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How to solve the problem of Sprint Cup drivers racing in the Nationwide Series

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As it typically does every season, the debate about whether or not Sprint Cup drivers should race in the Nationwide Series has once again heated up in recent weeks.

While racing against NASCAR’s best is definitely beneficial for up-and-coming NNS drivers seeking to learn and improve upon their natural talent, there’s no question that Sprint Cup drivers have a field day when they race in NASCAR’s junior league.

Consider these stats: In the first five Nationwide races this season, four have been won by Sprint Cup drivers, the lone race won by a full-time NNS driver was Regan Smith’s win in the season-opener at Daytona last month.

That quartet of NNS wins by Cup drivers includes Saturday’s winner at Fontana, Kyle Larson, who even though he earned his first NNS triumph, is still a full-time Cup driver this season.

Let’s extrapolate things even more.

Of last season’s 33 Nationwide races, just five were won by true full-time NNS drivers, and two others were won by essentially an NNS ringer (now full-time Cup driver), AJ Allmendinger.

Sam Hornish Jr. won early last season at Las Vegas, Smith won last spring at Talladega and Michigan, Trevor Bayne won last spring at Iowa, and Ryan Blaney won late last summer at Kentucky.

And for the record, Allmendinger won both his races on road courses at Road America and Mid-Ohio, the only two NNS events he competed in all season.

Take away Allmendinger’s two wins, and that means full-time Nationwide drivers won just 15 percent of the 33 races on the 2013 schedule.

That’s not even one-fifth of the schedule.

NASCAR is in a Catch-22 situation because track owners and race promoters need Sprint Cup drivers to run in Nationwide races to put more fans in the stands.

Many fans will come on Saturday’s to see their favorite Cup driver race in the NNS because it usually takes less of a bite price-wise from their wallet than a Sunday Cup ticket.

There have been countless ideas floated over the years on how to minimize the number of Cup drivers in.

Some are better than others, but no one has ever hit upon the best solution for a compromise to a very vexing problem.

I’ve been giving this problem a great deal of thought over the last couple of weeks and think I may have hit upon a possibility that may just fly.

It’s actually a pretty simple idea, combining fans’ desire to still want – and get – to see their Cup favorites, while also enhancing NNS drivers’ chances of wins and getting more deserved notoriety for themselves and the series.

Here’s my suggestion:

First, there are 23 tracks that host NNS races. Ten of those tracks host two races each season, most in conjunction with a Sprint Cup race weekend.

This part is easy: allow Cup drivers to only drive in the first race at a particular track that hosts two per year, and not in the second race later in the season. Even better, cut off Cup drivers from competing in NNS races after the midpoint of the Nationwide’s 33-race season, effectively capping Cup drivers to participate in a maximum of 17 NNS events each year.

Sure, fans want to see their favorite Cup drivers compete in NNS races. But if fans know they’ll only be able to see “their driver” only once per year at a race in the first half of the season, it shouldn’t be overly hard for those same fans to adjust their schedules and still satisfy their need for speed.

Which dovetails nicely into the next part of my plan to fix the Cup/NNS dilemma.

Create an eight-race format (the last eight races of the season) for the NNS that mirrors the Chase for the Sprint Cup, with only Nationwide drivers eligible to compete in those events.

At the same time, allow the top 15 or even 20 NNS drivers after the second Richmond race (which is also the cut off to determine the Cup series’ Chase) to contend for the championship after resetting the points prior to the start of the NNS “Chase.”

The first race of a hypothetical eight-race Nationwide Chase could be on the same weekend as the start of Sprint Cup’s Chase at Chicagoland Speedway (there are only eight races remaining on the NNS schedule by the time the series returns to Chicagoland for the second time in the season).

Both series would be able to dovetail off each other, bringing even greater overall attention to all of NASCAR.

Admittedly, five of the 10 tracks that hold Cup Chase races also host two NNS races per season – Chicagoland, Dover, Charlotte, Texas, Phoenix.

But my proposal would give more meaning – and increased attention – to NNS drivers to truly win their own series’ championship while not having to share attention – and more importantly, wins – with Sprint Cup interlopers.

And it’s a heck of a lot better than the potential alternative – not being able to see their favorite Cup driver in ANY Nationwide race, if NASCAR were to ban such.

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

Force India takes upper hand in Malaysia qualifying as fight with Williams continues

KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA - OCTOBER 01:  Sergio Perez of Mexico driving the (11) Sahara Force India F1 Team VJM09 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo in the Pitlane during qualifying for the Malaysia Formula One Grand Prix at Sepang Circuit on October 1, 2016 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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The battle between Williams and Force India for fourth place in the Formula 1 constructors’ championship is poised to rage on in Malaysia on Sunday after just five places covered the teams’ four cars in qualifying.

