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DiZinno: Reflecting on racing’s rapid month of change

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My MotorSportsTalk colleague Luke Smith and I have had an internal running joke about this year, where we insert another word in-between 20 and 17 to describe the sheer insanity in racing (among other world topics) this year has been.

The last month in particular, however, has brought more winds of seismic change to the motorsports landscape than any I’ve seen in 20-plus years as a fan, and 12 as a reporter.

No matter the discipline of motorsport, the tidal wave of change is coming – and it’s up to the series’ decision makers to work on the next steps for success.

NASCAR: Where fewer dollars make more sense in youth movement

KANSAS CITY, KS – OCTOBER 16: Dale Earnhardt Jr. talks with Alex Bowman, driver of the #88 Nationwide Chevrolet, on the grid prior to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway on October 16, 2016 in Kansas City, Kansas. (Photo by Jason Hanna/Getty Images)

NASCAR’s silly season in 2018 combines the elements of sponsors being willing to spend less money for a certain number of races, high-priced veterans out of contract and a glut of young talent now ready to break through all happening at once.

Boiled down simply by Dale Earnhardt Jr., who will head to NBC Sports next year at the end of his full-time driving career, it’s a simple matter of economics.

“You can’t pay a driver $5 to $8 million a year if you ain’t got but $10 million worth of sponsorship. You can’t. That ain’t going to work. Guys aren’t getting $20, $30, $40 million a year on sponsorship. Owners aren’t getting that anymore,” Earnhardt Jr. said at Watkins Glen, via NASCAR Talk.

With young talent come cheaper price tags and a next generation of stars.

Kyle Larson, Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. at least have multiple years under their belts. Erik Jones and Daniel Suarez are developing in their first full seasons. Alex Bowman and William Byron arrive in their best opportunity full-time next year. One hopes others, such as Darrell Wallace Jr. for instance, get their shot as well.

The departures of Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards, and Greg Biffle are there, and with Matt Kenseth, Kasey Kahne and Kurt Busch all facing free agency, suddenly there are a lot of fans that will need a new driver to support. The race will be on between these young guns to capture the enthusiasm to drive NASCAR’s major generational shift in one of the series’ grids biggest upheavals.

INDYCAR: A number of big questions loom, as internal excitement remains high

The 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series chassis in a Chevrolet livery. Photo: IndyCar

Quite how the Verizon IndyCar Series progresses for the final month of 2017 and into the start of 2018 is another big question mark.

There’s a championship to sort out first; starting with this weekend’s ABC Supply 500, there’s three races in as many weeks that should begin to sort out the realistic title contenders. With four races to play, seven drivers could lay claim to this year’s crown but there’s really four that are close, with three others on the fringe.

The title battle isn’t necessarily IndyCar’s top story heading into its final month of the year though, when looking at the big picture.

Three successful tests of the new 2018 Dallara universal aero kit have built excitement more about the future as the manufacturer aero kit era reaches, some would argue, its merciful conclusion after three years.

The question over Verizon’s continuation as title sponsor beyond 2018 lingers, and so too does the question of what the series will develop in regards to its new TV deal, which is also set to end after 2018. INDYCAR made several long-term partnership extension announcements at the start of the year (Dallara, Firestone, Honda and Chevrolet) but these two elements are ones that have to get sorted soon.

Additionally, with Long Beach now set to continue on the IndyCar calendar following a new agreement reached between the Long Beach City Council and the Grand Prix Association of Long Beach, it sets into motion the question of what tracks get renewed next for long-term deals. INDYCAR has finally, after 20 years of upheaval in the schedule, reached stability and date equity with most tracks – this needs to be a priority going forward as tracks, promoters and the sanctioning body all look to keep working together.

F1: New owners, newer stars, and the rivalry we’ve been waiting for

NORTHAMPTON, ENGLAND – JULY 15: Third place qualifier Sebastian Vettel of Germany and Ferrari talks with pole position qualifier Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP in parc ferme after qualifying for the Formula One Grand Prix of Great Britain at Silverstone on July 15, 2017 in Northampton, England. (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

Formula 1’s major news tidal wave came earlier this year with the change at the top from Bernie Ecclestone to Liberty Media, the new group having made headlines and some interesting changes throughout the year. A focus on fans and a number of in-weekend changes have been the selling points.

