Everything you need to know for Saturday’s Bojangles’ Southern 500 at Darlington

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One of NASCAR’s toughest tests comes this Saturday night, as the venerable Darlington Raceway hosts the Sprint Cup Series for the first time on its new April date.

The 1.366-mile, egg-shaped oval is one of the series’ most historic tracks and one of its most difficult as well. Not many cars emerge from a Darlington race without having met up with the wall at some point, giving it a “Darlington stripe.”

And after being repaved in 2008, time has weathered the ‘new’ track to the point where some of its old, abrasive characteristics have returned – adding another obstacle for drivers.

Courtesy of NASCAR’s public relations and statistics teams, here’s all the important numbers and notes you need to know going into Saturday’s Bojangles’ Southern 500 – Round 8 of the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship.

DARLINGTON-SPECIFIC STATISTICS

Greg Biffle (No. 16 3M/ Red Cross Ford)
· Two wins, two top fives, five top 10s; two poles
· Average finish of 13.9
· Average Running Position of 10.3, fifth-best
· Driver Rating of 107.5, third-best
· Series-high 286 Fastest Laps Run
· 452 Green Flag Passes, 10th-most
· Average Green Flag Speed of 159.878 mph, fifth-fastest
· 2,441 Laps in the Top 15 (73.7%), fifth-most
· 291 Quality Passes (passes of cars in the top 15 under green), third-most

Kyle Busch (No. 18 M&M’s Toyota)
· One win, two top fives, five top 10s
· Average finish of 14.4
· Average Running Position of 9.0, third-best
· Driver Rating of 106.2, fifth-best
· 230 Fastest Laps Run, third-most
· 492 Green Flag Passes, fifth-most
· Average Green Flag Speed of 159.996 mph, third-fastest
· 2,790 Laps in the Top 15 (84.3%), second-most
· Series-high 337 Quality Passes

Dale Earnhardt Jr. (No. 88 National Guard Chevrolet)
· Three top fives, eight top 10s
· Average finish of 14.9
· Average Running Position of 12.2, eighth-best
· Driver Rating of 91.4, 10th-best
· 547 Green Flag Passes, second-most
· Average Green Flag Speed of 159.451 mph, 11th-fastest
· 2,277 Laps in the Top 15 (68.8%), eighth-most
· 273 Quality Passes, fifth-most

Carl Edwards (No. 99 Ford EcoBoost Ford)
· Three top fives, seven top 10s
· Average finish of 12.5
· Average Running Position of 12.8, 10th-best
· Driver Rating of 93.4, ninth-best
· 151 Fastest Laps Run, seventh-most
· 480 Green Flag Passes, seventh-most
· Average Green Flag Speed of 159.593 mph, ninth-fastest
· 2,248 Laps in the Top 15 (67.9%), ninth-most
· 279 Quality Passes, fourth-most

Jeff Gordon (No. 24 Drive To End Hunger Chevrolet)
· Seven wins, 19 top fives, 22 top 10s; three poles
· Average finish of 11.5
· Series-best Average Running Position of 8.1
· Series-best Driver Rating of 111.8
· 194 Fastest Laps Run, fifth-most
· Series-best Average Green Flag Speed of 160.130 mph
· Series-high 2,982 Laps in the Top 15 (90.1%)
· 272 Quality Passes, sixth-most

Denny Hamlin (No. 11 Sport Clips Toyota)
· One win, four top fives, seven top 10s
· Average finish of 5.4
· Average Running Position of 8.6, second-best
· Driver Rating of 108.9, second-best
· 182 Fastest Laps Run, sixth-most
· Average Green Flag Speed of 159.977 mph, fourth-fastest
· 2,488 Laps in the Top 15 (84.6%), fourth-most
· 266 Quality Passes, seventh-most

Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 KOBALT Tools Chevrolet)
· Three wins, eight top fives, 11 top 10s
· Average finish of 8.8
· Average Running Position of 9.9, fourth-best
· Driver Rating of 107.5, fourth-best
· 233 Fastest Laps Run, second-most
· 485 Green Flag Passes, sixth-most
· Average Green Flag Speed of 160.069 mph, second-fastest
· 2,504 Laps in the Top 15 (75.6%), third-most
· 252 Quality Passes, eighth-most

Kasey Kahne (No. 5 Great Clips Chevrolet)
· Three top fives, four top 10s; four poles
· Average finish of 14.2
· Average Running Position of 10.4, sixth-best
· Driver Rating of 99.1, sixth-best
· 217 Fastest Laps Run, fourth-most
· Average Green Flag Speed of 159.655 mph, eighth-fastest
· 2,318 Laps in the Top 15 (70.0%), seventh-most

Matt Kenseth (No. 20 Home Depot Husky Toyota)
· One win, two top fives, nine top 10s; one pole
· Average finish of 16.7
· Average Running Position of 14.3, 12th-best
· Driver Rating of 90.9, 11th-best
· 113 Fastest Laps Run, ninth-most
· 469 Green Flag Passes, eighth-most
· Average Green Flag Speed of 159.346 mph, 12th-fastest
· 223 Quality Passes, 12th-most

Ryan Newman (No. 31 Caterpillar Chevrolet)
· Seven top fives, 10 top 10s; one pole
· Average finish of 12.3
· Average Running Position of 11.6, seventh-best
· Driver Rating of 95.8, seventh-best
· Average Green Flag Speed of 159.708 mph, seventh-fastest
· 2,425 Laps in the Top 15 (73.3%), sixth-most

Tony Stewart (No. 14 Mobil 1/Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet)
· Four top fives, 11 top 10s
· Average finish of 12.0
· Average Running Position of 13.9, 11th-best
· Driver Rating of 89.6, 12th-best
· 105 Fastest Laps Run, 10th-most
· Series-high 563 Green Flag Passes
· Average Green Flag Speed of 159.535 mph, 10th-fastest
· 2,144 Laps in the Top 15 (64.8%), 11th-most
· 300 Quality Passes, second-most

Martin Truex Jr. (No. 78 Furniture Row Chevrolet)
· One top five, three top 10s
· Average finish of 11.4
· Average Running Position of 12.4, ninth-best
· Driver Rating of 94.8, eighth-best
· 125 Fastest Laps Run, eighth-most
· 510 Green Flag Passes, fourth-most
· Average Green Flag Speed of 159.745 mph, sixth-fastest
· 250 Quality Passes, ninth-most

source:

Darlington Raceway Track Data
Season Race #: 8 of 36 (04-12-14)
Track Size: 1.366-miles
Banking/Turns 1 & 2: 25 degrees
Banking/Turns 3 & 4: 23 degrees
Banking/Frontstretch: 6 degrees
Banking/Backstretch: 6 degrees
Frontstretch Length: 1,229 feet
Backstretch Length: 1,229 feet
Race Length: 367 laps / 501.3 miles

Top 10 Driver Ratings at Darlington
Jeff Gordon………………………… 111.8
Denny Hamlin………………………. 108.9
Greg Biffle………………………….. 107.5
Jimmie Johnson…………………… 107.5
Kyle Busch…………………………. 106.2
Kasey Kahne………………………… 99.1
Ryan Newman……………………….. 95.8
Martin Truex Jr………………………. 94.8
Carl Edwards………………………… 93.4
Dale Earnhardt Jr…………………… 91.4
Note: Driver Ratings compiled from 2005-2013 races (nine total) among active drivers at Darlington Raceway.

