Quaker State 400 - Qualifying

Fresh start has turned stale quickly for Martin Truex Jr.

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What was supposed to be a fresh start for Martin Truex Jr. in 2014 has instead become a frustrating if not stale start, with seemingly one bad thing after another this season.

Forced out of Michael Waltrip Racing when NAPA Auto Parts pulled their sponsorship in light of the attempt to manipulate the field of last year’s Chase for the Sprint Cup, Truex had high hopes moving on to his new team, Furniture Row Racing.

FRR was coming off its best season ever, becoming the first single-car team to ever qualify for the Chase, with Kurt Busch behind the wheel.

When Busch moved on to Stewart Haas Racing, the timing couldn’t have been more perfect for Truex. He moved into a ride that appeared, at least on the surface, maybe even better than what he had at MWR.

But what Truex hoped for and what has turned out in actuality in the first five races of the season are 180 degrees apart.

Things looked like they’d start out great when he qualified on the outside pole for the season-opening Daytona 500.

Unfortunately, he ultimately wound up finishing last when his engine blew up just 30 laps into the race.

He finished 22nd at Phoenix, 14th at Las Vegas, fell back to 36th at Bristol and left Fontana this past Sunday 23rd.

Add those five races together and Truex’s average finish thus far this season is 27.6.

At the same time, he’s back to 30th in the overall standings, 82 points — almost two full races of points — behind series leader Carl Edwards.

There’s an old saying in NASCAR that how you do in the first five races of the season is usually a reflection of how the rest of your season is going to be like.

If that’s the case, The Mayetta, N.J., native is in big trouble heading into Sunday’s race at Martinsville, because the .526-mile bullring is one of his worst-performing tracks.

“We need to start finding a rhythm with this Furniture Row Racing team,” Truex said earlier this week. “Things have not gone our way so far this season.

“Some of it is our fault and a large part has been some very tough luck.”

While Truex obviously hopes he’s ready to break out, his past record at Martinsville appears to indicate he’ll suffer more of the same fate he’s had both this year overall, as well as throughout his career thus far at the southern Virginia track.

“Going to Martinsville presents another challenge,” Truex said this week. “To be honest, Martinsville is a place I still haven’t figured out. I have had some good runs over the years there, but it has been very inconsistent. I’ve been hooked up at Martinsville sometimes and other times I couldn’t get out of my own way.”

Even before Saturday’s washed out day of both Sprint Cup practices as well as the Camping World Trucks Series race (postponed until after Sunday’s Sprint Cup event), Truex was expecting a different kind of track.

Now with the rain having washed away all collected rubber, a completely green track is not in Truex’s favor, either.

“The biggest challenge about Martinsville is the track changes so much throughout the weekend,” he said. “And the track is never on Sunday what it was like all weekend.

“As soon as they drop the green flag, the track is completely different than it was the day before when you feel you have your car dialed in for the race. Though brakes aren’t as big of an issue as they use to be at Martinsville, you still need to take care of them. If not, you can burn them up.”

Truex needs a big lift this weekend, especially after last weekend’s race at Fontana. Not only did he crash in practice, forcing him to go to a backup car for the race, he ultimately finished a lot worst – 23rd – than what he felt his secondary ride was capable of.

“Every time we felt the momentum swing our way, we seemed to take a punch in the gut,” Truex said. “Finishing 23rd is never acceptable for us because we feel that we are a Chase-caliber team. But considering the incidents that we were faced with, I can honestly say that we fought for every inch of that 23rd-place result.

“Not a good weekend, but I am proud of the way we kept on bouncing back from all of the adversity. We’re going to be ok. We’re just going through a rough streak right now.”

For his sake, hopefully that rough streak will end Sunday.

“We understand the challenges and the uncertainty of Martinsville,” Truex said. “But when this Furniture Row team goes to a race, we feel confident that we can put together a strong race and be a contender. This weekend is not any different.”

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Alonso set for short qualifying after Malaysia power unit penalties

KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA - SEPTEMBER 30: Fernando Alonso of Spain driving the (14) McLaren Honda Formula 1 Team McLaren MP4-31 Honda RA616H Hybrid turbo on track during practice for the Malaysia Formula One Grand Prix at Sepang Circuit on September 30, 2016 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Fernando Alonso is preparing to watch the majority of Formula 1 qualifying for the Malaysian Grand Prix on TV after being hit with power unit penalties at Sepang.

