(AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

Runner-up finish at Chicago could be start of turnaround for Trevor Bayne

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JOLIET, Ill. — Saturday’s runner-up finish in the EnjoyIllinois.com 300 Nationwide Series race at Chicagoland Speedway may very well be a turning point for Trevor Bayne in the 2014 season.

His run tied a season-best showing (second at Dover), left him in sixth-place in the standings, just 50 points behind with 15 more races to go.

And if Bayne can continue his momentum this coming weekend at Indianapolis, his hopes for a Nationwide championship in his final year in the series could potentially come true.

Bayne ran a strong race, finishing second to NNS rookie and new points leader Chase Elliott, who won his third event of the season. Elliott’s margin of victory was 1.7 seconds over Bayne’s Ford.

“The last two runs of the race, we had a car that could win it,” Bayne told MotorSportsTalk. “That’s as competitive as we’ve been all year long and ties our best finish of the season at Dover.

“I felt like we had a better chance in this race than at Dover. … We ended up coming home second, just short, which is a little bittersweet, but we’ll take the sweet part because it’s just nice to be in contention in these things and have cars that are capable of winning races. If we can do that week in and week out, we’ll be there.”

In 18 starts this season, Bayne has three top-fives and 13 top-10s. He’s also had two DNFs.

But Saturday’s run brought out a new kind of confidence that even though Bayne characterizes the first part of this season as having been a struggle, there’s no reason why the second half of the season has to be the same.

“(If there had been) 10 or 15 (more) laps, I think we might have had something for them,” Bayne said. “We’re pretty happy with our run there and I was pumped to just be able to see the leader there and be making gains at him.

“This season has been a struggle for us overall. It’s nice to just have some speed here at a mile-and-a-half, track and there’s a lot of mile-and-a-halfs that are the same, so we’re hoping that carries on through the rest of the season for our Advocare Mustang.

“I’m hoping this run at Chicago can give us that momentum and knowledge we’ve been looking for. … We’ve made a lot of changes to our cars to make them all season long and we finally seemed to make some gains Saturday night.

“When you go to Chicago, you want to think you’ve learned something there that you can take to places like Atlanta, Kentucky and Charlotte, places like that and do real well at.”

Next up for Bayne is the legendary 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Having already won NASCAR’s biggest race, the Daytona 500, Bayne would love to win either the NNS or Sprint Cup event at Indy.

“Indy is one of the most overwhelming tracks you can go inside as a driver,” Bayne said. “You look down the frontstretch, it looks like a tunnel going down into Turn 1 and all of a sudden it’s just a 90-degree left without any banking, and you start second-guessing yourself if this thing is going to stick.

“We look forward to going there because we think we can run real well there, especially with the experience we have.”

And a trophy from Indy – be it NNS or Sprint Cup – would find a welcome home next to his Daytona 500 trophy.

“We’d like to add any trophy, so we’ll take them anywhere we can get ’em,” Bayne said with a laugh. “Indy is a really special place and I think it’s close to Daytona, if not tied with it, as far as motorsports is concerned.

“Indy has as much or more history than any track we go to, and to win any kind of race there, whether it’s Nationwide or Cup, winning the Brickyard 400 would be a huge deal, but winning the Nationwide race would also be great. To have a chance there, it’d be awesome to come down to the finish and see what we’ve got, sailing into Turn 4 for the last time for a battle. We look forward to going there and think we can run well there.”

Bayne has plenty of incentive to win at Indy, but there’s a bit more added this time: he’s one of four drivers who will be in contention for the Nationwide Dash-4-Cash promotion, where the highest finisher of the four drivers will take home a cool $100,000.

Bayne saw Brian Scott do just that Saturday night at Chicagoland, finishing sixth, the best of the four drivers chosen for that event.

Where Bayne goes from there remains to be seen. But if the feeling he has after Chicagoland is any indication, a turnaround is definitely on his mind.

“We’ve been consistent all year long,” Bayne said. “We had a couple races where we weren’t consistent. We got tangled up in the rain (at Road America) and got taken out at Michigan. Those were tough races for us to swallow because that’s what gave us that deficit in points.

