might change our mind.

“We’re going to run where it makes sense. Having more teams doesn’t make us better, right? So, what we have to do is run when it’s smart. We got to run where it make sense to run and not just run because we want to run. It’s got to be part of a plan and if it’s not, we’re making a mistake.”

Sunday will mark Burton’s 692nd career Sprint Cup start. He comes into Las Vegas with 21 wins, 134 top fives, 254 top 10s and six poles.

Sin City’s fast 1.5-mile track has been very good to Burton in his career. He finished second in the first Sprint Cup race there in 1998, and then won back-top-back events in 1999 and 2000, all with Roush Fenway Racing.

His highest finish recently was third in 2009, with finishes of 11th, 21st, 14th and 26th in the four most recent races at LVMS.

His average finish there is an impressive 11.9.

He also has 27 career wins in the Nationwide Series, with three of those coming at Las Vegas.

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F1 Preview: 2018 Australian Grand Prix

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Save for two occasions, in 2006, and 2010, the Australian Grand Prix has served as the season-opening event for the FIA Formula 1 World Championship since 1996, and this weekend’s event will be the 21st time that the city of Melbourne has kicked off the Formula 1 campaign.

The 2018 season is the fifth one of the current hybrid power unit era, the second season of the current aero regulations, and the second under Liberty Media’s guidance.

Last year saw titans Mercedes AMG Petronas and Scuderia Ferrari duel for supremacy for most of the season before Mercedes distanced Ferrari late in the season to take the constructor’s title and the driver’s title, with Lewis Hamilton, who is now tied with Sebastian Vettel on four world championships apiece.

Four drivers on the grid have Formula 1 world championships to their name: Hamilton, Vettel, Kimi Raikkonen, and Fernando Alonso. Scuderia Toro Rosso’s Brendon Hartley also has a world championship to his name as a two-time titlist in the FIA World Endurance Championship.

So, what can viewers expect from the 2018 curtain-raiser in Australia? A handful of things to watch are below?

2018 Australian Grand Prix – Talking Points

Does Anyone Have Anything for Mercedes?

Only on one day during pre-season testing did a Mercedes driver lead the way – Lewis Hamilton was fastest on the final day of Week 1 at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya.

However, all indications were that was by design, with the team focusing the majority of the second week, if not the entire second week, on long runs with their W09 EQ Power+ chassis.

Such a decision is an ominous one, in that it indicates the team is very comfortable with the amount of speed in the car and did not see a need, or desire, to show their hand during testing.

With that in mind, the Mercedes duo of Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas may yet again have the best and fastest cars, and the team looks poised to potentially make it five constructor’s and driver’s championships in a row.

Ferrari and Red Bull Look to End Mercedes Reign

The biggest threats to Mercedes are undoubtedly Ferrari and Red Bull, the only other teams to win in 2017.

And both teams displayed a lot of pace during testing, particularly in the “one-lap speed” category. Ricciardo set a lap record around the Catalunya circuit during the second week, only for Vettel to supplant that mark later in the week. Teammate Kimi Raikkonen led the way during the final day of testing.

It is unknown how that pace will translate over the course of a race distance. Mercedes appeared to have an edge on both Ferrari and Red Bull over long runs and race simulations, but there is also a theory that neither Ferrari nor Red Bull had their true long-run form on display.

Still, if a team is going to knock off Mercedes, it will likely be either Ferrari or Red Bull.

McLaren on the Rebound?

Put simply, the previous three seasons for McLaren F1 Team were a bit of a disaster. Their partnership with Honda yielded point totals of 27 (2015), 76 (2016), and 30 (2017) in a three-year venture that was defined by poor reliability and underwhelming power.

The relationship hit a boiling point last year and both entities parted ways ahead of the 2018 season, with McLaren signing a new power unit deal with Renault.

Testing went better than in previous years, though the team continued to battle reliability problems. However, all issues appeared to be minor, needling issues rather than more significant, foundational problems, as the other Renault teams (Red Bull and Renault Sport F1 Team) had solid runs with few reliability issues.

The car does appear to have speed in it, so if the reliability problems are behind them, McLaren could be in for a rebound season.

Stuck in the Midfield Again

Formula 1’s battle amongst the midfield is set to be as fierce as ever as a host of a several teams have a chance at being “best of the rest.”

Sahara Force India has been the frontrunner from the the midfield teams each of the last two years, finishing fourth in the constructor’s title in both 2016 and 2017, though if the steady conflict between drivers Esteban Ocon and Sergio Perez continues through 2018, it could hamper their efforts significantly.

Renault Sport F1 Team and Haas F1 Team look to improve on their 2017 form, while Toro Rosso is in a new partnership with Honda power units…and has experienced a surprisingly smooth pre-season as Honda’s 2018 platform looks significantly better, with the team enjoying a solid run of testing with few, if any, reliability problems.

Williams Martini Racing and Alfa Romeo Sauber appear to be at the back of the pack entering the season, but both could battle for points finishes if those ahead of them falter.