(Photo: Todd Warshaw/Getty Images)

Ben Rhodes, 17-year-old phenom, could tie Ricky Craven’s five-race K&N win streak record Friday at Loudon

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One of the records ESPN analyst and former NASCAR driver Ricky Craven takes pride in owning could wind up being tied Friday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

The Maine native will be on hand as 17-year-old racing phenom Ben Rhodes attempts to tie Craven’s nearly quarter-century old series record of five straight wins in the K&N East Series in the East Granite 100.

“I do think it’s impressive, certainly more impressive what Ben is doing than what I did back then,” Craven said during a Wednesday morning NASCAR teleconference. “I think it’s mostly because he’s 17 years old, and I think it deserves a lot of attention. It’s what separates him from the crowd.”

Craven won five in a row on the K&N Series during the 1991 season.

Ironically, Craven and Rhodes will meet for the first time before the race, but Craven is already wishing Rhodes well in Friday’s race.

“I’m very enthusiastic,” Craven said. “I’ll go out of my way to find him this weekend and shake hands and wish him luck, as I’m really pulling for him to not only tie the record but exceed it.

“(Holding the record for) 23 years is a long time. I never really thought at the time that winning four or five in a row was important, and I think even if this happens that Ben would probably reiterate that. As a competitor, it’s just about winning and it’s about winning a championship.”

While the two haven’t met yet, Craven has been keeping up on Rhodes’ career from a distance.

“I’ve spent some time trying to better know Ben as a race car driver, and I’m really impressed,” Craven said. “He has all the tools, the ingredients, obviously a lot of enthusiasm and a lot of talent. But the people that I’ve asked say that he races like a 17 year old but he has the sense of a 37 year old, and I think that’s a magical combination.”

Rhodes is a native of Louisville, Kentucky. In addition to going for five wins in a row, he’ll also be going for his sixth win overall in just 10 races thus far this season on the K&N Pro Series East schedule.

The five wins came at Greenville (S.C.), and the last four on the schedule at Iowa, Winston-Salem (N.C.), Pensacola (Fla.) and Hampton (Va.).

He also finished second at Richmond, third at Bristol (Tenn.) and fourth at New Smyrna (Fla.).

He’s failed to finish inside the top-five just once thus far (15th at Daytona) and also has two poles.

He’s the latest young hot shoe in a series that has seen quite a few current Sprint Car drivers essentially start their own racing careers, including Austin Dillon, Joey Logano and Kyle Larson.

“You know, it’s strange, I don’t wake up every day thinking I’m old, but watching you and seeing what you are accomplishing at such an early age, I have kids older than you, Ben, so I guess it puts everything in perspective,” Craven said. “But no, I sincerely — I want to see you tie this weekend, and I really think you’ve got a great shot, not only because of all the things that have happened recently and the momentum that goes with that, but New Hampshire is a good track in terms of if you have a fast car and you have a real good feel for the car that day, it’s big enough that you can maneuver around other drivers.  So I think it’s a good place to get that fifth in a row.”

Rhodes has obviously caught the attention of a number of individuals, not just fans and media, but team owners as well. He’s already had two starts this season in the Camping World Truck Series (eighth at Martinsville, crashed and finished 22nd at Dover).

There’s already talk about him possibly even going up to the Nationwide Series. But of course that requires sponsorship, a good team and the luck of being in the right place at the right time.

“If funding wasn’t an issue, I would like to go to Nationwide,” Rhodes said. “I think it would be an easier jump from the K&N cars to Nationwide and an easier jump from Nationwide to Sprint Cup.

“But that’s looking pretty far ahead, and I think that would be much easier because of the aero package and everything that makes it up. I know those trucks with the huge side force that they have, it would make it hard learning those things and then trying to jump in the Nationwide car.

“It obviously works and it’s a very good learning curve and definitely a good stepping-stone, but if I could just get in that and learn from the get-go, I think that would be good. It would knock out some of the learning curve, I think, going from the trucks to the Nationwide, and I think sponsors and funding is a little bit better for Nationwide Series.”

Rhodes is part of the NASCAR Next driver development program – and it’s an understatement to say his development has been like the way he drives a race car: f-a-s-t.

“The success has been great,” Rhodes said. “We’ve already been trying to focus on some plans for next year and trying to get stuff together. But as you know and everybody knows in racing, it’s a difficult sport. A lot of stuff can be done at last minute and get it all together, so we’re still figuring out our plans, but it’s definitely been helping. It’s definitely been opening up some doors and bringing some attention to us. I’ve felt like we’ve had this in us all the time, it’s just finally coming together.”

To be compared to someone like Craven “gives me a lot of confidence,” Rhodes said. “Just to be able to talk to people that have been around the sport for a long time, and they obviously know way more than I do, and just to try to tap into that knowledge and hear what they have to say is always great.

