The Good, Bad and Ugly: How the first quarter of 2014 Sprint Cup season has played out

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One quarter down, three quarters to go.

No, we’re not talking about the NFL. Rather, Saturday’s Toyota Owners 400 NASCAR race at Richmond International Raceway marked the end of the first quarter of the 36-race Sprint Cup Series.

With 17 races left for drivers to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup, two drivers are essentially locked in – the only two drivers with multiple wins, Kevin Harvick and Saturday’s winner Joey Logano, each with two wins apiece.

But after that, things are wide open – and are going to get much more aggressive as the second quarter of the season kicks off this coming Sunday at Talladega.

Let’s break down the good, bad and ugly thus far in the 2014 Sprint Cup season:

THE GOOD

* Logano and Harvick: who would have thought they’d be in this position at this point, particularly Harvick in his first season with a new team?

* Dale Earnhardt Jr.: Even though he dropped one place in the standings – from fourth to fifth – after Richmond, this year’s Daytona 500 winner remains among the most consistent drivers in the series.

* Jeff Gordon and Matt Kenseth: With five championships between them, they remain atop the Cup standings for the third straight week – and yet neither driver has reached victory lane in a season where a new Chase-qualifying format has put winning at a premium.

* Austin Dillon and Kyle Larson have been the stars of the eight-driver 2014 Sprint Cup rookie class. Larson, in particular, has taken to Cup racing like a duck to water, with two top-five and four top-10 finishes in the first nine races. After Richmond, Dillon is in 12th place, one point ahead of the 13-th-ranked Larson. This is going to be a battle that is going to rage throughout the season.

* Stewart-Haas Racing and Penske Racing: Between the two of them, SHR and Team Penske account for six of the nine wins thus far in the Cup season. Harvick and Kurt Busch have won three for SHR, both in their respective first seasons with their new teams, while Penske’s Logano (two wins) and teammate Brad Keselowski (one win) have been the primary torch bearers for Ford.

THE BAD

* Even though Gordon is atop the points standings and is having one of the best starts to a season in a long time, there’s no denying one very crucial fact: Henrdick Motorsports as a whole has just one win this season (Earnhardt in the Daytona 500). If anyone would have made a bet in Las Vegas prior to the start of the season that Gordon and particularly six-time and defending Cup champ Jimmie Johnson would not have at least one win between them in the first nine races, the bettor would have been very rich right now.

* What’s happened to Roush Fenway Racing? Sure, Carl Edwards has a win and is ranked third in the standings. But really, what’s going on at RFR? Team Penske is dominating the Ford teams, with barely a peep out of RFR. Greg Biffle is tied for 10th with just one top-five and only three top-10 finishes. Ricky Stenhouse Jr., in his sophomore Cup season, has been consistently inconsistent, which is why he’s dropped to 26th in the standings. Something tells me that if RFR doesn’t start improving, team owner Jack Roush is going to make some changes within the organization.

* What has happened to Toyota in 2014? ONLY ONE WIN?! Ford and Chevrolet now have four wins apiece, but Toyota has just one victory (Kyle Busch). While Joe Gibbs Racing is having a good overall start to the season – with Kenseth second in the standings, Busch fourth and Denny Hamlin 14th – the rest of the Toyota camp is having struggles. Michael Waltrip Racing’s Brian Vickers, back in Cup on a full-time basis for the first time in three seasons, is tied for 10th, but Clint Bowyer is down to 20th.

* Kurt Busch: The elder Busch brother has been somewhat of an anomaly in 2014. Sure, he won at Martinsville, which is good. But even so, he’s dropped to 26th in the standings, with just one other top-five finish in the first nine races. Even worst, Busch has three DNFs. While the win will certainly help him qualify for the Chase, Busch has to pick up the pace in the second quarter of the season.

THE UGLY

* Martin Truex Jr. left Michael Waltrip Racing after last season when primary sponsor NAPA pulled its funding after the attempt to manipulate the finish at last summer’s final Chase-qualifying race at Richmond. Truex was an innocent victim of one of the sport’s ugliest events in recent history. He went to Furniture Row Racing hoping to rebound from the MWR debacle, as well as pick up where Kurt Busch left off in 2013, becoming the first driver from a single team to ever make the Chase. Unfortunately, Truex has had an absolutely horrible start to the season, with just one top-10 finish thus far, and is 27th in the Cup rankings. It’s a shame, because he’s a much better driver than his record indicates, and FRR is a much better team. Hopefully, things will start turning around in the second quarter of the season.

* Kasey Kahne: Kahne has become the Pete Best of Hendrick Motorsports. If you’re too young to know, Best was “the forgotten Beatle,” replaced by Ringo Starr just before the Fab Four prepared to make music history in the early 1960s. While his other three teammates – Gordon, Earnhardt and Jimmie Johnson are all ranked in the top eight in the standings – Kahne has dropped to 22nd after the first nine races, and has just two top-10 finishes for his effort. One good thing is Kahne typically warms up in the second quarter of the season. But he has his work cut out for himself: he’s 125 points – nearly the equivalent of three wins – behind HMS teammate and Cup points leader Jeff Gordon.

* Parker Kligerman: If it wasn’t for bad luck, Kligerman would have no luck at all in 2014. He was very optimistic heading into his rookie Cup season, but what’s transpired in the first nine races has been nothing short of a disaster. In the first eight races, he recorded DNFs four times. He dropped to 38th in the points, as a result. And then last week, Swan Racing imploded, with Kligerman left without a ride as the team he was with was sold, but he wasn’t part of the package (J.J. Yeley replaces Kligerman). There’s not much else to say for Kligerman, other than things can’t get much worse – and the only way to go from here is up. Of course, that means he has to get a ride first. But with the season only one-quarter of the way through, that’s not going to be an easy thing to achieve.

* Danica Patrick: In a sophomore Cup season that promised better results than her freshman campaign, Patrick continues to struggle. After finishing 34th in Saturday’s race at Richmond, Patrick is 29th in the standings, 188 points behind Gordon, and she has just two top-20 finishes.

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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.”