Action, significance abound in Coca-Cola 600 top storylines

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The countdown to Sunday night’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway has begun.

The green flag is slated to drop at approximately 6:07 p.m. ET for the longest and most grueling race on the Sprint Cup schedule — 400 laps (barring a green-white-checker finish that might extend that number) around the 1.5-mile oval.

Among the top storylines to watch for in the race:

* How will Kurt Busch fare after finishing a quite respectable sixth in the Indianapolis 500? Busch is the first driver to attempt the so-called “Double” since Robby Gordon last tried it in 2004.

* How will Jeff Gordon’s (photo) back feel after spasms forced him to cut short his first practice run and completely miss the entire second practice session Saturday? If Gordon cannot start, or if his spasms worsen during the course of the event, Regan Smith is on standby to replace Gordon if need be.

* Danica Patrick is coming off not only her best-ever Sprint Cup finish two weeks ago at Kansas (seventh), she qualified fourth for tonight’s race and was consistently in the top 10 in both of Saturday’s practice sessions. Is she poised to continue that recent success and potentially pull off one of the biggest surprises and upsets in Sprint Cup history with a win tonight? If she stays out of trouble, it’s a definite possibility.

* Kasey Kahne is in the hunt for his fourth career Coca-Cola 600 win. If he’s able to turn the trick, he’d also earn his first win of the 2014 season.

* Speaking of drivers without wins in 2014, pole-sitter and six-time and defending Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson is still seeking his first visit to victory lane this season, along with Matt Kenseth (who led the Sprint Cup series last season with seven wins), Tony Stewart, Clint Bowyer, Greg Biffle and Sprint All-Star Race winner Jamie McMurray among others.

* Kyle Busch wrecked his primary car in Saturday’s second practice session, forcing his team to bring out his back-up car. As a result, the younger Busch brother will start from the back of the field, even though he qualified seventh. Busch has finished third three different times but is still seeking his first win in the 600.

* Will the 600 turn into a fuel-mileage battle? Teams will typically attempt to go 45 laps per stop, meaning there will likely be at least nine pit stops during the course of the race. But some teams will try to stretch the fuel window, especially in the first half of the race, to assure they’ll have enough fuel so as not to have to worry about running out of gas in the closing laps.

* Sunday’s race marks the 12th event and the one-third point of the season. After Sunday’s race, there will be 14 left in the regular season to qualify for the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup.

* Will Toyota start to get back on track? Chevrolet has won five races, Ford four and Toyota just two in the first 11 races of the season.

Yes, the Coca-Cola 600 is the longest race of the season and the racing can be both exciting and monotonous at times (particularly in the middle part of the event). But in a true test of man and machine, it doesn’t get better than what we’re going to see tonight.

But let’s not forget the biggest storyline of all, one that has absolutely nothing to do with tonight’s race: Please keep in your mind and prayers those who have fought for, continue to fight for you and those who made the supreme sacrifice so that we can enjoy things like NASCAR racing.

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

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.”