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Like a good stew, 2015 Sprint Cup schedule and new Chase format need time to simmer for best taste

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The long-awaited release of the 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup schedule was much less of the surprise many expected.

Instead of wholesale changes, we got only a few tweaks – a bit of shuffling around, as well as other traditional race dates being pushed back a week or two.

But for the most part, instead of a completely radical change of tracks and locales for both the overall season and – in particular, the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup – we got more of the same.

And you know what? There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.

NASCAR did what it felt it had to do, and by early measure, appears to have hit at least a triple, if not a full-fledged home run.

Sure, change is oftentimes a good thing. To shake things up and to throw out some old and bring in some new is one of the best ways to not only attract new fans, but also bring back old and former fans.

But at the same time, making change just for change sake – especially at such a crucial time in where the sport is today – would not be prudent.

Let me explain.

It’s no secret that NASCAR has experienced significant drops in at-track attendance and TV ratings for the better part of the last six-plus years.

There’s no question times have been tough for the sport and many, if not most, of its teams. Many have had to weather the most challenging economic climate they ever have. Some have even had to fold or merge with other operations because they simply could not continue racing.

That’s understandable.

But when NASCAR makes changes, it does so after extensive research and thought. Change is not made with a knee-jerk reaction or willy-nilly.

Think of the time and effort that has gone into things such as the initial Car of Tomorrow, followed by the Generation 6 car that is in use today.

NASCAR didn’t make those changes overnight. Rather, a combination of research, development, conferring with manufacturers, team owners, crew chiefs, drivers and even sponsors all take place before major changes occur.

In the case of both the COT and Gen 6, those developments were both two-plus years in the making before they actually made their debut in the sport.

Which leads us to this year’s upcoming Chase for the Sprint Cup and Tuesday’s release of the 2015 schedule.

NASCAR as a sanctioning body, starting from the top with chairman/CEO Brian France, president Mike Helton and all other major officials, spent close to a year trying to come up with a way to liven up the Chase.

While NASCAR’s marquee event had become more popular as time proceeded over the first 10 years of its existence, to many there was still an intangible missing that prevented it from realizing all the potential that France, Helton and the rest of NASCAR officials had envisioned and hoped for.

As a result, yet another change in the Chase for 2014, the most significant and largest-scale change in the playoffs’ 10-year existence. Instead of 12 drivers, we will have 16. Instead of a playoff system based upon points, we’ll have three elimination rounds that will result in a one-race, four-driver, winner-take-all shootout in the season finale at Homestead Miami Speedway in mid-November.

With so much on the line that the new format will be a success and will hopefully be that missing intangible that will attract more fans both in-person and in front of a TV set, it would be ludicrous for NASCAR to radically alter the schedule for 2015 without seeing how the full 2014 schedule – particularly the newly revised Chase – plays out.

Sure, many of us heard all kinds of schedule rumors over the last few months. Some were mild, like what came to be with Darlington moving back to its former Labor Day date. Or pushing the spring race at Bristol back two weeks due to often unpredictable weather in March.

Those made sense to do.

Other rumors we heard were radical, such as the Brickyard 400 starting the Chase next season, that a road course (at a track perhaps other than Sonoma or Watkins Glen) would be inserted into the playoffs, and that some tracks that currently have Chase races would not have them when the 2015 schedule came out.

Of course, that did not happen.

That doesn’t mean more changes will eventually come to the Chase makeup, but at this time, NASCAR has to look at the new format as a chef would look at a stew: you have to let it simmer for a while before you start adding ingredients or taking other ingredients out.

I still believe we’ll see the Chase schedule changed in the future, with different venues than what we currently have, perhaps after a two- or three-year period to allow for evaluation on what changes, if necessary, will be prudent.

But until then, NASCAR owes it to itself and its fans, and its fans owe it to the sport to see how the new format and the new schedule mesh.

And that will only come with time.

For now, I’ll give NASCAR the benefit of the doubt. To once again use the analogy of the chef and stew, NASCAR shook things up not on a massive scale, but just enough to give the overall season and the Chase a bit more flavor.

How it tastes – and whether it needs even more flavor – will be up to the fans.

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

Force India unveils VJM10 Formula 1 car at Silverstone

The Sahara Force India F1 VJM10.
Sahara Force India F1 VJM10 Launch, Wednesday 22nd February 2017. Silverstone, England.
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Force India has become the latest team to unveil its new Formula 1 car ahead of the 2017 season after taking the covers off the VJM10 at Silverstone on Wednesday.

