Photo credit: ProMotocross.com/Chris Ortiz

Motocross: Can Roczen slow Dungey’s momentum Saturday at Unadilla?

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The final off-week of the Lucas Oil Pro Motocross Championship season could not have come at a better time for Ken Roczen.

Four weeks ago, Roczen had managed to build up a 26-point lead on his Red Bull KTM teammate Ryan Dungey in the 450 Class championship standings. In just two rounds since then, Dungey has managed to nearly cut that lead in half. The turning point seemed to occur two weeks ago at Washougal, where Dungey swept both motos and trimmed the gap down to 14 points.

The momentum is suddenly shifting away from Roczen, and he seems to know it. At the post-race press conference in Washougal, he acknowledged that he’s not racing at the same level we’ve seen that he’s capable of:

Obviously, right now I’m not riding like I did in the beginning of the year, so I’m just trying to get back there. There’s just some sacrifices that I have to make. I’m still kind of all over the place. I go play golf, I go jump in the pool, and this and that. I think I just got to take a bit more rest. I’m willing to do anything to be able to keep that red plate, so I’m going to go work on a few things and maybe come back swinging.

It’s clear from Roczen’s quote that he isn’t taking this challenge lightly. Whether or not he was able to use the off-week to make the necessary changes – both to his bike and to himself – to return to the top of the podium is the biggest question that will be answered Saturday at the Red Bull Unadilla National.

Here’s a few other storylines to keep an eye on when the gates drop.

Who’s out?
The 450 Class will be missing two of this season’s moto winners from the starting gate, as James Stewart (undisclosed) and Josh Grant (concussion) will both miss their second race in a row. Stewart and Grant are currently fifth and sixth, respectively, in 450MX points.

Who’s in?
GEICO Honda’s Zach Osborne will return to action in the 250 Class after recovering from a torn thumb ligament that he suffered in the second moto of the season. He was a top-five rider last year and was expected to contend for moto wins this season before being injured. Darryn Durham (250 Class, concussion) and Jake Weimer (450 Class, back) are also among this week’s notable returns.

A shot at redemption?
There’s another rider back in action this week – Michael Byrne. Byrne is making his season debut riding for Chad Reed’s TwoTwo Motorsports team. It was right here at Unadilla two years ago that Byrne’s career was altered. While he was leading the first 450 Class moto, he got caught in a rut and broke his leg. It was a devastating injury that he has struggled to recover from. Byrne is reportedly feeling healthier now though and will surely be motivated to turn in a good outing in the 450 Class.

New recruits
The pros may have had an off-week, but down in Tennessee, the top amateur racers in the country were at the Loretta Lynn’s Amateur Motocross Championships. Every year, a few of the top amateurs graduate to the pro ranks in time for the last few nationals of the season. This year, there are three riders to keep an eye on. RJ Hampshire (GEICO Honda) is the cream of the crop after sweeping all six motos he raced at Loretta Lynn’s and winning two championships, but Luke Renzland (CycleTrader.com/Rock River Yamaha) and Chris Alldredge (Monster Energy/Pro Circuit/Kawasaki) come with plenty of hype and accolades this year as well.

The other championship battle
In the 250 Class, Jeremy Martin holds a comfortable points lead over Cooper Webb and Blake Baggett. With another solid outing at Unadilla, Martin could position himself to wrap up the title early at next week’s Indiana National. On the flip side, one bad moto from Martin could completely alter the complexion of the title fight.

Coverage from Unadilla starts at 10:30 AM E.T. with the second practice session in the 450 and 250 Classes, followed by the pre-race show at 12:15 PM E.T. Both can be streamed online through ProMotocross.com and NBC Sports Live Extra.

First motos in both classes will stream live online beginning at 1:00 PM E.T., followed by second motos at 3:00 PM E.T. NBC and NBCSN will also have television coverage, with the final 450 Class moto airing live on NBC at 3:00 PM E.T., and the final 250 Class moto live on NBCSN at 4:00 PM E.T.

Longtime Knoxville Raceway promoter, Ralph Capitani, dies

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Photo via @KnoxvilleRaces Twitter
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Knoxville Raceway likely wouldn’t be what it is as one of the country’s most renowned short tracks without the work of Ralph Capitani.

Capitani has died following a battle of cancer (according to Speed Sport), news of which was announced Monday by the track. The longtime promoter at the track was born in 1932.

Capitani, better known as “Cappy,” oversaw a huge rise in the stature and popularity of the track’s premier event – the Knoxville Nationals – after taking the reins as the track’s new race director and promoter in 1978.

Some of the elements Capitani worked to implement were improved facilities, purses, safety standards, car counts and audience, the latter of which saw the Knoxville Nationals eventually make it to TV. He also established the Knoxville Raceway Hall of Fame.

In his 40th year at Knoxville in 2007, Capitani said the prestige of the Knoxville Nationals remained incredible.

“I think the Knoxville Nationals is the best sprint car race of the year, bar none,” he said in 2007, via InLappedTraffic. “It is the only time you see ALL of the best sprint car drivers competing on the same playing field. It is a United States and Internationally wide event.”

He retired from the track at the end of 2011.

Knoxville Raceway released a statement confirming Capitani’s passing, and thanking him for all he did to put the track and race on the map.