“You know, I’m hearing what (Craven) says, and it gives me a big boost of confidence. Going into these races, it’s funny how I can relate to what he’s saying from way back then to what I’m feeling now. He’s talking about not throwing down and focusing on that championship, and that’s exactly what I’m doing. I’m not really looking at each race. Winning each race is great, but our focus is the next one. I don’t even look back. You come in every day and you see the trophy is there anyway, but you look at them, admire them for a second, good job, pat on the back, and we’re right back to work ready to win the next one.

“I’m seeing a lot of similarities, and it’s cool to see that, and it definitely gives me a boost of confidence being in the same conversation as him and hearing what he has to say.”

Added Craven, “What Ben has accomplished already at such an early age, it doesn’t happen by mistake, so it speaks to his talent and it speaks to his focus. When you look at the young drivers in the series that have rolled out of it very quickly, Joey Logano and Kyle Larson, the latest example, and even if you take it a step further and look at the prospects of the sport, Chase Elliott, who graduates, has success, I think that benefits into that mold. Again, I’ve not watched him race. The numbers don’t lie.  They are very impressive. And listening to him, he just seems like he’s ahead of his years.”

As the teleconference ended, Craven had one last bit of encouragement to Rhodes: “I look forward to seeing you and look forward to pulling for you. You’ve given me a reason to watch the race. Have a great weekend.”

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

Here are driver running orders for 2017 Barcelona tests

MONTMELO, SPAIN - FEBRUARY 26:  Carlos Sainz of Spain with Daniil Kvyat of Russia both of Scuderia Toro Rosso unveil the new STR-12 F1 car during previews to F1 winter testing at Circuit de Catalunya on February 26, 2017 in Montmelo, Spain.  (Photo by Peter Fox/Getty Images)
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Tomorrow, the 2017 Formula 1 season will be underway at Circuit de Catalunya-Barcelona with the first of two four-day tests at the track.

The tests run from February 27-March 2, and March 7-10. The season opens in Melbourne with the Australian Grand Prix on March 26, on NBCSN.

Most teams have released the running orders for their drivers, although there’s still some blanks to be filled in. A link to all teams’ new cars is here.

Here’s who you can expect to see, when, for these two tests. This post will be updated with more info when it arrives:

Haas F1 Team Test Schedule (Haas breakout

Test 1
February 27 – Kevin Magnussen
February 28 – Kevin Magnussen
March 1 – Romain Grosjean
March 2 – Romain Grosjean

Test 2
March 7 – Kevin Magnussen
March 8 – Romain Grosjean
March 9 – Kevin Magnussen
March 10 – Romain Grosjean

Sahara Force India Test Schedule (Force India breakout

Test 1
February 27 – Sergio Perez
February 28 – Esteban Ocon
March 1 – Alfonso Celis Jr.
March 2 – Sergio Perez/Esteban Ocon

Test 2
March 7 – Esteban Ocon
March 8 – Sergio Perez
March 9 – Esteban Ocon
March 10 – Sergio Perez

Williams Martini Racing Test Schedule (Williams breakout)

Test 1
February 27 – Felipe Massa
February 28 – Lance Stroll
March 1 – Felipe Massa
March 2 – Lance Stroll

Test 2
March 7 – Lance Stroll
March 8 – Lance Stroll
March 9 – Felipe Massa
March 10 – Felipe Massa

Mercedes AMG Petronas Test Schedule (Mercedes breakout)

Monday 27 February
Morning – Valtteri Bottas
Afternoon – Lewis Hamilton

Tuesday 28 February
Morning – Lewis Hamilton
Afternoon – Valtteri Bottas

Wednesday 1 March
Morning – Valtteri Bottas
Afternoon – Lewis Hamilton

Thursday 2 March
Morning – Lewis Hamilton
Afternoon – Valtteri Bottas

McLaren Honda Test Schedule (McLaren breakout)

Test 1
February 27 – Fernando Alonso
February 28 – Stoffel Vandoorne
March 1 – Fernando Alonso
March 2 – Stoffel Vandoorne

Red Bull Racing Test Schedule

Test 1
February 27 – Daniel Ricciardo
February 28 – Max Verstappen
March 1 – Daniel Ricciardo
March 2 – Max Verstappen

Scuderia Toro Rosso Test Schedule

Test 1
February 27 – Carlos Sainz Jr.
February 28 – Daniil Kvyat
March 1 – TBC
March 2 – TBC

Scuderia Ferrari Test Schedule

Test 1
February 27 – Sebastian Vettel
February 28 – Kimi Raikkonen
March 1 – Sebastian Vettel
March 2 – Kimi Raikkonen

Renault Sport F1 Test Schedule

Test 1
February 27 – Nico Hulkenberg
February 28 – Jolyon Palmer
March 1 – TBC
March 2 – TBC

Sauber F1 Team Test Schedule

Test 1
February 27 – Marcus Ericsson
February 28 – Antonio Giovinazzi

Wednesday 1 March
Morning – Marcus Ericsson
Afternoon – Antonio Giovinazzi

Thursday 2 March
Morning – Marcus Ericsson
Afternoon – Antonio Giovinazzi

Leah Pritchett races to second straight NHRA Top Fuel win

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Photo: Don Schumacher Racing
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CHANDLER, Ariz. (AP) Leah Pritchett raced to her second straight Top Fuel victory to start the season Sunday and successfully defended her NHRA Arizona Nationals title.

