Kobalt 400

Early season NASCAR stars and strugglers

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It’s only been three races and the mantra being trumpeted this year is that wins mean everything in NASCAR.

Points still do too, eventually at least. Here’s a look at some of the best and those who will have work to do after three races, now that a slightly larger sample size of tracks is available to draw from:

IN GREAT SHAPE

Race winners Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski are all essentially locked into this year’s Chase. They can all afford to take chances from here, and it’s why Earnhardt was so disappointed with second on Sunday, because they went for it and came up just short on fuel.

OFF AND RUNNING

Six other drivers have either two or three top-10 finishes even though they haven’t yet visited Victory Lane. But it’s likely only a matter of time for all of Jimmie Johnson, Joey Logano, Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth and Ryan Newman. Denny Hamlin, of course, took home a pair of wins at Daytona Speedweeks but has yet to match his runner-up finish in the Daytona 500 itself.

RUNNING BETTER, BUT NOT GREAT YET

From 10th on down in the points are drivers who should factor into Chase contention down the road but haven’t run in top-five or top-three contention yet through the first three races. All these drivers have just one top-10 finish in the first three races: Kyle Busch, Jamie McMurray, Greg Biffle, Austin Dillon, Kasey Kahne, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Casey Mears and Paul Menard.

SOME WORK TO DO

All these drivers rank outside the top 20 in points through three races, and have had at least one “bad” race or DNF: Clint Bowyer, rookie Kyle Larson, Martin Truex Jr., Stewart-Haas Racing’s trio of Tony Stewart, Danica Patrick and Kurt Busch, and Aric Almirola of Richard Petty Motorsports.

Combined this group ranks anywhere from 22nd to 33rd in points, and have zero top-10 finishes between them. It’s not something they can’t recover from, but they’ve already dug themselves a slight hole to climb out of.

POINTS: Through 3 of 26 regular season races.

PWC: Parker Chase, Ginetta look to build on rookie campaign

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Photo: Parker Chase Racing
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A pair of teenagers took the 2016 GTS class of Pirelli World Challenge by storm. Nate Stacy won and contended for the class championship at age 16 in the venerable Ford Mustang Boss 302. Meanwhile 15-year-old Parker Chase took one of the new GT4-spec cars, the Ginetta GT4, to a number of podium finishes of his own en route to rookie-of-the-year honors.

Expect the two to continue their progression and development this year. Stacy switches to Flying Lizard Motorsports and will be in a Porsche Cayman GT4, while Chase, only a high school sophomore who was recently named to Ginetta’s Young Driver Development Program, appears set to continue with the manufacturer for another year. Ginetta and Chase’s 2016 team, Performance Motorsports Group, are yet to reveal their formal PWC program but Chase said the goal is to continue as planned in 2017.

Stacy had Touring Car experience in both PWC’s TC and TCB classes prior to stepping up to GTS this past season, while Chase was a largely unheralded name to the series and the sports car world.

But after success at the season-opening round not far from Chase’s hometown of New Braunfels, Texas at Circuit of The Americas in Austin (the track is 50 miles north of New Braunfels), a decision was made that would see Chase and the rest of Stuart Robinson’s Performance Motorsports Group team push the No. 19 Alta Towers/Enertech Resources Ginetta G55 GT4 into a full-season effort.

“It was kind of a one-off race at the beginning,” Chase told NBC Sports at the Performance Racing Industry Trade Show in Indianapolis. “We did COTA, and finished pretty well there in third and fifth. From there went to go to St. Pete. That sealed the deal.

“As we’re here at end of the season, I know much more. I’ve developed better race craft. Stepping up from Spec Miata, it was big to just have learned the basics of the cars and progress from there.”

Chase’s Ginetta, several KTM X-BOWs from the ANSA Motorsports and Mantella Autosport teams, and the SIN R1 GT4s from Racers Edge Motorsports led the charge among the lighter, more nimble GT4-spec cars up against the heavier but more powerful legacy GTS cars, Stacy’s Mustang and the Blackdog Speed Shop Chevrolet Camaro Z/28.Rs among them.

Chase (left) and Stacy (center) were the two young stars of GTS in 2016. Photo: PWC
Chase (left) and Stacy (center) were the two young stars of GTS in 2016. Photo: PWC

That made the racing last year very intriguing. At Sonoma in particular, when Stacy held off a hard-charging Chase for his first career win, watching the variation in where cars excelled was fascinating, and that taught Chase quite a lot about how to race such wildly disparate animals.