“It’s a long season still ahead of us. There’s still two road courses left, we’ve got Bristol, some other short tracks like Richmond coming up where those guys can have bad days.

“We can have bad days, too, but we’ll just try to avoid those. Hopefully, those are between us and we can capitalize on some points.”

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CJ Wilson completes first test in Porsche GT3 Cup car

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Photo courtesy of CJ Wilson Racing
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CJ Wilson’s new career is officially underway, following his retirement from professional baseball and now having completed his first test last week at Texas World Speedway in his new 2017 Porsche 911 GT3 Cup car.

Wilson, who formally announced the news he’d be transitioning into racing full-time during Rolex 24 at Daytona race week, did a two-day test at the still active oval/road course combo track in College Station, Texas. Wilson tested one of the team’s Porsche Cayman GT4 Clubsports (the team runs two in IMSA’s Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge) and then advanced into the Cup car.

Wilson got fairly close to teammate Marc Miller’s times during the test as he acclimated to both the Cup car and the Yokohama tires.

“It’s great to take another step towards my goals,” Wilson said. “We had a chance to burn through two sets of tires today and I made a lot of progress. Having Marc as my coach was incredibly helpful because we have a lot of faith in each other and communicate using the same terms. Having sat in driver debriefings for the past six years with the race team, I was able to take all the input logically and make progress each session.

“The only odd thing about the test is that nobody else was here, which was the first time I have ever been on a track completely alone, so when we did a race simulation I had to use my imagination. TWS is a really fast and bumpy track. Looking forward to getting back in the car in ten days and pick up where I left off.”

Miller added, “CJ did great job, but I expected as much. He is logical and methodical which makes him easy to help and that translated into a very quick progression along the learning curve. Like any professional athlete though he is never truly satisfied because he wants to be perfect. He took quickly to the new Porsche 911 GT3 Cup car. It is confidence inspiring and such a capable platform so that suited him well in getting up to speed. Overall, it was a successful first outing and I look forward to working with CJ this season. I expect he will have a solid debut at Sebring. He better or I’m likely fired.”

A teaser of on-board footage is below, along with a couple other social posts from the test:

Danny Watts: ‘Staying hidden was nothing but torture and pain’

LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 22:  (l to r) Strakka Racing drivers Danny Watts, Nick Leventis and Jonny Kane pose during the 2013 FIA World Endurance Championship Photo Call on March 22, 2013 at Potters Fields in London, England.  (Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images)
Watts (left) with Leventis and Kane in 2013. Photo: Getty Images
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Sports car veteran driver Danny Watts has announced his retirement from active competition, but is in the news for an entirely different reason on Monday.

The 37-year-old Brit has announced he’s gay, penning a first-person piece for the Huffington Post and also doing interviews with both Daily Sportscar and Autosport. The latter article features a well-written op-ed from author Matt Beer.

In the Huffington Post piece, Watts, an eight-time starter and 2010 LMP2 class winner at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, wrote that hiding his sexuality in the heavily white male heterosexual world of motorsport was simply becoming too much to keep under wraps.

“There isn’t any one moment that stands out in my mind as the moment I realized I would need to live in the closet if I wanted my motorsport career to go anywhere; it was just a general feeling I got,” Watts wrote.

“All the other guys in the paddock had girlfriends, so I got one to blend in. When that relationship ended, I got another one, and so I continued pretending to be straight for seventeen years.

“Staying hidden was nothing but torture and pain.

“I hope that there are a few people who are supportive. If the response I’ve had from the queer motorsport community thus far is any gauge, I feel hopeful that I’ll find a supportive group to start driving change for my queer siblings in the sport I love.”

Within the motorsports world, Watts’ name is best known to the sports car paddock, and he was a regular with the Strakka Racing team alongside co-drivers Jonny Kane and Nick Leventis. But he isn’t particularly known to the racing world at large.

This announcement comes as Watts has opted to call time on his full-time driving career and instead will focus on coaching for the future. It also represents one of the higher profile names in racing announcing his sexual orientation, which makes it newsworthy.

