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

2 Comments

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.

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

Cooper solidifies PWC GT presence with Callaway Corvette

Callaway, Cooper, Gill. Photo: PWC
Leave a comment

Pirelli World Challenge could use a “face” of the series from a driving standpoint, and American Michael Cooper is a good candidate to fill that role for 2018.

Cooper, 27, has won PWC Touring Car, GTS and, most recently the SprintX GT titles within the series and has quickly blossomed into one of the series’ top GT stars.

It’s been a rapid rise for the Syosset, N.Y. native, entering into a world filled with series stars and champions such as Johnny O’Connell, Patrick Long, Alvaro Parente and a host of others.

But under O’Connell’s tutelage, Cooper admirably filled the rather gaping shoes vacated by Andy Pilgrim at Cadillac Racing, steering the Cadillac ATS-V.R to multiple race wins in the last two years – including a sweep of this year’s season finale weekend at Sonoma.

Cooper and Jordan Taylor were the model of consistency in SprintX this year, winning once at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park and surviving contact at Circuit of The Americas to take that title.

With Cadillac withdrawing its ATS-V.R program at the end of the year though, Cooper was left a free agent for 2018. Fortunately with one door closed another opened, in the form of the GM-blessed but full Callaway Competition USA effort with its Callaway Corvette C7 GT3-R that will come Stateside next year. Cooper and Daniel Keilwitz will be in the team’s two cars for the full season; the car was fully unveiled last week at the PRI Show in Indianapolis.

The Callaway is a proven commodity in Europe but couldn’t run in the U.S. unless the path was cleared by one of GM’s factory programs to end a direct, potential head-to-head competition.

Moving from the Cadillac to the Callaway Corvette should be a natural transition, Cooper said last week.

“It worked out incredibly well that GM decided to allow Calloway to run the car in the United States and it created an opportunity for me that wouldn’t have been there otherwise,” he told NBC Sports. “I talked to a lot of other GT teams and at the end of the day, I felt like this was the best direction for me to be competitive next year and to also continue furthering my career with General Motors.”

Indeed Cooper has graduated from the Blackdog Speed Shop Chevrolet Camaro Z/28.R in GTS to the Cadillac and now to the Callaway Corvette. Cooper hailed the Cadillac team for what they did for his career growth.

“Working with Cadillac Racing has been instrumental in developing my abilities both on and off the track,” he said. “So I’m definitely a much more well-rounded driver now and have a lot of experience in the World Challenge GT field, so I kind of know what to expect going into that first race and going into that first corner in St. Pete.”

As noted, the car’s success in Europe means it’s a well-oiled machine by the time Reeves Callaway has worked with PWC to bring it Stateside next year. And as Cooper explained, discussions had been underway for a bit of time to ensure his presence in this car and team.

“I think the car is going to be extremely capable. It’s already won championships and races in Europe. I think, in bringing it over here, we’re going to hit the ground running straight away,” he said.

“Calloway had wanted me to come drive for them in July or August. We always kept in touch since then, and there was a lot of work trying to put together a program before they decided that they were going to do a fully fledged factory program. So once they made that decision, I think the pieces were kind of in place already, and the conversations had been had to be able to say ‘You’re going to be our guy.’”

December is late for IMSA programs to get finalized, but it’s relatively early for PWC, with the season not starting until mid-March in St. Petersburg. An extensive testing program should follow, as Callaway establishes its U.S. base and infrastructure.

“It’s definitely early for a Pirelli World Challenge program to be announced in December when we start racing in March. So that’s very good,” he said. “But, the team has a lot of work ahead of them in terms of getting infrastructure set up here in the United States, because a lot of their racing program has been in Europe. So, there will be a testing program, but they have to get the infrastructure in place first. But, we’ll be well prepared for St. Pete, I’m certain of it.

“Last year was the first year when I could sit back, kick my feet up, and know what I was doing next year. So, to be able to have everything done and be able to announce it this early on makes my life less stressful and now I can just focus on preparing myself and my team for next year.”