Elsewhere it’s been the year on-track that’s been the top story with Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel properly contending for this year’s title as the headline act. It feels as though this was predestined to occur at some point once Ferrari got its act together and now that it has, it’s forced Mercedes to raise its game after competing against each other. Valtteri Bottas has more than served as a capable replacement for outgoing World Champion Nico Rosberg, and bizarrely, Rosberg’s absence hasn’t loomed large over the season.

For the future, F1’s news peg could come with the emergence of more young – or revived – stars coming into the championship. The performances of Charles Leclerc in F2 and Lando Norris, the F3 teenager, have mouths watering; meanwhile a potential race return for Robert Kubica also has activated the hype train on full bore. Its post-2020 engine formula is also a talking point, although perhaps not immediately.

FORMULA E: The electric, supersonic manufacturer boom?

Photo: Steven Tee/LAT/Formula E

The FIA Formula E Championship has, in an incredibly short period of time, gone from a newly debuting mystery on the worldwide motorsport stage to a desired platform for manufacturers to enter into.

The recent confirmations that Mercedes-Benz (having also announced the end of its DTM program after 2018) and Porsche (having announced the end of its LMP1 program after 2017) will join the championship in future years, coupled with fellow German manufacturers Audi and BMW, and in addition to the already active manufacturers including Renault, Jaguar, DS, Mahindra and Venturi means this is now the “hotbed de jour” for manufacturers to develop electric technology to go into future road cars.

Quite how this sudden surge of manufacturer interest will further the series on a worldwide stage may come down to activation, as we’ve seen with booms and busts in other championships before. When a series has that high level of investment from sponsors or manufacturers, it takes off.

For the moment, while Formula E generates a wealth of internal buzz, it hasn’t yet ascended to the level of international consciousness beyond its hardcore participants, media and fans. The fascinating perspectives about Formula E’s evolution are outlined here in columns from Smith and Parker Kligerman, who were both in Red Hook for the New York City ePrix.

It’s a championship to watch going forward because of all this new involvement, but it must guard against a spending arms race and also find a way to make electric racing “sexy” and “cool” – a bit beyond the current product it has offered on display. It says something about the sheer shock of how different this series is when its crash compilation video for season three produces the loudest moments on the circuit, rather than the racing itself.

FIA WEC/LE MANS: Reset needed following Porsche’s LMP1 pullout

LE MANS, FRANCE – JUNE 17: (EDITORIAL USE ONLY) In this handout image provided by Red Bull, The #7 and #8 Toyota TS050`s lead the #1 and #2 Porsche 919`s at the rolling start of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the third round of the 2017 FIA World Endurance Championship at Circuit de la Sarthe on June 17, 2017 in Le Mans, France. (Photo by Dean Treml/Red Bull via Getty Images)

The writing has been on the wall for LMP1 hybrid the last couple years, as the evolution to the category all began after a fascinating few months in 2015.

By mid-summer 2015, a new LMP2 formula was introduced to debut this year, which reduced the number of constructors down to a maximum of four, but with higher top speeds having been produced from the standardized Gibson V8 engine. At the same time, at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the LMP1 field featured 14 cars – a grid of three Audis, Porsches and Nissans apiece with a pair of Toyotas making up 11 hybrid entries, and three more privateer cars from Rebellion and ByKolles.

It’s all evolved from there. Nissan, whose ultimately one-off front-engined GT-R LM NISMO never ran with a working hybrid system, announced the end of its efforts in December of 2015. That came as the VW “diesel gate” scandal was beginning to take earnest and take root across all the VAG’s motorsport programs. It was always unsustainable that VAG would have competing manufacturers from under its parent company racing against each other; Audi’s drawdown came first at the end of 2016 and now, Porsche has announced its to do likewise at the end of this year.

Toyota now stands alone within the LMP1 hybrid space, still devoid of a Le Mans overall win and even if it achieves one next year, with the asterisk it will have come only against privateer competition within the category. It’s an unfortunate spot for the likable German-based team and Japanese manufacturer to be stuck in.