A portion of the statement reads: “A visionary in the sport, Cappy aimed to make sprint car racing at Knoxville Raceway grander, the purses bigger and the grandstands fuller. He achieved them all with a smile on his face and a hearty handshake for every team owner, driver, crew member and fan that ever crossed his path.”

IndyCar’s last big pre-season test occurs this week at Sebring

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Conor Daly. Photo: IndyCar
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Pre-season testing for the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season will conclude this week with all eight full-season teams having two days at Sebring International Raceway’s short course on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Sebring marks the closest venue to simulate street course conditions; four of the first eight races are street races while only one street race, Toronto, occurs in the second half of the season.

Although this is private testing, this will be a de facto “spring training” on the 1.5-mile road course for teams to see what the others are running all at once. IndyCar’s official spring training, the Prix View test at Phoenix International Raceway’s 1-mile oval, occurred on February 10-11.

The bulk of the field runs tomorrow, with seven of the eight teams set to test – the only exception is Andretti Autosport. Andretti is listed to test on Wednesday.

All but one of the 21 full-season drivers expected for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg season opener on March 12 will test this week. The one not listed is Sebastien Bourdais of Dale Coyne Racing; Bourdais and Ed Jones tested at Sebring in January prior to the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

They’ll be joined by the three drivers making their test debuts, all for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports: Robert Wickens, Luis Felipe “Pipo” Derani and Luis Michael Dorrbecker.

Wickens tests tomorrow as part of his planned ride swap with James Hinchcliffe, with Derani and Dorrbecker set to test on Wednesday.

Sebring is usually a hotbed for tests over the IndyCar offseason. This year saw A.J. Foyt Enterprises (in late January with Chevrolet) and Chip Ganassi Racing (in early January with Honda) premiere their new manufacturers and aero kits at Sebring, among other teams that have tested here.

Although the test season has seen an increase in interest this year, the regular season starts in St. Petersburg and returns to NBCSN with Long Beach on April 9.

F1 Paddock Pass: 2017 launch roundup (VIDEO)

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The NBC Sports Group original digital series Paddock Pass returns today with a recap of the remaining launches of the 2017 Formula 1 cars that occurred over the weekend.

Williams was first to reveal a rendering of its 2017 car, but it wasn’t a formal launch. Sauber’s online launch properly kicked off proceedings last Monday, before Renault, Force India and Mercedes did actual launches, and then Ferrari (online) and McLaren (in Woking) both launched on Friday.

Official launches then followed for Williams, Red Bull, Haas and Toro Rosso over the weekend. Haas had pictures of its car leak the day before its planned launch as it was a filming day on track.

In this edition of Paddock Pass, NBCSN pit reporter and insider Will Buxton and producer Jason Swales recap the remaining cars revealed over the weekend.

Previous Paddock Pass editions from this week are below:

Testing continues this week with days two through four of the first test at Barcelona.

Alonso’s McLaren struggles on first day of F1 tests

MONTMELO, SPAIN - FEBRUARY 27: Fernando Alonso of Spain driving the (14) McLaren Honda Formula 1 Team McLaren MCL32 on track  during day one of Formula One winter testing at Circuit de Catalunya on February 27, 2017 in Montmelo, Spain.  (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)
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MONTMELO, Spain (AP) Troubled Formula One team McLaren has gotten off to a wretched start in preseason testing.

Fernando Alonso spent most of the first day waiting to get back out of the garage after his car broke down following just one lap at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya on Monday.

What the team identified as an “oil system” malfunction to its Honda-made engine kept the two-time world champion out of action until after the lunch break. Back behind the wheel, his 29 total laps was the lowest amount of the 11 drivers who participated.

Alonso also posted the second-slowest time, more than three seconds off the leading pace set by Lewis Hamilton in his Mercedes. Only Sauber’s Marcus Ericsson was slower.

“It’s disappointing,” Alonso said. “You work for three months and at the track on the installation lap something breaks down and you lose the day.”

This misstep is the latest technical hiccup to plague McLaren since it paired up with Honda.

One of F1’s most successful teams with eight constructor titles and 12 driver titles, the British outfit has struggled since it switched from Mercedes to the Japanese automaker before the 2015 season.

After earning just a combined 27 points from Alonso and Jenson Button in the first year with Honda, the team showed some growth last season with 76 points and two fifth-place finishes. But that is still a far cry from the glory days of the Woking-based team whose last race win was in Brazil in 2012.

For his part, Alonso hasn’t won a race since he claimed his 32nd victory back in 2013 at the Spanish Grand Prix while with Ferrari.

“It is fair to say that after the difficulties we had the last three seasons, it’s a nice temptation for the media,” Alonso said.

“From the point of view of the team, we are disappointed and sad to arrive to the first day of testing and not run.

“We are focused on what we have to do to make up the lost time. We know that we have four days for each driver and now one day is gone to prepare for the world championship.”

Stoffel Vandoorne, who has replaced Button, will get his turn for McLaren on Tuesday.

McLaren team chief Eric Boullier acknowledged that the relationship with Honda is far from perfect.

“It is like any marriage, you can have some ups and downs,” Boullier said. “We went through a lot of stress through the last couple of years, but we have a positive and constructive relationship and I don’t expect this to change in the future.”

The opening test will run through Thursday.

The track near Barcelona will host a second round of testing from March 7-10 before the season starts at the Australian GP on March 26.