Honda confirmed heading into the weekend that it had used some of its remaining development tokens to bring an update power unit to Malaysia for the McLaren team.

While Jenson Button will not take on the upgrades, Alonso will, meaning he must take new power unit components that trigger a grid penalty.

As things stand, Alonso has a 30-place grid drop to his name after taking a complete new power unit, but is expected to receive an additional penalty on Saturday.

Regardless, with the Spaniard all but certain to start Sunday’s race from last place on the grid, his focus on Saturday will be to set a time fast enough to simply qualify for the race, finishing within 107% of the best Q1 lap.

“We completed a good number of laps today and got through all the tests we’d planned to do. We even managed to conduct some experiments aimed at next year’s car, which was really positive,” Alonso said, reflecting on his Friday practice running, where he finished fifth in FP1 and seventh in FP2.

“We still need to see how well we can do tomorrow, especially in FP3, where we’ll be concentrating on long runs.

“For me, qualifying is going to be pretty short because of my penalties: I’ll do a lap to set a time within 107% and then I’ll watch it on TV. Then we’ll try to save as many sets of new tires as possible.”

“Fernando made a positive start to his weekend by immediately dropping into the groove and looking impressively quick at times,” McLaren racing director Eric Boullier added.

“It’s frustrating that he’s facing a significant grid penalty – for introducing new power unit elements – but it’s something we’d already factored into our weekend program, and we’ll work hard to provide him with a car and a strategy to best cope with that setback on Sunday.”

Qualifying for the Malaysian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 5am ET on Saturday.

Askew, Kirkwood named 2016 Team USA Scholarship recipients

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Photo: Juha Leivonen for Team USA Scholarship
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BRASELTON, Ga. – Put these two names on your rolodex to keep track of from here. Oliver Askew and Kyle Kirkwood have been named the 2016 Team USA Scholarship recipients on Friday at Road Atlanta, which continues the two’s pairing in their respective racing careers to this point.

Askew, 19, and Kirkwood, 17, both hail from Jupiter, Fla. and have been longtime karting compatriots for more than a decade.

Besides these two, others present for today’s announcement included Bobby Rahal, Mike Hull, and past Team USA Scholarship recipients Dane Cameron, Joel Miller, Andy Lally, Joey Hand, Tristan Nunez and Spencer Pigot.

The full release from the Team USA Scholarship is linked below. Jeremy Shaw’s program has been identifying young American talent since 1990.

Oliver Askew (left), 19, and Kyle Kirkwood (right), 17, who, coincidentally, both hail from Jupiter, Fla., were confirmed today as the most recent winners of prestigious Team USA Scholarships. The long-time friends and karting rivals will travel to England next month to contest both the Formula Ford Festival at Brands Hatch and the Walter Hayes Trophy at Silverstone.

The Team USA program was inaugurated in 1990 as a means of assisting talented young American drivers at an early stage in their careers. A young Jimmy Vasser was the first scholarship winner, followed by Bryan Herta in 1991. Subsequent winners include 2004 Indianapolis 500 winner Buddy Rice, current Verizon IndyCar Series drivers Charlie Kimball, Josef Newgarden, Conor Daly and Spencer Pigot, and accomplished sports car stars Andy Lally, Joey Hand, Bryan Sellers, Dane Cameron, Joel Miller and Tristan Nunez, all of whom will be competing in this weekend’s 19th annual Petit Le Mans IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship race.

This year’s selection process began with a group of 11 candidates being interviewed by an illustrious panel of auto racing professionals, including Mike Hull, managing director of Chip Ganassi Racing, factory Porsche driver Patrick Long and former scholarship winners Kimball, Miller, Newgarden and Pigot, during the Verizon IndyCar Series weekend at Mid-Ohio. Six finalists progressed to a one-day shootout last week at an oppressively hot Palm Beach International Raceway in Florida hosted by Cooper Tire and the Lucas Oil School of Racing. Askew and Kirkwood ultimately were chosen as the winners by a committee which included 2003 Indy 500 winner Gil de Ferran, four-time Pirelli World Challenge champion Lawson Aschenbach, factory Mazda driver Nunez, Starworks Motorsport team principal Peter Baron and multi-time junior formula championship winning team co-owner Nicholas Cape.

“The standard was extremely high and we were faced with some difficult decisions,” said Team USA Scholarship founder and auto racing writer/broadcaster Jeremy Shaw. “After much deliberation we chose Oliver and Kyle, but all of the youngsters performed well and would have been worthy recipients.”

