For 16 Sprint Cup drivers, the time is here: ready, set, Chase


JOLIET, Ill. — If Sunday’s 400 plays out the way folks in the garage were talking Sunday morning, there’s going to be at least a few surprises both in the course of the race and potentially in the outcome in the opening event of the 2014 Chase for the Sprint Cup:

* Paul Menard, who was atop the speed charts in one of two Saturday practice sessions, could be a darkhorse to win at Chicagoland. He’s never won there, but he and teammates Ryan Newman (who starts on the outside pole) and Austin Dillon have shown speed all weekend.

* Kyle Busch is going for a second straight win, having taken the checkered flag in Saturday night’s Camping World Truck Series. It’ll be interesting to see if Busch will still carry a chip on his shoulders from failing to win yesterday’s Nationwide Series race after dominating the majority of it. Busch was hoping to win all three weekend races, a feat that has only been done once before in NASCAR history — in August 2010 at Bristol by, who else, Kyle Busch.

* Jeff Gordon, who led the points standings for most of the first 26 weeks, appears to be the sentimental favorite not only today but also for the overall Chase. Gordon has been chasing his fifth career Sprint Cup title since his fourth and last one in 2001, but his “Drive For Five” this year seems to be as close as he’s ever been to finally realizing that goal.

* Jimmie Johnson is looking for a strong start in his own bid to win the championship. Johnson is both the defending Sprint Cup champ, having won last year’s title, as well as a six-time Cup champ. If he wins the title this year, Johnson will tie NASCAR Hall of Famers Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt for most championships by a driver (seven).

* Much attention will be focused on the three drivers who made the Chase, yet failed to earn a win in the first 26 races: Matt Kenseth, Ryan Newman and Greg Biffle.

* Carl Edwards hopes to finish what he started in 2011, when he tied for the championship, only to lose it on the first tie-breaker to Tony Stewart based on wins (five wins for Stewart to just one for Edwards). Edwards also has added incentive in that he’d like to win his first Cup championship in his final season at Roush Fenway Racing, and to reward team owner Jack Roush for discovering Edwards and bringing him to the Sprint Cup Series.

* Crew chief Darian Grubb returns to the top of the pit box for Denny Hamlin. Grubb has missed the last six races after being suspended by NASCAR following the Brickyard 400 for rules violations.

* Tony Stewart is still seeking his first win of the season. Many of his fans are wondering if he can do in this year’s Chase what he did the last time he missed the Chase in 2006: He won three of the 10 Chase events.

* Is Joey Logano finally ready to win the championship that so many — including team owner Roger Penske and Joe Gibbs, and former NASCAR driver Mark Martin — have long predicted of Logano?

* How will drivers who earned a berth in the Chase but have had only fair seasons otherwise fare, including Kurt Busch, Aric Almirola and AJ Allmendinger?

* How will Danica Patrick fare? She surprised a lot of people by being fifth-fastest in Saturday’s final Sprint Cup practice?

* Will Dale Earnhardt Jr. be able to realize his season-long goal of not only winning his first career Sprint Cup championship, but also winning it for crew chief Steve Letarte, who has also never won a Cup crown? Earnhardt has great incentive: not only is he turning 40 on Oct. 10, Letarte will be leaving at season’s end to join NBC Sports as an analyst on 2015 NASCAR telecasts. This is arguably Earnhardt’s best chance for a championship in his career.

There’s lots of different scenarios that may potentially play out Sunday, some good and some bad. Let’s get this show on the road.

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

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.”