Qualifying/Race Data
2013 Coors Light pole winner: Kurt Busch, Chevrolet, 181.918 mph, 27.032 secs., May 10, 2013
2013 race winner: Matt Kenseth, Toyota, 141.383 mph, (03:32:45), May 11, 2013
Track qualifying record: Kurt Busch, Chevrolet, 181.918 mph, 27.032 secs., May 10, 2013
Track race record: Matt Kenseth, Toyota, 141.383 mph, (03:32:45), May 11, 2013

Darlington Raceway History
· Darlington Raceway was built as a 1.25-mile paved superspeedway in 1949-1950.
· Darlington Raceway hosted the first 500-mile race in NASCAR history and the first on asphalt on Sept. 4, 1950. – won by Johnny Mantz.
· The track was re-measured to 1.375 miles in 1953.
· The track was re-configured to 1.366 miles following the spring race in 1970.
· The track was repaved in 1995.
· The 2005 race was the first Saturday night race at Darlington.
· The track was repaved again prior to the 2008 season.

Darlington Raceway Notebook
· There have been 110 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races at Darlington Raceway. The 1.366-mile track has hosted the fourth most NASCAR Sprint Cup Series points paying races.
· 702 drivers have competed in at least one NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Darlington Raceway; 426 in more than one.
· NASCAR Hall of Famer Richard Petty leads the series in starts at Darlington with 65. Jeff Gordon leads all active drivers with 33 starts; followed by Joe Nemechek with 27.
· Curtis Turner won the inaugural Coors Light pole at Darlington in 1950 with a speed of 82.034 mph.
· 47 drivers have Coors Light poles at Darlington, led by David Pearson with 12. Kasey Kahne leads all active drivers with four.
· Nine drivers have won consecutive Coors Light poles at Darlington. David Pearson holds the record for most consecutive poles at Darlington with five (1975 – 1977).
· Youngest Darlington pole winner: Kurt Busch (09/02/2001 – 23 years, 0 months, 29 days).
· Oldest Darlington pole winner: David Pearson (09/06/1982 – 47 years, 8 months, 15 days).
· 46 different drivers have won at Darlington Raceway, led by David Pearson with 10. Jeff Gordon leads all active drivers with seven.
· Youngest Darlington winner: Kyle Busch (05/10/2008 – 23 years, 0 months, 8 days).
· Oldest Darlington winner: Harry Gant (09/01/1991 – 51 years, 7 months, 22 days).
· Hendrick Motorsports has the most wins at Darlington in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series with 14.
· 11 different manufacturers have won in the NSCS at Darlington; led by Chevrolet with 40 victories; followed by Ford with 28.
· 19 of the 110 (17.2%) NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races at Darlington have been won from the Coors Light pole; the most recent was Dale Jarrett in 1997. NASCAR Hall of Famer David Pearson has won from the pole four times at Darlington – the series’ most.
· The Coors Light pole starting position is the most proficient starting position in the field, producing more winners (19) than any other starting position at Darlington. The outside front row (second-place) has produced the second most wins (17).
· 36 of the 110 (32.7%) NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races at Darlington have been won from the front row: 19 from the pole and 17 from second-place.
· 95 of the 110 (86.3%) NASCAR Sprint Cup races at Darlington have been won from a top-10 starting position.
· Six of the 110 (5.4%) NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races at Darlington have been won from a starting position outside the top 20.
· The deepest in the field that a race winner has started at Darlington was 43rd by Johnny Mantz in 1950 – the inaugural NSCS event.
· Buddy Baker and Richard Petty are tied for theseries most runner-up finishes at Darlington with eight each. Jeff Gordon leads all active drivers in second-place finishes at Darlington with four.
· Richard Petty leads the series in top-five finishes at Darlington with 25. Jeff Gordon leads all active drivers with 19.
· Bill Elliott leads the series in top-10 finishes at Darlington with 35. Jeff Gordon leads all active drivers with 22.
· Jeff Gordon leads all active drivers in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series in average starting position at Darlington with a 6.758.
· Denny Hamlin leads all active drivers in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series in average finishing position at Darlington with a 5.375.
· Two active NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers have an average finish in the top 10 at Darlington: Denny Hamlin (5.3) and Jimmie Johnson (8.8).
· 13 drivers in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series have posted consecutive wins at Darlington; Dale Earnhardt (1989-1990)and Jeff Gordon (1995-1996)are tied for theseries lead in consecutive wins at Darlington with three each.
· All six active NASCAR Sprint Cup Series winners at Darlington Raceway participated in at least two or more races before visiting Victory Lane. Among active drivers, Kyle Busch won at Darlington in the fewest previous appearances (three).
· Matt Kenseth competed at Darlington Raceway 19 times before winning last season; the longest span of any the six active NASCAR Sprint Cup Series winners.
· Joe Nemechek leads the series among active drivers with the most NASCAR Sprint Cup Series starts at Darlington without visiting Victory Lane at 27.
· Since the advent of electronic scoring the closest margin of victory in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series at Darlington Raceway was the (03/16/2003) race won by Ricky Craven with a MOV of 0.002 second – the MOV is tied with the 2011 Talladega race as the closest finishes in the NSCS using electronic scoring.
· There have been three NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races resulting with a green-white-checkered finish at Darlington Raceway: 2005 (367/370), 2011 (367/370) and 2012 (367/368).
· Eight of the 110 races at Darlington Raceway have been shortened due to weather conditions; the most recent was the fall race of 2000.
· Qualifying has been cancelled due to weather conditions in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series at Darlington Raceway five times; most recently was the fall race of 2004.
· Terry Labonte (09/04/1978) made his series debut at Darlington Raceway.
· Ken Schrader (03/29/1987), Kurt Busch (09/02/2001) and Clint Bowyer (05/13/2007) posted their first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Coors Light poles at Darlington.
· Regan Smith (05/07/2011) and Terry Labonte (09/01/1980) posted their first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series wins at Darlington.
· Jeff Gordon leads all active drivers in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series in laps led at Darlington with 1,736 laps led in 33 starts.
· Three female drivers have competed at Darlington Raceway in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series:

