MotorSportsTalk’s 2013 Sprint Cup season review, Part 1

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With Champions Week in Las Vegas coming up on Dec. 3-6, there’s still one more bit of business for the drivers and teams of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series in 2013. But with things seemingly set to be quiet until then, now’s a good time for myself and Tony DiZinno to take a look back on the nine-month, 36-race season.

Just like we did with IndyCar, we’ll begin with our Top-5 on-track stories in Sprint Cup and then go on from there over the next several weeks.

Chris Estrada’s Top Five

NASCAR dodges a bullet after Chase scandal: When Michael Waltrip Racing’s Clint Bowyer intentionally spun out late at Richmond International Raceway in September, it began one of the ugliest episodes in NASCAR history. By the time the dust settled in the race manipulation scandal, MWR had lost a big sponsor and its third full-time program; Martin Truex Jr., the one that Bowyer and Brian Vickers had intended to help make the Chase at RIR, had lost his post-season berth – followed by his ride (he found another one); and Jeff Gordon was bestowed a 13th Chase spot.

But it could’ve been worse. Bowyer, the instigator, was allowed to stay in the “playoffs” but was never a factor for the title. Meanwhile, the uncontroversial Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth charged into the spotlight in the final 10 races. As a result, the Chase may have lacked some spice. But after the Richmond incident, NASCAR was probably glad for that.

Tony Stewart’s sprint car crash: One week after emerging unharmed from a sprint car crash in Canada, three-time Cup champion Stewart was involved in another wreck at the Southern Iowa Speedway. This time, he didn’t walk away – Stewart broke his right leg and it was enough to end his 2013 season as he was holding one of the two Chase wild card spots. The injury forced Stewart-Haas Racing to call upon Mark Martin, Max Papis and eventual Nationwide Series champ Austin Dillon for fill-in roles, and it also robbed NASCAR of one of its most engaging personalities just before the biggest stretch of the year.

Jimmie Johnson returns to the top: After a subpar-by-his-standards 2011 (two wins, sixth in points) and a loss to Brad Keselowski for the 2012 Cup title, Johnson reclaimed his throne this fall with a superb Chase. He and Matt Kenseth were neck-and-neck for the prize but the penultimate race at Phoenix was where everything changed: Johnson rallied from contact on Lap 163 to finish third, while a poor-handling car and a 25-second pit stop doomed Kenseth to a 23rd place result. One week later at Homestead, Johnson finished ninth to lock up his sixth Cup crown and join Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt Sr. in the ongoing debate over who is NASCAR’s greatest ever.

Spotter’s guide, anyone?: Silly Season was just plain wacky. Kevin Harvick (formerly of Richard Childress Racing) and Kurt Busch (formerly of Furniture Row Racing) are now heading for Stewart-Haas Racing. The aforementioned Truex is replacing Busch at FRR and Ryan Newman is leaving SHR for RCR. We don’t know what Jeff Burton is doing just yet, but we do know Juan Pablo Montoya has gone back to IndyCar. Longtime veterans Mark Martin and Bobby Labonte both may be done with Sprint Cup, while Kyle Larson and Austin Dillon are set to begin their runs at the top level. And A.J. Allmendinger has earned his second chance. Hope you’re not too confused after all of that.

Gen-6 still needs work: This week, NASCAR released an infographic on the new Gen-6 Sprint Cup cars’ first year of duty, trumpeting aspects such as the lowest average margin of victory since 2005 (1.267 seconds) and an increase in green flag passes for the lead. But in regards to improving the racing product – especially on the intermediate ovals – the Gen-6 was largely ineffective. It may look better than the Car of Tomorrow, and with 19 track qualifying records in Year One, it’s definitely fast. But track position is still everything.

Give NASCAR credit for trying to solve the Gen-6’s problems, though. After testing the cars in October at Charlotte, they’ll be back there Dec. 9 for continued tweaking of the intermediate package. Let’s hope they find something good.

Tony DiZinno’s Top Five

Chase-Gate: I’m looking at the saga of Richmond in September from the human angle, and the collateral damage that caused several entities beyond just altering the Chase.

Clint Bowyer never directly answered whether he spun on purpose, and realistically he couldn’t say yes because of the repercussions. Bowyer’s a throwback, a dirt tracker-to-NASCAR driver from Kansas who has a great ability to connect with NASCAR’s roots and its Southern fan base. Admittedly, his reputation was tarnished as a result.

