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

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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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MRTI: Road America weekend digest

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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It was a packed weekend at Road America for the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires, with all three series completing two races apiece through the weekend. It marks the third time this year that all three series competed at the same facility on the same weekend, the other two being the streets of St. Petersburg and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course. And the tightly-packed weekend saw no shortage of dramatics, ranging from first-time winners to drastic championship swings.

Carlin’s Rise

Prior to the month of May, Carlin was enduring somewhat of a disappointing run this season in Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires. A perennial front-runner the last two years and a championship winner in 2016 with driver Ed Jones, the British-based outfit had gone winless through the opening six races of the 2017 season.

However, that all changed when 19-year-old rookie Matheus Leist scored his first career Indy Lights victory at the Freedom 100, and the momentum appears to be permeating through the entire team.

Leist was strong again at Road America, winning Race 1 and finishing fourth in Race 2, while Zachary Claman De Melo took his maiden Indy Lights win in Race 2. Third Carlin driver Neil Alberico finished a somewhat disappointing seventh and eighth in the two races, but with two finishes of third and three finishes of fourth already to his name in 2017, the Californian is also building momentum of his own.

Race 2 winner Claman De Melo, who was all but speechless afterward, highlighted the overall strength of the team, specifically referencing his own engineer, who he described as a big influence on his development. “It’s such a great group at Carlin: from the team to the other drivers, we all push each other so hard. I’m learning from everyone on the team and I can’t thank my engineer, Matt Greasley, enough. He’s helped me develop as a driver to be in front like I was (in Race 2),” said the 19-year-old.

Zachary Claman De Melo scored his first career Indy Lights victory at Road America. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Leist, too, mentioned chemistry within the team as being crucial to their success, and is elated that race wins are starting to come their way. “It’s great to get wins now – I felt at the beginning of the year that we had a car to win, but I couldn’t put it all together,” he said following his Race 1 triumph. “Everything was new to me, but I’m glad I have a team like Carlin to help me to improve my techniques, as well as my teammates. Everything is going our way now so I hope we can keep up the momentum!”

A championship run may be beckoning as Indy Lights begins its summer stretch. Currently, Leist ranks second in the overall standings, best of the Carlin group, while Alberico sits tied for fifth with Aaron Telitz. Claman De Melo sits seventh.

 

Consistent Kaiser Rolls on With Indy Lights Championship Lead

Kyle Kaiser might not have been the immediate title favorite at the beginning of the season. But, on the strength of one win (Race 2, Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course) and five podiums, including finishes of third and second at Road America, Kaiser has asserted himself as the man to beat in the 2017 championship.

Further, the 21-year-old’s consistency is juxtaposed with inconsistency from some of his title rivals.

Aaron Telitz won Race 1 on the streets of St. Petersburg to open the season, finished second at the Freedom 100, and has four additional finishes of sixth or better. But, he has also endured three finishes of 11th or worse.

Colton Herta, winner of a pair of races (Race 2 outings at both the streets of St. Petersburg and Barber Motorsports Park), has had a “feast or famine” season, featuring the aforementioned wins along with two additional podiums, but also with five finishes of tenth or worse to counter.

The aforementioned Leist, admittedly on a hot streak, started the year slowly with finishes of 15th and 11th at St. Petersburg. And Nico Jamin, with a pair of 14th-place finishes his worst placings this year, has also encountered some struggles of his own.

Kaiser, however, has finished sixth or better in eight of nine races so far, with his worst finish being ninth at the Freedom 100. Still, one cannot assume that Kaiser is choosing to play prevent while those around him sputter. As he explained after Race 1, in which he finished third, he is still on the charge and looking to get the best finishes he can.

“I think it’s important to finish races but I’m not trying to be careful. When you’re too defensive and careful you get wrecked. I showed that this weekend. We made a lot of good passes. I was aggressive to the very last lap. That’s the plan the rest of the year,” Kaiser asserted.

As a result of his consistency, Kaiser holds a 28-point lead over Leist. But, with only 50 points separating the top six, the championship is still anyone’s for the taking.

 

Marvelous Martin Withstands Furious Franzoni Charge

Martin (8) and Franzoni (23) had an intense battle in Race 2 at Road America. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Perhaps the best battle across all three Mazda Road to Indy series came in Race 2 of the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires and involved title combatants Anthony Martin and Victor Franzoni.