“It was kind of a struggle,” Chase admitted. “They couldn’t carry much mid-corner speed. In my car and others, you had to carry more, because that’s the way to be fast. Being stuck behind kills the momentum, but then they have so much torque out of the corners that you lose time.”

Despite the learning curve, Chase developed in multiple areas. He looked up to several-time PWC champion Lawson Aschenbach as a mentor, with Aschenbach without question the most experienced driver in class. He relied on Robinson’s advice, having helped him in karting prior to stepping up to GTS. And with fellow New Braunfels native Harry Gottsacker in a second Ginetta, Chase had a second set of data to draw of as the year went on.

“Early in the season in his first few races I helped him a lot. Then by Utah, Sonoma and Laguna (Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca), we were right on same pace,” Chase explained. “We took a bit from each other and I think working together is much better than being a one-car team.

“With Stuart, I worked with him a bit in karting. I worked with him more in Spec Miata. He started this program and helped me get my licenses. This one really helped to get me into GTS at 15.”

Chase also spread his wings driving different machinery in 2016. Besides the GTS car, he also raced a partial season of GRC Lites and scored a podium at MCAS New River, and raced in the Ginetta G57 LMP3 prototype at December’s 25 Hours of Thunderhill with Colin Braun, Ryan Carpenter, Bryan and Colton Herta and Joel Miller. A potential win went begging with right-rear wheel issues striking the car in the final hours.

“Taking it all in really helps me,” he said. “The Thunderhill weekend in the G57 gave me a chance to use way more power and downforce. I’m hoping the GTS might feel like a piece of cake afterwards! We’ll do some testing and see how I improve.”

The PWC GTS season begins at St. Petersburg the weekend of March 10-12. The exact weekend schedule should be released in February, with Chase and perhaps the rest of the PWC paddock looking for more track time beyond the limited running this year on Thursday, Friday and Saturday of the race weekend. Chase will turn 16 in February.

Could Maldonado save KV Racing from joining ranks of former teams?

SUZUKA, JAPAN - SEPTEMBER 25:  Pastor Maldonado of Venezuela and Lotus walks in the paddock during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Japan at Suzuka Circuit on September 25, 2015 in Suzuka.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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The Verizon IndyCar Series, which stands on the precipice of a slightly reduced field for the 2017 season, may ensure a one-car retention if KV Racing can be saved from the brink.

Motorsport.com’s David Malsher reported Wednesday that ex-Formula 1 driver Pastor Maldonado is in talks with the team for a road and street course program but if a deal can’t be reached, the team will likely have met its ultimate end.

This presents a fascinating question: Is it better to have a 22-car grid for 2017 with Maldonado, thus ensuring there’s a ninth team on the grid, or is it better to have a 21-car grid without him?

Maldonado was nothing short of a lightning rod during his F1 career from 2011 to 2015, but one thing you can accurately attest about him is that he rarely lacked for pace or determination. Accidents happened more often than not and Maldonado was frequently the butt of jokes for his driving style and propensity for finding the wall.

Still, he is and will always be a Grand Prix winner courtesy of his defense at the 2012 Spanish Grand Prix. And that’s a statistic not afforded – yet, anyway – to the likes of such up-and-coming talents like Sergio Perez, Nico Hulkenberg, Romain Grosjean and new Mercedes recruit Valtteri Bottas, among others.

Maldonado would be far from the first win it-or-wreck it caliber driver in IndyCar. And if we’re honest, KV has had its share of drivers who made their fair share of wall contact in the past. The 2010 season featured KV’s three-car lineup of Takuma Sato, E.J. Viso and Mario Moraes, and the trio had more than 20 recorded incidents.

Sato, who was then a rookie in 2010, has largely cleaned up his performance in the years since, yet remains one of the fearless drivers to watch in the series.

He wouldn’t be the first recent Formula 1 driver to come over to IndyCar, either. Max Chilton and Alexander Rossi did last year to great effect, and Sato and Sebastien Bourdais both were back in IndyCar after their F1 sojourns. It takes a little bit of time to adapt, surely, but Maldonado – who stayed sharp as a test driver for Pirelli last year – would be up to the task.

He’s already shown his face at an IndyCar event, afforded an invite by Cosworth’s Adam Parr to the Iowa Speedway race last year. Maldonado, at the time, didn’t admit to being too keen on coming to IndyCar but said he’d consider it if the timing or opportunity was right.

