Junior

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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McLaren reveals much anticipated, orange MCL32 Honda

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Photo: McLaren
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McLaren has taken the wraps off the MCL32 Honda, its new chassis in the first year of the post-Ron Dennis era, with Zak Brown now at the helm of the team and after an offseason of excitement and teasing about the livery change.

The switch to an MCL32 chassis designation brings to an end the run of MP4-number chassis as part of the team’s effective relaunch, although the notation of “32” after MCL would in some respects keep that MP4-31 number streak continuing.

But the biggest change beyond the name is the livery color, which switches to the traditional McLaren orange along with black for 2017, and brings to an end the first two years of black, red and silver that adorned the McLarens when Honda came back.

McLaren last ran orange in testing 20 years ago in an interim livery before the unveil of the striking silver to coincide with West cigarettes in 1997. But in race competition, it’s been since the 1960s and early ’70s since the team founded by Bruce McLaren has had that distinctive orange flavor on a race car.

If the team can find an uptick in performance with the chassis and power unit enhancements to match, then two-time World Champion Fernando Alonso and one of Formula 1’s most exciting rookie prospects in years, Stoffel Vandoorne, could well have a year to remember here, befitting of the entire McLaren legacy.

“It’s awesome. It’s such a special place to be,” Brown said at the launch.

“It definitely wasn’t me!” he added of the livery design. “It was a collective group. Ultimately it was in response to input from the fans.

“If you’re not a McLaren fan, please leave! We’re highly frustrated were not winning races. It takes time putting the package together. But last year was forward progress and that’s what we need to see this year. Our driver lineup has two of the best guys.”

Naturally, the two drivers followed.

“It’s fantastic,” Alonso said. “The first time we saw it today. yesterday the last parts were coming together. We’ve got some orange and obviously with the new regulations it seems spectacular.

“I think it becomes sexy when they are fast! But it’s one of the most beautiful cars I will drive. It looks sexy from the outside.

“There are some hopes it will improve the show and will make things a little bit bigger. Next week we will have some answers in Barcelona. But it’s a good change for Formula 1 to have faster, good looking cars.”

Vandoorne added, “It’s a very exciting time for me to be fully involved as a full-time race driver. I’ve been to many Grands Prix but finally in full-time, set to step in is great. For McLaren, the focus is to get back to winning.”

F1 Paddock Pass: Mercedes W08 Launch (VIDEO)

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Winter storm Doris hit the U.K. on Thursday but filming of Paddock Pass pressed on regardless, as the latest installment of the NBC Sports Group original digital series captured yet another video – this time the launch of the Mercedes F1 W08 EQ Power+, the latest challenger for the Mercedes AMG Petronas.

Mercedes’ launch differed from the first three this week, Sauber, Renault and Force India, in that it was both a filming day and launch at the Silverstone Circuit for drivers Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas. Both drivers had time in the car.

NBCSN pit reporter and insider Will Buxton catches up with the key stakeholders in this edition of Paddock Pass.

Previous Paddock Pass editions from this week are below:

Stay tuned to more on NBCSports.com as the week continues in the buildup to testing next week in Barcelona.

Scuderia Ferrari reveals its 2017 Formula 1 challenger

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Photos: Ferrari
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Scuderia Ferrari has taken the wraps off its 2017 chassis as the launch week continues for this year’s Formula 1 cars.

Despite the loss of technical director James Allison to Mercedes and after going through an underwhelming, winless 2016 season – at least by Ferrari standards – the team looks for a bounce back this year to coincide with the new regulations.

The renamed SF70H, which follows on last year’s SF16-H, was revealed online in a quick video without any buildup or dialogue from any of the key team stakeholders.

Photo: Ferrari
Photo: Ferrari
Photo: Ferrari
Photo: Ferrari

Noticeable on this car is the shark fin element, again with a winglet on the top of it. The team’s reveal of the chassis reveals the differences for this project, code named the 668 internally:

There are several differences between the 668 project and Ferraris from the recent past: the lengthened nose and the arrow-shaped wing are a consequence of the regulations, as is the obvious fin on the engine cover and the more complex aero appendages ahead of the air intakes on the sidepods, whose unusual shape was designed in harmony with the front crash structure. Visible at the front is a duct that has an aerodynamic role, while behind the driver, the roll-hoop, which incorporates the engine air intake has been completely redesigned. Also updated is the suspension layout, which still retains a push rod design at the front with pull rods at the rear. The hubs and wheel nuts have been redesigned to facilitate the work of the mechanics when changing wheels during the pit stops. Finally, also as a function of the expected increase in performance this year, the power-steering and braking systems have been upsized.

A couple screen caps from the launch video are below:

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Photo: Ferrari
Photos: Ferrari

The launch is the first of two today, with McLaren’s reveal of the MCL32 coming in a couple hours.

Ricky Taylor makes his IndyCar test debut today at Homestead

BRASELTON, GA - OCTOBER 03:  Ricky Taylor, C, sits with member of his crew before qualifying for Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta on October 3, 2014 in Braselton, Georgia.  (Photo by Brian Cleary/Getty Images)
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It seems to be the winter of all-stars from other racing disciplines testing in IndyCar.

Today Ricky Taylor joined the list of those stars from the closed-top sports car or touring car world on the winter IndyCar test list, with a one-off guest test for Team Penske in defending Verizon IndyCar Series champion Simon Pagenaud’s No. 1 PPG Chevrolet.

The older of two Taylor brothers, who completed a star turn at this year’s Rolex 24 at Daytona en route to delivering the No. 10 Konica Minolta Cadillac DPi-V.R an overall win with brother Jordan, Max Angelelli and Jeff Gordon, made his maiden laps at the Homestead-Miami Speedway road course.

Chevrolet and General Motors extended the test offer to Ricky Taylor for this opportunity. Fittingly for Pagenaud, it’s the second time in not even a year he’s given up his seat to another member of either the GM or Penske family; Brad Keselowski made a similar out-of-nowhere one-off test at Road America last year.

“Every driver dreams to be an Indy car driver,” Taylor said, via IndyCar.com. It can’t hurt to be involved with (Team Penske); there are no negatives to that. To get to know all the guys and get to drive the car and get an actual feel for it in a low-pressure environment is a great opportunity for me. Even if it doesn’t lead to anything, it’s a big learning opportunity.”

With Ricky Taylor completing this test and with Robert Wickens and Pipo Derani set to test next week at Sebring’s short course, there’s been a sudden series of additional interest in the final few runs before the IndyCar season opens on March 12.

And with Ricky Taylor in Homestead today, it was left to Jordan Taylor and the Konica Minolta team’s new third driver, Englishman Alex Lynn, to run solo today as part of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship February test at Sebring’s full course. Lynn will make his U.S. race debut in the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring, to be held March 18. Ricky Taylor will be back at Sebring for the second day of the IMSA test, held Friday.

Great to see @simonpagenaud and @rickytaylor_10 today good job both!!

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