Sprint Cup Notes and Quotes for Sunday’s Kobalt 400 in Las Vegas: Will Junior stay hot?

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Pop quiz: Who has been the most consistent driver in Sprint Cup over nearly the last dozen races, dating back to the latter part of last season?

Jimmie Johnson, who won his sixth Cup championship last season, right?

Wrong.

Hard as it may seem to believe, especially to his haters, but the most consistent driver since last fall’s Chase for the Sprint Cup race at New Hampshire – the last 11 races, that is – has been none other than Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Junior has an average finish in that 11-race stretch of 4.8, according to NASCAR’s crack stats team.

Of course, Johnson isn’t far behind, with an average finish during that same time of 5.2.

Sunday’s Kobalt 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway should be a classic battle between the two Hendrick Motorsports teammates.

Johnson has finished first or second in five of his last nine races at LVMS, while Earnhardt – still in pursuit of his first career win in Sin City – has finished in the top-10 in five of his last six starts there.

And let’s not forget that Junior is off to the best start of his 15-year Sprint Cup career (has it REALLY been 15 years already?), with a win in the Daytona 500 and runner-up finish this past Sunday at Phoenix that kept him atop the Sprint Cup standings.

Here’s Junior’s scouting report on LVMS:

“Vegas has a lot of bumps going into Turn 1,” he said. “They are something else. I’m impressed each time I go there how much rougher it is. That really challenges you to set the car up to be able to get through the bumps.

“Your performance at Vegas can set the tone for the other intermediate tracks. Confidence is everything and when you go to Vegas. If you run well, you expect to go to the next mile-and-a-half and run well.”

******

Whenever the Sprint Cup tour visits LVMS, we invariably hear about how well two of Las Vegas’s most famous sons want to win at their so-called home track.

Kurt Busch’s average finish at Las Vegas is 21.7, his worst finishing average of ANY track on the Sprint Cup circuit.

In 13 starts at LVMS, the elder Busch brother has just one top-five and two other top-10 finishes. He also has a pole.

Younger brother Kyle – aka “Shrub” – has been significantly better at the 1.5-mile high-banked track. He has one Sprint Cup race win (plus two poles) and four top-five finishes there, with a 7.1 average start and 14.7 average finish.

*****

One of the biggest surprises thus far in the early 2014 season has been Casey Mears, believe it or not.

After finishing 10th in the season-opening Daytona 500 and 14th this past Sunday at Phoenix, Mears is part of a three-way tie for 10th-place in the Sprint Cup standings heading into Sunday’s race at Las Vegas.

His Phoenix finish was his best in a year on a non-restrictor plate oval (not including ninth at Daytona last July and 12th on the road course at Watkins Glen a month later).

“We’re looking forward to getting to Las Vegas and getting on the track with our No. 13 GEICO Chevrolet SS,” Mears said. “We’ve definitely started the year on a strong note and the new relationship with Chevrolet and Richard Childress Racing has been working really well.

“Mile and a half tracks have been a challenge for us over the years, so we’re hoping to be able to close the gap and have a strong run with our new Chevy. … We have a top ten and a 14th place finish heading into Las Vegas, so the guys on the team are in good spirits. It’s also nice to be sitting in a three-way tie for 10th in the point standings. The guys on this Germain Racing team have worked really hard, so I’m happy that we’ve been able to have a couple of strong races and get some good results.”

*****

Danica Patrick isn’t the only driver who has had a rough start of it this season (she’s currently 39th in the Sprint Cup standings, 77 points behind series leader Dale Earnhardt Jr.).

Parker Kligerman may be two spots ahead of Patrick in the standings at 37th, but he carries a dubious distinction of being the only Sprint Cup driver thus far this season who has recorded back-to-back DNFs in the first two races.

Kligerman was involved in a crash seven laps from the finish of the season-opening Daytona 500 (finished 29th) and managed to complete just 226 laps of the 312 at Phoenix before his engine blew up.

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Bourdais cleared to drive; return date still TBA

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Sebastien Bourdais was in Indianapolis on Tuesday and for good reason – not even three months after his devastating accident in qualifying for the Indianapolis 500, he received medical clearance that he is cleared to return to racing action.