The employees let go from Michael Waltrip Racing would have to scramble to find new work. It’s one thing if a team closes due to performance or budget shortfalls, but to lose a full-time team as a result of a race-fixing scandal is one of the worst ways to go out.

Add in the nature of the Monday late-night press conference, the snap decision to add Jeff Gordon as a 13th Chase driver, on Friday the 13th of 2013, and a lot of folks had egg on their faces.

JJ’s six-pack: After two years dethroned, Jimmie Johnson came out swinging in 2013 once the Chase started. It was a particularly impressive effort after a lackluster final month leading into the Chase, where Johnson’s regular season points lead vanished almost entirely.

Knowing the margin for error was razor thin with Matt Kenseth pushing him every weekend, Johnson consistently had the upper hand, and didn’t have the one bad race – a la Kenseth at Phoenix – that dented his points lead. It was controlled, laser precision from JJ and the 48 crew in crunch time, once again. And it was just that bit better than Kenseth, who had an excellent first season at Joe Gibbs Racing.

Injuries doom chances: Tony Stewart’s sprint car accident and Denny Hamlin’s Cup crash in Fontana shut down two of NASCAR’s most intriguing personalities for extended stretches of time. Stewart hadn’t missed the Chase since 2006, which coincidentally was Hamlin’s first full season in Sprint Cup. Hamlin hadn’t missed it in his career.

Hamlin was unable to overcome the injuries and rough start to the year, but at least ended 2013 on a high with a win at Homestead. Stewart’s recovery is a longer one, and remains to be seen how he’ll return next spring.

Danica fizzles in rookie season: Stewart-Haas Racing as a whole didn’t seem as strong in 2013 and while I’m not going to suggest the arrival of Danica Patrick negatively impacted the organization, she was really in at the deep end for her first full season in NASCAR Sprint Cup.

Patrick’s qualifying was undoubtedly her weakest point. Her average was only 30.1 and outside of the four restrictor-plate races, where she excels, she only qualified in the top 25 seven other times. Finishing-wise, her best track outside the restrictor-plate races was Martinsville, with respectable efforts of 12th and 17th.

As SHR’s fourth driver in 2014 behind title contenders Stewart, Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch, Patrick will either thrive out of the spotlight and improve, or remain mired in midpack obscurity.

Changing of the guard: Mark Martin, Jeff Burton, Bobby Labonte, Ken Schrader and Terry Labonte – stars of NASCAR’s past era dating to the 1980s and 1990s – are pretty much at the end of their careers. Martin treated Homestead like a retirement, even if he didn’t say the word. Burton has the best shot at a full-time seat next year but it likely won’t be at a front-running team. The Labonte brothers and Schrader, meanwhile, are less likely to run more than a handful of events in 2014 and beyond.

We’re at the crest of a tidal wave of new talent entering Sprint Cup over the next three to five years. The Dillon brothers, Kyle Larson, Justin Allgaier and others such as Chase Elliott, Parker Kligerman and Darrell Wallace Jr. all seem set to move up sooner rather than later. It will be fascinating to watch the sea change as the newcomers arrive and work their way to the top.

NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E and Ian James set to race ahead of electric motorsports’ curve

James McLaren Formula E
NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E Team
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As Formula E enters their ninth season and McLaren Racing is set to compete in last year’s championship winning car, Ian James is passionate about pushing electric motorsports forward at a critical stage as race technology begins surpassing that of the street cars.

Midseason, McLaren acquired the assets of the Mercedes-EQ team as they were already on their way to winning a second consecutive championship. With those assets in place and coming off a successful debut in the Extreme E series, James is set to usher in a new era in electric car racing.

Last week’s announcement that Jake Hughes will join Rene Rast behind the wheel of the NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E Team was the last piece of the puzzle.

McLaren’s electric portfolio is building with the Formula E team coming one year after they entered the Extreme E rally series in 2022 with Tanner Foust and Emma Gilmour. There were a lot of lessons to learn in that series with growing pains during the first three of five rounds. Rounds 4 and 5 were a completely different matter with the team crossing the finish line first in Chile before being assessed a time penalty.

In the final round in Uruguay, they scored an elusive podium.

“McLaren kicked off the season in Extreme E at the beginning of this year, so our first [electric] race took place Neom, actually out in Saudi,” NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E Team Principal James told NBC Sports. “At the time, we were in very early discussions about opportunities with the Formula E team. I actually went out there to meet with Zak [Brown, CEO McLaren Racing] and that was my first taste of Extreme E.

