Kyle Larson, left, and Jamie McMurray, right. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

Jamie McMurray having a much different season than he’s used to on and off the track in 2014

Leave a comment

A bit of friendly advice: don’t make the mistake of calling Jamie McMurray “old.”

On the one hand, while McMurray still looks young enough to be carded at a bar, appearing to maybe be in his mid-20s, the fact is he turned 38 in June.

But on the other hand, his age has definitely come into play more so this season than in any other of his prior 11 full-time seasons in the Sprint Cup Series.

With series veteran Juan Pablo Montoya leaving NASCAR to return to IndyCar prior to this season, McMurray went from the younger guy on the two-car Chip Ganassi Racing team to the aging veteran himself.

What’s more, he’s now teamed with 21-year-old Kyle Larson, making McMurray both a teammate and something he’s never really been before in his career, namely, a mentor.

“I’ve always had to be the younger guy,” McMurray joked during a test session Tuesday at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Ill. “I joked around at dinner last night that Kyle’s young enough to legitimately be my son. It wouldn’t even be weird if I said I had an 18-year-old son.

“And Keith (Rodden), my crew chief, is younger (33) than me. I don’t know if it’s tough or hard, but that’s a transition in life, when you’re all of a sudden not the youngest one around, right? But Kyle’s a real good teammate and I’ve enjoyed the time I’ve spent with him.”

While not casting any negative comments or aspersions at former teammate Montoya, McMurray said he and Larson have bonded quickly.

“Kyle is pretty easy to talk to,” McMurray said. “It’s so hard to compare people without building one up or knocking the other one down. But Kyle and I definitely talk more than what Juan and I did.

“He’s new and fresh and doesn’t have any bad habits yet, so it’s kind of fun to look at his races or engine data or listen to Kyle talk. I think he’s perceived as this extremely quiet individual, but is actually pretty funny and does talk a lot if you ask him questions. He’s refreshing is probably the word just because he’s new and doesn’t know right from wrong yet. I’ve really enjoyed my time with him.”

With two races remaining to make this year’s expanded 16-driver field for the upcoming Chase for the Sprint Cup, McMurray knows he needs a win at either Atlanta this Saturday or the final Chase qualifying race on Sept. 6 at Richmond.

“Everyone’s plan every week is to win,” McMurray said. “The media makes it that they have to win one of the next two to get into the Chase. Everybody gambles and takes risks every single week, so I don’t know if that plays out any differently.”

But the fact is McMurray won’t make the Chase unless he wins one of the next two races. And while he’s not giving up on those hopes, he’s also cognizant that even if he falls short, he can still end the season with a flourish even as a non-Chase contender.

“I think that it’s going to be a little bit different this year because there’s going to be 16 guys involved,” McMurray said. “If you make the Chase and you finish 16th in points, I don’t know if that’s that stellar of a year. I think there could be a guy that doesn’t make the Chase and could win two or three races in the Chase, finishes 17th in the points, and I’m going to say he had a lot better year.

“I don’t know if you can base your year just on making or not making (the Chase), because ultimately every week is about winning. There might be somebody that makes the Chase that never wins a race. I don’t know if that guy at the end of the year is going to sit down and say, ‘Wow, we just really killed it this year.’

“It’s not make-or-break. Getting to win the All-Star Race (back in May) was awesome for us. Certainly, if we could have won last weekend (at Bristol, where he led a race-high 148 laps and finished eighth), it would have been special and then you’re in the Chase. Then you look at your year and say, ‘We’ve won a couple times and we made the Chase.’ But really, I hate that there’s so much emphasis put on just making the Chase, because if you just make it and you don’t run well, I don’t really see where that’s all that great.

“To just make the Chase and not win a race really isn’t what you’re looking for. If you don’t make it but you could win three races in the last 10, I think everyone would take that over just making the Chase, especially now that there’s 16 guys in it. It’s not quite as special as it was when there were just 10 in it.”

While McMurray is 16th in the conventional Sprint Cup standings, there are five drivers behind him in the standings who will vault into the Chase because they all have one win thus far this season: Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, AJ Allmendinger, Kurt Busch and Aric Almirola.

While he’s managed two top-fives and five other top-10s, things have been a struggle for McMurray in 2014 – although he considers this a better season for him performance-wise than 2010, when he won three major races (including the Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400), only to miss the Chase and finish 14th for the entire season.

“We have run, I think, probably better than we ran in 2010 when we won a few big races,” McMurray said. “In 2010, we ran really well or we ran horrible. There was no in-between. This year, our horrible’s have been 14th when we were to finish if we didn’t blow a tire or have something to happen.

“And then our good runs, we well really run at Charlotte, won the All-Star Race, ran real well last weekend. We’ve run really well at a lot of different racetracks and performance-wise, it’s probably been the best year of my career.”

But it would be that much better if he wins this Sunday or next Saturday.

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

Verstappen leads Red Bull one-two in second Belgian GP practice

SPA, BELGIUM - AUGUST 26: Max Verstappen of the Netherlands driving the (33) Red Bull Racing Red Bull-TAG Heuer RB12 TAG Heuer on track during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Belgium at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps on August 26, 2016 in Spa, Belgium.  (Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images)
© Getty Images
Leave a comment

Max Verstappen headed up a Red Bull one-two in the second Formula 1 practice session for the Belgian Grand Prix on Friday afternoon at Spa-Francorchamps.

After seeing Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton lead for Mercedes in FP1, Red Bull bounced back in the second session with Verstappen setting a fastest lap of 1:48.085.

Verstappen finished three-tenths of a second clear of teammate Daniel Ricciardo at the top of the timesheets, giving the army of Dutch fans that had made the trip to Spa plenty to smile about.