Bourdais posted late Tuesday night he’d had his final appointment with his doctor and has been cleared to return to action. He’d targeted mid-August as the date to get this clearance, and this lives up to that target. He sustained pelvic and hip fractures in the accident in qualifying.

The Ford Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GT team welcomed Bourdais back to the Indianapolis shop on Woodland Drive on Tuesday, in anticipation for what would be Bourdais’ return to sports car competition at the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season finale, Motul Petit Le Mans, Oct. 5-7.

As for his day job, back in the No. 18 Dale Coyne Racing Honda, the team is yet to reveal when Bourdais will be back racing. Bourdais has set Watkins Glen as a target on Labor Day weekend, following the next two races on ovals at Pocono Raceway (Sunday, 2 p.m. ET, NBCSN) and Gateway Motorsports Park.

Provided the Coyne team can get through these two oval races cleanly with the rookie pair of Esteban Gutierrez and Ed Jones, that would increase the likelihood of a Bourdais return at Watkins Glen.

Bourdais tested at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course the Monday after that race, which was a huge step towards his formal comeback. He spoke to NBCSN contributor Robin Miller during the Honda Indy 200 race telecast.

Montoya refreshed for full year with Penske, Acura after ‘weird’ 2017

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If the worst kept secret in racing the last several months was that Team Penske was running a sports car program with Acura, the second worst kept secret was that Juan Pablo Montoya would be one of its drivers.

With today’s announcement however, the 41-year-old Colombian can now officially talk about his new full-time ride.

Montoya’s been renowned for his career versatility and winning in IndyCar, NASCAR and Formula 1. And now, how he’ll be back in action after an abnormal 2017 season where he’s tested two generations of IndyCars, will have tested two entirely different types of sports cars, raced an IndyCar twice for Team Penske in May at Indianapolis, won the Race of Champions in January, and spent some quality time karting in Europe with son Sebastian, who is beginning to blossom on that front.

It all adds up to a wild year of Juan Pablo that has been part slow, part flat out depending on the month.

“It’s been weird because at the beginning of the year, it was actually really calm until Indy,” Montoya said. “We had a little testing here or there, but it wasn’t much.

“Then two months with Indy and then kart racing in Europe. Since then it’s been non‑stop. I think the next three, four months are going to be non‑stop.

“But I don’t mind that. I really don’t mind. Doing the testing for the IndyCar has been a lot of fun for the ’18 IndyCar.  There’s no pressure. Just go there, you know, drive the wheels out of it with no compromise. That makes it fun.”

Montoya’s three days of testing in that car at Indianapolis, Mid-Ohio and Iowa have been an excellent case study in “JPM unleashed.”

Without the restrictions, as noted, his trademark unreal car control has been on display as he’s been able to push the car – in only its base setup – through all the items the INDYCAR officials want to see. Being able to drive at least seven or eight mph faster on a straight at Mid-Ohio already speaks to a good development path.

It’s a cool place for Montoya to be in, leaving a legacy as one of two test drivers for the new car. And he’ll get that same opportunity within the Penske Acura program, because he’ll have a chance to work alongside one of racing’s most experienced 28-year-olds, in Dane Cameron.

Cameron’s already raced in all four IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship classes and has won titles in two of them (Prototype, GT Daytona), while having driven a variety of cars ranging from this year’s Cadillac DPi-V.R to the previous generation Corvette DP, the BMW Z4 GT3 he won the GTD title with in 2014, a Risi Ferrari F458 Italia (the same team Montoya tested with this spring at Sebring) and more.

That makes Cameron a natural teammate with Montoya in more ways than one; he’s excelled across a variety of cars and series at a young age. Montoya was a CART and Indianapolis 500 champion at 24, an F1 race winner by 26 and a NASCAR Cup race winner by 32.

“I think it’s very exciting for me because Dane is a young guy, is a guy that has run the series, understands the series. I think he has a lot of knowledge,” Montoya explained.

“I’ve been driving all kinds of cars. As you know, I’ve driven everything. I’ve been successful in everything.  I’m excited to bring something to the table, and at the same time as a driver, find something new, learn new things.