In its sixth season, the FIA WEC now meets a sincere fork in the road, with its road map to be announced next round at Mexico City a critical one to determine the next course of action for the championship without the majority of its marquee class present. Those next steps will determine whether the championship progresses forward down a sustainable, viable path or meet a similar fate as prior world sports car championships in the past.

IMSA, PWC: American sports car series look to seize their chances domestically

Photo courtesy of IMSA

It’d be hard to chronicle a better month for IMSA, and its headline IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, than what has taken place in its last month. The confirmation of two marquee prototype programs in Team Penske with Acura and Joest Racing with Mazda add an extra degree of legitimacy after what’s already been a successful debut year for the Daytona Prototype international (DPi) platform. A return to Mid-Ohio also is a strong news peg.

Meanwhile North America’s primary sprint race sports car series, Pirelli World Challenge, has grown its car count by leaps and bounds – but it’s also made a good thing that was easy to follow a bit more complex in recent years. As it continues to develop as a championship, it has to be careful not to loose the roots that made it so rich for growth in the first place, as it maneuvers or positions itself towards having more standalone weekends and SprintX races away from its classic, single-driver, 50-minute format.

The nice thing for both these series is there is room for both, and is avoiding overlapping, as they continue to evolve for 2018 and beyond.

Larson’s busy weekend includes Knoxville Nationals, Cup race

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BROOKLYN, Mich. (AP) Kyle Larson is set to race in Saturday’s Knoxville Nationals, squeezing in the prestigious sprint car event before returning to Michigan to compete in Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series race.

Larson says Chip Ganassi, his team owner on the Cup circuit, gave him permission to race Saturday in Knoxville, Iowa. Larson says he’s not supposed to race a sprint car the night before he’s on the track on the Cup Series, but Ganassi is making an exception this weekend.

The 25-year-old Larson is one of racing’s rising stars. He has two Cup victories this year – including in June at Michigan – and is third in the standings. He also won at Michigan last August.

More AP auto racing: http://www.racing.ap.org .

Sports car aces set to run NASCAR Xfinity race at Mid-Ohio

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One of the cool elements of the NASCAR Xfinity Series’ run of road course races in August between Watkins Glen International, Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course and Road America is that it provides an opportunity for sports car stars to take up residence in some of the cars on the grid.

Some of the notable ones to watch for this weekend include Andy Lally (No. 07 Branson Supply Chevrolet), Matt Bell (No. 90 ACTEVMotors.com Chevrolet), James Davison (No. 20 SportClips Toyota) and Justin Marks (No. 42 Katerra Chevrolet).

Marks won the Mid-Ohio Xfinity Challenge last year and has driven a number of IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship races this year with the Turner Motorsport team. He returns to the Chip Ganassi fold this weekend as he looks for a repeat in Xfinity.

Lally and Bell compete full-time in IMSA, Lally with the Michael Shank Racing Acura NSX GT3 team in the WeatherTech Championship and Bell with the Stevenson Motorsports Chevrolet Camaro GT4.R team in the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge.

Photo courtesy Sunday Group Management

Lally starred here last year and finished seventh driving for Mario Gosselin, and now will run an Alan Kulwicki throwback livery in his No. 07 car this weekend for Bobby Dotter. Bell, meanwhile, will take over Gosselin’s No. 90 car.

“Mid-Ohio is a really exciting and challenging place to race a stock car,” said Lally. “It is tight and twisty which does not suit the higher weight of these stock cars and that makes it difficult to put a solid lap in. For me personally, stock cars on road courses are the most fun combination of race car and track there is.

“Winning a NASCAR race in one of the top three series is the only thing missing on my list of goals in auto racing and I have to thank Branson Supply, Motorcrush, TruForce, Pennington & Associates General Contracting and my friends at Aase Sales for jumping on board to help our small underdog effort.

“I’m racing the No. 07 this weekend with SS Greenlight Racing and since the colors matched and the number was very close we chose to make it an Alan Kulwicki tribute scheme. The car looks amazing, now our job is to make it as fast as it looks.”