Askew and Kirkwood will drive a pair of identical Ray GR15 Formula Ford 1600 cars in the UK prepared by Cliff Dempsey Racing, which previously has guided Newgarden to victory in the 2008 Formula Ford Festival (the first American winner of an event which dates back to 1972) and earned top Walter Hayes Trophy spoils for Team USA with Daly (2008), Connor De Phillippi (2009), who currently leads the ADAC Masters GT series in Europe, and Nunez (2012).

“I am ecstatic and greatly honored,” said Kirkwood, a front-runner in the inaugural F4 U.S. Championship powered by Honda with Primus Racing. “To be able to represent the USA is a feeling no words can describe. I will work vigorously to prove that Jeremy and the Team USA Scholarship judges have chosen the right person for the job. I am extremely excited for this opportunity and for the memories to come!”

“I cannot express how excited I am to represent the prestigious Team USA Scholarship,” added karting star Askew, who has shone in Formula Masters China and Skip Barber events. “Kyle and I have been very close friends for over 10 years. We have been teammates in the karting ranks for many of those years, so we will keep working together to bring home great results. I’d like to send out a special thanks to those who support the Team USA Scholarship, especially Jeremy Shaw for putting in countless hours to help young talent fight for their dreams.”

Ford GT, Ganassi concludes debut GTLM season looking for big finish

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Photo courtesy of IMSA
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BRASELTON, Ga. – Despite having only an outside chance at the GT Le Mans championship, the Ford Chip Ganassi Racing team can still look back at its debut IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season with the new Ford GTs with fond memories.

A midseason run of three straight wins at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, Watkins Glen International and Canadian Tire Motorsport Park propelled Ryan Briscoe and Richard Westbrook into GTLM class championship contention with their No. 67 Ford.

But since, an issue on the final lap at Road America that cost a fourth win in five races, then finishes of fourth and ninth the last two outings at VIRginia International Raceway and Circuit of The Americas have left Briscoe and Westbrook 11 points (314-303) behind class points leaders Oliver Gavin and Tommy Milner in the No. 4 Corvette C7.R.

Meanwhile, the No. 66 Ford pairing of Joey Hand and Dirk Mueller are yet to win on U.S. soil, but were two-thirds of the lineup (Sebastien Bourdais) that brought Ford and Ganassi its first targeted goal of 2016 – a dominant and authoritative GTE-Pro class win at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, 50 years on from its first win there in 1966.

Seeing how well Ford and Ganassi have adapted to the no-holds barred GTLM class in their first year in the category (after a couple years in Prototype prior) remains an impressive feat, considering the relative lack of experience in class by contrast to the collective units from Corvette, Porsche, BMW and Risi Ferrari.

“It does seem to be the place to be at the moment, not just in IMSA but worldwide,” Westbrook told NBC Sports, as he too has come back into GT after a run in Prototypes with the Visit Florida Racing Corvette team.

“There’s lot of respect out there and a lot of competition and great drivers. We all know each other because everyone’s been around so long.

“Going into a different class compared to what I was used to, brought a new team, car, co-driver and program. But the atmosphere on the 67 and the whole team has been superb. It’s a really good working environment, and it’s been exciting to sink our teeth back into development.”

Much as Westbrook has come back to his spiritual home and class, Briscoe’s been fortunate to have a full-season opportunity after a couple odd years in 2013 and 2015 when he put together part-time programs but was more known for his versatility than one single program.

The 2013 season saw him in a Level 5 Motorsports LMP2 car and two different IndyCar teams (Ganassi and Panther Racing), while after a single year back with Ganassi in IndyCar in 2014, he spent 2015 as Corvette Racing’s endurance ace and James Hinchcliffe’s primary replacement in IndyCar.

“It’s been great and as you know it was a big reason I why jumped on this,” Briscoe told NBC Sports. “Every driver sort of needs some stability!

“But obviously you still have to go out and perform and be the best you can. Going after a championship, and going on after Le Mans… having those championship goals in mind are huge. It’s a totally different mindset than race-to-race.”

Briscoe’s handoff to Westbrook at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca and Westbrook’s subsequent fuel saving performance to win there provided the entire organization a huge shot in the arm, and was arguably a big reason why they were as confident and motivated as they were going into Le Mans, with the combined four-car effort there.

The team winning Le Mans after a thoroughly dominant outing was then the icing on the cake, and it was likely no coincidence that Ford announced a two-year program extension through 2019 shortly thereafter.