“I was very interested to see how the Indy works,” Maldonado told NBC Sports in July. “I got the invitation from the team and it’s very interesting. I have so many friends here from Europe, starting with Juan Pablo (Montoya), then so many other drivers. It’s quite interesting to see how the series is organized. And then maybe I didn’t choose the best track to come, but it’s nice even to see this old-fashioned American style.

“At the moment we are not looking to race here, but for sure I’m looking around to solve my situation.”

Maldonado on his own would be a wild card for the series but if he could assemble a program, even if it’s just for the road and street races, it could well present another spot for any of the other talented youngsters on the outside looking in for the oval races.

More importantly, his presence could prevent the team from going under, and stop the bleeding from a team standpoint in the series.

The 21 projected full-time cars this year include 12 of them from just three teams – Team Penske, Chip Ganassi Racing and Andretti Autosport – who field four cars apiece. That leaves nine other cars spread across five teams, two each from Dale Coyne, Ed Carpenter, A.J. Foyt, Sam Schmidt and Ric Peterson and one from Bobby Rahal.

INDYCAR, as a series, has lost Panther Racing, Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, Conquest Racing, HVM and Dragon Racing as full-time teams just in the last five years since the introduction of the Dallara DW12 chassis.

Conquest and HVM had each had a stint aligned with Andretti Autosport for one of its four entries; meanwhile Bryan Herta’s team has continued only as part of Andretti Autosport. Carpenter’s team is back to just ECR, as Sarah Fisher and Wink Hartman’s tenure as owners has also ended.

KV’s history runs deeper than you might realize. The team that’s been through nearly as many iterations as drivers, paint schemes and chassis the last decade or so actually has its origins dating back to the 1990s as the PacWest Racing Group, run by Bruce McCaw.

In 2002, PacWest – as the renamed PWR Championship Racing – ceased operations and it left a then-unheralded New Zealander named Scott Dixon sidelined, with Dixon rescued only by Toyota and Ganassi later that summer. Oriol Servia was also left out in the cold.

Its assets transferred to the renamed PK Racing in 2003, run at the time by Kevin Kalkhoven, then CART’s series savior and Jacques Villeneuve’s longtime manager Craig Pollack.

Down the line it’s been renamed as PKV Racing, with Jimmy Vasser (the V) and Dan Pettit (the P) as co-owners. Pettit then forged ahead with Kalkhoven’s other Champ Car business partner Gerry Forsythe, while the KV name rolled along and switched to KV Racing Technology. Cristiano da Matta (2005, Portland) and Will Power (2008, Long Beach) won races for the team.

The KVRT team moved into IndyCar as part of the Champ Car/IndyCar merger in 2008. James “Sulli” Sullivan entered into the equation by 2013 after toe-in-the-water efforts on his own with Dreyer & Reinbold in 2011; and by 2013, the renamed KVSH Racing entry for Tony Kanaan had won that year’s Indianapolis 500, quite an achievement.

The second and third KV cars had become something of a round-robin in recent years. Kanaan helped bring Rubens Barrichello into IndyCar in 2012 but that was only for one year. Simona de Silvestro and her management team joined up in 2013; Sebastian Saavedra and his de facto “racing father,” Gary Peterson, of AFS Racing joined up in 2014. Stefano Coletti was a KVRT-only second car in 2015, and this year, Stefan Wilson (KVRT only) and Matthew Brabham (PIRTEK Team Murray, in a KVRT technical alliance) were added for the Indianapolis 500.

Once Kanaan moved to Ganassi in 2014, Bourdais came to KV, under the KVSH banner. After two years of overachieving in the midfield, Bourdais and the team barely made the grid in 2016, and Bourdais explored greener pastures for 2017.

The team, which has now rebranded its social channels as KV Racing Technology once again and reduced to a skeleton crew, is hanging on by a thread. “Sulli,” whose SH branding is now not part of that, has worked harder than most people realize to have procured the HYDROXYCUT sponsorship that’s been on the car the last several years.

Other teams like Coyne’s for instance endured a couple-year period of barely surviving, but have come out stronger the other side.

If a deal can be struck between Maldonado and KV to keep the team on the grid and avoid a 20-plus year history of an organization joining the above list of former IndyCar teams, it’s worth whatever the potential bill for replacement parts at Dallara might be.