Photo courtesy Sunday Group Management

Bell said of his weekend prospects, “Andy (Lally) helped me a lot even before we were teammates when I ran at Road America for the first time in a stock car – he was a huge help there. Andy drove this No. 90 car last year and he’s already offered to give me some pointers since he has experience with this exact car.

“I’ll try to learn as much as I can from him and Justin Marks, who I’ve known for years. Andy is a huge help with his knowledge about the team, and about the car, and about the track. It’s a really friendly sport and really anybody you talk to is friendly and happy to give you pointers. It’s pretty awesome.”

Photo: IndyCar

Davison, who’s had a hodgepodge season of racing some in IndyCar (with Dale Coyne Racing at the Indianapolis 500), and some in IMSA and Pirelli World Challenge (with TRG and DIME Racing), now saddles up for what will be his best opportunity to win in Xfinity competition.

He made his Xfinity debut in, you guessed it, the No. 90 car at Road America last year.

“I’m excited to wheel the No. 20 for Joe Gibbs Racing at Mid-Ohio and Road America,” Davison said in a media release. “The team’s level of professionalism has been fantastic to be a part of and I look forward to getting down to business.”

Some of the others who could be considered “road course ringers” include Sheldon Creed, Josh Bilicki, Enrique Baca, Anthony Kumpen and Greg Vandersluis.

WATCH LIVE: Indy Carb Day, then NASCAR AMERICA from 11a ET, NBCSN

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The busiest and greatest weekend in motorsports takes place this weekend from Monaco, Indianapolis and Charlotte, and you can see quite a bit of it today on NBCSN from 11 a.m. ET. The live stream link is here, via the NBC Sports App.

Indianapolis 500 Carb Day coverage will run from 11 a.m. through to 3:30 p.m. ET, in several chunks:

  • IndyCar final practice for the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil runs from 11 a.m. to noon ET. Kevin Lee, Townsend Bell and Paul Tracy will be in the booth with Marty Snider, Jon Beekhuis, Katie Hargitt and Robin Miller on pit lane.
  • From there, at noon, it’s the marquee race of the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires season – the Freedom 100. With finishes of 0.0024 (2016, Dean Stoneman over Ed Jones), 0.0026 (2013, Peter Dempsey over three others) and 0.005 (2014, Gabby Chaves over Matthew Brabham), the Freedom 100 is known for fantastic and close finishes. Lee and Anders Krohn will be in the booth with Hargitt and Beekhuis reporting from the pits. The starting grid for that is linked here.
  • At 2 p.m. ET, it’s the Indy Pit Stop Competition, with the IndyCar crew back in for that. While some of the bigger teams are usually the ones that wins this, others such as Mikhail Aleshin for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports and Sage Karam for Dreyer & Reinbold Racing have stolen the show in this competition in recent years.

The coverage from Indianapolis runs for those four and a half hours, and leads straight into the now-annual NASCAR AMERICA Motorsports Special, which features live coverage from NBC crews in all of Indianapolis, Monaco and Charlotte and runs from 3:30 to 5 p.m. ET on NBCSN. A standard NASCAR AMERICA show runs from 5 to 6 p.m. ET.

Among the items to look forward to from Indy and Monaco in that show:

  • An update on Fernando Alonso’s crazy month of May, ahead of his first Indianapolis 500
  • Robin Miller tours the A.J. Foyt Exhibit at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum
  • A look at Will Power, the dad, and the change that’s come to his life
  • From Monaco, a look at this season’s stellar battle between Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel
  • A look at the magic of Monaco and a simulation of the track

As a reminder, here’s the IndyCar times from this weekend, and a link to the F1 times as well.

Ganassi heads into Memorial Day weekend with three points leads

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INDIANAPOLIS – Three entirely different types of cars, series and racing formats have produced similar results for one team going into Memorial Day weekend, easily the biggest racing weekend of the world on the racing calendar.

Chip Ganassi Racing heads into the 101st Indianapolis 500 (Verizon IndyCar Series) and Coca-Cola 600 (Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series) with the points lead in these two championships with Scott Dixon and Kyle Larson. That marks the first time in the team’s 20-plus year history it has held each championship lead simultaneously.