Franzoni, the Race 1 winner over Martin, was forced to start 15th, last on the grid, when a red flag prevented him from setting a lap time in qualifying, but he very quickly rocketed his way through the field, climbing up to third four laps in. He then took advantage of a restart to get around then second-place runner TJ Fischer before setting his sights on Martin for the lead.

Martin, however, was firm but clean in his defense and withstood every challenge from Franzoni to score his third win of the season.

“I just had to put my head down and my bum up and really focus on the road ahead of me and not behind me,” Martin quipped afterward. “It’s hard, because you have that car in your mirrors but you can’t let it affect you. That worked out a lot better (in Race 2 than in Race 1). We will go back and work on a few things to find some speed and be ready for Mid-Ohio.”

Franzoni, meanwhile, tried to balance the disappointment of not winning against his impressive charge to second. “I’m sad not to win, but other people would say it’s good that I came back to finish second. But we lost points today, even though I came from last to second,” he explained. “I had to be really smart and really aggressive. I couldn’t lose time but I couldn’t crash. I had to pick my spaces, especially with guys who were battling with each other. It was fun.”

As a result of their battle, Franzoni leaves Road America with a slim seven-point lead over Martin.

 

Veekay Sweeps, Askew Hits Trouble in USF2000

Of the three Mazda Road to Indy championships, the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda seemed to have the most straight-forward title picture. The dominant Oliver Askew, winner of five races in a row and with a worst 2017 finish of second (Race 1, St. Petersburg) looked all but unbeatable heading into the weekend, and there was no reason to believe his run would slow down.

And then the races happened. Camber shims on the left-front wheel became loose in the middle of Race 1, forcing an emergency pit stop for repairs, which dropped him to 17th in the finishing order.

Askew rebounded to finish third in Race 2, but Dutch driver Rinus VeeKay (full surname of Van Kalmthout) swept the weekend with two race wins, the first of his USF2000 career.

Rinus Veekay won both USF2000 races at Road America. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

An elated Veekay was beside himself over the success, which occurred at the home track for his team, Pabst Racing. “We’re so happy – it’s great to do this here, the home track for the team. I was screaming on the radio again! I’m so happy that we have the speed and we can really show what we can do.”

Veekay’s triumphs combined with Askew’s troubles to slice the championship deficit to 34 points between the two. With 30 points available for race wins and seven races remaining, the USF2000 championship has suddenly been blown open.

Indy Lights and USF2000 resume action at Iowa Speedway on July 9, while Pro Mazda returns at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course for a triple-header on July 28-30.

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Alex Lynn to make Formula E debut in New York with DS Virgin

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Alex Lynn will make his Formula E debut with DS Virgin Racing in New York next month in place of Jose Maria Lopez.

Lynn joined DS Virgin back in January in a reserve role as part of an extensive racing plan for 2017 that also included appearances in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship and at the Nürburgring 24 Hours.

The Briton angled for a full-time move into Formula E last year, testing for Jaguar, and will now make his long-awaited debut in the all-electric series in New York on July 15-16.

Lopez is unable to race in New York due to clashing commitments in the FIA World Endurance Championship with Toyota at the Nürburgring, freeing up a seat for Lynn.

“I’m delighted to be racing for the DS Virgin Racing team. Formula E has always impressed me with its combination of advanced technology, iconic city center locations and some of the best drivers in the world,” Lynn said.

“We have a lot of testing and simulator work to do before the New York event, but I’m confident I can show what I’m capable of during my rookie debut in the Big Apple.”

Lynn will race alongside Sam Bird in New York, who opted to prioritize his Formula E duties over his planned WEC appearance with AF Corse at the Nürburgring.

Lynn will also be missing the race at the Nürburgring, but will return to G-Drive Racing’s LMP2 line-up for the following round in Mexico City in September.

From Castroneves to Newgarden, chemistry helps power Penske

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ELKHART LAKE, Wis. (AP) As usual, Helio Castroneves took charge.

Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud came in early for their news conference after a good practice at Road America for the Team Penske drivers. Castroneves, still in his firesuit, picked up the microphone and started moderating the discussion as if he was a veteran announcer.

“You’re such a natural,” Pagenaud said to laughter. “The guy is great.”

Chemistry on and off the track has helped fuel Team Penske’s IndyCar success. All four Penske drivers are sixth or better in the points race, within 63 or less of leader Scott Dixon.