McLaren appoints Ben Priest as vice president, Americas to push commercial efforts in the U.S.

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The McLaren Group has announced the appointment of Ben Priest as its new vice president, Americas – Partnership Development to spearhead the company’s focus on commercial interests in the United States.

McLaren is currently going through a period of change following the resignation of long-running chairman Ron Dennis at the end of last year.

Dennis spent 35 years at the helm of McLaren, but was replaced by American commercial expert Zak Brown, who became executive director.

On Thursday, McLaren announced the arrival of Priest in a new role, having previously worked with Brown at marketing agency JMI.

“Based in New York and reporting to CEO Ekrem Sami, Ben joins the Partner Development team at McLaren Marketing, the global sports and technology brand’s dedicated in-house activation agency,” a statement from McLaren reads.

“Tasked with developing innovative partnerships for McLaren throughout his territory, with a particular focus on Silicon Valley as the spiritual heart of the US technology and innovation industry, Ben brings to McLaren his considerable marketing agency expertise.

“Most recently Vice President of Business Development at a leading New York agency that represents many iconic athletes, Ben has spent the majority of his career in motorsport.

“After co-founding his own agency, he previously led the North America Partnership Development division for JMI, the largest global motorsport marketing agency, and was involved in consulting the entry to motor racing for several of the most prominent new brands in recent years.

“His appointment forms a key part of an ambitious global marketing strategy aimed at utilising the global reach and power of McLaren as an iconic sports and technology brand that now includes its fast-growing McLaren Applied Technologies business.”

“I’d like to welcome Ben to McLaren as part of our ambitious global marketing strategy,” Brown said.

“He brings with him considerable expertise that will help us unlock new business in the US and, in particular Silicon Valley, where there are fantastic, untapped opportunities for our brand.”

“I’m extremely excited and proud to be joining the team at McLaren,” Priest added.

“I have a great deal of respect for the company both as a race team and, increasingly, as an exciting technology brand with innovation at the heart of everything we do.

“North America, and the US in particular, presents a fantastic growth opportunity for us, and one which I’m already very focused on exploring.”

Brown recently spoke to NBC Sports about the need for Formula 1 to grow its presence in the United States, believing that a second race would help its efforts to crack into a market brimming with potential.

Priest’s appointment marries up with Brown’s focus on the United States, and comes at a time when McLaren is lacking a title sponsor that could add an injection of cash to its F1 efforts.

Post-Viper, the new Mercedes-AMG era begins for Bleekemolen, Keating

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Bleekemolen, Keating and Bill Riley. Photo courtesy of IMSA
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The GT Daytona field in the 2016 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season saw Scuderia Corsa claim the title with a combination of both pace and consistency, while the team that came closest to knocking the Los Angeles-based Ferrari team from its perch was sports car veterans Riley Motorsports, with the memorable and powerful Dodge Viper GT3-R.

The Viper’s life in IMSA is now at an end and with it, a switch to Mercedes-AMG begins.

Arguably the top pairing of a true pro-am lineup within the framework of the GTD class, Jeroen Bleekemolen and Ben Keating head into their fourth consecutive season as teammates, in what is now the No. 33 Mercedes-AMG GT3, and look to finally secure a first championship. Scuderia Corsa has won the last two titles with two different lineups, while Dane Cameron took the 2014 GTD title in a BMW Z4 GT3 for Turner Motorsport.

Bleekemolen and Keating have won seven races in GTD over the last three years, two each in 2014 and 2015 before scoring three wins last year, including in the Viper’s farewell at Petit Le Mans.

The switch to the Mercedes-AMG was a natural one for Bill Riley’s group. Bleekemolen’s known for his propensity to wheel the heck out of anything he drives, but he has experience in both iterations of Mercedes-AMG’s GT3 challengers, having also spent quite a bit of time internationally in the previous generation Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG GT3.

“They’ve just improved the (new) SLS in all areas, and the SLS was already a really good GT3 car,” Bleekemolen told NBC Sports. “But they’ve just made it better all-around. I’d say the SLS always struggled in hairpins with its long wheelbase, while this car with the shorter wheelbase is a bit better there, has more aero as well, and the whole package is just a little bit better as well.

“It’s not too hard (of a switch) because this car is so nice and easy to drive. I’ve always said of the SLS, this is the easiest car I know and this car is similar in that way. It’s a very easy car to drive. You get a feel for the car pretty quick and that makes it also a good all-around car. In difficult conditions, it’s going to be good, it’s going to be easy. I love this car.”