  • Janet Guthrie, Southern 500, Sept. 5, 1977 – Started 26th, Finished 16th
  • Shawna Robinson, Carolina Dodge Dealers 400, March 17, 2002 – Started 42nd, Finished 42nd
  • Danica Patrick, Bojangles’ Southern 500 – Finished 31st  in 2012, Finished 28th in 2013

NASCAR in South Carolina
· There have been 220 NASCAR Sprint Cup races among 10 tracks in South Carolina. Darlington has hosted 110 of them. The other tracks are: Columbia Speedway (43), Greenville-Pickens Speedway (29), Piedmont Interstate Fairgrounds (Spartanburg, 22), Rambi Race Track (Myrtle Beach, 9), Coastal Speedway (Myrtle Beach, 2), Lancaster Speedway (2), Gamecock Speedway (Sumter, 1), Hartsville Speedway (1), and Newberry Speedway (1)
· 133 drivers in NASCAR national series history have their home state recorded as South Carolina.
· 11 drivers from South Carolina have won at least one race in NASCAR’s three national series; eight have won in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.

  • David Pearson – 105 Cup wins, 1 NNS win
  • Cale Yarborough – 83 Cup
  • Rex White – 28 Cup
  • Cotton Owens – 9 Cup
  • Tiny Lund – 5 Cup
  • James Hylton – 2 Cup
  • Johnny Allen – 1 Cup
  • Joe Eubanks – 1 Cup
  • Larry Pearson – 15 NNS
  • Jason Keller – 10 NNS
  • Butch Lindley – 6 NNS

Newgarden hails ‘spectacular’ Montoya after JPM’s first 2017 test

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At 26 years old, Josef Newgarden was watching Juan Pablo Montoya win races in CART, then Formula 1, then NASCAR as his own career was starting out.

When Montoya returned to IndyCar in 2014 at age 38, Newgarden was just 23, and the two had the chance to share a race track together for the first time.