“I think we can work together really well and hopefully bring a ton of victories.”

Montoya will handle the bulk of the Acura ARX-05’s initial testing as Cameron won’t be available until after his current contract with Action Express Racing in its No. 31 Whelen Engineering Racing Cadillac ends mid-October, following Petit Le Mans.

Penske Racing president Tim Cindric is optimistic the Penske Acura program, which he expects will see a combination of he, Kyle Moyer and Jeff Swartwout overseeing portions if not all of it, will be on track by the end of the month following the ARX-05’s formal reveal at The Quail in Monterey later this week.

While Montoya would still be a natural to run an extra Team Penske IndyCar at the Indianapolis 500 next year provided the opportunity is there – he said “I would say yes in a heartbeat” to that – he said the sports car focus will be top of mind as he returns to full-time action in what will be a deep championship.

“I think it would be a fun car. From what everybody says, it has a ton of grip,” he said. “I always enjoyed driving the (old) Daytona Prototypes because you could throw them around a lot.  These cars seem to have a lot more downforce and a lot more power, so I’m excited. I just don’t know what to expect.

“I think it’s going to be a lot better and a lot quicker than what I’m thinking.”

John Andretti begins new round of chemotherapy treatment

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John Andretti has started another round of chemotherapy.

The former NASCAR and IndyCar driver used Twitter on Monday to provide an update on his fight against colon cancer: “Same cocktail with an added twist. Only 3 months to go.”

The 54-year-old Andretti made his diagnosis public in early May and has relied on social media to keep fans abreast of his condition.

In late June, he Tweeted that doctors found that his spleen and gall bladder were cancer free. Andretti continues to encourage others to get preventative screenings.

Andretti started 49 consecutive IndyCar races from 1990-92 before moving to NASCAR, where he made 29 or more starts every year from 1994-2003. He was the first driver to attempt the Memorial Day double.

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Montoya, Cameron confirmed in first Penske Acura DPi

Montoya (Photo: IndyCar) and Cameron (Photo courtesy of IMSA)
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Juan Pablo Montoya and Dane Cameron will share one of the two Team Penske and Acura Motorsports Acura ARX-05 entries, combining one of this generation’s greatest drivers and one of this generation’s rising talents, in the 2018 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season.

Montoya has long been expected as a shoe-in and Cameron’s name has been top of mind for months to fill one of the Team Penske seats.

“We worked together with our partners at Acura Motorsports and Honda Performance Development (HPD) to bring together drivers that we believe will help develop our program and compete for race wins right out of the gate while also serving as great ambassadors for their brands,” said Roger Penske. “Having Juan and Dane join our program brings together two drivers that have extensive sports car racing experience in the prototype class and have already won at the top levels of the sport. This represents a great beginning to our program for 2018.”

Cameron will shift from Action Express Racing, where he won last year’s IMSA Prototype championship co-driving with Eric Curran in the No. 31 Whelen Engineering Corvette DP. Success has been harder to come by in their title defense year aboard the new No. 31 Whelen Engineering Racing Cadillac DPi-V.R.

“Getting a chance to race for Team Penske is like a dream come true for a driver,” said Cameron. “To see all of the effort and resources that Acura Motorsports is putting into this new program to develop and win with the ARX-05, it’s really impressive. I’m so excited for the opportunity to become part of the team and work with a guy who has done all the things Juan has done. It’s going to be an awesome experience to add my name to the list of drivers that have driven for Team Penske. I’m looking forward to a busy off season and coming out of the gates strong at Daytona.”

For Montoya, meanwhile, this marks a return to full-time competition after a year racing in the month of May with Team Penske at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and then testing the 2018 Dallara universal aero kit IndyCar.

“I have really enjoyed working with Roger and Team Penske over the last four years,” said Montoya. “When Roger asked if I’d like to be part of starting this new sports car operation with Acura, it was an easy decision. I’ve always loved racing sports cars. It’s definitely a challenge and it’s going to be a lot of fun to develop a new car with Acura. I’m excited to start the testing of the ARX-05 next week. Team Penske started its winning tradition in sports cars and it’s going to be cool to be a part of a new chapter with the team.”