Mercedes opted to alter its usual FP2 running plan by getting both Rosberg and Hamilton to focus on their long-run pace ahead of Sunday’s race instead of chasing optimum lap time.

Rosberg finished the session sixth-fastest as the leading W07 Hybrid driver, with Hamilton down in P13. The Briton also has a 30-place grid penalty hanging over him for the race.

Nico Hulkenberg continued Force India’s impressive start to the weekend by finishing third-fastest for Force India, with teammate Sergio Perez following half a second behind in P5. Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel split the pair in fourth, while Kimi Raikkonen was seventh in the second SF16-H.

Haas drivers Romain Grosjean and Esteban Gutierrez both finished inside the top 10 in FP2, ending up P8 and P10 respectively at the checkered flag. Jenson Button was ninth for McLaren.

The session was without major incident bar one short Virtual Safety Car period following a stoppage for Renault’s Jolyon Palmer. Palmer was able to get his car back going again while sat in the run-off area and returned to the pits.

The on-track action at Spa resumes on Saturday with FP3, live on the NBC Sports app and on desktop from 5am ET.

Hamilton gets another fresh power unit, up to 30-place grid penalty for Spa

SPA, BELGIUM - AUGUST 26: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo on track during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Belgium at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps on August 26, 2016 in Spa, Belgium.  (Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images)
© Getty Images
Leave a comment

Lewis Hamilton has taken another fresh power unit ahead of the second Formula 1 practice session in Belgium on Friday, causing his grid penalty to rise to 30 places.

Hamilton confirmed on Thursday that he would be taking a grid penalty at Spa for exceeding the number of permitted engine components for the season.

The F1 drivers’ championship leader was forced to make unplanned changes earlier in the year due to issues on his power unit, making a grid drop inevitable later in the season.

Mercedes confirmed on Friday morning that Hamilton had taken a fresh power unit for first practice for the Belgian Grand Prix, before taking the decision to take another new one for FP2 in the afternoon.

Hamilton has now taken seven MGU-Hs and seven turbochargers on his power unit, as well as five MGU-Ks and internal combustion engines (ICE). Drivers are allowed to use five of each component across the course of the season.

Hamilton will receive a 10-place grid penalty for the first ‘seventh’ component and five for the second, meaning the fresh power unit costs him 15 places on the grid. Combined with the penalty taken this morning, his grid drop for the Belgian Grand Prix is now up to 30 positions.

Hamilton takes initial 15-place grid drop at Spa

SPA, BELGIUM - AUGUST 26: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo on track during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Belgium at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps on August 26, 2016 in Spa, Belgium.  (Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images)
© Getty Images
Leave a comment

Lewis Hamilton has taken an initial 15-place grid penalty for this weekend’s Formula 1 race in Belgium after exceeding the number of permitted power unit components for the season.

Issues in the early races of 2016 meant a grid drop was inevitable for Hamilton later in the year, given that drivers are limited to using five of each power unit component across the course of the season.

Hamilton confirmed on Thursday that he would be taking his grid drop in Spa in the hope that further penalties could be avoided later in the season.

Mercedes announced during first practice on Friday that both Hamilton and teammate Nico Rosberg had taken fresh power units for the race weekend.

“Fresh power units this morning for both Lewis and Nico,” a team spokesperson confirmed. “For Lewis this comprises ICE 4, MGU-K 4, MGU-H 6 and TC 6. This incurs a 15-place grid penalty.

“For Nico, it is his fourth of all those items.”

It is feasible that Mercedes will take additional new components for Hamilton before the race on Sunday, meaning his 15-place grid drop may grow.

However, both Marcus Ericsson (10 places) and Fernando Alonso (35) are also set to take grid drops after also exceeding the five component limit, meaning Hamilton may not start last.

Nevertheless, the advantage does lie firmly with title rival Rosberg heading into the race weekend as the German looks to cut the 19-point gap to his teammate.

Rosberg quickest in Belgium FP1 as Halo gets further tests

SPA, BELGIUM - AUGUST 26: Nico Rosberg of Germany driving the (6) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo fitted with the halo on track during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Belgium at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps on August 26, 2016 in Spa, Belgium.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
© Getty Images
Leave a comment

Nico Rosberg marked Formula 1’s return from its summer break by topping the opening practice session for the Belgian Grand Prix on Friday morning.

Rosberg spent the first part of the session testing the ‘Halo’ cockpit protection device, which is going through further evaluation ahead of a possible introduction for 2018.

The Halo has previously been used only on one-lap runs, but Rosberg completed an extended stretch to aid in giving feedback. Nico Hulkenberg, Carlos Sainz Jr. and Daniel Ricciardo also lapped using the Halo in the early part of the session.

With the Halo fitted and super-soft tires on the car, Rosberg recorded a fastest lap time of 1:48.348 during the 90-minute session to finish three-quarters of a second clear at the top of the timesheets, heading up a Mercedes one-two.

Lewis Hamilton finished second in the sister W07 Hybrid, but is already on the back foot after Mercedes confirmed that he will take a 15-place grid penalty for Sunday’s race.

Kimi Raikkonen was the best of the rest for Ferrari, finishing third ahead of Force India’s Sergio Perez. Sebastian Vettel was fifth in the second Ferrari ahead of the Red Bull duo of Ricciardo and Max Verstappen, who is set to enjoy a sizeable amount of support this weekend thanks to the large number of fans making the trip from his native Netherlands to Belgium.

Nico Hulkenberg finished eighth in the second Force India ahead of Williams’ Valtteri Bottas, while Esteban Gutierrez made a strong start to the weekend to finish P10.