After Newgarden’s subsequent rise over the years, he was scouted by Team Penske, and eventually signed to replace Montoya in the team’s No. 2 Verizon Chevrolet for the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season.

But Montoya remains part of the Team Penske landscape in 2017, driving the team’s fifth car during the month of May at both the IndyCar Grand Prix in Indianapolis and the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

He’s also been mentioned as the leading candidate to drive with Penske’s highly likely but not officially confirmed future sports car program, which Penske discussed openly during a media roundtable at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg season opener.

At last week’s test at Barber Motorsports Park, Newgarden and Montoya had the chance to work together as teammates and as Newgarden explained, having the chance to study his predecessor’s data was something he relished.

“Juan’s fun to be around. He’s an interesting guy,” Newgarden told NBC Sports. “He’s so competitive… and you can tell how competitive he is interacting with him. But it’s fun to look at his data, and have the privilege to look at that.

“I’m excited to see that at Indianapolis, because that’s the big race for all of us together at Team Penske.”

Montoya has mentioned his appreciation for Newgarden in the past, particularly after the two raced so closely for position at the KOHLER Grand Prix at Road America last season.

Newgarden said he’s looked up to Montoya for years and seeing him in this element provided such a rare glimpse into his world.

“The level of respect I have for Juan is tremendous,” he said. “He’s been so spectacular, and is even more so on ovals. I’ll be so thankful to get the chance to look at his data.”

It’s been a busy couple of weeks for Newgarden, who today is promoting the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach (April 9, 4 p.m. ET, NBCSN) and has that sandwiched in-between two tests at the Indianapolis oval. Team Penske used a team test last Friday and will be back in action as part of a Chevrolet manufacturer test on Saturday.

“It’s a great couple days to get my feet wet,” he said. “I hadn’t been around there with Team Penske yet. It’s good to get that type of knowledge early on.”

FIA WEC: Toyota third car, Signatech Alpine lineups revealed

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A couple more lineups for the FIA World Endurance Championship season have been announced this morning.

Toyota Gazoo Racing has welcomed back Nicolas Lapierre and added new driver Yuji Kunimoto to the lineup of its third car for the races at Spa-Francorchamps and Le Mans, alongside Stephane Sarrazin in the No. 9 Toyota TS050 Hybrid.

Since Toyota didn’t retain him after 2014, Lapierre responded with class wins at Le Mans in LMP2 for KCMG and Signatech Alpine the last two years in the Oreca 05 (and rebadged Alpine A460) chassis, and swept to the LMP2 driver’s title last year with Gustavo Menezes and Stephane Richelmi.

“It’s great to be back with Toyota and I would like to thank the team for this opportunity,” Lapierre said in a release. “I’m really looking forward to racing an LMP1 car again because the cars have developed a lot since I drove the TS040 Hybrid in 2014. The Spa race is coming around very quickly so I am fully focused on preparing myself for the new season. I have stood on the podium before at Le Mans with Toyota so my target is clearly to do that again this year.”

Kunimoto is a Super GT and Super Formula veteran and is another young driver who will look to impress in his opportunity.

Lapierre will continue with Signatech Alpine Matmut for the rest of the season as part of a restructured lineup there for the Philippe Sinault-led team.

He’ll drive with Menezes and Matt Rao in the No. 36 Alpine A470 (the rebadged Oreca 07) Gibson for the other seven races of the year, with Porsche GT factory driver Romain Dumas stepping into the car while Lapierre is at Toyota.

A restructured No. 35 car sees Nelson Panciatici, Pierre Ragues and ex-Indy Lights driver Andre Negrao in that entry. Per Sportscar365, it will miss the Silverstone season opener and pick up its season at Spa.

Lest those be the only moves of late, ex-DTM shoe Miguel Molina will make his FIA WEC debut as part of a GTE-Am Ferrari entry, sharing the No. 54 Spirit of Race 488 GTE with Thomas Flohr and Francesco Castellacci.