Pritchett beat Brittany Force in the final for the second year in a row at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports, finishing in 3.705 seconds at 328.22 mph. Pritchett has three career victories, also winning the season-opener two weeks ago in Pomona, California.

“I’m learning to do what it takes to get into that extreme, severe mindset of what it takes to do what we’re doing,” Pritchett said. “Honestly, I’m trying to keep up with my team for how well they’re doing and make them proud of me as a driver and do the job that is expected of a Don Schumacher racing team and I think we’re doing pretty OK with that. We’re blessed with the equipment and the talent capabilities of the people and everyone that it takes to make it. I’m happy I can hold up my end of the bargain.”

Force ran a 3.704 at 330.39, losing on a holeshot.

Pritchett is the first Top Fuel driver to sweep the first races since Gary Scelzi in 1997.

Matt Hagan won in Funny Car for the second straight event, and Greg Anderson topped the Pro Stock field.

Hagan had a 3.878 at 330.88 in a Dodge Charger R/T to beat defending season champion Ron Capps. Anderson raced to his 87th career victory, beating Drew Skillman with a 6.547 at 211.43 in a Chevrolet Camaro.

James Key notes similarities between Toro Rosso, Mercedes 2017 F1 cars

MONTMELO, SPAIN - FEBRUARY 26: Scuderia Toro Rosso Team Principal Franz Tost, Daniil Kvyat of Russia and Scuderia Toro Rosso, Carlos Sainz of Spain and Scuderia Toro Rosso and James Key, Technical Director of Scuderia Toro Rosso unveil the Scuderia Toro Rosso STR12 in the pitlane during previews to F1 winter testing at Circuit de Catalunya on February 26, 2017 in Montmelo, Spain.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Scuderia Toro Rosso technical chief James Key has noted the similarities in the design between his team’s new Formula 1 car and Mercedes’ W08 EQ Power+.

Toro Rosso unveiled its new STR12 car on Sunday in Barcelona prior to the start of pre-season testing on Monday, with the team’s striking new livery being the biggest talking point.

After returning to current-year power units courtesy of Renault, hopes are high at Faenza that Toro Rosso could be the surprise package of F1 in 2017, particularly given the change in the regulations.

Speaking to reporters following the STR12’s launch, Key was quick to note that Toro Rosso appeared to have coincidentally gone down a similar path to Mercedes when it came to interpreting the new regulations.

“I looked at the Mercedes and thought: ‘Ah, OK. They’ve got our front suspension’. Most people will say we’ve got Mercedes’ front suspension,” Key said, as quoted by Reuters.

“The nose is similar, the front of the side pods is similar, even the bodywork of the sidepods is similar. Let’s just hope the engines are similar!”

Despite being on the same wavelength as the three-time reigning constructors’ championship-winning team, Key admitted he felt a twinge of disappointment.

“On the one hand we were pleased to see someone else has done a similar thing; on the other hand we were disappointed that we weren’t the only team to think of something,” Key said.

“There are many different concepts out there, actually.”

Toro Rosso finished seventh in last year’s constructors’ championship, having spent the latter part of the season largely hamstrung by the 2015-spec Ferrari engine it was using.

Carlos Sainz Jr. and Daniil Kvyat return for another year with Toro Rosso in 2017, with the first public running of the STR12 coming in the next few days at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya.

Formula 1 gets colorful: Here are all 10 liveries for 2017

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Following Scuderia Toro Rosso’s launch of the new STR12 car on Sunday night, the Formula 1 grid is now set ahead of the start of pre-season testing in Barcelona on Monday.

All 10 teams have sported cars that are quite the deviation from their predecessors, as forced by the overhaul of the technical regulations for the new season.

While the changes are mainly in place to make the cars quicker on-track, they also look more visually appealing than the 2016 grid – even if the debate over the ‘shark fin’ is set to rage on.

F1 has also got more colorful, with a number of teams sporting big livery changes that will make cars easier to pick out when you tune in across NBC Sports this season.

Here is what the grid will look like for F1 in 2017.

Mercedes W08 EQ Power+

2017 Silver Arrows Collateral Day Photography - Steve Etherington
© Mercedes AMG Petronas

Red Bull RB13

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© Red Bull Racing

Ferrari SF70H

© Scuderia Ferrari
© Scuderia Ferrari

Force India VJM10

© Sahara Force India
© Sahara Force India

Williams FW40

© Wil
© Williams Martini Racing

McLaren-Honda MCL32

 (Photo by McLaren F1 via Getty Images)
© McLaren F1 via Getty Images

Toro Rosso STR12

© Scuderia T
© Scuderia Toro Rosso

Haas VF-17

© Haas F1 Team
© Haas F1 Team

Renault R.S.17

© Getty Images
© Getty Images

Sauber C36

© Sauber
© Sauber