The team’s new car follows in the footsteps of Williams, Sauber and Renault’s efforts by being a great diversion from its 2016 effort following the overhaul of the new regulations for the coming campaign.

The VJM10 sports more radical aerodynamics, including the sharkfin engine cover that is set to feature on most cars on the gird this year, while the color scheme moves away from the black colors used last year and instead incorporates more graphite.

“From the data we have seen so far, this is a cracker of a car, and we hope it’s as quick as expected,” team owner Vijay Mallya said.

“Compared to previous seasons when we tried to carry over 50 per cent of a car, this one is as close to brand new as you can get, I’d say 95 per cent,” technical chief Andrew Green added.

“We’re essentially starting from scratch. We think we’ve got the basis of a car now.”

Force India enters 2017 off the back of its best season yet in F1, having finished fourth in last year’s constructors’ championship behind only Mercedes, Red Bull and Ferrari.

“Many commentators of the sport have always said that we punch well above our weight and to add to that, the world champions for the amount of money spent is a huge compliment,” Mallya said.

“It speaks volumes for the passion, the creativity, the talent of my team and everybody at the factory. This passion is only going to get more intense, and the passion to improve further is going to be pretty radical in 2017.

“If we did not dream big, we would not have finished fourth in the world championship last year. To be in the company of Mercedes, Red Bull and Ferrari is a huge accomplishment in itself. We have always dreamed big. We have never had conversations even in private that we cannot break into the top three. That is going to be our objective.

“We will certainly give it our best shot. I read an article this morning where Renault’s Cyril Abiteboul said teams like Force India may struggle in an arms race. Good luck to him. He may have to eat his words. It’s not about the size of your weapons, but their quality.”

The team’s charge was led by Sergio Perez, who returns for a fourth season in Force India colors after rejecting an approach from Renault.

“We were the fourth-fastest team and had a couple of podiums. That makes me confident,” Perez said.

“It makes me expect to have a very big year for the team.”

Instead it was teammate Nico Hulkenberg who made the move from Force India to Renault, paving the way for Mercedes junior driver Esteban Ocon to take his seat.

“I want to learn from this team, and they have a lot to teach me. I will have a lot to learn from Sergio, he’s a very experienced driver, a very great driver,” Ocon said.

“I hope I will learn a lot from him in the tests, and my goal is to be straightaway on the pace in the race.”

Ocon made his F1 debut in Belgium last year with Manor after replacing Rio Haryanto, and impressed during his stint with the backmarker team to warrant a swift promotion up the grid.

“Esteban is a very, very talented youngster. When Hulkenberg decided to move on, we spent a lot of time thinking through who we could hire as a replacement,” Mallya said.

“Esteban has tested with us before, so we had some data on him. We then put him in the simulator, and he impressed all of us, so we made the decision. He’s young, he’s talented, he has limited experience in F1, but he is willing to learn.”

Herta, Andretti continue ‘natural evolution’ of partnership into 2017

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MAY 29:  Alexander Rossi of the United States, driver of the #98 Andretti Herta Autosport Honda Dallara, poses with team owners Michael Andretti and Bryan Herta during a photoshoot after winning the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motorspeedway on May 30, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
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A year ago, Bryan Herta faced a quandary and a fork in the road.

A sponsor had pulled out, leaving the likable team owner and past driver needing a way to continue into the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series season at the eleventh hour.

You should know the story from there. Herta and Michael Andretti struck a deal where the Bryan Herta Autosport team melded with the Andretti Autosport operation as the fourth Andretti entry for 2016. Alexander Rossi replaced Gabby Chaves as driver although the rest of the BHA crew shifted over unchanged.

Rossi promptly won the 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil thanks in large part to Herta’s strategic gamble but Rossi’s own maturity beyond his years, while Chaves endured a nightmare season racing only part-time.

It’s natural to wonder where Herta might be now if the last-minute deal didn’t happen. Luckily, there was never a question that the Herta-Andretti partnership would continue into a second year, and as Herta explained, the melding is such that there’s not a divide of “BHA” and “Andretti Autosport” within the overall unit.

“I think it’s kind of cool how it’s evolved. A year ago this was all fresh,” Herta told NBC Sports. “Indy 500 aside was a great thing on its own, but overall it’s worked well for us and for his team. This was a natural evolution.