Nick Foster replaces Adam Carroll in Gulf Racing’s No. 86 Porsche 911 RSR in the category as well, alongside Ben Barker and Michael Wainwright.

This all but completes the FIA WEC grid, with the only remaining vacancies the sixth and final driver at CEFC Manor TRS Racing in LMP2 and third driver alongside Robert Kubica and Oliver Webb at ByKolles in LMP1.

The grid then, as it stands for WEC:

LMP1

1-Porsche 919 Hybrid-Jani/Tandy/Lotterer
2-Porsche 919 Hybrid-Bernhard/Hartley/Bamber
4-ByKolles CLM P1/01 Nissan-Kubica/Webb/TBA
7-Toyota TS050 Hybrid-Conway/Kobayashi/Lopez
8-Toyota TS050 Hybrid-Buemi/Davidson/Nakajima
9-Toyota TS050 Hybrid-Sarrazin/Lapierre/Kunimoto (Spa & Le Mans only)

LMP2 (all Oreca 07s, except Signatech Alpine with Alpine A470s)

13-Valliante Rebellion-Piquet Jr./Beche/DHH
31-Valliante Rebellion-Prost/Senna/Canal
24-CEFC Manor TRS Racing-Graves/Trummer/Vergne
25-CEFC Manor TRS Racing-Rob.Gonzalez/Hirschi/TBA
26-G-Drive Racing (TDS Racing operated)-Rusinov/Thiriet/Lynn
28-TDS Racing-Collard/Perrodo/Vaxviere
35-Signatech Alpine Matmut-Panciatici/Ragues/Negrao
36-Signatech Alpine Matmut-Lapierre (7 races)/Dumas (Spa & Le Mans only)/Menezes/Rao
37-Jackie Chan DC Racing-Cheng/Gommendy/Brundle
38-Jackie Chan DC Racing-Tung/Jarvis/Laurent

GTE-Pro

51-AF Corse-Ferrari 488 GTE-Calado/Pier Guidi
71-AF Corse-Ferrari 488 GTE-Bird/Rigon
66-Ford Chip Ganassi Team UK-Ford GT-Pla/Mucke/B.Johnson
67-Ford Chip Ganassi Team UK-Ford GT-Priaulx/Tincknell/Derani
91-Porsche GT Team-Porsche 911 RSR-Lietz/Makowiecki
92-Porsche GT Team-Porsche 911 RSR-Christensen/Estre
95-Aston Martin Racing-Aston Martin Vantage V8-Thiim/Sorensen
97-Aston Martin Racing-Aston Martin Vantage V8-Turner/J.Adam

GTE-Am

54-Spirit of Race-Ferrari 488 GTE-Flohr/Castellacci/Molina
61-Clearwater Racing-Ferrari 488 GTE-Sun/Sawa/Griffin
77-Dempsey-Proton Racing-Porsche 911 RSR-Ried/Dienst/Cairoli
86-Gulf Racing-Porsche 911 RSR-Wainwright/Barker/Foster
98-Aston Martin Racing-Aston Martin Vantage V8-Dalla Lana/Lamy/Lauda

Performance Tech home for Kyle Masson to flourish, star early in 2017

Kyle Masson. Photo courtesy of IMSA
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Cadillac and Wayne Taylor Racing will get a lot of the accolades for completing the “36 Hours of Florida” sweep to kick off the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season.

But another team did so as well, with a less likely cast of characters and after two flawless runs of their own: Brent O’Neill’s Performance Tech Motorsports.

O’Neill took a stab at young talent, all of whom have full pro level potential but not full pro level experience yet at the top flight of endurance sports car racing. In James French (24 years old), Pato O’Ward (17), Kyle Masson (19) and Nick Boulle (27), O’Neill had a quartet of young drivers with a combined three Rolex 24 at Daytona starts. What followed was a flawless drive under the miserable conditions en route to deserved win in the Prototype Challenge class.