Force India currently occupies P4 in the teams’ standings, pulling a single point clear of Williams last time out in Singapore after previously losing the position two weeks earlier in Italy.

Both teams look set to exchange blows to the end of the season, but it was Force India that enjoyed the advantage in qualifying in Malaysia on Saturday.

Sergio Perez led the team’s charge, qualifying seventh ahead of teammate Nico Hulkenberg. McLaren’s Jenson Button split the teams in P9, with Felipe Massa and Valtteri Bottas following for Williams in 10th and 11th respectively.

“I’m very happy with our performance. It was very important to execute a perfect qualifying session and I think that is what we did,” Perez said.

“It was a mega effort by the whole team. The whole qualifying hour was very intense because you could see how close together the lap times were for all the cars and I had to maximize each lap.

“I made a little mistake in Q2 on my last run, which could have cost me a place in Q3, but fortunately I managed to make it through. The result today means we are in a great position to fight for strong points tomorrow.”

“I am quite satisfied with how today went and my starting position for the race,” Hulkenberg added.

“When the top three teams lock out the first three rows, seventh and eighth is the best we could have achieved.

“In the end, my lap was not good enough for P7: I felt a bit more comfortable and had a better rhythm at the start of the session and it fell away slightly in Q3 – perhaps the track cooled and that’s one of the possibilities we will try to understand tonight.

“Still, eighth is a very good position to start tomorrow’s race. It’s going to be really close behind the leaders: I hope we can keep up with the cars in front and take the opportunity if anything happens. Our priority is to stay inside the points and maximize what we can get out of this race.”

Both Massa and Bottas conceded they felt disappointed with qualifying, but remain hopeful of scoring points to re-take fourth in the constructors’.

“I think qualifying was going well, but for sure we expected to finish higher up. I had the pace in Q2 and it was a big fight for a couple of tenths,” Massa said.

“Unfortunately, we are three places back on where it was possible to be. Anyway, the race is tomorrow and I really hope the strategy, the pace, the weather and everything can be in our favor and can help our race. We will try everything we can.”

“That was quite a tricky qualifying session for us. I actually wasn’t very happy with the front end of the car, I felt like the balance was better in today’s practice, especially around turns six, seven and eight,” Bottas admitted.

“I struggled with understeer and because of that I didn’t quite get a perfect lap in. It was very close and I’m sure tomorrow will be just as close.

“We do have a free choice of tires to start tomorrow’s race, so our goal is still to have both of our cars ahead of Force India. I believe it’s possible. We can definitely score some good points from where we’re starting and I’m sure the understeer and balance of the car will be better for the race.”

The Malaysian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 2am ET on Sunday.

Verstappen hopes clutch setting changes will end run of poor starts in Malaysia

KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA - OCTOBER 01:  Max Verstappen of the Netherlands driving the (33) Red Bull Racing Red Bull-TAG Heuer RB12 TAG Heuer on track during qualifying for the Malaysia Formula One Grand Prix at Sepang Circuit on October 1, 2016 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Max Verstappen hopes that changes made to the settings on his clutch will end his run of poor starts in Malaysia on Sunday after qualifying third at the Sepang International Circuit.

Verstappen qualified second in Belgium before bogging down at the start and tangling with Kimi Raikkonen, before making poor getaways in the next two races in Italy and Singapore.

The Dutchman has not finish any higher than sixth since Formula 1’s summer break, but hopes that he can end this poor run of form after qualifying well in Malaysia.

“I thought it was going to be a tough race for us before we came here. Now it seems like the balance of the car is there, the long runs seem good and we have improved our short run pace a lot,” Verstappen said.

“We were pretty close to the Mercedes on the front row and I’m really enjoying the new surface here, the car is working very well on it. For both of us to be on the second row, in front of Ferrari, means we can be very pleased with today’s work.

“Out of the past three or four races this has been my best long run pace on a Friday, we haven’t changed much on the car so it should be similar tomorrow.”

Verstappen confirmed that setup changes had been made following Singapore as a result of the poor start that compromised his race, with particular attention being paid to his clutch.

“After Singapore I talked with the team and we changed some things on the car and it seems to have worked, hopefully we can keep improving in this way,” Verstappen said.

“We have made some changes to the clutch so we shall see if it has improved tomorrow, so far everything looks positive.

“The set up feels really good here and we will no doubt check everything tonight to make sure we are in the best position possible on race day.”