“Le Mans was like a dream. It really was. It felt like, ‘This is why Ford’s back,’” Westbrook explained, even though he, Briscoe and Scott Dixon were third there while Hand, Mueller and Bourdais won.

“The win at Laguna gave everyone a lift. We’d struggled a bit before Laguna at Long Beach, Sebring and Daytona. But Laguna showed we could race against and come out on top.

“So going into Le Mans, confidence was high and we had a really quick car. From the past though, even having the fastest car doesn’t mean anything if it doesn’t finish.

“When we won, there was a massive release of pressure after that. The valve turned open… the steam came out and we could enjoy the rest of the year. It showed in our performance the next few races. The results kept on coming… and the drive at Mosport, was just awesome. It was a weekend where we struggled a bit but we came out on top again.”

The Watkins Glen and Mosport wins that followed could not have been further apart in how they were achieved.

At Watkins Glen, Westbrook did the lion’s share of work while Briscoe tended to last-minute baby duty as wife Nicole gave birth to the couple’s second daughter, Blake. Then at Mosport – or CTMP – a heavy Balance of Performance (BoP) hit cost Ford its pace, but they won on strategy anyway.

“It was a crazy weekend, and then to sort of dominate the whole event – a lot of it was down to Richard, who did every practice session and qualified, put the car on pole,” Briscoe said.

“I got in the first time in warmup and the race. The team was extra supportive of me, which says a lot about the characters, people, and the confidence to say you can miss all of practice and jump in for the race. It was super rewarding but trust me that’s not how you want to do it every weekend!”

Westbrook added, “Obviously I was really happy to cover for him. He had a lot more important issues that went on that weekend. But the weekend was never in doubt. We’d tested there, so Ryan didn’t have an issue getting up to speed. That was our only (IMSA) race we had the clear advantage on BoP… and then we got hammered.”

Heading into Petit Le Mans this weekend, the pairing – plus Dixon – come in off a good test a month or so ago looking to overcome the points deficit and secure the title. Conditions were much hotter then than they will be this weekend, and for once rain isn’t in the forecast.

As Westbrook noted, the challenge is now managing expectations, and to only have an outside shot isn’t an ideal scenario. But it’s still a good spot to be in.

“It’s funny – the better you do the greedier you get – so I’m sort of slightly disappointed it’s an outside shot, whereas it looked really good before VIR and COTA!” he said. “But we have to be so happy with how we’ve progressed this year.”

Briscoe added, “After a couple early gremlins, the team has been absolutely on point with working through those issues with a brand new car. Since then, we’ve never had any repeat issues.

“I’m honestly not surprised but always extremely impressed. Everyone here at Ford and Chip Ganassi Racing continue to impress with the development they’ve done throughout the season.”

Renault: Magnussen practice fire caused by fuel leak after breather pipe issue

KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA - SEPTEMBER 30:  The car of Kevin Magnussen of Denmark and Renault Sport F1 on fire in the Pitlane during practice for the Malaysia Formula One Grand Prix at Sepang Circuit on September 30, 2016 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Renault has confirmed that the fire on Kevin Magnussen’s car during Malaysian Grand Prix practice was the result of a breather pipe issue that caused a fuel leak.

Magnussen was forced to abandon his car in the pit lane after a large fire broke out during the Formula 1 practice session at the Sepang International Circuit on Friday morning.

The fire resulted in a lengthy red flag period during the session while it was put out, as well as leaving the Renault team with a sizeable repair job to complete.

Magnussen was eventually able to return to the track midway through second practice later in the day.

“We expected it to be hot in Sepang but maybe not as hot as that!” Magnussen joked after the session.

“My crew were great dealing with the fire and getting the car back into action for the afternoon. From my perspective, I heard the call on the radio to jump out and I didn’t need to be told twice!

“In the afternoon we were able to get some laps so the day wasn’t a write-off. There’s a bit too much entry oversteer with the initial set-up but we know where we want to improve.”

Renault technical director Nick Chester confirmed that the fire had been caused by an issue with the fuel breather pipe on Magnussen’s car.

“We had a difficult start to the day with Kevin’s car. There was a problem with a valve on a fuel breather pipe which meant that fuel escaped from the vent, causing a fire,” Chester said.

“The crew did a great job keeping everything under control so we could address the problem. We changed fuel systems for the second session and don’t expect any further issues.”

Qualifying for the Malaysian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 5am ET on Saturday.