What better way to follow it up, then, with a second straight star turn at the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring? French, O’Ward and Masson pulled off the back-to-back effort themselves after a second successive brilliant run, this time finishing fifth overall.

French, O’Ward, Masson and O’Neill. Photo courtesy of IMSA

Of the trio, Masson was the busiest at Sebring, and for good reason. The 19-year-old out of Windermere, Fla. was also starting his season in IMSA’s Prototype Challenge Presented by Mazda series competition this weekend, also with Performance Tech, in the formerly L1 but now MPC class with the venerable, Elan DP02 open-top prototype (we’re trying to make this as least confusing as possible).

This meant he had three races to run at Sebring in one weekend, in two entirely different open-top cars, in two different multi-class series.

And all Masson did was go three-for-three in winning them all, sweeping the pair of MPC races before joining his teammates in the PC class in the big show to complete the Daytona to Sebring double.

As the younger Masson explained, keeping both cars straight was a challenge he had to master.

“Because everything was under the same tent, the time management wasn’t that difficult,” Masson told NBC Sports. “We entered with the focus of me winning the (MPC) races. The PC car, I could figure out in the race. The Lites was more on edge, and I had to push and figure it out.

No. 38 Performance Tech Motorsports Oreca FLM09. Photo courtesy of IMSA

“The biggest difficulty I had was going back and forth from the Lites (MPC) to the PC car, totally different styles. They don’t drive similarly at all. The (Lites) car is so planted, it’s so physical, you have the muscle it. The PC car is delicate, twitchy, with power steering. When you’re going back and forth, it becomes tainted with elements of the other! I was learning how to re-drive the car in middle of the (Lites) races.”

There was another element that made the MPC races difficult to master. IMSA has adjusted the former Prototype Lites series to now add LMP3 chassis, which is a separate class from the MPC class, the former top class of the prototype development series when it was called L1. Because the cars have speed in different areas, Masson had to figure out how to race the new cars without them compromising his own race.

“The P3 cars had more speed on the straights and that made it more difficult to pass,” he explained. “A P3 car had held me off for a couple laps, would block in the corners and pull away on the straight. That pushed me into the JDC entry in MPC and kept us together to battle and fight. The two classes combined are a bit hectic, but we’ll learn how it goes.”

Masson had to learn Daytona from the Roar Before the Rolex 24 while at Sebring, he estimated he had more than 1,000 laps at the track a couple hours south of Orlando. For a driver who’s only been competing for two and a half years since graduating from Skip Barber, it’s already become a track he’s learned to master. That track experience made it easier, if not outright easy, to switch between the two cars.

No. 38 Performance Tech Motorsports Oreca FLM09. Photo courtesy of IMSA

The weather differences between Daytona and Sebring’s races could not have been wider apart, either. Daytona was rain-drenched with ambient temperatures barely above 40 degrees; Sebring, sunny in the 70s on race day, actually made it a bonus to be in the venerable open-top cars rather than a hindrance as it was in Daytona.

“Daytona was absolutely miserable. I was freezing… I think I got out with hypothermia!” Masson laughed. “But Sebring, with the cooler air, the open-top and dry weather, allowed us to stay cool in the car.”

Masson and O’Ward were the two young proteges under French, the 24-year-old out of Sheboygan, Wis. who has evolved into Performance Tech’s undisputed team leader and lead driver the last couple seasons.

Masson and O’Ward gelled from the off having been teammates with Performance Tech in the Elan MPC cars last year at Sebring, and reconnected at the all-Mazda combined Mazda Road to Indy and Mazda Road to 24 weekend at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca last September. It became natural to be paired up with French, who Masson said has been an invaluable coach and resource.

“It was a daunting task stepping up. I was extremely nervous,” Masson admitted. “I know how to drive a car and use the clutch, but hopping into the PC car felt foreign. I knew almost nothing at the Roar. It was such a big jump that it felt like something I hadn’t done before.