And for good measure, the Ford Chip Ganassi Racing team leads in the FIA World Endurance Championship GTE-Pro class going into that series’ marquee race, the 24 Hours of Le Mans, which takes place June 17-18.

It’s only in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, where the team sits second in the GT Le Mans class, that a Ganassi car and driver (or drivers) don’t have the points lead.

In IndyCar, Dixon moved into the points lead – albeit unofficially, as IndyCar doesn’t release updated points until after the Indianapolis 500 – following his pole position secured Sunday for next week’s race. He gained 31 more points than Simon Pagenaud and went from 10 down (191-181) to 21 ahead (223-202) going into the race. Oddly though, despite five top-fives in as many races since Ganassi switched to the Honda aero kit and engine package, Dixon is yet to win!

In NASCAR, Larson’s storming start on the strength of one overall win plus two additional stage wins sees him 44 points clear of Martin Truex Jr. (475-431), with Brad Keselowski the only other driver within 100 points. Larson has not finished worse than 17th in 11 races this year in his Chevrolet. Jamie McMurray sits fifth in the points, as well.

And in the WEC, after two races, the trio of Andy Priaulx, Harry Tincknell and Pipo Derani won the 6 Hours of Silverstone to kick off the year in their No. 67 Ford GT. They hold a two-point lead over the pair of AF Corse Ferrari drivers, heading to the double points Le Mans race.

In IMSA, the pair of Dirk Mueller and Joey Hand sit six points (124-118) behind Corvette’s Antonio Garcia and Jan Magnussen after four races. Mueller and Hand co-drove with Sebastien Bourdais to win at the Rolex 24 at Daytona; Mueller and Hand will have a new teammate at Le Mans while Bourdais recovers from his injuries sustained in an accident in qualifying at Indianapolis.

Although Ganassi is split between three bases – its IndyCar and IMSA arms are stationed in Indianapolis off Woodland Drive, its NASCAR hub is in Charlotte and its WEC hub in partnership with Multimatic is in the U.K. – the one team spirit is fully present as all three teams, and three manufacturers, are off to the strong start.

AVONDALE, AZ – APRIL 29: Scott Dixon of New Zealand, driver of the #9 Chip Ganassi Racing Honda greets fans as he is introduced to the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix at Phoenix International Raceway on April 29, 2017 in Avondale, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

“It’s important to win… and it’s important to lead a championship,” Ganassi managing director Mike Hull told NBC Sports about the strong start.

“That’s an enormous motivating factor for everyone that works on our product, no matter if it’s IndyCar, NASCAR, WEC or IMSA. It validates the volume of work that people do for your race team. That includes the people who are visible and work really really hard, under the three locations, in order to achieve success.

“It represents what teams of people can accomplish when they work together.”

Ganassi, who celebrated his 59th birthday on Wednesday, is yet to win a NASCAR championship at the Cup level but Larson is presenting his best chance. It’s been in IndyCar where the team has had its greatest success, with 11 championships between 1996 and 2015. Ganassi has won multiple sports car championships in IMSA’s past iteration as the GRAND-AM Rolex Series, and won Le Mans last year but are yet to win a WEC title.

NORTHAMPTON, ENGLAND – APRIL 14: The Ford Chip Ganassi GT of Andy Priaulx, Harry Tincknell and Pipo Derani drives during practice for the FIA World Endurance Championship at Silverstone on April 14, 2017 in Northampton, England. (Photo by Ker Robertson/Getty Images)

As Hull deadpanned, leading now is nice, but it’s at the end of the year when it actually matters.

“What has contributed to all that, is challenge,” Hull said. “When passionate people are challenged, what they come to realize quickly is achieve any amount of success on a daily basis on Sunday. We enjoy challenge; we love challenge, change and we love working together. That’s a perfect combination.

“We’re really excited when you’re leading the championship, but let’s be honest… you want it on the last lap of the last race.

“It’s positive and an optimistic start. We just need to keep to working at it, for the end of the year.”