“Between us, yes, we want to kick everybody inside the team,” Castroneves said. “But we want to give the win, we want to give the championship to Roger (Penske). But we know in the end of the day, working together, racing hard … but fair, everybody’s going to be benefit from that.”

The three-time Indianapolis 500 winner is a headliner on another impressive IndyCar roster for Penske. Pagenaud is the reigning champion. Will Power is a former series champ.

Josef Newgarden is the new guy after joining Penske in the offseason from tiny Ed Carpenter Racing. Newgarden, who finished fourth in the series last year, is the first American driver on Penske’s open-wheel roster since Sam Hornish Jr. in 2007.

The quartet dominated practice and qualifying at Road America last weekend, with Castroneves taking the pole while his teammates filled out the rest of the front row. A large team allows drivers to share information, giving Penske an advantage over teams with fewer cars.

“We have on-board cameras, have data, have notes from the session. If you wanted to hide something, you just can’t,” Power said.

Added Newgarden: “Really, it’s like impossible. No joke. It’s 100% impossible to hide anything.”

Not that they seem to mind. The addition of Newgarden has appeared to be seamless since he replaced Juan Pablo Montoya. They poked fun at each other all weekend in Wisconsin.

Newgarden, who turns 27 in December, is one of the circuit’s up-and-coming stars. A friendly demeanor meshes well with Castroneves, the jovial veteran of the group in his 20th season.

“First of all, his talent, it definitely (suits) the team,” Castroneves said of Newgarden. “Well, his personality, it helps, too. He’s a guy that fits in.”

Known for his outgoing personality, the 42 year-old Castroneves seemed as energetic as ever at Road America after winning the pole.

“He gets faster as he gets older, like wine, matured,” Power said.

The drivers look like mischievous middle-school boys on a series of lighthearted videos produced by Team Penske. The “Penske Games” include activities like building a Lego race car ; saying the alphabet backward ; and twirling a hula hoop.

“All right, everyone, `Dancing with the Stars,”‘ said Castroneves, the 2007 winner of the reality TV show competition. “We didn’t have this on Dancing with the Stars, but it’s OK.”

Pagenaud looked mystified .

“Well, I’ve never done it,” Pagenaud said.

Newgarden swayed and smiled into the camera.

“It’s all in the hips. That’s what Helio would tell you,” he joked.

They’re much more competitive on the track and for good reason: All are in championship contention.

With Pagenaud using fresh tires, Power blocked his teammate around a turn in lap 15 at Road America. Race officials penalized Power and ordered him to give up one spot on the track.

“We were just caught up in things all day,” said Power, sixth in the points race overall. He finished fifth at Road America.

It was still a good day overall for Penske, with Newgarden finishing second, followed by Castroneves and Pagenaud. It was a reward that comes with the cooperation between the drivers, engineers and mechanics.

But Dixon spoiled the Penske party after the Chip Ganassi Racing veteran won the Wisconsin race. The series resumes July 9 at Iowa.

“It’s kind of disappointing that Team Penske didn’t get the win here today considering how strong all of the cars were. That’s the way it goes sometimes,” Castroneves said. “We’ll come back ready to go for Iowa.”

 

Indy Lights: Chad Boat to make Indy Lights debut with Belardi

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Belardi Auto Racing, which currently fields entries for Aaron Telitz, Santi Urrutia, and Shelby Blackstock in the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, announced on Tuesday that USAC standout Chad Boat, son of former Verizon IndyCar Series race winner Billy Boat, will make his Indy Lights debut with the Brian Belardi led-outfit. Boat will contest the July 9 race at Iowa Speedway, a track he has previously raced on in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, and will return for the August 26 event at Gateway Motorsports Park.

“We’re extremely pleased to announce the addition of Chad Boat to our stable of drivers for the Iowa and Gateway Indy Lights oval races this summer,” team owner Brian Belardi detailed. “It’s exciting to have a second-generation driver running with us, and we’re certainly looking forward to getting Chad on track in Iowa.”

The younger Boat has become a star in his own right in USAC, winning Rookie of the Year honors in both the USAC National Midget and Sprint car divisions. The 25-year-old will pilot the No. 84 entry, with sponsorship from Pristine Auction.

“I grew up watching my dad race Indy cars, so having the opportunity to run Indy Lights this year is absolutely surreal,” said Boat. “I have to thank Belardi Auto Racing for giving me a shot behind the wheel of the No. 84 Dallara, as well as Pristine Auction for their continued support in my racing career. I can’t wait to get to Iowa Speedway.”

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