“But James was a mentor. I always looked up to him. He was like an idol to me! He’s helping coach me along. He helps stay calm, cool and collected. He has the experience but we’re really close friends.”

Kyle and Robert Masson. Photos courtesy of IMSA

Family is a big word around both the Masson name and the Performance Tech team. Masson’s dad, Robert, is a neurosurgeon… who is also Kyle’s teammate with Performance Tech in the MPC class this season.

Meanwhile O’Neill’s team is a true privateer effort; the Deerfield Beach, Fla.-squad has a family atmosphere that drivers who’ve been there have hailed before going onto other programs. Prior to his graduation to Mazda’s factory prototype team, Tristan Nunez raced here.

“They are an amazing group of guys,” Masson said. “I only got into racing 2.5 years ago, fresh out of Skip Barber, and there’s so many paths and roads to go down. I could have gone down the Road to Indy or the Road to 24, because there’s so many teams and options. I was so lucky to meet up with Brent and Performance Tech.

“They will always be family to me now. They will be always my first family. They’re always there for me. They care so much. They want to win races so badly. The performance matters.. it’s so serious and you know they won’t sacrifice an ounce. It’s a great environment.”

At 19, there’s no knowing how high Masson’s career might rise. He’s already got a Rolex watch and a Sebring trophy under his belt… and this is in the off time when he’s not studying for a double major in business and finance at the University of Central Florida.

But there’s already a confidence there that this is just the start of great things to come for the rest of his burgeoning career.

“I had a feeling signing up for this that if everything went well, we could dominate,” he said. “We’re so consistent. Realistically, we are a team without any ‘am’ drivers, lap-time wise. We’re all running ‘pro’ times. We’re all up there on the sheet. Having that as a cushion, we don’t need to push to our limit, which keeps the car to its limit. Having that as a team in endurance racing is a big advantage.

“Since it’s my second year in these cars, my confidence has skyrocketed. Now I know how to push myself to my limit and get the most out of the car. Last year, for the JDC guys (Austin Versteeg, Clark Toppe) it was their second year and my first year in any real car on slicks.

“Now it’s a completely different story. I picked up a lot of new skills. I’m able to translate that and put it all together as best I can, thanks to the people around me.”

Ricky Brabec wins 2017 Sonora Rally (PHOTOS, VIDEO)

Ricky Brabec wins Sonora Rally. Photo: Sonora Rally
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Honda rider Ricky Brabec, who won a stage at this year’s Dakar Rally, has captured the victory in last week’s Sonora Rally, held March 21-24 in Sonora, Mexico.

He led all four of the special stages in a start-to-finish romp for victory.

Despite Joan Barreda and Steve Hengeveld’s injuries that ruled them out of the rally, Brabec still had to focus on the job at hand.

“You are really racing against yourself out here, against the terrain,” he said in a release.  “I’m much more familiar now with open up a course than I was back in January at Dakar when I had to do it for the first time.”

Fellow Honda riders Mark Samuels and Andrew Short completed the podium. Samuels won the Sonora Rally’s Dakar Challenge, which presents a free opportunity for a rider to enter the 2018 Dakar Rally.

“The hard work of getting to Dakar is still ahead of me, but I will do everything in my power to make America proud,” Samuels said.

Polaris ATR rider Dave Sykes won the UTV class, with Eric Pucelik and Mike Shirley winning the Cars class.

On background, the Sonora Rally is the only event of its kind in North America. The rally raid format requires street legal vehicles to transit along untimed “liaison” sections and timed “special stages” over multiple days, with the lowest combined time winning the event. Now in its third year, the Sonora Rally realizes the vision of founders Scott Whitney and Darren Skilton to bring a world class rally raid event to these shores (2016 recap).

Brabec’s winning ride is captured in the below video, via Race-Dezert.

Meanwhile, because photos do this event more justice than words do, those are below (All Photos: Sonora Rally)