“You had the 98 car… and it was my original guys that came over on the car. Now the idea was, let’s do this for a year. At end of the year, really, we’d talk about how to continue it. We achieved the objective and didn’t need to go our own way again. We want to continue it.

“This year is a more thorough integration. It’s not the ’98 guys’ and ‘Andretti guys.’ There’s a mix; the BHA guys are mixed to different cars. I have a role in Marco (Andretti’s) car. It’s back to one team. The 98 yes, falls under the BHA entry, but really now we’re all in with Andretti Autosport.”

And that is the funny part of the year ahead. While Rossi’s No. 98 NAPA AUTO PARTS Honda is still the Andretti-Herta Autosport entered car, Herta himself shifts to the strategist box for Marco Andretti, in an attempt to help bring the No. 27 hhgregg Honda’s performance – and results – forward. This also allows Michael Andretti to step off the box and be free to go to his other race team events, if needed, for conflict weekends.

MONTEREY, CA - OCTOBER 19:  Bryan Herta driver of the #26 Andretti Green Racing XM Satellite Radio Acura ARX-01a during practice for the American Le Mans Series Monterey Sports Car Championships at Laguna Seca Raceway on October 19, 2007 in Monterey, California.  (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)
MONTEREY, CA – OCTOBER 19: Bryan Herta during practice for the ALMS race at Laguna Seca Raceway in 2007. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

The relationship between Herta and Marco Andretti is a really intriguing one. Herta and Michael Andretti raced together first as rivals, then as teammates between 1994 and 2007. Marco Andretti’s debut in 2006 coincided with Herta’s last full-time year as a driver in IndyCar, before he shifted to Michael Andretti’s Acura LMP2 sports car program in 2007 (right).

Yet Herta can see both the father side (his son Colton, races for Andretti’s Indy Lights team in 2017) and the teammate side of Marco. He knows the talent is there, but it’s been inconsistent on whether it’s fully shone through or not.

“He’s got a really capable group of guys over there,” Herta explained. “Me moving over was just a case of freshening some things up. Also with Michael recognizing… given his role as a team owner in multiple championships, he’s better off, not handcuffed, but not being stuck in any particular place. Say he might be needed at FE, GRC, or here. This frees him up to be wherever he’s needed.

“The second point is the father-son dynamic is difficult. They’re both very similar and passionate. So it was, let’s try something different. Marco was up for it. I was up for it. I have known Marco since he was a kid and I believe there is more than enough ability there. He has all the tools he needs.”

RICHMOND, VA - JUNE 23: Marco Andretti, (L) driver of the #26 ArcaEx Andretti Green Racing Dallara Honda, and Bryan Herta driver of the #7 XM Satellite Andretti Green Racing Dallara Honda, and Marco's engineer Eddie Jones talk during practice for the IRL IndyCar Series SunTrust Indy challenge on June 23, 2006 at Richmond International Raceway in Richmond, Virginia. (Photo by Gavin Lawrence/Getty Images)
RICHMOND, VA – JUNE 23: Marco Andretti and Bryan Herta, and Marco’s engineer Eddie Jones talk during practice for IndyCar’s 2006 race at Richmond. (Photo by Gavin Lawrence/Getty Images)

Marco Andretti, for his part, is bullish on the move as well. “I’m really excited to be working with Bryan. Dad was great at calling races, but sometime it’s a hectic work environment, and no one wants to make mistakes. Every one of these guys is extremely talented,” he told NBC Sports in December.

Luckily for both parents, they just get to play “dad” this year at the track rather than be directly involved in their sons’ races. It’s a move that, in large part, has helped Graham Rahal develop the last two years at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, a team Herta used to race for. With Bobby Rahal off the box and Rico Nault stepping in, the younger Rahal has achieved his best two seasons the last two years.

Herta still has the “dad” component as Colton, 16, comes home for 2017 after two years abroad in Europe racing for Carlin. The Andretti Steinbrenner Racing entry Colton will drive for in Indy Lights matches the BHA No. 98, but features no Herta ownership involvement.

And being free to just watch the son of “Hertamania” compete is a freeing element for the senior Herta.

“It’s really nice having him home. We’ve enjoyed having him home,” he said. “On the race weekends it was hard to watch him… I only went to two races a year. I was always here.

“This year, I’m not going to watch every session. But just being here and keeping tabs on what’s going on is nice. I don’t have a role in Indy Lights program.

“For me, if I walk over there, it’s just me being dad. I’m not there to work.”