“Since the transition, I joined them in Chile in Atacama Desert, and then Uruguay last weekend. [The second-place finish was] a lovely way to round out the season. The fact that they got that podium. It was very well deserved. It’s a great team and a great series actually. It’s just so very different from anything else. The team’s done a great job in getting set up, and it’s nice now to, we’re trying to use that momentum that we’ve got from Uruguay to get us into next season when it kicks off next year, which will be great. I think we’re mid-March is looking like the first race, so a little bit of time to get things prepped for that.”

 

James McLaren Formula E
The NEOM Mclaren Racing Formula E Team was created through the acquisition of last year’s championship team from Mercedes-EQ. – NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E Team

Synergies exist between the single seater and rally series. Lessons learned about battery power and sustainability in the electric SUV carry over so long as one is mindful of keeping focus on the individual needs and nuances of each series.

Especially now that electric racing technology has caught up, and is ready to surpass, the existing technology that has gone into building street cars.

When internal combustion engines gained the upper hand soon after automobiles were invented, racing paced alongside. The pressure of competition pushed the development of their commercial equivalents. The same has not necessarily been true of electric cars. Street cars were not designed to undergo the same stress as racecars – and that vulnerability showed up on the racetrack.

“Formula E has come along a long way,” James said. “I think one of the most notable developments is in the battery technology. In Gen 1, you had the drivers jumping from one car to another car midrace because the battery technology and capacity simply wasn’t where it needed to be to do the full distance. That obviously changed in Gen 2 and we saw a power increase as well to the 250 kilowatts.

“Now going to Gen 3, we have 350 kilowatts in a smaller battery. But that means that we’re relying on the regeneration of energy and for that reason, we’ve got also the opportunity to regenerate on the front axle as well as the rear axle now. So, there’s all sorts of things that are developing in the right direction.

“In terms of throttle response, actually, we’re now in a situation with electric racing and the motors that it’s instantaneous. And one of the advantages of electric over combustion engine is that the torque is instantaneous as well, so that gives you a lot more room to play with.”

No matter the power source, racing has always been about resource management. Drivers and teams select tire strategies they believe produce the fastest elapsed time and fuel conservation comes into play.

On one hand, electric racing is the same, but there is a critical difference. With the battery as both the power source and an integral part of the engine, there are multiple reasons to manage it.

In electric racing, the brain of the car is the software – and that is where James sees the greatest room for advancement.

“As we are working with our drivers and engineers – and start to look at functionality to improve our efficiency and our performance, that’s something we’ll continue to push because that development is open throughout the season,” James said. “That’s going to be our focus going forward and provides enough of a challenge for us to get our teeth into.

“What’s going to be fascinating is as Formula E continues, is to really look at which areas of development on the car are going to be the most relevant and ensuring that we can focus on those together with the manufacturers so we continue and use the series as a platform for technical development that can then feed back into the road car side of things as well.

“At the end of the day, that’s what motorsports always been, a very powerful tool for, and I see Formula E as no exception.”

James McLaren Formula E
Jake Hughes and Rene Rast were chosen for their ability to drive fast and execute the necessary strategy for energy management. – NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E Team

Selecting Rast and Hughes as McLaren’s Formula E drivers was not simply because they know how to drive fast. James believes both drivers have the mental aptitude to execute energy management strategies throughout the race and squeeze maximum performance.

“As with many other motorsports, you’ve got a certain amount of energy that you’re able to deploy during the race and the management of that energy is absolutely crucial,” James said. “What we’re seeing typically in electric motorsports now is the hardware side of things. The efficiencies that we’re seeing in the powertrain as a whole, they’re getting up to the sort of 96%, 97%, 98% efficiency, so the gains that you get through that further and further become more marginal.”

With much more room for improvement, software is a different matter. To make the best decisions, the drivers need data, and that is where James believes McLaren Formula E will make their greatest impact.

“And then you really switch that focus to the software and that’s where you’re going to see the most the most improvement and the most gains,” James continued. “It’s then using that software to ensure that you’re deploying the energy in the most efficient manner during race, and thereby giving the driver the most performance. And that’s something which is incredibly complicated, but I find it a fascinating area to work in.

“The benefit of being involved in racing is you can really push the envelope in a way that you can’t do on road cars. And I think that that’s where that value comes in. It means that you accelerate the development a lot quicker. We will get ahead of the curve – and we are getting ahead of the curve now – and that will mean that the electric motorsports remain part of the overall development process.

“The key to that is also making sure that the racing’s exciting and fun for the fans. If we can, we can tick both of those boxes, then it’s got a very bright future ahead of it.”