Teammate Daniel Ricciardo qualified fourth in the sister Red Bull, and is braced for a battle to complete the podium behind the Mercedes drivers on Sunday.

“It was quite an exciting quali session and my lap was pretty clean. I pushed quite a bit in the first two sectors,” Ricciardo said.

“I think I got more out of the tires compared to the last sector where I struggled for traction and lost a little bit of time. From where we were yesterday, I am pretty happy. We made quite a few changes overnight and they definitely helped me out today, so I was feeling a lot more comfortable in the car.

“Our race pace is looking good too as we saw from Max’s sessions yesterday. We should have a nice battle for the podium tomorrow and we’ll try to stay ahead of the Ferraris. They are normally pretty good on their tyres here but we have an extra set of soft tires for the race which should work well for us.

“As a team we are pumped to lock out the second row at this circuit and we should have a good race on our hands for tomorrow.”

The Malaysian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 2am ET on Sunday.

Vettel disappointed to finish behind Red Bulls in Malaysia F1 qualifying

KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA - SEPTEMBER 30: Sebastian Vettel of Germany driving the (5) Scuderia Ferrari SF16-H Ferrari 059/5 turbo (Shell GP) on track during practice for the Malaysia Formula One Grand Prix at Sepang Circuit on September 30, 2016 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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Sebastian Vettel was left disappointed following qualifying for the Malaysian Grand Prix on Saturday at Sepang after finishing behind both Red Bull drivers in Q3.

Vettel took his first Formula 1 victory for Ferrari in Malaysia last year, but has failed to reach the top step of the podium in 2016 as the team has slipped behind Red Bull in the pecking order.

With Mercedes dominating proceedings in Malaysia over one lap, Vettel had hoped to finish as the best of the rest in qualifying.

However, the German could only finish fifth in Q3, over seven-tenths of a second behind pole-sitter Lewis Hamilton and just two-tenths off P3 on the grid.

“We expected it to be tight, but we thought that we could have the upper hand in the end,” Vettel said.

“So I am disappointed to see both Red Bulls in front of us, but they were just a bit quicker. There was not a lot missing, but just enough, just over a tenth.

“We need to have a look into our data and see if we can pick it up later. In the end, we were hoping to be one row higher up, so in second, right behind the Mercedes.

“But for the race, nervertheless, we should have a good speed: the strategy will also be important tomorrow.

“There is a bit of room for manoeuvre, as everybody has to use the harder tire, which might make it interesting. And then there is also the fact that we are in Malaysia, so there might be some rain, or just the heat as a factor.”

Teammate Kimi Raikkonen qualified sixth in the second SF16-H car, the Finn left frustrated by traffic during his final qualifying attempt.

“It was a pretty smooth running until the last try: then I had some traffic on the out lap and struggled with the tires to make them work in the first two corners, so I ran a bit wide,” Raikkonen explained.

“It was a decent qualifying session but it’s painful when you have such a bad last try. The handling of the car has been pretty ok and I was hoping for a bit more, but tomorrow we’ll try to do better.

“We don’t know what will happen and obviously we are not in the ideal starting position. The tarmac is new so it’s hard to say where it’s going to go and which tire will be the best, it will be a lot down to the conditions.

“We have to do our own best and see what that brings in the race.”

The Malaysian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 2am ET on Sunday.

Formula V8 3.5 to race at COTA next year, supporting WEC round

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The Formula V8 3.5 Series will race at the Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas the first time next year in support of the FIA World Endurance Championship weekend in September.

Formula V8 3.5 is currently embarking on its inaugural campaign, emerging from the ashes of the Formula Renault 3.5 series in 2015 after it lost manufacturer backing.

Earlier this year, it was announced that the single-seater series would be linking up with the WEC in 2017 as a support championship, appearing on the undercard at six rounds.

On Saturday, series officials confirmed that as well as racing at Silverstone, Spa and the Nürburgring alongside WEC, Formula V8 3.5 would also be visiting Austin, Mexico City and Bahrain in 2017.

Fuji Speedway in Japan had originally been slated to host a round of the 3.5-litre series, only for the race to be moved to Austin on grounds of costs.

During its Formula Renault 3.5 days, the championship produced a number of current Formula 1 drivers including Sebastian Vettel, Daniel Ricciardo, Kevin Magnussen and Carlos Sainz Jr. Its final champion was Oliver Rowland, who now races in GP2.

The addition of Formula V8 3.5 to the WEC weekend at COTA ensures that the endurance series will not race alone following the break-up of the Lone Star Le Mans double-header with IMSA for 2017.