But work is something the senior Herta has done a good job of as one of IndyCar’s newest – and youngest – team owners at just 46 years old. He’s still got his own team name active as well, as the Bryan Herta Rallysport team continues into 2017 with new driver Cabot Bigham, who steps up to Supercars after winning the GRC Lites title.

The IndyCar season starts on March 12 at St. Petersburg and resumes on NBCSN on April 9 in Long Beach, while GRC kicks off at Memphis April 28-29, also on the NBC Sports Group networks.

Lando Norris joins McLaren F1 junior driver program

ESTORIL (POR) OCTOBER 21-23 2016 - Renault Sport Series at Autodromo Estoril. Lando Norris #02 Josef Kaufmann Racing. Portrait. © 2016 Sebastiaan Rozendaal / Dutch Photo Agency / LAT Photographic
© Sebastiaan Rozendaal / Dutch Photo Agency / LAT Photographic
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McLaren has announced that rising British racer Lando Norris has become the latest member of its junior driver program ahead of the 2017 season.

Norris, 17, was one of the most prolific racers in junior motorsport last year, claiming the Toyota Racing Series, Eurocup Formula Renault 2.0 and Formula Renault 2.0 NEC titles, as well as winning the McLaren BRDC Autosport Award.

Norris confirmed in December that he would be moving up to Formula 3 for 2017 with Carlin, but will also now link up with McLaren after being named as the newest member of the British marque’s young driver program.

“It’s definitely a step towards my dream of being in Formula 1,” Norris said.

“The facilities at McLaren are fantastic. I’ll be using the same simulator, the same gym, as some of the greatest F1 drivers in recent years.

“The team also has a lot of data that will be really valuable for me to compare myself with other drivers who have come through.

“I’ll know what level I need to be at to drive in F1 – so if that chance comes, I’ll be fit and ready to jump in straight away.”

McLarn executive director Zak Brown added: “I regard Lando as a fabulous prospect. he blew the doors off his rivals in not one but three highly competitive race series last year, then capped that by establishing himself as the clear winner of the McLaren Autosport BRDC Award.

“It was an impressively mature performance, and we’ll be developing him this year as part of our simulator team, whereby he’ll be contributing directly and importantly to our Formula 1 campaign at the same time as honing and improving his technical feedback capabilities.”

Norris joins existing McLaren juniors Nobuharu Matsushita and Nyck de Vries on its junior books, and will aim to follow in the footsteps of recent F1 graduates Kevin Magnussen and Stoffel Vandoorne in the near future.

‘McLaren’ documentary to honor a true pioneer of the sport (VIDEO)

Bruce McLaren drives the #11 McLaren BRM M4B during the Daily Mail Race of Champions on 12 March 1967 at the Brands Hatch circuit in Fawkham, Great Britain. (Photo by Getty Images)
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“To do something well is so worthwhile that to die trying to do it better cannot be foolhardy. It would be a waste of life to do nothing with one’s ability, for I feel that life is measured in achievement, not in years alone.”

The above quote came from racing driver and car designer Bruce McLaren, and if a life is measured in accomplishments and impact rather than length, very few have have ever done more than the man originally from New Zealand.

His driving statistics would be enough to stand on their own. He is one of only a few drivers to have won both the Monaco Grand Prix and the 24 Hours of Le Mans before achieving a string of victories in Can-Am during the 1960s.

However, perhaps his lasting legacy is as a designer. The founder of Bruce McLaren Motor Racing, now known as McLaren Racing Limited, he did more than hold his own while piloting his machinery in Formula 1, even winning the 1968 Belgian Grand Prix. But, his team’s stardom skyrocketing after entering Can-Am in the late 1960s. The group won five of their six races in 1967 and four of six races in 1968.

But those results pale in comparison to 1969, when his team won all 11 races in Can-Am with he, countryman Denny Hulme, Chris Amon and Dan Gurney as the drivers. They even finished an astounding 1-2-3 on three occasions that season, cementing McLaren’s status as one of the greatest drivers and designers who ever lived. In the decades since, the McLaren name has become synonymous with excellence, both in its racing cars and road cars.

Bruce McLaren’s life, sadly cut short at the age of 32 following a testing crash at Goodwood Circuit, is the focus of the upcoming documentary ‘McLaren.’ If the trailer is any indication, the film will serve as an epic tribute to a true pioneer, one who left an indelible mark on the entire racing community.