Keating, whose Viper Exchange dealer is the country’s largest Dodge Viper and exotic cars dealership, admits the farewell to his racing baby is bittersweet, but the time was right to switch to the new car for this season.

Nos. 33 and 50 Riley Motorsports Mercedes-AMG GT3s. Photo courtesy of IMSA
Nos. 33 and 50 Riley Motorsports Mercedes-AMG GT3s. Photo courtesy of IMSA

“The first question everybody wants to ask on the AMG is how different is it? The fact is the wheelbases are pretty similar, it’s a big displacement, big torque, naturally aspirated front engine – it’s not that much different than the Viper, with two exceptions,” Keating told NBC Sports.

“The traction control and ABS systems, the electronics systems, are extremely well-developed on the AMG and the car has more downforce. It was developed a couple years later than the Viper, and the Viper needed an evolution if it was going to stay competitive. This car is at the pointy end of the stick. The AMG is phenomenal from a developmental standpoint. And it’s got just great downforce, which again makes a big difference with the traction and braking.

“And so it kind of goes hand-in-hand: it does everything a little bit better than the Viper did, except for top speed.”

It’s worth noting that as GTD has evolved, so too have the lineups within the class. Owing to the quirks and nuances of the FIA Driver Rating system, a fair number of drivers who you could accurately call full-time professionals are rated Silver owing to their recent results, their age, or the fact their results in past series don’t factor into the classifications to give them a pro (Gold or Platinum) rating.

This leaves the class with a number of theoretical “am” drivers that are far from it – Scott Pruett, for instance, is a Silver-rated driver because he’s 56 years old, rather than the fact he has five career Rolex 24 victories. And there are plenty of others who are rated Silver even though they’re pros, or potential full pros-in-waiting.

Keating, who’s the modern day equivalent of a Rob Dyson or Bob Akin in terms of having a successful business first but also progressing into a stellar race driver on his own, is one of the few remaining accurately rated Silvers within the category, so his ability to keep pace against full-time pros during his stints is what has kept the team and car in contention for race wins over the years. Keating’s also planning to pull double duty in this year’s Rolex 24, racing not only the Mercedes but also a Prototype Challenge car for Peter Baron’s Starworks Motorsport.

“Last year, I went back to the Viper Racing League in NARA and did a club race with my friends that I raced with five, six, seven years ago,” Keating explained. “I did well with that group, but they were competitive. And, I was racing a car that wasn’t as much as car as those other guys, and I lapped the entire field except one. It was unbelievable to me to recognize that I’ve gotten so much better.

“But when you’re here with such a competitive field, it’s hard to tell that necessarily. And you’ve got different types of cars that like different types of tracks. It’s hard to say how much is driver and how much is car, and how much is BoP or whatever. So, it was really nice to have that comparison.

“The fact is I have gotten a lot better. It’s the ability to compare myself with Jeroen, one of the best in the business, it’s having such much better engineering, car setup, team strategy, pit crew over the wall, everything adds up – little bitty amounts adds up to being up front. It’s a whole lot easier to be upfront and stay upfront, than it is to start in the back and get upfront. So, I’ll say I’ve gotten a lot, lot better and I’ll say my team makes me look good.”

Bleekemolen has hailed Keating’s advancement the last few years.

“We will be fine because Ben is doing just a great job,” he said. “He’s been on the pace with the pro’s last year as well. I have big confidence in him that he can be competitive. He’s been fighting guys like Andrew Davis last year and other people like that who are that good. Ben’s raised his game year after year, and he’s really at a good level now where we can fight for wins, even though he’s a true amateur in that respect.”

The No. 33 car has Mario Farnbacher, given a lifeline after The Heart of Racing program ended last year, and Mercedes factory shoe Adam Christodoulou as extra drivers at Daytona.

Riley Motorsports also has added Farnbacher’s Alex Job Racing teammates from WeatherTech Racing to the stable this year in a second car. Cooper MacNeil and Gunnar Jeannette lead the No. 50 Mercedes-AMG GT3 entry, with MacNeil reuniting under the same tent with Bleekemolen after the two won an ALMS GTC title a few years ago – incidentally beating Keating. Mercedes veteran Thomas Jaeger and Australian Supercars wizard Shane van Gisbergen complete that lineup.