Despite some detractors (as you might expect), a number of other drivers and key motorsports figures have revealed their support for Watts, and why this news matters, on social media today:

Marino Franchitti returns to Mazda at Sebring

SEBRING, FL - MARCH 15:  Left to right, Marino Franchitti, Memo Rojas and Scott Pruett celebrate after winning the 12 Hours of Sebring at Sebring International Raceway on March 15, 2014 in Sebring, Florida.  (Photo by Brian Cleary/Getty Images)
Franchitti (left) won at Sebring in 2014. Photo: Getty Images
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Marino Franchitti will make his return to a Mazda entry for next month’s Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring, to be run March 18, as third driver in the team’s No. 70 Mazda RT24-P with Joel Miller and Tom Long.

The Scotsman competed in the team’s RX-8 and 6 models in the GT ranks but has been out of a drive since his role with Ford Chip Ganassi Racing last season in one of the team’s Ford GTs in the FIA World Endurance Championship.

Franchitti replaces James Hinchcliffe, who was the third driver in the No. 70 car at the Rolex 24 at Daytona. He’ll test for the team later this week at Sebring prior to the race run in the second IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship race of the year.

“A big part of those results are being with great teams and having great teammates. I’ve been fortunate in that regard,” said Franchitti, who co-drove to win overall at Sebring in 2014. “I love driving there, I always have since the first laps I did. It’s a proper old-school track. If you go over the limit, you crash, simple as that, rather than going onto some tarmac run-off like many tracks. I love the challenge of walking that tightrope. Of course, there’s the challenge of the bumps too, trying to get the car to handle over them and the beating the car and driver takes. There’s a reason people come from all over the world to endurance test their cars here, it’s the ultimate test of a vehicle and its durability.

No. 70 Mazda RT24-P. Photo courtesy of IMSA
No. 70 Mazda RT24-P. Photo courtesy of IMSA

“It’s so cool to be coming back into the Mazda family,” said Franchitti. “Like everyone else, I was blown away when I saw the first shots of the RT24-P and how incredible it looks, so there’s a lot of excitement at getting to drive it. I’m relieved I get a chance to test the car, as many times I’ve just jumped in and raced, so this is a bit of a luxury! Being a part of the development process of a car is something I’ve been lucky enough to do several times and it’s something I really love.”

Mazda Motorsports director John Doonan added, “He’s a proven winner there, and he’s been a part of the Mazda family for years. Just look at his record at Sebring! He has the experience that can really help our team. Because he’s driven with Mazda before, we know his personality is a great fit. That’s important to us, and it goes a long way in helping the team chemistry remain strong. He’s a great fit with Tom [Long] and Joel [Miller], just as Spencer Pigot has been great with Nunez and Bomarito.”

Pipo Derani set for IndyCar test with SPM at Sebring

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Photo courtesy of IMSA
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Pipo Derani has become a star in the sports car world the last couple years, courtesy of his drives primarily with Tequila Patron ESM.

Meanwhile for at least a day, the 23-year-old Brazilian will be returning to his open-wheel roots in a big way.

NBC Sports has learned Derani will test for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports on March 1 in a rookie test for the Verizon IndyCar Series. Derani joins Mexican driver Luis Michael Dorrbecker, who will also make his test debut that day at that test at Sebring International Raceway’s 1.5-mile short course.

Derani raced a partial season in the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires series in 2014 with Team Pelfrey, before shifting to sports cars later that fall, starting with Murphy Prototypes.

Derani excelled with G-Drive in 2015 before his star turn with ESM last year. This year, his schedule grows even greater, as he’s been confirmed with Ford Chip Ganassi Racing for the first three races of the FIA World Endurance Championship season, including the 24 Hours of Le Mans, sharing the No. 67 Ford GT with Andy Priaulx and Harry Tincknell.

It’ll be interesting to see what Derani does on the Sebring short course in one of SPM’s Honda-powered entries. He’ll be back at Sebring a couple weeks after his IndyCar test, as he prepares to defend his win in the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring with ESM.